New Pew Data on Interfaith Marriage. And Coming Soon, on Interfaith Identities

Pew 2014 Intermarriage chart

For as long as I have been writing about interfaith families, for decades now, it has been hard to get good data on the overall increase in interfaith marriage in America. This week, Pew Research released the most comprehensive report on religion in America since their 2007 report. The new report, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, and much of the subsequent news reporting, focused on two angles: the rise of the “religious nones,” and the interlinking shift away from traditional forms of Christianity.

But of course, my first response was to comb through the report, looking for signs of those us who live in the complex, fluid, flexible, interfaith world. Pew began describing that world in a very good 2009 report on multiple religious practitioners (people celebrating more than one religion). And after speaking to one of the researchers today, I have exciting news to share on upcoming research on those raised with, or practicing, more than one religion.

“Interfaith Marriage Commonplace” –Pew Research, 2015

But first, let’s look at the important data on interfaith families in the new report. The researchers write that “people who have gotten married since 2000 are about twice as likely to be in religious intermarriages as are people who got married before 1960.” They found 28 percent of Americans living in an interfaith marriage or partnership (when we consider Protestants as one religion). That rises to 33 percent if we consider evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, and historically black Protestant denominations, as separate religious groups.

For those in partnerships, rather than marriages, Pew found that interfaith relationships are much more common, at about 49 percent. And they are more common in younger generations. Overall, 19 percent of people married prior to 1960 reported that they were in an interfaith marriage, as compared to 39 percent of those married after 2010. (Although the researchers note that the low percentage of pre-1960 interfaith marriages may be skewed by the fact that those who divorced, or those who converted and now have one faith in the marriage, were not counted as interfaith marriages).

Here are some additional findings on interfaith families from the study:

  • The apparent rise of interfaith marriage is driven “in large part” by marriages between Christians and religiously unaffiliated spouses. Fully 18% of people surveyed who have gotten married since 2010 are in marriages between a Christian and a religiously unaffiliated spouse.
  • Buddhists are the most likely in this study to be in a mixed-faith relationship, at 61%.
  • The least likely in this study to be in an interfaith relationship were Hindus (9%), Mormons (18%) and Muslims (21%).
  • The interfaith marriage or partnership rates were 25% for Catholics, 35% for Jews, and 41% for mainline Protestants.

What About Interfaith Identity and Multiple Religious Belonging?

In this study, Pew asked respondents for the religion in which they had been raised, present religion, and the religion of the partner or spouse. So of course my first question was (as it is for every study of religious identity), “Could respondents claim more than one religion for their upbringing, or for their current identity (or the identity of their spouse)?”

The answer to my question was not obvious in over 200 pages of report and appendices. So I contacted Pew, and ended up in conversation with the very helpful sociologist Besheer Mohamed, a Research Associate who worked on the report. I learned a lot about how this survey recorded and classified people raised in, or currently claiming, more than one religion. The answers were intriguing.

First, the researchers did write down the verbatim responses of those practicing or raised in more than one religion, although less than one percent identified themselves this way. Mohamed agreed with me that some people who practice or were raised in more than one religion might not have identified themselves that way in the survey. After a lifetime of being faced with “only pick one box” religion surveys, we really do need specific permission in order to claim more than one religion. We need to hear, “You may choose one or more religions,” before it occurs to us that this is finally an option. I know those who practice more than one religion, who will self-identified as “nothing in particular,” or “agnostic,” or just pick one religion, when the reality is that they claim two.

In this initial report, although Pew did record them, the existence of these double-religious or multiple-religious practitioners was hidden. Because those claiming two religions including any form of Christianity, were counted by Pew in the “other Christians” category. So whether Jewish and Catholic, or Buddhist and Methodist, they were coded as Christian. This is a dramatic example of the Christian lens through which we see all discourse on American religion.

Even stranger, those who claimed two religions not including any form of Christianity, for instance Jewish and Buddhist, were counted in the “other world religions” category. This category was designed for single-faith practitioners including Sikhs, Baha’is, Jains, Rastafarians, Zoroastrians, Confucians and Druze. It does seem an unlikely place to park the many people I know who are Jewish Buddhists, or Buddhist Hindus.

To add to the complexity, the study had a separate category for “other faiths,” which Pew somehow distinguished from “other world religions.” The “other faiths,” included Unitarian-Universalists (UUs), those who practice Native American religions, and Pagans. But it’s not clear to me whether a Pagan UU (and there are plenty) was also coded under “other faiths,” or coded under “other world religions” because they claimed two non-Christian religions.

The excellent news is that Pew did get much more detailed data on people raised with or identifying with more than one religion. And a report on these folks (my interfaith people!) will be forthcoming from Pew, before the end of 2015. As interfaith relationships continue to become more common, interest will continue to grow in the relationship between interfaith relationships, the growth of the religious nones, and the new ways in which people are engaging (and disengaging) with traditional religious practices and institutions.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

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