by Naomi Schaefer Riley
Reviewed by Janel Kragt Bakker
Associate Director at the Collegeville Institute
Oxford University Press, 2013, 256 pp.
Nearly half of Americans today who tie the knot are marrying outside of their faith, a proportion that has been growing in recent decades. Given the increase in religious diversity, the rise of the “emerging adulthood” phenomenon which extends adolescence, the broad-scale weakening of institutions (religious or otherwise), and the steady influence of individualism in recent American history, the trend toward interfaith marriage is hardly a surprise. Many onlookers herald the rise of interfaith marriage as the triumph of tolerance over bigotry and a signal of Americans’ capacity for pursuing freedom and personal fulfillment. Indeed, as Naomi Schaefer Riley has shown in her new book about interfaith marriage, ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America, the growth of interfaith marriage demonstrates how barriers between groups have broken down in American society.
Even so, the American experiment with interfaith marriage has a shadow side—which is often felt most pointedly by interfaith couples themselves. People in interfaith marriages often struggle both in matters of faith and matters of marriage. They experience lower levels of marital satisfaction than same-faith couples, and—especially in some combinations such as evangelicals and non-evangelicals—they are more likely to divorce. Ironically, interfaith couples are also less likely to display some of the common markers of faith: they are less likely to be religiously active and to foster religious participation among their children. These statistics make many religious leaders nervous, even if they are too broad-minded to say so. Interfaith marriage, as appealing as it may be to some, may pose a threat to the vitality of religious life.
Based on a nationally representative survey of nearly 2,500 individuals and more than 100 interviews with interfaith couples, religious leaders, and social scientists, Riley’s book is a comprehensive treatment of the nuts and bolts of interfaith marriage as well as its implications for both religious and family life. With engaging storytelling and keen analysis, Riley covers broad territory in her map of interfaith marriage: courtship, weddings, holiday observance, divorce, children and their catechesis, assimilation, and institutional maintenance are all domains touched by interfaith marriage that Riley explores.
Riley describes interfaith marriage as a “striking case study of the tensions between American individualism and the search for community” (7). Whereas marriages once were forged in the context of communities, and in the couple’s late teen or early adulthood years, today’s marriages begin later in the life cycle, and often in the absence of input from family members, friends, or mentors.
Coupling still begins in the teen years for many Americans, but with the prospect of marriage too far into the future to seem relevant, teens hardly concern themselves with whether their dating partners are “marriage material.” Young Americans are likely to pair off serially for a decade or more before seriously considering the prospect of marriage. When they are more poised for marriage in their late twenties or early thirties, many young Americans are distanced both emotionally and physically from the communities that nurtured them, and their level of connectedness to religious institutions is often lower than at any other phase of life. No matter what their age, would-be husbands and wives are immersed in the romantic and individualistic ethos of American life. In the context of personal exploration, fluidity between casual dating and mate seeking, and institutional detachment in which Americans are getting hitched, it is no wonder that religious similarity is not more highly prioritized by marrying couples.
Yet, says Riley, there is an underbelly to envisioning marriage predominantly as a personal choice. “[T]he modern road to marriage, with its almost total emphasis on individual preference, is not a particularly good reflection of the kinds of experiences and challenges that marriage itself actually presents” (59).
Marriage joins two families together, and it makes pressing demands upon how people spend their time, energy, and money. Religion, at least historically, has also made near totalizing claims in people’s lives, and our attachments to religious traditions may be greater than we think. According to Riley, those who consider religious identity irrelevant when they marry, may be misjudging or misrepresenting themselves, or their religious proclivities may strengthen or change down the road, especially after a major life event such as a birth of a child or the death of a loved one.
Additionally, interfaith marriage may jeopardize community bonds central to the health of marriage itself. When people cut themselves off from community for the sake of a relationship, they may come to regret it. And while many interfaith couples do find their way to community, the road can be difficult. The interfaith couples Riley interviewed often described a sense of social and religious isolation. Of same-faith couples, approximately 80 percent raise their kids in one faith and 20 percent in no faith. For interfaith couples, most of whom find it undesirable or impossible to raise their children in two faiths, around 40 percent choose one faith tradition over the other and raise their kids in one faith, and one third raise their kids in no faith tradition.
It is certainly possible to build a strong and happy marriage with someone who does not share one’s faith, and it is also possible to foster a meaningful religious life when married to someone outside one’s faith. Riley, who is in an interfaith marriage herself, certainly doesn’t suggest otherwise. Yet, she notes that in the long term, relationships thrive on similarity more than they do on difference, and religious observance is not easily carried out alone. Says Riley: “For many husbands, wives, and children, interfaith marriage is a painful reality, a reminder that the family is not together in some ultimate sense” (138).
Riley also discusses interfaith marriage from the point of view of religious leaders and the institutions they represent. Interfaith marriage, says Riley, puts clergy in a sticky situation. Not wanting to judge, shun, or push away people in interfaith marriages or those who love them, clergy must tread lightly. Expressing a preference for “marrying within the faith” could alienate members of their congregation or make outsiders or those on the margins feel unwelcome. On the other hand, many clergy members want their religious traditions to remain meaningful and distinct. They often balk at the idea of their religious tradition being viewed as a compromise or a “safe middle ground,” and they believe their tradition represents something true, internally integrated, and valuable that shouldn’t be diminished.
Riley concludes her book by holding up the model of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as a productive way for religious traditions to handle interfaith marriage. LDS leaders typically welcome interfaith couples and non-Mormons into religious life (excluding temple work), but they also consistently and politely encourage non-Mormons to consider conversion. For Riley, religious traditions are firms that need to stake out their share of the religious market—for the good of their tradition as well as the good of society. Riley is not confident in the staying power or effectiveness of interfaith communities, which she sees as poor imitations of the “real thing.” She also disparages experimentation with new forms of religious life in response to the rise of interfaith families.
Perhaps Riley’s Jewish identity has something to do with her conclusions. American Jews have one of the highest rates of “mixed” or interfaith marriage, which highlights the precariousness of the Jewish tradition. As evolving and culturally situated phenomena, all religious traditions are in some ways precarious. This seems to worry Riley, who appears to envision religious traditions as somehow eternal and immutable. I would like to have seen Riley explore in greater depth some of the positive implications of interfaith marriage, not just for the prospect of tolerance or civility, but also for the prospect of enriched religious life. Religion is not simply a marketable product. It is created and practiced as much as it is bought or sold.
Riley’s encouragement for religious leaders, communities, and interfaith couples to talk openly about the challenges and blessings of interfaith marriage is an important word. Likewise, would-be husbands and wives marrying outside their faith would be well served by gaining a better idea of what they might be getting into. Interfaith marriage is a complex and wide-reaching phenomenon, and Riley should be applauded for winsomely uncovering so many of its dimensions. Interfaith couples face a mountain of challenges as they forge a life together. Still, as a person who cares about the depth dimension of human existence, I can’t help but think that the challenges of interfaith marriage point to something important and even beautiful about religion. Even if we think we have abandoned our religious roots, we often underestimate the ways in which these roots still tug us, shape us, feed us. For better or for worse, we are religious creatures.