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'Til Faith Do Us Part': The Mixed Blessings Of Interfaith Marriage


In this day and age, interfaith marriage doesn't seem like that big a deal. They represent close to half of all marriages in this country over the past 10 years. The decision can also come with a price, though: disagreement on how to raise children and higher rates of divorce. There are benefits, as well, according to Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of "Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America." She'll join us in just a moment.

But we want to hear your stories, too. If you're in an interfaith union, what surprised you? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Naomi Schaefer Riley joins us now from member station KUOW in Seattle. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY: Thanks very much.

CONAN: And as people might gather from your name, the story for you begins at home.

RILEY: Yes, it does. I'm - grew up a conservative Jew, and I married an ex-Jehovah's Witness.

CONAN: And what has surprised you about your interfaith union?

RILEY: Well, maybe a little bit less than most people, because I've written about religion for a long time. I told my husband on our first date that I plan to raise my children Jewish. In my survey, though, apparently, about less than half of interfaith couples actually talk about how they're going to raise their children before they get married. So that wasn't a big surprise. But I will say one of the interesting things is that I think most people getting into interfaith unions seem to think it's kind of one discussion happens, somebody wins, and then you sort of move forward from there.

But I think it's been a much more dynamic process. And, you know, you don't really realize until you get to these various milestones in life, you know, how you're going to feel about them. And little things can really affect the compromises that you've reached, you know. So you used to go to so-and-so's for, you know, an Easter egg hunt, and it was completely an, you know, irreligious experience. You know, that person no longer hosted, and then you go to Uncle So-and-So's, and he's much more into talking about the real reason behind Easter. And suddenly, I think an interfaith family can get very uncomfortable.

CONAN: And so these family conflicts can arise over the years, and as you say, disagreements on how to raise children, and that doesn't go away, either.

RILEY: No, it certainly doesn't. You know, I talked to a lot of marital counselors and religious leaders for my book, in addition to interfaith couples. And, you know, they said, look, you know, couples tend to have tensions over three things - generally speaking - you know, how to raise your kids, how to spend your time and how to spend your money. And religion affects all of those things, you know, whether you're going to go to church on Sunday, whether you're going to spend the money on Catholic schools, whether you're going to go to Jewish summer camp.

You know, all of these things have religion, I think, at their heart, but most of the people that I surveyed - I did a 2,500-person survey in July 2010, the survey company called YouGov. And most people in interfaith and same-faith couples reported never disagreeing about religion. And I think that's an important distinction. The disagreements that are happening aren't about theology, you know?

CONAN: Right.

RILEY: They're not sitting around arguing about whether Jesus, you know, was, in fact, the Son of God or not. What they're arguing over is all the practical implications of religion.

CONAN: So as you look at these, are any - people of any one faith more likely to intermarry? At least according to your service - survey, are people of any one faith less likely?

RILEY: The Jews are actually the most likely to intermarry, according to other surveys. I had only 2,500 people, but the American Religious Identification Survey had 35,000. They did a survey in 2001. The Jews are most likely, and the Mormons are least likely among major American religious groups to intermarry.

CONAN: But I was also curious, you measured satisfaction with interfaith marriage, and Mormons were the most satisfied with their interfaith marriages.

RILEY: Well, they weren't the - they weren't necessarily the most satisfied, but they weren't as unsatisfied as you might think.



RILEY: So...

CONAN: That's the...

RILEY: So what's interesting is...

CONAN: That's the glass half empty. You go...

RILEY: Yes. Well, what's interesting is that the religious groups that tend to be the least satisfied are evangelicals and black Protestants. And if you think about it, you know, there are people who have a very exclusivist understanding of faith. They believe there's one path to salvation. And you can imagine that they're kind of unhappy if their partner is not going to be able to achieve it. We also found that people who attended church tended to be the unhappy person in the marriage as opposed to, say, the person staying home.

So you would think, actually, Mormons would fall into that category because they are - that do have high rates of church attendance and also because they have also this exclusivist understanding of faith. And it was sort of puzzle to me, and I started interviewing Mormon interfaith couples. And one of the things I found is that the Mormon member of the couple has this kind of confidence that the non-Mormon member is going to eventually convert, and it's a very sort of calm, quite confidence. It's a little bit hard to explain.

I interviewed one couple where they had been married for 20 years. And she sat there in the same room as her husband and she said, oh, I know he'll come around one day. She doesn't harass him about it, but I think it's a, you know, a sense, well, mine is the true faith and eventually you'll realize that. And so, apparently, they're not unhappy.

CONAN: Well, we've talked about some of the conflicts. What are - we'll get to calls in just a minute. But what are some of the benefits?

