The world needs many more books documenting interfaith marriage and interfaith children in the 21st century. However, Til Faith Do Us Part by Naomi Schaefer Riley takes a strangely pessimistic stance. The book title itself compares the inevitability of interfaith divorce to the inevitability of death. As the daughter of parents who have been happily intermarried for over 50 years, and someone who has spent decades researching this topic, I have a very different view: one that celebrates the benefits of interfaith families. What’s more, I don’t believe Riley’s doom and gloom is supported by her own data.
A few years ago, Riley wrote a piece warning against interfaith marriage in the Washington Post, and was met with strong pushback and multiple critiques. Her work is funded by various conservative organizations and foundations. Quoting notably conservative Jewish, Christian and Muslim sources, Riley seems to be trying to dissuade people from intermarrying, despite the fact that she herself married a man raised as a Jehovah’s Witness.
How might conservative funding affect Riley’s perspective and conclusions? She states that interfaith couples are ignoring the challenges of intermarriage because of “our obsession with tolerance at all costs.” She claims that her survey shows that interfaith marriages are “generally more unhappy” and “often more unstable.” She then goes on to state that she would be “sorry if too many people entered into marriages that were unhappy or unstable.”
One issue is that Riley’s survey only included 44 Jews, and most of her conclusions about “interfaith” marriage are actually based on what I think should more accurately be called “interchurch” marriage. She defines black Protestants married to mainline Protestants, or mainline Protestants married to evangelical Protestants, as “interfaith.” Riley’s own survey found “no discernible difference” in divorce between intermarried and same-faith marriages overall. She did find that evangelical Christians, specifically, were more likely to divorce if married to non-evangelical Christians–an effect I attribute to inflexible fundamentalist theology, rather than the risks of interfaith marriage. Those who believe the Bible is literal truth will find it hard to be married to those who believe otherwise.
The fact that most of Riley’s “interfaith” couples were Christian/Christian couples skews her data. For instance, she writes about how few couples had clergy co-officiating at their weddings. A Christian/Christian “interchurch” couple might not feel it is necessary to have both ministers involved in a wedding. A truly interfaith couple, whether Jewish/Christian or Muslim/Hindu, would have a lot more incentive to involve both clergy members, if they can find clergy to support them.
In short, intermarried Jewish couples (or anyone in an interfaith marriage other than Christian/Christian “interchurch” couples) should hesitate before applying Riley’s conclusions to their own families. Riley found more divorce among intermarried Jews, but because her sample was so small she admits the finding is “tenuous.” To bolster her claim, she goes back to Evelyn Lehrer’s 1993 study of stability in interfaith marriages. Given the dramatic recent shifts in attitudes towards marriage (whether interfaith or gay), I am not compelled by statistics from an era twenty years ago when Jewish families were still commonly disowning children for intermarrying. In contrast, my own surveys and interviews document people in happy 21st-century Jewish and Christian interfaith marriages, supported by family, friends and clergy.
In terms of marital satisfaction, again, Riley found that the evangelical Christians were the group most unhappy in “interfaith” marriages. Those with a creed centered around being born again or saved may find it difficult to be married to anyone who does not share those concerns. No surprise there. The surprise, for me, was that Riley found that Jews actually reported being happier in interfaith marriages than in same-faith marriages, though the difference was not statistically significant because of the small number of Jews in her survey. Or, maybe I’m not surprised, given the rarity of divorce among Jewish/Christian couples in our interfaith families community.
Riley states that “those who marry outside their faith tend to take religion less seriously or lose their faith entirely.” In my research, I found the opposite effect among couples celebrating both family religions. For instance, many a Christian spouse has testified to the fact that their Jewish spouse is far more engaged with Judaism after intermarrying.
While Riley’s detailed profiles of specific (though largely anonymous) interfaith couples are a contribution to the literature, I found myself simply disagreeing with many of her conclusions. She writes that the “cultural pressures of pluralism” are “pushing people toward interfaith marriage.” In contrast, my observation is that interfaith marriage is still something we choose in spite of cultural pressures, not because of them. And I believe our “obsession with tolerance” is a good and necessary trend, not a threat.
In her conclusion, Riley writes, “There is nothing about having diverse perspectives in a marriage that will make it inherently better–in fact, it may be less likely to succeed in the long run.” I don’t believe Riley’s own statistics support that statement. My own experience, and my research on interfaith families who chose both religions, brings me to the opposite conclusion. Diverse religious perspectives can lead to deeper questioning, deeper communication, deeper empathy, deeper bonds. And happy interfaith families.
Note: This post was updated on 6/16/13 in response to various recent articles.