Crossing the Threshold of Faith

Naomi Schaefer Riley, former editor at the Wall Street Journal and author of 'Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America, talked to Andrew Benedict-Nelson of Insight Labs about the role religion will likely play in the years to come.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Why were you initially drawn to the topic of interfaith marriage?

Naomi Schaefer Riley: I had been reporting about religion for the last several years. I’m Jewish myself and was familiar on a personal level with all of the discussions about interfaith marriage within the Jewish community. There has been a lot of hand-wringing and programs meant to deal with it — it’s become a topic you can’t avoid. I had very rarely come across the same level of discussion in other religious communities. But I had a sense that they were either about to start having the same conversation or that the trend would soon hit them and they didn’t know it yet. So this was a book that was meant to look beyond the Jewish community and consider how interfaith marriage would affect the whole country.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: What are some of those subtle signs that led you to believe that everyone will soon be talking about this?

Naomi Schaefer Riley: There were little things. I spent some time talking to people in a a young Muslim community. Here and there, they were mentioning how some of their parents were pressuring them to marry within the same community or the same ethnicity. That’s an old American idea — in the early 20th century, a marriage between an Irish Catholic and an Italian Catholic would have been regarded as an interfaith marriage. People would have been very focused on preserving ethnicities even within Christian denominations. Now there are conflicts over whether these people should only marry another Egyptian or only marry another Pakistani.

So if you look back to the middle of the 20th century, there was a book that came out by a sociologist named Will Herberg called Protestant, Catholic, Jew. He predicted the end of these ethnic concerns and said that the most important distinctions would be between these three broad religious groups. (He didn’t really predict the influx of Muslims or Eastern religions into American society.) But what he said was that German Jews and Russian Jews, for example, would get over their differences. They wouldn’t end up in a melting pot with Christians, but they’d be their own Jewish melting pot. So when I started having these conversations with Muslims, it seemed to me that they were headed down the same path.

Meanwhile, the evangelical Christian world has been having its own conversation about marriage in general. A lot of people, especially when they are trying to criticize evangelicals, point to the high (or at least not-below-average) divorce rate that exists in that community. Evangelical leaders worry that they’ve embraced the divorce culture in some sense. Pastors would tell me about how their congregations were talking about what makes for a successful marriage. And certainly one of the things I found in my research was that being on the same page religiously made things easier on couples, made them more likely to stay together.

So there were a lot of things that were tipping me off to the fact that this was going to become a national conversation, both in terms of how marriage works in America as well as in terms of how religious groups will have to contend with people’s attitudes toward their community.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: That second problem seems fascinating. What does it mean to be a Jew if 25 percent of the congregation is married to non-Jews? That’s certainly different from the traditional sense of the Tribe.

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Exactly. Jews are biblically commanded to live by a whole different set of rules from Gentiles. These are special obligations God has given you. But it’s hard to sort out. Christian inter-marriage presents its own parallel set of challenges. What does it mean to be married to someone who will not be saved? If you believe in the New Testament, how do you feel about a spouse who does not believe that message? How does that affect the question of proselytizing? And then of course there’s the big elephant in the room, which is how do you raise your children?

If you talk to marriage counselors, you learn that the three things couples fight over most are time, money, and children. Religion affects all three of those. Do you go to church on Sunday or synagogue on Saturday? Do you spend money to send the kids to summer camp? Do we give to our mosque? Is it important for us to tithe to the Mormon church? What do we tell the children about where grandma and grandpa went when they died?

Most people who I surveyed, whether they were in interfaith marriages or not, did not report fighting over religion in their marriages per se. That’s understandable — on a day-to-day basis, you’re not likely to fight over whether Jesus was the Messiah. But these practical questions don’t go away. What I found was that a lot of people thought that if you came to some sort of initial agreement in the marriage — something like, “We’re going to raise the kids as Catholics,” — then they expected these kinds of disagreements to go away. But in fact they continue on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Could you tell me a little bit more about that empirical research you conducted? What’s novel? What’s changing? What’s changing faster than one might have expected?

