Chelsea Clinton was raised Methodist, and Marc Mezvinsky, the man she will marry this weekend, was raised Jewish. Among the questions being raised, even before they have the ceremony is, “Will it last?”
In a world in which about half of all marriages end in divorce, that’s a reasonable, if entirely unromantic question. What’s intriguing about it being asked so often with respect to this wedding is the reason why so many people are asking it.
Many of those questioning the likely durability of Chelsea and Mark’s marriage, do so based on the statistics which show that couples in interfaith marriages are “three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.” But do we even understand what that statistic means, or is it simply quoted because it serves the interests of those who do so?
Statistics, a teacher of mine used to remark, are used much as a drunk uses lampposts — more for support than for illumination. Nowhere is that more possibly the case than in the oft-reported statistic that couples in two-religion marriages are three times more likely to divorce or separate than couples in single religion marriages.
Those opposed to such relationships relish this statistic as providing good evidence for the reasonableness of their opposition. Some go so far as to say this proves the wisdom of religious rules which prohibit such relationships. After all, they argue, the religions are simply looking out for the happiness of both partners, regardless of what tradition they may follow.
Regardless of one’s religious position on intermarriage, such reasoning is both specious and bad for religion itself. There are plenty of reasons one could legitimately and ethically oppose intermarriage, but that statistic is not one of them.
First, coincidence and causality are not the same. The fact that such couples are more likely to fall apart may have nothing to do with the fact that they maintain a two-faith relationship. The assumption that it does so, says more about those making such assumptions than it does about the couples.
Second, it may be that people who marry across religious lines are simply less attached to traditional practices of any kind and therefore are both more comfortable creating such marriages and also walking away from marriages altogether. It’s not an “intermarriage thing”, it’s a “commitment to inherited norms” thing.
Third, it may be that people who intermarry put personal happiness ahead of familial or communal approval, in which case they are more likely to walk away when a relationship is no longer as personally meaningful. Perhaps they walk away too readily, but that would simply indicate that inter-marry’ers put too much weight on personal happiness, while in-marry’ers may put too much on standing pat even if they are less personally fulfilled.
Ultimately, neither in-marriage nor inter-marriage, in and of themselves, are likely to be good indicators of either the happiness or the durability of marriages. What we have always known remains true regardless of the religion(s) of the couple — when people are in touch with the values most important to them, live out those values actively in their lives and have a partner with whom they share those values and ways of living them, they are more likely to have happier lives and healthier relationships.
I would hope that all religions would help people to accomplish those goals, and were that their animating issue, I suspect that the rate of both in-marriage and durable inter-marriage would rise.