Catholic Church · Life · Parenting

Interfaith marriage and Chelsea Clinton

The Arizona Jewish Post (can we please have a high-five for religions that maintain excellent newspapers?) has a great look at the interfaith marriage of former first daughter Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky. Clinton was raised Protestant in the Methodist tradition, and Mezvinsky is Jewish. Although the article does not state which branch of Judaism Mezvinsky adheres to, it is safe to assume it is Reform Judaism, which allows (although it does not encourage) interfaith marriage if the bride and groom agree to raise the children according to the Jewish faith.

The Post has excellent reporting on a topic that concerns every honest religious leader. Even ministers in religions that accept interfaith marriage will say they prefer the young ones in their congregations “marry in.” This is a concept that is very hard to understand for people who do not regularly practice their religion or for those who’ve never had a religious practice. “What’s the big deal,” these people might say.

To which serious practitioners of various faiths and the leaders of those faiths would reply: “Plenty,” especially when it comes to raising children. Everything’s fine and dandy until you have a baby and Mom wants to get him baptised and Dad wants him to have a bris. Parenting is where the rubber hits the road in interfaith marriages and that, primarily, is what rabbis, ministers and priests are concerned about when they wrestle with the reality of interfaith marriage in an interconnected world.

This issue is especially keen among Jews, which has a tiny population in proportion to the rest of the religious (or cultural) world. Jews have a low birthrate, and as their children marry non-Jews (as about 50 percent of U.S. Jews do), the chances of the children of that union being raised in Judaism – either culturally or religiously- lessens … even if the non-Jewish partner swears, during the blush of new love, that it won’t be any problem at all raising her children in a faith other than her own. But as one source in the Post article said, “The horse is out of the barn on that one,” because it is virtually impossible to guarantee young people will only find people of their own faith to marry. Unless, of course, you believe in arranged marriage – which some folks swear by – or if you live in a religious ghetto.

Interdenominational marriage – marrying among the sects of Judaism or Christianity or Islam – is easier than interfaith marriage because at least there are basics to agree upon once children are born. This is much harder to do if, say, a Hindu wants to marry a Southern Baptist. Or, a Jew marry a Methodist. If you doubt this, you might want to take a look at the research surrounding the success of interfaith marriages, which was the topic of a recent Washington Post article. A snippet:

In some ways, more interfaith marriage is good for civic life. Such unions bring extended families from diverse backgrounds into close contact. There is nothing like marriage between different groups to make society more integrated and more tolerant. As recent research by Harvard professor Robert Putnam has shown, the more Americans get to know people of other faiths, the more they seem to like them.

But the effects on the marriages themselves can be tragic — it is an open secret among academics that tsk-tsking grandmothers may be right. According to calculations based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.

Even though a Methodist minister was present at the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding, the rituals and symbols were predominantly Jewish, which led the leader of a Jewish-led group that does outreach to interfaith couples remark that Clinton had “married in.” Paul Golin pointed to the chupah, rabbi and tallis (as well as a prominent Jewish wedding contract) as evidence that Clinton was leaning toward Judaism more than Mezvinsky was leaning toward Christianity. Having known many young people in the wedding planning phase of life, I can only say that Golin may be giving credit where it isn’t due. Lord knows there are plenty of young couples who marry amid symbols and rituals to appease parents or out of a nostalgic look to their childhood – not a deep personal commitment to their faith. Because, frankly, if one is taking their faith seriously, it is one of the major factors they consider when searching for a mate.

Of course, and we certainly do not know if this happened in the C-M wedding due to the phenomenal privacy surrounding the service and preparations (congrats to them for keeping away the media!), there may have been serious premarital counseling before the rabbi agreed to participate, counseling that included deep discussions about what religion and faith meant to each member of the couple. Such counseling is required in Orthodox Judiasm, Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism, and, more and more, by various Protestant denominations that have decided the divorce rate among Christians is a sign that folks aren’t fully prepared for what marriage entails nor fully aware of the sacramental context in which they said their breathy “I do.”

If said premarital counseling took place, we have to believe the religious symbolism at the most famous wedding of the summer was more than just window dressing and Clinton and Mezvinsky will be raising their children, should they have them, in Judaism. To which every religious person – including Methodist ministers – would say “L’chaim!” because the one thing religious leaders agree upon (really, they do agree on some things) is that children of interfaith marriages need to be raised in one faith to avoid confusion. Although not all couples agree with the clerical opinion.


