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.
And the increase in interfaith marriage is not limited to particular geographical regions. Nor is it associated with particular socio-economic categories or levels of education. It does, however, vary significantly by faith tradition. Serious adherents to Orthodoxy have virtually no intermarriage, and Mormons also have very little. Jews, in general, have the highest, and Muslims fall somewhere in between, with twenty percent having married outside their faith. Christians also appear to fall in the middle of the spectrum, but I could not tell whether Riley notes specifically where evangelicals land.
Then Comes Baby…
Interfaith marriages without children, Riley says, seem to be troubled mostly by questions of holiday celebrations and home decorations. But things get dicey when children come along and necessitate discussion of what faith they will be taught. Agreements reached during pre- and post-wedding discussions tend to crumble, as those in interfaith relationships are significantly less likely to say passing their faith on to their children is "very" or "somewhat important," although nearly 40 percent of interfaith couples work at trying to raise their children in one faith. But as the first child arrives, the unanticipated, practical questions arise: Will we circumcise? What about baptizing or dedicating our baby? What about the early wishes of the new grandparents regarding rituals they hold dear? Of course, the faith that a couple teaches their children is important, particularly given Riley's finding that 77 percent of interfaith parents say they believe that "parents should provide a religious upbringing for their children," while less than a quarter believe this should be left up to the child. Same-faith parents were a bit more likely to place importance on teaching and practicing a faith with their children.
Regarding the hope of all marriages, that they indeed last "'til death do us part," there has been ample and convincing research through the years (buttressed by logical assumptions) that interfaith marriages are more likely to experience trouble and end in divorce. Some studies have indicated that the risk is up to three times greater than for single-faith couples. This is something those considering an interfaith union must consider. But not all interfaith marriages are created equal regarding divorce risk. A Catholic marrying a mainliner was shown, in Riley's sample, to have the lowest divorce rate among interfaith marriages. Evangelicals and Mainlines who were married to "nones" had the highest elevated risk of divorce over single-faith couples.
Overall, Riley's volume is well-researched, analyzed, and lively written. She provides a rich offering of original data to enrich and fill out our understanding of the warp and woof of interfaith marriage in America, as well as case studies on various practical aspects from her interview subjects. As faith becomes more difficult to live out today, it is important that we have resources to provide a trustworthy, reasoned, and non-sensationalized look at the challenges Christians face. We might be born again, but needn't act like we were born yesterday in our knowledge and understanding of these religious trends. Naomi Schaefer Riley thankfully provides such an education in 'Til Faith Do Us Part.
Glenn T. Stanton is the director of family formation studies at Focus on the Family and the author, most recently, of Secure Daughters, Confident Sons: How Parents Guide Their Children into Authentic Masculinity and Femininity (Multnomah) and The Ring Makes All the Difference: The Hidden Consequences of Cohabitation and the Strong Benefits of Marriage (Moody).