Jewish Intermarriage and Conversion – A Statistical Portrait of American Jews into the 21st Century

Based on the 2007 article:  A Statistical Portrait of American Jews into the 21st Century by Professor Allan Mazur

Christian readers might assume that by abandoning Judaism’s traditional beliefs and practices, many Jews have ceased to be Jewish. But we saw in (Part 1)  that nearly all those raised Jewish (84%) still identified themselves as Jewish at the time of interview. For the generation sampled by the GSS, “being Jewish” has more meaning as an ethnic or ancestral identification than a religious one. Items reported by the NJPS attest to the importance of nonreligious factors. Asked if half or more of their close friends are Jewish, 52% of respondents said yes. Since only 2% of Americans are Jews, this indicates a strong ethnic bias in friendship selection. Forty-one percent of NJPS respondents contributed to Jewish causes; 52% regarded being Jewish as very important. Asked if they ever visited Israel, 35% said yes; 20% visited two or more times. GSS data also show the importance of Israel to American Jews. The GSS asks its respondents their views, favorable or unfavorable, toward various nations, including Israel. Seventy-three percent of Jew gave Israel the most favorable ratings, compared to only 18% of Controls and 19% of Others. This enormous difference shows the intense affection that American Jews feel for the Jewish state, compared to other Americans. Persistence of Religion We accept the religions in which we are raised, more or less. Those who deviate do not deviate far. Even in a nation as religiously free as the United States, with its many competing denominations, people reliably maintain the religious traditions of their parents. Of the GSS respondents raised as Jewish, only 5% reported that they were Christian at the time of interview. If we include the various Protestant denominations under one umbrella, roughly 80% of GSS respondents continued to identify with the religion in which they were reared (Figure 4-1). Of those people raised without religion, half remained irreligious as adults while roughly a third joined the nation’s Protestant majority.


Childhood socialization influences people’s social affiliations as well as beliefs. We usually marry someone born into our own religion (Figure 4-2). Even people reared without any religion disproportionately find mates who were raised non-religiously, though about half end up with Protestant spouses simply because most Americans of the opposite sex are Protestant.

Endogamy conserves the traditions of childhood. When people reared in a particular religion marry a spouse in the same or similar religion, the couple instills this orientation in their children. Usually they associate with friends and belong to organizations that reflect similar beliefs and insulate them from contradictory forces. Conversion The famous epiphany of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus was like a flash of lightning, individualistic and without portent (Acts 9:3). If true, Saul’s experience was unusual. Sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke (2000) compile abundant evidence that conversion nearly always involves the intercession of another person and occurs gradually. Often converts “reconstruct” their conversion after the fact, attributing it to a self-conscious search for the truth or to sudden enlightenment, but in cases that are well studied, there is generally an intermediary — a friend or family member already in the new group — who facilitates an extended transition. The social process of conversion applies to politics as well as religion. In the first place, most Americans identify with the political party of their parents, holding similar political ideologies as liberals, moderates, or conservatives (Marcus et al. 1995; 26 Zaller 1992; Kinder 2006). When young adults do change their politics, usually it is through immersion in friendship, college, or work groups of the new political persuasion, or through marriage to someone with those views. With GSS data we can compare the importance of childhood socialization with that of adult conversion in sustaining a religious group. Figure 4-3 contains separate flow diagrams for Catholics, fundamentalist Protestants, moderate Protestants, liberal Protestants, Jews, and those with no religion. The number of GSS respondents born in to each of these groups is defined as its base = 100%. Most remain in the same group as adults, but some leave while others enter after childhood. In the Catholic diagram, for example, the 100% born into Catholicism are spit into 79% who remain Catholic and 21% who leave the religion. Another 19% were not Catholic as children but declare themselves Catholic as adults. Adding those who enter to those who remain gives the percentage of current Catholics = 91%. Thus, over the last generation, American Catholics decreased by 9% (i.e., 100% – 91% = 9%). The flow diagram for Protestant fundamentalists shows that most of today’s fundamentalists were born into fundamentalist families. The 22% converting into fundamentalism (most raised as non-fundamentalist Protestants) nearly equals the 23% leaving fundamentalism, so the cross-generational percentage change is practically nil (100% – 99% = 1%). The conversion rate into fundamentalism is considerably smaller than the conversion rates to moderate (41%) or liberal (30%) Protestant denominations. Jews are the most persistent of the groups shown in the figure. Nearly everyone who is Jewish was born Jewish. Few Christians become Jews, and few Jews become Christians. Looking across Figure 4-3, birth is far more important than conversion as a means of recruitment, with one exception. Respondent who say they have no religion are increasing three times faster from “conversion” than from child rearing (163% versus 51%). “No religion” is the fastest growing of the categories, perhaps signaling a departure from traditional American religiosity.


The few people who do convert are more likely to enter their new religion though conformity with a spouse or friends than by self-consciously searching out new beliefs. Among married converts to Catholicism, 84% wed someone born Catholic. Among married converts to Protestant fundamentalism, 56% wed someone born a fundamentalist. Among the married converts to Judaism, 63% married a born Jew. These rates of intermarriage among converts are far higher than would be expected by chance. Almost certainly, in most of these cases, religious conversion was an accommodation to religious intermarriage. Intermarriage We lack good measurement of intermarriage at the beginning of the 20th century, but a reasonable estimate is that ten percent or less of American Jews wed Christians at that time. Sometimes it was a cause for family mourning. World War II and the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 70s weakened the taboo, and all observers note a marked increase since then. Currently, the intermarriage rate among young Jews is between 40% and 50%. A traditional argument against intermarriages is that they do not work, causing unhappiness and divorce. Married respondents to the GSS were asked how happy their marriage is. Table 4-2 shows a slight tendency for Jewish-Jewish marriages to be happier than Jewish-gentile marriages (or than gentile-gentile marriages), but this result should be taken cautiously because it is based on relatively few cases.



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