In the last decade 45% of all marriages in the United States were between people of different faiths.
A book just published by Naomi Schaefer Riley, “‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America,” (Oxford University Press) looks at the effect this has had, both for marriages and religious practice.
She is well-qualified to write such a study by drawing even from her personal life, as she is of Jewish background, married to a black American who had been raised a Jehovah’s Witness, although he had left this group while in college.
Based on various surveys and investigations Riley noted that on the positive side interfaith marriage means that different faiths and immigrant groups are becoming part of American society. On the negative side the data she found indicates that interfaith marriages are generally more unhappy and often more unstable.
One of the main problems, she noted was that “interfaith couples tend to marry without thinking through the practical implications of their religious differences.”
Looking at the situation of the different faiths, Riley said that a 2001 survey showed that 27% of Jews, 23% of Catholics, 39% of Buddhists, 18% of Baptists, 21% of Muslims, and 12% of Mormons were married to a spouse with a different religious identification.
Another interesting trend that she identified was that interfaith marriages are more common among older couples. According to a survey she conducted, the rate of interfaith marriage was 58% for those married between 26 and 35 years of age, 10 points higher than for younger couples.
The period between when a child leaves the family home and marries is commonly “a religious downtime,” Riley explained. Often marriage is the time when adults return to church.
She also commented that many consider it is more important that couples share the same values, regardless of whether they have the same religion.
The concept of common values is, however, a very generic idea and Riley wondered if it is enough of a basis on which to build a successful marriage.
The substance and specifics of values come from religion, but, she added, in order to get along, many members of interfaith couples “simply stop practicing the specifics of their religion very much.”
“Indeed, those who marry outside their faith tend to take religion less seriously or lose their faith entirely,” Riley observed.
Nevertheless, she noted, “faith is a tricky thing,” and events such as the birth of a child, the death of a loved one or the loss of a job can trigger a desire to return to the faith someone was brought up in.
Yet, in spite of faith being an important factor in a person’s life, what stands out in Riley’s investigations is the lack of serious discussion between prospective spouses about religion. She found that more than half of interfaith couples said they did not discuss the religion of any eventual children before marrying.
How does this happen, she asked. Is it because of the current tendency to favor tolerance and not wanting to discriminate? Is it because people don’t see religion as something important to consider in their relationships?
There are also consequences for the children. A 2006 survey showed that 37% of those raised by parents of different religions reported weekly attendance at religious services, compared with 42% of those raised by parents with the same faith.
An important influence is if the parents have agreed to raise the children in a particular faith. Once this is done, and if the parent who shares the children’s religion is committed, then the children are more likely to practice their faith.
On the subject of divorce Riley concluded that interfaith marriages are more at risk. A 2001 survey of 35,000 respondents found that people in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-faith marriages.
In fact, Riley commented, most religious leaders she spoke with advise people to marry within the faith, both for the preservation of the faith and the long-term stability of someone’s marriage.
In her concluding chapter Riley observed that interfaith marriage “is often a story of competing loyalties.”
People can place their religious lives on hold for many years, but eventually the original religious attachment reasserts itself.
The trend to interfaith marriage continues to rise, Riley admitted, and shows no signs of slowing.
Apart from the impact on couples, this trend will influence churches. Many will experience a decline in membership, Riley argued, particularly those that do not easily accept interfaith marriages.
One thing she recommended is that future spouses, with the support of their churches, need to discuss the issues regarding their religious differences more fully. A very useful suggestion, particularly given the problems that Riley identified in her study.