I always thought of Stanley Fish as a radical when I was young. Well not in this piece titled “Marrying Out of the Faith,” at the Times site; he’s a conservative. At the start of the essay, Fish, 74, puts intolerance of intermarriage off on his Jewish Polish immigrant father, but before long Fish is explaining that religious differences are “deep and immovable” and overcoming them is very hard work. Well marriage is hard work; and he is lecturing my generation about something that many of us are working through in ways that he cannot imagine.
Of course he has a disclaimer at the end, that he’s not against intermarriage, but along the way Fish utters the words “faith” and “ritual and doctrine” with reverence. What do those words mean? How meaningful is Jewish ritual or doctrine (Shabbos dinner, wrapping the tefillin, etc) to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Jewish husband or to Ben Rhodes the son of an intermarriage, or to Barack Obama seeking to reconcile his parents’ difference?
Later Fish puts down our “multicultural doctrine.” Oh: so there’s meaningful and nonmeaningful doctrine. Some of us find more meaning in multiculturalism than in bars on intermarriage. (My secularized American Jewish “faith” includes John Brown’s faith that the Golden Rule and the Declaration of Independence enshrined the same beautiful principle, of equality. My faith includes the motto of my wife’s girlhood religious compound: Simplicity, Sincerity and Service.)
Early on, a difference in faith may seem unimportant and an occasion for practicing tolerance, while a difference over same-sex marriage or global warming or gun control may seem intractable and full of future hazard. (I can’t marry someone who believes that!) “But faith,” [Naomi Schaefer] Riley insists [in this book], “is a tricky thing and it sneaks up on people,” especially at significant moments when the pull of old loyalties supposedly outgrown reasserts itself. “The death of a loved one, the birth of a child, the loss of a job, a move to a new city — all of these things can give people a sense of religious longing, a desire to return to the faith of their childhood.”
This can be true even of those whose childhood faith was weak and perfunctory. A Christian may think of herself or himself as not being religious at all, yet “find it hard to imagine family life without a Christmas tree.” A wife or a husband, also not particularly religious, may feel that having a Christmas tree goes too far. In an interfaith marriage, Riley observes, holidays can “become like bargaining chips.” (I’ll do this if you’ll do that, and if the children get to choose.) Even when one of the partners has converted and religious tensions have supposedly been eliminated, the fact of conversion can be the source of its own tension, as when one spouse, in the course of an argument, “plays the conversion card” and says “but I left my faith for you,” or, in other words, “You owe me big-time and for a long time.”
Once you begin to think about it, it’s obvious how many potential pitfalls await interfaith couples, but it is often not obvious to them, Riley says, for at least four reasons.
First, the liberal rhetoric of individualism and personal choice is casually affirmed without sufficient attention to the ways in which one’s choices and much else are influenced by tradition and community. Many interfaith couples have “chosen the romanticism and the individualistic ethos of America over the demands of the communities that they have come from” only to find, later on, that those demands still exert a force.
Second, young people today “consider religion to be a pursuit of the individual” and therefore downplay differences in ritual and doctrine; they minimize the requirements of faith by conceiving of faith as something without a specific content that might become the source of friction.
Third, the assertion, found everywhere in American cultural life, that differences are to be celebrated and embraced — our “obsession with tolerance at all costs” — obscures the extent to which those differences touch on something deep and immovable. “Ironically, interfaith marriage may awaken people to the fact that … that the particulars of practice and belief do matter, and that not all interfaith conflicts can be solved with the placement of a menorah next to a manger.”
And fourth, faith has become “racialized”; that is, we have come to think that “like skin color [it] is a trait that need not divide us.” But, Riley demurs, believing that faith “is a superficial characteristic the way race [and] ethnicity are” doesn’t make it so. In fact, “religious identity … can and should be considered” as more substantive than racial identity; and like any other substance it remains in place even when the commonplaces of multicultural doctrine tell us that it shouldn’t really matter.