Naomi Schaefer Riley, a former Wall Street Journal editor and writer, is the author most recently of ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America. She also is the author of God on the Quad and The Faculty Lounges, and the co-editor of Acculturated. She lives in the New York suburbs.
Q: What inspired you to write ‘Til Faith Do Us Part?
A: I’ve been a religion reporter for 15 years now. I was very familiar, from growing up [Jewish], with Jewish questions about intermarriage, but I was surprised in doing my research that other religious communities were facing—not as head-on—the same questions about intermarriage. Not necessarily demographic questions, but finding that interfaith marriages were more common. Religious leaders are facing questions about how to counsel [the interfaith couples] and [whether to] perform [interfaith marriages].
Q: How did you pick the title? Was there an assumption that faith would part these couples?
A: In my book research that I did, and the survey I did, I found that interfaith couples had a lower rate of [marital] satisfaction in certain [interfaith] combinations, and were more likely to divorce.
Q: Did these results surprise you?
A: No, other surveys, such as the American Religious Identification Survey, had come to similar conclusions. There’s a higher likelihood of divorce with interfaith couples. Marriage counselors and others would say that the further apart a couple is on any number of measures, the larger the [possibility] that they will experience tension.
Q: How did your own interfaith marriage affect your writing of the book?
A: I’m in a faith/no-faith marriage, so there is not actually another set of religious beliefs [involved]. I would say that it affected the way I understood these questions before I started writing the book. A lot of people entering interfaith marriages assume, Well, we’ll have a conversation about raising the kids, and one person will ‘win.’ Being in an interfaith marriage made me realize how long-term that conversation is, even if you stick to the same conclusion.
Q: How did you conduct the survey for the book?
A: The survey was done by YouGov, a large polling firm. I developed about 100 questions for the survey that reflected the ways that other survey questions were worded, so we could do comparisons. 2,500 people took the survey. They have algorithms to make the results nationally representative. Then we analyzed the results.
Q: What surprised you the most in the course of your research, both in terms of the survey results and the interviews you conducted?
A: With the survey, there were two things. First, that more than half the respondents in interfaith marriages didn’t talk about the faith they would raise their children in before marriage. And of the same-faith couples, one-fourth started as interfaith. There’s quite a bit of conversion going on. It tells you about the fluidity of American religion and the [importance] of a spouse’s beliefs.
From talking to people, it was how much people were willing to share about the tensions in their marriage. Even if they didn’t regret marrying the other person, it was OK to tell me about the sadness and loneliness they felt.
Q: What do you think will happen in future in terms of interfaith marriages, and what impact will this have?
A: Interfaith marriages will continue to catalyze the longstanding American religious tradition of tolerance, and assimilation. As people get to know people of other faiths, they like them better, and are more likely to marry them. … I don’t really see an end to it.
We will continue to [see] challenges to American religious institutions, and it will continue to cause difficulties for some marriages. [It’s important] to have these conversations more ahead of time about what you expect from your religious life as a couple and a family.
Q: What message do you want people to take from your book?
A: It’s not a self-help book, but if you’re talking about people considering interfaith marriage, having more of these conversations ahead of time. You only fill out 500-question [premarital] surveys once someone has already proposed to someone else. It seems very late in the game.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m finishing a manuscript about young adults and religion, [examining] the question of how religious institutions and leaders are concerned about losing the 20- and 30-somethings. I’ve gone around the country looking at how more successful institutions [keep people] in the fold.
This interview was conducted in partnership with Deborah Kalb. For more, visit http://deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.