Til Faith Do Us Part

photo-66We often explore the theme on this blog that things are seldom black and white. Any given social phenomenon can have upsides and downsides — something often lost in the soundbites that tend to dominate debate.

In her newest book, ‘Til Faith Do Us Part, journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley explores this idea through the lens of interfaith marriage. Interfaith marriages, she argues, have been very good for America. Such marriages advance the cause of religious tolerance as more and more people know someone from another faith as extended family. On the other hand, interfaith marriages are often difficult on the people involved. You approach your partnership with different views on very fundamental questions. For her book, she interviewed hundreds of interfaith couples, and commissioned a survey on the topic. She agreed to answer a few questions for us.

LV: From your book, it sounds like you think an interfaith marriage presents more cultural and social challenges than an interracial one. Have you found this to be the case?

NSR: Interracial marriages are actually much less common than interfaith ones. My 2,500 person nationally representative survey found that about 42% of marriages are interfaith, compared with 15% [of marriages that are interracial] reported by the Pew Forum in 2012. That’s because we tend to marry the people that we live with, the people we work with and the people we go to school with. It seems like there is much more religious mixing in this country than there is racial mixing. I found that interfaith marriages are, on average, slightly less happy than same-faith ones and, in certain combinations, more likely to end in divorce.

I think that there are probably more initial barriers to interracial marriage–our racial differences are more noticeable on the surface. But in the long run, I think that interfaith marriages present more serious challenges. Differences of faith affect the three things that most marriage counselors say people fight about–how you spend your time, how you spend your money, and, of course, how you raise your kids. Should we go to church? Should we pay for Catholic school? What about Jewish summer camp? Is tithing a priority? What should we tell our kids about serving the poor? or premarital sex? Or where we go after death? As someone who is in both an interracial and an interfaith (or at least a faith-no-faith marriage) I can say that it is the religious questions that are (and should be) considered more substantively than questions of racial identity.  

LV: Part of the challenge of an interfaith marriage is that we don’t maintain the same level of religiosity over our lifetimes. Can you explain why this winds up mattering?

NSR: As the average age of marriage in America rises, we are spending more and more of our 20s in a kind of single, secular netherworld. We are away from our families, moving from city to city, changing roommates, changing jobs, and spending more of our lives detached from the faith of our childhoods. By the time we get married in our late 20s or early 30s, we think of ourselves as secular. But religion has a way of sneaking up on people. If it’s not during the wedding planning (who will marry us? where’s the chupah?) then when children are born, or a parent dies or we move to a new city with our families. And all of the sudden religious faith can seem much more important to us. And that can come as a great (and sometimes difficult) surprise to our spouses.

LV: I was fascinated by the idea of “calm persistence” among Mormons about interfaith marriage. While the Mormon religion is strict in many ways, interfaith marriage seems largely tolerated. How does this calm persistence (winning you over with kindness, as it were) play into this?

NSR: The Mormons have a very low rate of interfaith marriage–only 12% according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey. And they obviously have a reputation for being a highly observant religious group. And there are a variety of ways in which non-Mormons simply cannot participate in the community. They cannot be wedded in the Temple. Also Mormon families are said to live on for eternity together. But that can only happen for Mormons married to other Mormons.

So I was surprised to find that interfaith marriage was not the kind of difficult topic it is for, say, Jews. Even elders of the church have been products of interfaith marriages. Two things stuck out about the Mormon interfaith marriages I was able to find. First, many of these marriages started out as interfaith but over long periods of times, sometimes decades, they turned into same-faith ones. (My survey found that overall about a quarter of same-faith marriages started off as interfaith ones).

And the second thing I found was that the Mormon member of the couple had this confidence that anyone who honestly investigated the faith would eventually become a Mormon. Non-Mormons were really Mormons waiting to happen. This allowed them a kind of confidence that God would ultimately bring the spouse around. They didn’t spend a lot of time haranguing their spouses about faith. The Mormon missionaries would occasionally visit the non-member spouse to see if he or she had questions. The non-Mormons were invited to participate in some parts of religious life. The calm persistent approach seemed to have the effect of converting many members at the same time as making non-members feel at ease in the community.

