Interfaith marriage is skyrocketing in contemporary America. A generation ago, around fifteen percent of Americans married outside their faith, which probably mostly meant Catholics marrying Protestants. Now, according to Naomi Schaefer Riley, the rate is forty-two percent. As Americans continue to delay marriage and drift away from their parents and religious upbringings during their young adulthood, it seems reasonable that soon most Americans will marry outside their religion.
This, according to Riley, has major implications for couples and religious institutions, which she explains in her just-published ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America. Riley’s book is a very readable blend of survey data (she commissioned a nationwide Interfaith Marriage Survey with the help of the University of Notre Dame’s David Campbell) and anecdotes. She begins with her own. Having grown up in a Conservative Jewish household, she married a man who had left his family’s Jehovah’s Witness faith. They are raising their children Jewish.
For religious institutions, interfaith marriage has rather devastating consequences. The children of these marriages are “less likely to be observant members of their faiths.” Churches and synagogues have been hoping that inactive young adults will return to their childhood faiths after they begin having children. Riley’s book suggests that churches stand to lose many of those young adults permanently.
The news isn’t all bad, of course. Our larger society benefits in important ways from intermarriage, which promotes assimilation and religious tolerance. Protestant parents whose daughter marries a Mormon might initially express strong disapproval. Nevertheless, they are likely to develop warmer feelings not only for their son-in-law but for his church. Interfaith couples also grow in their capacity to more honestly negotiate the pluralistic society in which they live: “interfaith marriage may awaken people to the fact that religions are not all the same, that the particulars of practice and belief do matter, and that not all interfaith conflicts can be solved with the placement of a menorah next to a manger.”