- - Thursday, April 25, 2013


An estimated 42 percent of American marriages are interfaith unions, with partners not sharing the same religion or one claiming no religion at all. That change is likely to affect families, marriage survival rates and even local congregations, an author with first-hand knowledge of the subject says.

The author in question is Naomi Schaefer Riley, a former editor at The Wall Street Journal whose book, “‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America,” was released in March by Oxford University Press. She is scheduled to discuss the book at a May 30 event at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in the District.

One of the initial oddities of the phenomenon is that someone’s own religiosity doesn’t really affect the chances of an interfaith marriage, Ms. Schaefer Riley said in a telephone interview. And despite the across-party romance of Mary Matalin and James Carville, she a Republican and he a Democrat, it’s more likely that young couples would marry across religious lines than political ones, she said.

“Because we talk about politics so readily, I doubt you could be dating someone for very long without learning who they voted for in the last election,” she said. “We steer away from marrying those people.”

An interfaith marriage can happen “regardless of where you live, [your] educational status, or income, even regardless of how you were raised. There’s no correlation between high involvement in your religion when you are a child making you less likely to marry outside of your faith,” she noted.

Why? Part of it may have to do with the ages at which people marry today, which is generally in their later-20s and 30s, Ms. Schaefer Riley said: “The older you are when you marry, the more likely you are to marry someone outside of your faith.”

She added, “When we’re meeting our mates, we think of ourselves as more secular than we are. But faith has a habit of kind of coming back to us later.” Things such as having children, the death of a loved one, or even relocating and getting a new job are events that can spur a return to religion, she noted.

This brave new world of interfaith marriage has its challenges, but also its positives, Ms. Schaefer Riley said. “Interfaith marriage can be very difficult for couples, more difficult than they may expect; it can affect the cohesiveness of religious communities, but it’s very good for America.”

She said, “The more Americans get to know someone outside of their faith, the more they like them. It’s kind of a cause and effect; the more you get to know them, the more likely you are to marry outside of your faith.”

The challenge for religious communities is the level of dedication a couple of different backgrounds can give. Such couples are often less devoted to a given congregation, she said, particularly when Mom and Dad are trying to expose children to both parents’ religions.

“One couple I talked to said, ‘Well, it’s a good thing our kids aren’t athletic, if we had to add team sports to synagogue and church, it might not work out,’” Ms. Schaefer Riley said.

“Inevitably, kids will lean one direction or another,” she noted, adding that such children are “more than twice as likely to adopt the faith of the mother than the faith of the father,” as religion “does tend to be more the domain of women.”

Another challenge for couples of differing faiths is less-happy marriages. “You find lower rates of marital satisfaction, and in certain combinations, a higher rate of divorce: evangelicals/no-faith have a divorce rate of about 60 percent, versus 30 percent for evangelical couples,” she said.

A solution for congregations is to offer the option of affiliation and even conversion to the spouse of the other faith. Ms. Schaefer Riley, who is Jewish (her husband claims no faith, she said), remarked about a trend in the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism.

“Both Reform and Conservative communities have discussed the possibility of converting spouses,” she said. “I think there is a growing recognition that we should welcome non-Jewish spouses into the fold, especially if there’s an interest, and should be presented with the option. One of the most interesting parts of the survey was that one-quarter of same-faith couples started off as interfaith couples.”

Mark A. Kellner can be reached at [email protected]

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