LV: If a couple is dating and come from different faith traditions, when should they have The Conversation, and what should it involve?

NSR: As soon as possible. I told my husband, a former Jehovah’s witness, on our first date that I planned to raise my children Jewish. I know I’m the outlier. In fact, my survey found that more than half of interfaith couples don’t talk about how they want to raise their children before they get married. Anecdotally, I found a number of couples who were years into their relationships and each member of the couple continued to assume that the other was going to bend on the subject of religion. They simply believed that religion was not an important enough issue to keep them apart. But they weren’t willing to bend themselves.

The conversation should involve as much detail as possible. Just saying that you want to raise your kids in a particular faith could mean anything. Do you envision going to services every week? Eating halal food? Setting up a shrine in the home? Celebrating all the holidays or only the big ones? The best kind of premarital counseling requires participants to fill out lengthy detailed questionnaires, but why wait until a ring has been purchased before you try one of these. There is no guarantee that the answers you give to these questions at 28 will accurately predict how you will feel at 48 or 68, but at least they will give you a more realistic understanding of what you and your partner want from marriage.

9 thoughts on “Til Faith Do Us Part

  1. Interesting that Schaefer Riley focuses on Jews as a religious group, but not as a racial/ethnic group. I think that’s a big reason interfaith marriage is frowned upon by elders in the Jewish community – there’s the sense that only the children of Jewish mothers are Jews. There’s the fear that too much intermarriage will be the end of the Jews. I can’t think of another religious group where being born into it vs. converting is as salient.

    I guess I should count my blessings I am married to someone who shares my exact views on religion. We have it easier than others I suppose.

    1. @hush – it does make things easier to subscribe to similar beliefs. What makes it hard is — as she describes — people’s views change over the course of their lives. People can both not care much about religion, but then one party decides it does matter.

  2. Sounds like a fascinating book! I am in the situation that we share the same faith, but my husband is uninterested in attending church. At least he does not mind that i take the children there though. I also became more active religiously after having children, as the author describes.

    1. @Sarah – yes, in her book she shows the degree to which people become more religious later in life. There are some heartbreaking stories of people who thought they wouldn’t care…and then did. But once you’ve made a decision as a couple, is it something you can reopen? In general, women turn out to be more religious than men. Children in an interfaith marriage are much more likely to be raised in the faith of the mother, because she tends to be the one who makes it happen.

  3. There is a distinction between inter-denominational and interfaith marriages and some Christian sects may extend their own rules and practices to include other denominations as well.

  4. I just finished this book today.
    I did really like it and was surprised as someone who is in both an inter-ethnic marriage that also crosses religious lines — that interracial marriages are so UNcommon in America today. Another really good point in there is that in a dual faith family the children are more than 2x more likely to follow or practice the religion of the MOTHER so I do think this says a lot about parenting today in America still. My kids get both religions and both cultures but I am more likely to insist on sunday school and my husband more likely to let them stay home when he goes to church. I was also really surprised with how rare marriages between two folks of different political parties are. They are actually really, really rare & and I did not know that !
    I also was surprised by some of the views of Muslims for example that a woman doesn’t have to be a muslim to be sanctioned wife of a muslim man but that is not the case for man marrying woman etc.
    The view of what Mormons do right for their own in their 20s is also interesting vs. secular, more liberal jews etc. and this issue of race/identity vs. religion in an increasingly diverse America that considers itself multicultural if not mixed. I enjoyed it and would enjoy reading more about these topics !

  5. This seems on the surface to be a counterintuitive argument—if Mormons are kind and accepting of interfaith marriages and the people in them, as Riley claims from her interviews and research (and as our family has experienced firsthand, with only a few exceptions in two decades), wouldn’t the opposite be true? Wouldn’t there be more interfaith, part-Mormon marriages? Riley says that in Mormonism, there is no stigma attached to being in a part-member marriage. For example, there is no shaming of interfaith children (like one story in the book of an evangelical Sunday School teacher who told one of her students that Mommy was going to hell because she didn’t come to church–!). But instead of creating more interfaith marriages, this persistent, long-term welcome mat actually cuts down on such marriages because . . .

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