RILEY: Well, in my view, the major benefit of interfaith marriage is, you know, increasing tolerance and assimilation in America. I think, you know, what you've - what other researchers and I have found is that the more Americans get to know someone of another faith, the more they like them. And so interfaith marriage means that suddenly you're cousin is a Muslim, or suddenly your uncle is a Mormon, or suddenly, you know, your sister-in-law is a Buddhist. And you know more - the fact that you know people of that faith actually gives you a more positive opinion of that whole faith. And I think, you know, interfaith marriage is basically serving as a catalyst for this long-time American tradition of religious toleration.

CONAN: We're talking with Naomi Schaefer Riley. In addition to her book "'Til Faith Do Us Part," she wrote a piece called "Interfaith Unions: A Mixed Blessing" that ran in The New York Times over the weekend. There's a link to it at our website. You can go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Let's get some stories from listeners. If you're in an interfaith union, what has surprised you? We'll start with Will, and Will is on the line with us from Akron.

WILL: Yes. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

WILL: Hi. I am recently married. I am an atheist and my wife is Catholic. And we had a Catholic wedding, and I was honestly surprised when we did all the Pre-Cana, which are the classes you have to go to and everything - I was honestly surprised of how accepting and welcoming everyone was to me as being a nonbeliever.

CONAN: And...

WILL: And...

CONAN: ...no attempts to say, well, you wouldn't you like to try to get baptized now, would you?

WILL: No. I was baptized as a child, so maybe that helped a few people. But most people - there were a few things in the Pre-Cana that were about conversion and everything, but everyone I worked with and the priest who did everything was wonderful. And your guest was talking about the issues of how to raise children and things like that, and one of the benefits I found was the Pre-Cana, they make you talk about that.

CONAN: And...

WILL: You sit down for a whole day or even multiple classes and go and discuss all of those things.

CONAN: And have you and your spouse made a decision?

WILL: We have. We don't have children yet, but we have talked about it, and they would most likely be raised - they're going to church, but I would also explain my beliefs to them, and probably be baptized, but the confirmation would be up to them kind of thing.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. So...

RILEY: Well, the - it's interesting you say that. I mean, the - first of all, the Catholic Church's Pre-Cana questionnaire is actually, you know, uses a model by a lot of other religious leaders I talked to because it does get you to envision sort of what the future will be like and how you envision especially raising children.

The church - the Catholic Church has actually changed its views considerably since Vatican II on interfaith marriage. It used to be that the nonmember spouse would have to promise to raise children Catholic. Now it's simply that the Catholic person has to say we will try to raise our children Catholic. And they have to say that in front of the nonmember spouse. So it's really sort of - I think they're respecting the religious consciences more of the nonmembers. And I think, you know, there is a sense that they want people to sort of go into this voluntarily.

I just, you know, I wanted to say also with regard to how you're raising your children, of the people I surveyed - in interfaith couples - the plurality definitely chose to raise their children in one faith, and then second most likely was no faith, and then far below that was two faiths. I think a lot of people actually end up finding it fairly impractical to try to raise children in two faiths or with two competing sets of beliefs.

CONAN: Well, we wish you luck, Will.

WILL: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Josie. Josie on the line with us from Anchorage.

JOSIE: Yes. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JOSIE: I'm United Methodist and my husband is Buddhist, and we have a son. And we actually have chosen to raise our children with both faiths, so it's interesting that you were just talking about that. We're in that small minority.

CONAN: And why did you make that decision?

JOSIE: Well, we - one thing that we talked about before we had our son was we think it's easier to be in an interfaith relationship when both people have a faith rather than when, like your previous caller, one person is atheist or agnostic, because we both understand how important a person's faith is.

CONAN: And...

RILEY: That's an interesting insight. I think a lot of people don't have that. But I think, you know, I didn't find this in my survey, but I certainly found - when I was interviewing interfaith couples, it helped if they both placed some importance on faith so that they, you know, had respect for the other person's, you know, placement of importance on that. I will say, you know, four out of the five people who I interviewed in my survey, both same faith and interfaith couples, said they thought that common values were actually more important than having the same faith in terms of a happy marriage.

JOSIE: I think that's probably true. We also - we were both surprised that both of our families are eagerly anticipating the day when one of us will convert.


RILEY: Well, I could offer you an interesting statistic. I don't know if you want to share this with your families. But of the same faith couples that I interviewed, a full 25 percent of them started off as interfaith, which means a quarter of them - of the spouses actually did convert at some point. So they may not be holding out hope for nothing.

JOSIE: Yeah. Well, I hope they're not listening. I hope they didn't hear that.


CONAN: Josie, thanks very much for the call.

