We 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.