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Certainly the rate of interfaith marriage has risen. In the last 50 years, it has skyrocketed. Now something like 45 percent of marriages are interfaith. I should say what I counted as interfaith marriages. I counted Protestant-Catholic marriages as interfaith. Among Protestants, I counted anything that crossed the line between mainline and evangelical denominations. So if a mainline Methodist married a mainline Baptist, I didn’t count that, but I did count it when the mainline Methodist married an evangelical Presbyterian. I counted as evangelical anyone who said in the survey that they had been “born again.” I counted these couples as interfaith because this seems like the most important divide in contemporary Christianity, rather than a denominational one.

So I think that what’s going to happen is that the interfaith marriage rate will continue to grow and affect new groups. In one of my chapters, I talk about the fact that I think Muslims will be “the new Jews” when it comes to interfaith marriage. But it will happen even faster, because our society is more tolerant now than it was in the 1950s when Jewish assimilation really began. (For example, in the 50s you still had quotas on Jews in major universities.) Now Muslims will find themselves welcome at all of our institutions, so there will not be an artificial segregation slowing down the process for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and so on.

One question that people often ask me is, “Wait, does this mean we’re all going to end up in one giant religion?” I don’t think that’s the case. But I think what you will see, which you’ve seen already to some extent in the Jewish community, is one group of highly concentrated orthodox people that will drive the institutions. They’ll often have the most children and be the most concerned about intermarriage. And then you’ll have everyone else. Many of them will still identify as Jewish, many of them will still practice the rituals of Judaism, many of them will still observe the holidays, but they will be less likely to be highly invested in that identity and will therefore be less likely to drive the conversation within the community.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It seems like a peculiar mindset that must come about for the kids of these marriages. I’ll tell you that both of my parents were Presbyterians when I was born, but my parents got divorced. They changed religions when they got married; one converted to Judaism and one to Catholicism. Thinking through that experience, it seems to me that the least common denominator that emerges from these kinds of families is a desire to kind of keep your head down when it comes to religious conflict. And that would certainly lead to the sort of less vocal general community that you describe.

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Yes, you see that very early on in the lives of these couples. More than half of the interfaith couples that I studied did not talk about how they wanted to raise children in terms of faith before they got married. I thought that was rather striking. It seemed kind of strange in the context of a culture where we really try to find out everything about our partners before we get married, where we date longer, where many people live together before they’re married. If you know what kind of toothpaste your spouse uses before you tie the knot, how have you not had a conversation about whether you will baptize the kids?

My best hypothesis is that religion is now considered something that is highly personal, almost too personal to get into. We don’t want to pry into people’s relationship with God. So maybe you’re right — maybe there is a kind of foxhole mentality where we sense potential conflicts and we don’t want to get into them.

But on the other hand, people are much more willing to talk about politics. If you consider the whole adage of not talking about politics and religion at the dinner table, the politics part of that has gone out the window. And in fact, inter-political marriages have not increased very much at all. One reason for that is that very early on in the course of a relationship, we find our where our partners stand on issues like abortion or the most recent election. Most people decide that they don’t want a debating partner in their marriage. But when it comes to religion, people often don’t even ask these questions. That is one reason for the rise in interfaith marriages, but also one reason why the conflicts in them are not going away.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: This gets at the more fundamental questions I wanted to investigate with you. Even before hearing about your book, it seemed to me that many more people I knew were entering interfaith marriages with relatively little concern about it. And as with the recent shifts over gay marriage, it seemed as if the underlying way in which most people thought about marriage and identity must have changed in order for for this to happen. Could you tell me more about those underlying “rules” and how they’re changing for people?

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Interfaith marriage is both a cause and effect of a lot of the religious tolerance we’re seeing in society now. People are willing to meet and befriend and work with and marry people of other faiths because they already know a lot of people of other faiths. Because of interfaith marriage, that could even include people in their extended families.

You know, there was some research done by Robert Putnam and David Campbell for their book, American Grace. They used something called a “feeling thermometer” to learn how people felt about members of other religious groups. What they found was that as Americans get to know more people of other religious groups, the more likely they are to like that group. (Interestingly, this is not true of every country.)