8 thoughts on “Interfaith marriage and Chelsea Clinton

  1. A lot depends upon whether one takes religion seriously, or view it as a cultural thing.
    My raised-Catholic sister married a Jew and the kids have their Bar Mitzvahs and everyone is happy, but he is just as fervent an atheist as I am and the kids know not to take religion seriously, it’s just a cultural tradition.

  2. I’m happy for her and wish them both the best.  Marriage takes work and the rewards are commensurate with the effort.  Dealing with superstition adds just another problem to be resolved along with dealing with the family budget, political differences, different parenting styles, etc.

  3. Congratulations to Marc and Chelsea, it looks like a wonderful wedding, their unique faith perspective will teach them many valuable relationship advice that may be a blessing to other couples.

  4. You say, “the one thing religious leaders agree upon (really, they do agree on some things) is that children of interfaith marriages need to be raised in one faith to avoid confusion.” This is simply untrue. More and more clergy are recognizing that there are no objective studies comparing raising children in one religion with raising children in both family religions. Please read Rabbi Irwin Kula’s recent essay in the Huffington Post, in which he confronts the “confusion” myth. There are communities of independent interfaith families springing up all around the country to support families who are raising children with both family religions, and many have clergy (both ministers and rabbis) working with and for them. For more on this, read my blog

  5. Hi, Susan – thanks for coming over here. Indeed, your blog was what I was speaking of when I said not all couples agree (I thought I’d linked to it, but I had not; I’ve gone back and edited in the link.)
    While more and more clergy ARE recognizing that perhaps confusion does not reign among children raised by interfaith parents, those clergy are still in the minority. And I think the jury is still out on how the kids fair. In the case of Judaism and Christianity, for instance, if you have a secular Jew and a practicing Christian, there may be no problem – Judaism is “cultural, not religious,” as one of my Jewish mom friends describes her household. But if you have an observant Jew – someone who believes that Jesus was a prophet and that the Messiah is still coming – raising children with an practicing Christian who believes that Jesus IS the Messiah, not a prophet, then how could a child not be confused: Jesus is either the Messiah or not the Messiah. (And, of course, you could extrapolate that to include a Muslim-Hindu marriage, etc.)
    I think it really depends on how seriously one takes one’s faith or religion to determine if children may or may not have a conflicted religious identity, don’t you think? If religion is more a cultural practice (and this is true of some of all practitioners in various religions, not just Judaism), then the confusion may not present itself. But if the husband and wife are each deeply committed to his/her own faith, it seems the clergy who are concerned about confusion have a valid concern. What do you think?

    1. I agree that the clergy who understand interfaith family communities are still in the minority (I didn’t say they weren’t). I do NOT agree that kids will be confused if both parents are “observant.” There are many ways of being “observant” and many denominations. An Orthodox Jew and a fundamentalist Christian are going to face more challenges, obviously. But our interfaith community includes many deeply spiritual and “observant” Unitarians, Quakers, Congregationalists, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, and Catholics. We spend a lot of time discussing questions such as “What is a Messiah? Where did the idea of a Messiah originate? Did Jesus claim to be the Messiah? Who decided he was he one and only Messiah?” Perhaps what we share is the ability to tolerate ambiguity–the tendency to see things in shades of gray rather than in black and white.
      But also, is a child with one Republican and one Democratic parent confused? Should we insist the parents choose a political label for that child to avoid confusion? Or are children able to accept that their parents may disagree, and that they have the right to grow up and determine their own beliefs and choose their own identity?
      Susan Katz Miller

  6. What if it’s clear there won’t be any children, such as an intermarrying couple past childbearing age or a couple that has decided not to have kids? Or, what if people from two separate backgrounds, for example, Methodist and Jewish, both choose a third religious path, such as Hinduism. In their beliefs, both are Hindu. Is this still an intermarriage?

    1. Wow – big questions. Children don’t determine if it is an inter-faith marriage; the couple’s individual faith beliefs do. In the third religious path scenario, the couple is no longer an interfaith marriage, because they’ve chosen one faith to practice together.

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