JOSIE: Thank you.

CONAN: It's interesting. You said people who had respect for the other person's faith, does that suggest that people who might be either agnostic or atheist, that's more of a problem?

RILEY: Well, I didn't, you know, in my survey, you know, I was looking at divorce rates. I didn't find an overall lower - higher divorce rate among interfaith couples. But I did found that certain combinations made it much more likely that the marriage would end in divorce. And the most likely to end in divorce will Evangelicals married to someone of no faith. So you know, I think if you think about this instinctively and you think about sort of where people fall in kind of a religious spectrum, it's simply the case that the further apart the religions, I think the more likely it is.

CONAN: Writer and former Wall Street Journal reporter Naomi Schaefer Riley with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Bonnie is on the line with us from North Miami.

BONNIE: Yes. Hi. I have a very curious situation. My first husband was from an orthodox Jewish home. My second husband was from a Protestant home - Episcopalian, specifically. When I got married to my second husband, my son from my first marriage was not doing anything religious-wise. He was a little boy. And my husband at the time, the Protestant, said to me, you know what, this little boy needs some church school, meaning Hebrew school. And it was he, the Protestant, who encouraged us to sign him up in Hebrew school, which eventually resulted in his Bar Mitzvah.

Not only did he encourage us, but when the time came to plan the party and whatnot, he planned the party, he paid for it. Had I remained married to my Jewish husband, this never would have happened because he didn't believe in all of that ritualism. And though he was there, the first husband was present for the Bar Mitzvah, participated and so forth, it was the Protestant husband who was integrally involved and responsible for my son being Bar Mitzvahed, which was a curious situation.

And as an anecdote, I want to add that when I was growing up as a teenager and college student, I was definitely discouraged from dating people out of my faith. I'm Jewish. And I was told that if you ever get married to a Christian, it won't work out and you'll have all kinds of arguments and so forth. So I secretly dated Christian boys when I could. The irony is here the Jewish husband would not have been involved in the Bar Mitzvah of my son, but the Christian husband definitely was.

RILEY: Well, I was going to say I think - first of all, I should say that my data on, you know, marital satisfaction and divorce rates - obviously averages and people have all sorts of different individual experiences. But I was going to say that it's actually something I've run across, which is the extent to which people take their own kind of - the pattern of their religiosity and put it onto another faith. So interviewed one couple where the wife had grown up Catholic, the husband was Jewish. The husband insisted that they raise their children Jewish. But he didn't really plan to do very much about that.

And the wife said, well, if we're going to do this, we're going to do it right. And so she insisted that the whole family go to synagogue every week because that's how she practiced religion growing up, even if it wasn't that religion. So I think people do have a sense of kind of a general understanding of religion that sometimes they import and put upon another faith.

BONNIE: Yeah. Very interesting. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Bonnie.

BONNIE: You bet. Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we can now go to Cara, Cara with us from Syracuse.

CARA: Hi. I thought it was kind of interesting, your comment earlier where you had mentioned the Catholic faith doesn't require your children to be raised Catholic. I was married 17 years ago, and we were asked to raise our children in the Catholic faith. My husband is, well, not really practicing any one religion. He's definitely Christian, was raised with a Methodist background, but not a real strong religious background. I'm sort of a liberal Catholic, but I definitely - it's an extremely strong position in my family.

So 17 years later, two kids, age nine and 14, it's - he has been surprisingly supportive of raising our children that way, although as your - the author was saying, there's some bumps in the road. You think it's - you just make an agreement and it's going to go fine from there. In practice, you know, when you're in church without your husband every week and you see all the other families with their husbands and wives together, it gets - it can, you know, get a little old.

You sort of wish that your husband was by your side in those times. My kids would occasionally ask while they were - when they were little, how come we have to go to church and get dressed and go when daddy can stay home and, you know, read the funnies?


CONAN: We asked that same question in my family. The answer was because I said so.

CARA: Well, that's the answer. Well, what we tell them is what we both agreed, it's important to have some religious faith. It's - we believe that you need a structure, you need something to follow, some kind of - something that will give you comfort in the times in your life, especially, you know, death and marriage and all those times. And then when they get older, they can kind of make their own decision. My son is at the point where he's going to make confirmation. And I told him, this isn't something I want to force you into. If you're going to do it, you're going to do it right. You're going to do all the requirements, but it's your decision. I was very surprised when he just said he wanted to do it.

CONAN: Well, good luck with that. Cara, thank you very much for the call.

CARA: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Naomi Schaefer Riley, thank you very much for being with us.

RILEY: Oh, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

CONAN: The author of "'Til Faith Do Us Part" joined us from KUOW in Seattle. This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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