When I was growing up Southern Baptist in Texas, the "intermarriage" issue that everyone talked about was unions of Baptists and Catholics, especially Cajuns. Some people worried that folks involved in these marriages would lose touch with their faith -- period -- and that children would be raised either confused or apathetic.
It wasn't until I hit graduate school at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign that, while doing a readings class on trends in post-Holocaust Jewish life, I hit a large body of material about interfaith marriages between Christians and Jews and the their impact on Jewish demographics.
Then, in the early 1980s, I moved to Denver and ended up covering story after story linked to the famous Denver Jewish Population Study of 1981. Although this study touched on a wide variety of issues, the one that everyone ended up focusing on was the rising number of interfaith marriages and how many of the resulting children were being raised, in any meaningful sense of the word, as Jews.
It was the front edge of a national wave of debate on this topic that continues to this day. Hold that thought.
The moment that I remember the most vividly was a seminar in which a rabbi, putting a poignant spin on some of the data, pled with parents in interfaith marriages not to raise their children in both faiths at the same time. Pick one, he said, because the dual-faith approach actually teaches children that faith is confusing and irrelevant. A child in an interfaith home who is raised Christian has a better chance of choosing to practice the Jewish faith later in life than a child "raised in both," since most of these children end up with no meaningful faith at all.
Today, we would say that this rabbi was warning that most children "raised both" end up becoming "nones," joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated.
This brings me to an interesting think piece in The Forward that, literally, I saw on my smartphone yesterday during a break in my family's drive back to Oak Ridge from some downtime in the North Carolina mountains. This is not, of course, a news piece. However, I think that it is a reminder, for journalists on the religion beat, that issues of interfaith life -- in a wide variety of forms -- will only continue to rise and demand coverage. Here is the overture in this piece:
We are a Christian dad and a Jewish mom and have been raising our son with exposure to both religions. This summer my son went to a popular Christian camp because all his friends were going and we didn’t want him to feel like he is missing out. He is 11 and heading into middle school next year.
He just came back from camp and is expressing interest in becoming more Christian. However, he still says he wants to have his Bar Mitzvah. Now I am wondering, can he really be both Christian and Jewish? Also, how can I help him navigate this?
The response jumped straight into the Jewish debate that I first encountered in Urbana and then in Denver. The key statement: What are you trying to teach your child?
Journalists: Spot the important questions and potential news hooks in the following material. Is this debate still raging in your communities?
You can’t begin to help him navigate this until you and your spouse know exactly what you are trying to accomplish. As an observant Jew, I have a clear goal to raise my Jewish children as Jews, with all the richness, beauty and meaning that Judaism can offer them.
You also have a Jewish child. But what is your goal? Have you and your spouse decided to raise your child in both with the hope that he will grow up practicing some of both? Or, as is more typical, are you raising your son in both to avoid choosing a religion, with the expectation that your son will choose one when he gets older? Do each of you secretly hope he will pick your religion? ...
You ask if he can be both Christian and Jewish. No matter what anyone says ... no, he cannot. There are many intermarried parents ostensibly raising their children in both, and communities have even formed around the “being both” concept. However, in those contexts, children aren’t fully practicing either religion. They can participate in something resembling a comparative religion course, with sanitized versions of each religion presented, inconvenient differences papered over, and everyone’s holidays celebrated with potluck dinners in a “Kumbaya” fashion.
The devastating bottom line: "You will reap what you sow."
Let's go full circle back to my days in Texas, for a minute. How long has it been since anyone wrote an in-depth piece on intermarriage rates between Catholics and Protestants? How is the post-Vatican II approach to this working out at ground level? If anyone at the Pew Forum is reading this, that might be a great hook for a follow-up on the "nones" (and even on the declining number of nuns).