Naomi Schaefer RILEY. ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 234. $24.94 cloth ISBN: 9780199873746. Also available as E-book. Reviewed by Meg Wilkes KARRAKER, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN 55105.
When the Pew Research and other social science research venues write of “intermarriage,” they most commonly mean the rising incidence of marriage between people of different racial or ethnic groups, which increased to 15.1% in 2010, more than double the percentage in 1980 (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/topics/intermarriage/). However, another type of intermarriage, religious exogamy, marriage between people of difference faith traditions, deserves more attention that it currently receives from social scientists.
Enter Naomi Schaefer Riley. Riley holds a Bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in English and Government from Harvard University. She is a former Wall Street Journal editor and writer around religion, higher education, philanthropy, and culture (and their intersections). In addition to the Wall Street Journal, she has published in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the LA Times, the Washington Post, and other publications. Riley is the author of God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America and The Faculty Lounges … And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For and the co-editor of Acculturated (essays on popular culture and virtue) (http://naomiriley.com/about).
In the absence of current survey data on the subject, Riley commissioned YouGov to conduct the Interfaith Marriage Survey, an internet survey of 2,450 Americans. Stratified to over-sample participants in interfaith marriages, her sample is representative of Americans. In addition, to derive data about prior marriages, Riley conducted a shorter survey with 704 respondents who had been previously married.
Riley’s research indicates that many Americans believe that religious differences can be overcome in marriage. In fact, 79 percent in her survey agree with the statement “What really matters is that a husband and wife have the same values, regardless of their religion” (p. 14). Yet, she argues that cultural norms regarding marital privacy and religious tolerance may impede talk about interfaith marital difficulties. So Riley embarks on a series of chapters in which she addresses faith socialization and mate selection (Chapter 2 “The Road to Marriage”), wedding/marriage practices (Chapter 3 “The Vows We Make”), the rituals that mark important points in the sacred cycles of family life (Chapter 4 “Passing It On”), and childrearing and socialization (Chapter 5 “The December Dilemma”). But I found myself looking for more consideration of extra-faith diversity: in particular, social class. Although Riley presents cases of working class, middle class, and even more affluent interfaith marriages, I would like to hear more about how diversity shapes the interfaith marriage experience.
Because we are at a point in American socio-history when approximately half of all new marriages end in divorce, Riley could not write this book without addressing the topic, as she does in Chapter 5 “Interfaith Divorce.” She presents some of the classic research on interfaith marriage and divorce (e.g., Gordon, Lehrer, American Religious Identification Survey), but some of her survey results may surprise some readers. For example Catholics married to Catholics and those married to someone of another faith have essentially the same probability of divorce. However, some particular interfaith combinations appear are greater risk of divorce than others, such as Catholics married to evangelicals (or evangelicals married to someone of almost any other religion). And two “nones” are more likely to divorce than are “nones” married to a person of faith (although Riley reminds us of conceptual validity issues in that case and offers some cautions in making inferences in light of other research, based on different samples and methodologies).
Riley’s attention to interfaith marriage among Muslims (chapter 7 “Muslims in the Melting Pot”), Jews, and Mormons (chapter 9 “Jews, Mormons, and the Future of Interfaith Marriage”), and the extent to which people and institutions of faith embrace or reject interfaith marriage (chapter 8 “The Welcome Mat”) offers the reader a chance to project interfaith marriage into the future of American society. Not to put too mercenary a spin on it, Riley found that same-faith participants annually give to religious charities almost three times that of individuals in interfaith marriages ($1,500 compared to $557).
In a Preface, Introduction, nine chapters, and a Conclusion, Riley then makes her primary argument (the subtitle of the book): Interfaith marriage is transforming America. Many changes in the family and marriage since the middle of the twentieth century (e.g., cohabitation, remaining single, delaying marriage) have received much attention. Yet, as she offers in her Introduction:
But what is often overlooked is how … the approach to marriage has shifted, from something that was supported (if not arranged) by communities to something that is entirely based on personal preference. It is this individualistic ethos that actually leads people to partners of different faiths (p. 7).
As a sociologist, I would like to see Riley acknowledge more the contribution of assimilation and integration, as well as decreasing discrimination and prejudice toward certain (but not all) religious groups. However, in Chapter 1, “Defining Holy Matrimony,” Riley does a good job of framing marriage in the context of religion and other cultural principles (e.g., patrilineage). For example, she describes how Islamic law permits a Muslim man to marry a non-Muslim woman, insofar as she is of one of the other Abrahamic faiths (Christianity or Judaism), while at the same time prohibiting a Muslim woman from marrying anyone who is not the same.
While she presents cases that represent highly satisfactory interfaith marriages (her own, for example), she acknowledges that, with interfaith marriage
… a whole new series of challenges arises as they try to reconcile their personal choices with the demands of participation in a religious group (p. 7).
Readers may be tempted to gloss over or to discount her Preface, in which Riley tells the story of her own journey to an eventual interfaith marriage. Don’t. In those nine-and-a-half pages, the author provides social scientists with a rational for both (1) why this question matters in everyday life and (2) some of the qualitative issues a thoughtful researcher should consider in addressing interfaith marriage. Also, for those of us whose families include interfaith marriages, Riley establishes herself as not only an intellectually-engaged reporter, but also as someone who respectfully cares and personally understands the importance of something as troubling, joyful, and confusing as the marriage between people of different faiths can be.