Exogamy Explored

'Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America
by Naomi Schaefer Riley
Oxford University Press, 256 pp., $24.95

In recent years boundaries between American ethnic and religious groups have shifted and blurred. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants have officially slipped into minority status. While economic stratification remains quite real, religion and, to a large extent, ethnicity have declined as the bases for social division. Friendships and marriages across religious lines have multiplied, and culture-wide norms of endogamous marriage have passed a tipping point: Pew research data show that one-third of new marriages in the United States bring together spouses from two different religious groups. Two National Jewish Population Surveys (NJPS 1990 and NJPS 2000-01) underlined this trend for the Jewish community: Jewish intermarriage rates were somewhere between forty-three percent and fifty percent. (In the 1950s, about only seven percent of American Jewish households had included one Jewish and one non-Jewish spouse.) As The New York Times columnist David Brooks recently commented, America has become “a nation of mutts, a nation with hundreds of fluid ethnicities from around the world, intermarrying and intermingling.”

Naomi Schaefer Riley grew up in a moderately affiliated Jewish household and is married to an African American man from a Jehovah’s Witness background who has not converted to Judaism. They are happy in their marriage and in agreement on raising their children as Jews (an agreement, she reports, that she stipulated on the first date), but Schaefer Riley has not written an “I’m OK, you’re OK” celebration of interfaith marriage. In ’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America, Schaefer Riley surveys Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and others married to spouses from divergent cultural backgrounds. She finds that couples sharing specific values—including religious values—report higher levels of happiness and marital satisfaction, as well as more resilient marital relationships. Intermarriages “bring less satisfaction to spouses” and “result in a higher likelihood of divorce.” Working from an Interfaith Marriage Survey that she commissioned and also from interviews “with close to two hundred members of the clergy, marriage counselors, and interfaith couples,” as well as a review of recent research on marriage across religious and cultural lines, Schaefer Riley details the manifold ways in which religious difference stimulates conflict in interfaith families. Throughout the book, she criticizes efforts to resolve such conflict through religious homogenization or syncretism, favoring instead the meaningful practice and dynamic transmission of distinctive religious traditions, and her analysis and policy recommendations are keyed to that preference.

In an effort to account for the rising number of “interfaith couples headed to the altar” these days, Schaefer Riley cites the words of David Slagle, an evangelical pastor in Atlanta: “Young people today are intentional about their education, their career, thinking through the possibilities for an occupation and where they want to live and buying a home.” However, when it comes to profoundly important personal choices—mindfully choosing one’s life partner, spouse, and parent of one’s children—“our romantic view of marriage precludes intentionality.” Fuzzy romantic ideas that obscure the very real tensions of interfaith marriage, she charges, are also at fault in the lack of realism that many couples bring to their relationships.

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About the Author

Sylvia Barack Fishman chairs the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis University, where she is the Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life and is co-director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.


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