So I think this explains a lot. At one point I wrote a piece about why Americans don’t seem to like Mormons very much. At one point Mormons ranked below Muslims on the “feeling thermometer.” (Not that Americans should dislike Muslims.) Anyway, both Muslims and Mormons are relatively concentrated in certain parts of the country. People are less likely to know one. But the more likely you are to know a Mormon, the more likely you are to like Mormons in general.

So you can see how if this is true, interfaith marriage would rapidly increase tolerance. If Aunt So-and-So or Uncle So-and-So is married to someone of a different faith, that’s someone you are going to get to know. You’ll be more likely to meet people of that faith, more likely to develop relationships with people of that faith, and even more likely to marry someone of that faith. It widens the field of possibilities.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It’s interesting how Latter-Day Saints are one of the few groups that it still seems acceptable to make fun of on TV or in other venues.

Naomi Schaefer Riley: And right now they also have one of the lowest rates of interfaith marriage. But even those rates are rising. Probably one reason for that is that Mormons are starting to spread out across the country instead of being concentrated in one place.

But there are also some intrinsic factors that keep interfaith marriage low in certain religions, and you see these in Mormons in particular. All groups that proselytize have some trouble with this question. Groups that proselytize want to be open and welcoming to non-members. But they also want to set the boundaries of their communities fairly clearly. What’s so interesting about Mormons is that they’ve been able to do both fairly successfully.

I talked to a number of Mormon interfaith couples for the book. They felt very welcomed by the Mormon church, even though they could not be married in the church unless they converted, which for Mormon theology has implications for what would happen to the couple after death. You would think that’s a big stumbling block. But the non-Mormon members of the couples were actually very enthusiastic about the church community. They liked how it helped them raise their kids and the values it helped them instill, even if they didn’t necessarily believe in everything they taught. They appreciated the outward effects of Mormonism on their families.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So where does this all take us? Let’s say that we push this even further and interfaith marriage is the norm in society. What are the changes in our society that you would expect to see?

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Certainly the level of tolerance would go up. But the level of explicit religiosity would probably go down for the reasons we’ve discussed. I think it would continue to cause the same kinds of problems for individual marriages. A lot of that depends on how religious the couple actually is. But as I point out in the book, a lot of people under-estimate how important religion will be to them in the course of their lives.

Let me back up and say that one of the strongest things that predicts whether you will get into an interfaith marriage is your age. I found that there weren’t a lot of other factors that predicted interfaith marriage. For example, if you reported that you were very religious as a child, frequently attended church services, thought of religion as an important factor in your life — none of that made a difference either way. But the age at which you got married does.

So what we’ve got is this group of people who are spending long periods of their 20s or their 30s away from institutional religion. They are moving from place to place. This is what’s called “emerging adulthood” or “the odyssey years.” These people are less likely to go to services regularly or think about religion or be tied to a specific religious community. But this is also the point when they’re likely to meet their future spouse.

So it’s not like they’re lying to their spouses about religion when they get married. It’s just that when they settle down and have kids, religion is likely to become more important for them. For the most part, they’ll want to do things the way their parents did. That pattern is one reason why I don’t think the tensions of interfaith marriages are going to go away.

At an even more atomistic level, I think a lot of the people in these marriages are making compromises in the practice of their faiths, and that can be very frustrating. It affects their own spiritual exploration and desire for religious fulfillment. I interviewed plenty of people who stopped going to church or doing other things that made them feel fulfilled religiously because they knew they were undermining the way they were raising their children or upsetting their spouse. As one man said to me, “In a marriage, you are no longer a sovereign self.” So people make compromises, and those who don’t often find that there is a lot of tension in their marriages.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: How do you see interfaith marriage linking up to other big trends in American religious life? The first thing I think of is the rapid increase in people who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

Naomi Schaefer Riley: They link up in those twenty-something years. That’s the age in which people are more likely to report that they are just spiritual, that they are unaffiliated, and so on. I think that trend may be what’s leading people into interfaith marriages, but it won’t necessarily be true when those people are in their 40s and having kids. They’re more likely to identify with an official religion then.

Though of course there are also couples where both people just consider themselves to be spiritual and also come from two different institutional religious backgrounds. There are plenty of people who say, “It doesn’t matter that he’s Jewish and I’m Muslim, what matters is our values.” But when I asked some questions about what those values really were, they were a little bit generic. You’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who didn’t subscribe to things like treating others the way you want to be treated or giving back to your community.

