Major religious trends and dynamics have seldom enjoyed greater attention than they do today. This is primarily because the news (the rise of the "nones," the flight of young people from our churches) often seems so bad.
Very often, when you dig deeper into the relevant research on such high-profile subjects, you discover that the underlying reality doesn't justify the hype. But there is an important faith trend that deserves attention and gets very little: interfaith marriage. With 'Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America, Naomi Schaefer Riley has written a noteworthy book on this growing choice, based primarily on data she mined from her Interfaith Marriage Study. Examining nearly 2,500 married couples, it is likely the most expansive research to date on the practices, attitudes, and concerns of couples who marry from different faiths. One of the sure consequences of a growing secularization of society is the growth of couples willing to marry despite differences in religious identification, if not practice and conviction.
Interfaith marriage is becoming more common than decades past. Riley's research shows that about 42 percent of marriages today are interfaith, while in 1960, only twenty percent were. (Regarding cross-Christian marriages, she includes mainline Protestants marrying those identifying as evangelicals as interfaith, but not mainlines marrying different mainlines or, for example, Assemblies of God evangelicals marrying evangelical Baptists.) American Grace—the comprehensive study of American religion authored by scholars Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell—adds a tighter focus to Riley's numbers. Putnam and Campbell estimate that nearly fifty-percent of marriages are interfaith, which is largely in line with Riley's figures. But they also argue that just less than one-third of all marriages remained mixed, meaning that around twenty percent of interfaith marriages eventually change—with one spouse converting to the other's faith or both partners converting to a third faith. Putnam and Campbell add that "nearly half of all married nones have a something spouse."
When considering what leads to interfaith marriages, an important—and seemingly obvious—question is the seriousness of each partner's commitment to their particular faith. Riley spends little time looking at this question, but does explain that her research shows no real difference in childhood faith formation practices between the inter-faithers and the single-faithers, whatever that formation might be. However, she did find that, compared to the children of same-faith parents, children of interfaith parents were five percent less likely to have attended weekly religious services and six percent more likely to enter an interfaith marriage themselves.
Instead of pre-marital religious commitment, Riley considers age at first marriage as a leading factor. "It is the most religious people who marry young," she explains, while the likelihood of entering an interfaith marriage increases notably with the increasing age at marriage. As one gets older, the pool of suitable marriage partners shrinks, such that even those with a strong faith commitment can feel tempted to go fishing in other faith ponds. "Church-going women in their late twenties and beyond complain that they don't find many eligible bachelors at church," Riley writes. "And so they end up leaving that environment in order to find a husband." Are they more particular about their earthly than heavenly loves? Seems so.