Fewer and fewer American religious groups practice endogamy today.
By Mark Oppenheimer
When I was in college 20 years ago, I had a Presbyterian roommate from Little Rock, Arkansas. Despite our differences of religion, skills and interests—“Brad,” as I’ll call him, was an athletic, mechanically inclined philosophy major with ambitions for medical school; I was a history major, aspiring actor and born spectator—we actually had a great deal in common. One thing we had in common was that, like most of our generation, we were each the product of a religiously endogamous marriage, that is, a marriage between two people of the same religion.
That commonality among Baby Boomers—whether Presbyterian or Jewish, Catholic or Methodist—is worth bearing in mind as we think about the recent and much-bewailed Pew survey of American Jewish life. Brad was the grandson of a Presbyterian minister; his parents had met as students at Davidson College in North Carolina. (Today, even many students at Davidson may not be aware of the school’s Presbyterian heritage, but in the 1960s it was a mating ground for Presbyterians, much as Luther College in Iowa and St. Olaf College in Minnesota produced many marriages between Lutherans, and young Mormons still meet their spouses at Brigham Young University.)
As for me, my parents are both Jews. Neither one came from a very religious family, and both went to secular colleges, but like 83 percent of living American Jews who married before 1970, they married fellow members of the tribe.
Not anymore. The Pew survey revealed, among much other data worrisome to Jews, that 58 percent of Jews married since 2005 have a non-Jewish spouse—a shocking decline from the high in-marriage rate of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. When one omits Orthodox Jews, the numbers become outrageously higher.
But as bad as the outlook can seem for Jewish continuity, it is useful to ask if the outlook is uniquely bad for Jews. In other words, how much is this a problem of Jewish continuity, and how much is it a problem of religious continuity in America? Few hand-wringers have unclenched long enough to wonder if everybody’s parents and grandparents were much more endogamous than the current generation of young marrieds.
I strongly suspect that they were. In other words, while my Jewish peers may not be so likely to marry fellow Jews as they were 50 years ago, I don’t think Brad was that likely to marry a Presbyterian. Indeed, he didn’t.
It is tough to get good statistical comparisons across groups. But a recent chat with Gregory A. Smith, the director of religious surveys for Pew’s Religion and Public Life Project, suggested that I am on to something. He said that although Christian groups have not been surveyed with the same close attention to exogamy across the generations, a 2007 survey showed that among mainline Protestants, only 55 percent are married to someone from their own “denominational family”—for example, a Presbyterian married to a Presbyterian. That is nearly identical to the 56 percent of all Jews who are married to a Jewish spouse.
And one has to suspect that the numbers for mainline Protestants in their 20s and 30s are quite different—that is, as with Jews, the numbers are surely skewed by Brad’s grandparents. The average 30-something mainline Protestant is probably no more interested in marrying a fellow mainline Protestant than a Reform Jew—to draw a rough analogy—is in marrying a fellow Jew. In fact, because there is still a strong cultural component to Judaism, the Jew is probably more compelled by the idea of endogamy. He or she would like to marry a fellow Jew, all things being equal.
The idea that liberal and mainline Protestants have lost strong family religious traditions is no reassurance to Jews who worry about the same fate. Both groups would rather have intermarriage rates similar to those of Mormons or Muslims. (Eighty-seven percent of Mormons are married to fellow Mormons, according to the 2007 Pew survey.) But assimilation makes that unlikely for mainline Protestants as well as for Jews: The days are gone when Baptists were shunned by Episcopalians. And in these more-Mormon-friendly days, especially as Mormons leave Utah and spread out geographically, they will very likely face the same challenges.
What this comparison between Jews and mainline Christians does suggest, however, is that the two communities should talk with one another about the quandary they share. In both groups, levels of religious belief and religious and scriptural literacy are relatively low (compared to, say, Mormons or evangelical Christians). Many Jewish parents hope their children will themselves have Jewish families, but they have a hard time saying why, without resorting to pleas like “What would your grandmother say?” (or the dreaded “Because of Hitler!”). Similarly, most Episcopalians or Congregationalists today are reluctant to say that they have the one true path.
In other words, non-Orthodox Jews and non-evangelical, non-Catholic Christians, for all their differences, have mostly stopped telling their children, “This is true.” They are left with “This is what our family does.”
Can that be enough? It can if the family culture is strong, and if life revolves around the house of worship and the community of followers (I hesitate to use the word “believers”). Cultural, familial and even national aspects need to count more than ever before. That can go seriously wrong: For many Jews, unquestioning Zionism has replaced any commitment to religious practice. Or it can result in admirable but hardly distinct religious practice, in which social action and a commitment to tolerance—both real aspects of Jewish and Christian tradition—replace liturgy and theology.
It’s not for me to say if this is a bad development for Christians. (It’s definitely been bad for Jews.) But I will say that neither group is alone in its woes. They share a lot, and they have America, with its easy assimilation and bountiful opportunities, to thank.
Mark Oppenheimer writes about religion and culture for The New York Times, Slate, Salon and other publications.