There are plenty of people who think that those values will carry the day. But they tend to look for something more substantive when they decide to have children.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: What about the increased number of people who go through a religious conversion or “shop” for different churches without regard to denomination?

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Interfaith marriage definitely resonates with those trends. You know, one of the other major factors that leads to interfaith marriages is whether you’re the child of an interfaith marriage. That may seem obvious, but when you think about it, those children are learning something very important about religion, which is that different people can make different choices about it. The very existence of interfaith marriage in your life suggests that religion is much more a matter of individual choice than anything your community obligates you to do. That to me is very much a part of the “church shopping” phenomenon. You are the consumer. That’s a somewhat derogatory term, but you really do have to think of these individuals as people seeking out what will make them most happy in their worship and in their marriage.

There are good parts and bad parts to that. I’m certainly not going to advocate arranged marriages, but one thing we’ve certainly lost is the idea that our community and our family is going to have any input in our decisions. People date and get engaged and get married in a sort of vacuum. I interviewed many people who were dating for more than a year before they were even introduced to their future spouse’s parents — they had to fly to another city to meet them. I am sure that many people are making great decisions about who they ought to marry, but there is also a lot of wisdom about that decision in the parents and grandparents and community that people are now rejecting because they think of marriage as an individual, autonomous decision.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It seems as if that “sovereign self” is at work in both the interfaith marriage and religious conversion trends. Because if you get married at this phase in your life when you are both free of any particular religious commitment, there seems to be this unspoken implication that you would also be free to seek out a totally different level of commitment later. But of course nothing is ever that simple.

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Right. And those were actually some of the most difficult cases I learned about for the book. I interviewed a couple where the husband had grown up sort of Jewish and the wife wasn’t much of anything… she came from a mainline Protestant background. He said that he wanted to raise their children Jewish and she was fine with that. But a couple of years after they had their second child, the wife’s father was dying. She went to see him in the hospital and there was a pastor there. And she basically had a conversion experience there in the hospital. She knelt on the hospital floor and found Jesus. So after that experience, she was determined to continue exploring this religiosity. She took classes. She went to church. She wanted the children to be baptized. And of course the husband said, “That’s not what we agreed to.”

So for her, this new sense of personal fulfillment was being stifled, and for him, he felt like the rug was being pulled out from under him. A lot of people are going to be facing these questions of how far they can go in their personal exploration without undermining the marriage itself.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I once read an interview with a professor from Canada who was commenting on gun control policy in the United States. He said something to the effect of, “Sometimes I think the Americans are running an experiment in how much personal freedom you can give people and still maintain civilization.” It sounds like you’re talking about a parallel degree of personal autonomy in religious life.

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Yes — it’s as if we’re running the same experiment on the institution of marriage. And there are certainly people predicting the end of it now. Notwithstanding the gay marriage debate, a lot fewer people are getting married at all. Fewer people are having children. This is an earthquake in the American social system. I think you’re exactly right that it’s an experiment in the balance between personal autonomy and community.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So you write for the Wall Street Journal about these topics and all sorts of other religious and cultural trends. I’m assuming that powerful people in business and politics read your stuff. What worries them the most? What makes them spit out their coffee and say, “Oh no, this could endanger the future of my corporation”?

Naomi Schaefer Riley: I also write a lot about higher education, and I’d say that’s the topic I hear people worrying about the most. CEOs are certainly worried about the quality of the applicants they are getting for various jobs and what those people are actually learning in college.

When it comes to religion and marriage… well, you hear from a narrow slice of people on those issues. But I think that the decline of marriage is a trend that has the attention of the political elites, no matter which side of the aisle they are on. Marriage has been a bedrock of American society, and the fact that people are sort of going off in their own directions and aren’t as willing to commit is very concerning to the older generation. Of course, I also hear from a lot of religious leaders who are worried about the dilution of their communities — I think with good reason.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So part of the reason we talked to you was to prepare a sketch of the future for some folks re-designing the legal profession. I’m wondering how these trends would affect it. Obviously divorce lawyers will be aware of what happens when interfaith marriages become interfaith divorces.

