Intermarriage, Inter Alia

Never let it be said that the subject of intermarriage leaves people at a loss for words. Culturebox, who argued earlier this week that Jewish views on intermarriage are not racist, has been been flooded with e-mails and “Fray” postings accusing her of being, variously, a racist, a Mason, and an apologist for a religion which isn’t a religion at all because it’s a eugenicist plot for world domination. Philip Weiss, the journalist who got this debate going last week with his article in the New York Observer, has also weighed in (click here and scroll to the bottom) with much more sensible objections, and since two of his points were also raised by some of Culturebox’s correspondents, here are two answers.

1. Weiss writes, “Shouldn’t we have a higher standard for institutions that politicians say they’re a member of than the institutions they visit?” Seems reasonable enough: We have a closer relationship to ideas espoused in our houses of worship than to those held by colleges we pass through during primary campaigns. Why shouldn’t Sen. Joseph Lieberman be more accountable for Orthodox Judaism’s views on intermarriage than George W. Bush is for Bob Jones University’s ban on interracial dating? Why not set a higher standard for a politician’s personal religious beliefs?

Because if we actually held politicians to it, only atheists could run for office. Religions are strange things–amalgams of practices and doctrines accrued over thousands of years, during most of which people did not see things the way moderns do. It’s one of those contradictions of religious practice (as opposed to theory) that theological doctrines are usually both more conservative and more radical than their adherents. Should we have asked John F. Kennedy to answer for the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church’s position on other religions (bad, and you shouldn’t marry into them)? Or call George W. Bush to account for the United Methodist Church’s policy calling for Methodist missionary work, given how Jews, Muslims, and other non-Christians feel about being evangelized? Or reprimand Vice President Albert Gore Jr. for being a Southern Baptist, a church whose active efforts to convert Jews and Muslims really gets them riled up?

The answer is no. This is a country governed by the separation of church and state. We judge politicians by what they do (or say they’ll do) in office, not by what their priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams preach. This is not to say that you can’t disagree publicly with a position that offends you–such as Bob Jones’ racist policy, or even Jewish rules on intermarriage–just that it could be dangerous to make a litmus test out of a candidate’s religious affiliation. If every politician is called to account for his co-religionists, it will drive every God-fearing citizen out of politics.

2. Weiss questions whether the Jewish position on intermarriage really parallels that of other religions. Given that in all creeds marriage is seen as a holy sacrament between the couple and God, the answer is yes, though some religions worry about marriage outside the faith more than others. Islam is the most like Judaism in this regard. According to Yvonne Haddad, a professor of Islamic history specializing in Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University, Muslims in the United States fuss just as much about intermarriage as American Jews do. (There are roughly the same number of Muslims and Jews in the United States–about 6 million each–though many more Muslims in the world: 1.1 billion to some 20 million Jews.) The rules of Islam mirror those of Judaism, but in reverse. A Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim, though only if she’s Jewish or Christian (they are considered “people of the book”). A Muslim woman may under no circumstances marry a non-Muslim. Even in America, according to Haddad, women who break the rules are likely to be cut off entirely by their families and mosques.

Christian views on intermarriage are more diverse. All sects get more upset about marriage outside Christianity (“interfaith marriages”) than about marriage with a Christian from another church (“interchurch marriages”), and it wasn’t until this century that they began to loosen their restrictions on interfaith marriages. The church with the strictest views is Eastern Orthodoxy, which still requires non-Orthodox Christians to be baptized in the church before marriage (though exceptions may be made in American churches). Catholicism has toned down its opposition since the early 1960s but still asks priests to recommend strongly that the children be raised as Catholics. Even the milder Protestant sects advise counseling for interfaith and interchurch couples.

Culturebox can’t answer for every religion in the world–for instance, Indian Hindu policy actually encourages intermarriage, but that’s partly an effort to overcome social divisions caused by strict opposition to intercaste marriage–but you get the drift. Trying to prevent intermarriage is an almost constant feature of world religion. So is getting upset about one’s co-religionists’ disapproval of one’s own intermarriage. Such is life in this world, as opposed to the hereafter.