Jewish Intermarriage vs. Intermarriage in Other Religions

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While there have been a handful of newsworthy studies of Americans’ religious affiliation and attitudes, very few have based their large-scale conclusions on samples any larger than a few thousand. But the American Religious Identification Survey 2001 interviewed more than 50,000 adults; as a point of comparison, the recent Baylor Religion Survey, which was written up in the USA Today, the Chicago Tribune and other papers, interviewed just over 1,700.

The administrators of the survey, Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, wrote a book about the study titled Religion in a Free Market: Relgiious and Non-Religious Americans, Who, What, Why, When, Where this year. One of the chapters in this book, Household and Family Characteristics, has a subchapter on Mixed-Religion Couples.

This chapter includes the only chart I’ve ever seen that compares intermarriage rates among all of America’s significant religions.

The Jewish community tends to think of Jews as intermarrying at a very high rate, but the percentage of Jews who are intermarried seems about average for American religions. According to the ARIS 2001, 27 percent of Jews are intermarried (the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 said 31 percent), compared to 27 percent of Presbyterians, 28 percent of Lutherans, 30 percent of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 33 percent of self-described Protestants, 39 percent of Buddhists and 42 percent of Episcopalians.

The Jewish intermarriage rate is higher, however, than the rate among Pentecostals (24 percent), Methodists (24 percent), Congregationalists/United Church of Christ (24 percent), Seventh Day Adventists (24 percent), Catholics (23 percent), Muslims (21 percent), members of the Churches of Christ (18 percent), members of the Churches of God (18 percent), members of the Assemblies of God (18 percent), Baptists (18 percent) and Mormons (12 percent!).

According to the book, “Very conservative faiths with high requirements for members, such as Mormons, are less likely to be involved in interfaith marriages.” Those religions at the higher end–such as Buddhism and Episocpalianism–are “religions with ‘soft’ boundaries that have become non-exclusive groups.”

Overall, 22 percent of married or co-habitating American adults are in intermarriages, which means 28.4 million American adults are in mixed religion couples. Overall, 11 percent of American households are interfaith. So as much as we in the Jewish community concern ourselves over intermarriage, we should be aware that it’s an issue–or potential issue–among other religious denominations as well.

The chapter also gives the only total of children in interfaith households I’ve ever seen. According to Keysar and Kosmin, there are 8.7 million children in interfaith households. Overall, they say, interfaith couples are less likely to have children than inmarried households. Two million are being raised Catholic, 1.5 million are being raised in Mainline Christian denominations, 1.4 million are being raised Baptist, 1.2 million as just Christian, 400,000 as Pentecostal/Charismatic and 300,000 as Protestant denominations. The chart does not indicate what number are being raised Jewish; I talked to Keysar last week and she told me they didn’t extract that data–besides, she noted, raising a child Jewish is not easily comparable to raising a child Catholic. It can encompass cultural identity as well as religious affiliation and even cultural identity without religious affiliation.

However, in their 1990 study, the National Survey of Religious Identification, they found that 31 percent of children in interfaith couples involving a Jewish partner were being raised Jewish, which aligns pretty closely with the NJPS 2000-01 result of 33 percent.

I should also note that Religion in a Free Market is monumental work of scholarship on the demography of American religion; for whatever reason, it has been criminally underreported in the press since its publication in June. I suspect that one reason the press has paid so little attention to the book is that the author’s rightfully acknowledge the complexity and dynamic nature of Americans’ religious affiliation and attitudes. But reporters don’t have the time to deal with complexity; simple, quotable, headline-making stats are a lot easier to digest and report.

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