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Yes, there have actually been some very interesting custody cases with interfaith marriage. When couples split, what are their religious obligations in terms of raising children? Those cases have gone pretty high up in the court system. It’s a serious problem because no judge wants to be or is supposed to be in the habit of prescribing religious rituals as part of a child’s upbringing. It’s the exact sort of government entanglement with religion that they fear. …

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: For me, what emerged from everything that you said was a picture of this very nice young couple taking a romantic stroll through a minefield. They’re so wrapped up in each other in their 20s that they don’t necessarily realize that they’re walking into this area where religious issues could emerge and explode.

Now, it seems to me that you have something similar happening on a more societal level. Here’s what I mean. Just as the family courts you talked about earlier never expected that they would be ruling on religious issues, I think that people were somewhat surprised that such a major issue with the roll-out of Obamacare was religious objections to contraception. I don’t think people expected it to become a religious issue. I feel like that kind of rupture happens a lot in contemporary life, and I’m not sure why.

Naomi Schaefer Riley: I don’t know that that’s a very good example. I think anyone who was politically savvy or familiar with religious life in America should have seen this coming from miles away. I mean, this is essentially about abortion, which has been one of the hot-button topics in American life for decades. I don’t understand how anyone could have thought that millions of people who go to church every week and talk about these things constantly would just sweep this under the rug and say, “Oh, okay, you’re providing it through a third party, that will be fine.”

Maybe it’s just that I interview so many religious people and so that all seemed obvious to me. But there are millions of people in this country for whom religion is the primary factor in their lives.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Look, I’m with you 100 percent. What I’m saying is that it’s surprising that people were surprised. It’s surprising to me that people think religious objections won’t come into play in civic life. It feels like there’s something wrong here. I think it’s the same lack of familiarity with the world you were talking about earlier. People are missing some sort of ability to anticipate that there might be conflict with people unlike themselves.

Naomi Schaefer Riley: I see what you’re saying. I think there are a whole lot of people who are losing the ability to appreciate how central religion is to other people’s lives. And I think many religious people have sort of unexpectedly found themselves in that minefield — I think one member of the couple may be blissfully unaware but the other is not.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It’s an interesting world to grapple with.

Naomi Schaefer Riley: When it comes to the interfaith marriage question, I’m often put in the unfortunate position of having to give people advice of how to cope with these kinds of conflicts. And unfortunately I don’t have much to offer other than, “It would probably be good for you to talk about these things ahead of time.” But I’m not sure that same piece of advice is enough to fix what ails this country in terms of… religious ignorance is, I guess, the kindest way to put it.

I once had the chance to interview Harvey Cox, a theologian who was at the heart of liberation theology. He taught a seminar at Harvard about Jesus. Now, no one can doubt Harvey Cox’s liberal credentials. But he ran into this problem — each year, at the end of the class, he would play Handel’s “Messiah.” And he and various members of the class would stand up and sing. Well after he had been teaching this class for about twenty years, some students started to complain. They felt uncomfortable that other people were getting up and singing this religious piece of music.

This took him aback a little bit. Cox had never hidden his Christian views. Harvard is not a public university. He wasn’t proselytizing to students. But this suggested to him that we had reached a new point where students weren’t free to express their own religious points of view. To me, what that signified was a sense that displays of religion rub so many of the secular elites the wrong way that religion has almost been banished. So yes, I think there is a sense that some people are surprised when religion comes up as a topic at all. Secular people express surprise at the religious reaction to gay marriage and the religious reaction to the Obamacare mandates and things like that.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I suppose my take if I were in that class would be, “Um, this is just the part of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ where everyone stands up and sings.” It’s not necessarily a personal expression, though it can be. I think it would be the failure to appreciate that subtlety and plurality there that would bother me the most.

Naomi Schaefer Riley: That’s another part of this — the banishment of religion has resulted in a huge amount of cultural illiteracy that is difficult to replace when people are college freshmen. And the result is a world where you can’t stand up during Handel’s “Messiah” and not be perceived as some sort of evangelical fruitcake, even if you’re Harvey Cox.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. It is attributed to Insight Labs, and the original version can be found here.