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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Till Faith Till Us Part"

TITLE: 'Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America
AUTHOR: Naomi Schaefer Riley
PUBLISHER: Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013, (248 pages).

What happens when people of different faiths marry? Is there any reason why there is a rising number of inter-faith marriages? Do such marriages last? How important is a common faith in a marriage? What are the complexities of an inter-faith marriage? While people can choose their own marriage partner, they will often have the bear the consequences of that choice, especially if it is an inter-faith one. More importantly, how affected is one's faith in such an unequally yoked relationship? These questions and many more are boldly covered in this book that seeks to put some meaning and understanding into the data.

The statistics are there. Of couples in America who married in the past decade, almost 45% are inter-faith marriages, compared to 20% in the sixties. The numbers suggest that that American society is more accepting of inter-faith unions. Riley observes that such a trend actually reflects "American individualism" in contrast to community based preferences. Others simply prefer to work on the basis of most basic commonality, like "same God," or preferring a stance of openness in order to embrace a greater variety of faith beliefs. There is also some evidence to support that the older one gets, the more likely one is prepared to marry someone from another faith. There is also a rising numbers of people who choose "common values" above common religion. 

Riley begins the book by looking at what marriage entails from the eyes of the different religious perspectives. Some religions like Islam has a gender bias when it comes to the status of women. Some religions like Mormonism or some Jewish sects is more hardline than others. Others like some Catholics or certain Protestant quarters tend to be more liberal. The author suggests that part of the reason for more inter-faith marriages is because couples are taking a longer time to date and to let differences ease from the relationship. They drift along rather than being intentional, like what some religions teach. In fact, past strong religious adherence is no guarantee that one marries within the faith.  Moreover, when children see the differences in religious practice among their own parents, it makes them feel there is not much difference anyway to marry someone outside the faith.

However, when it comes to marriage vows, couples do struggle about which faith to adopt. There are differences in rituals, format, place, time, and which God. Even religious leaders and priests come under fire if they officiate in any inter-religious marriage ceremonies. Some try to use secular officers and formal vows. Others take a long time in inter-faith counseling. There are other implications for inter-faith unions. How do couples bring up their children? How do parents guide their children in religious upbringing? What about "common front" parenting styles? What about special religious occasions? How do families celebrate as one?

When interfaith couples divorce, things can get very ugly. Certain interfaith marriages are more vulnerable, such as Catholics marrying Protestants, as well as non religious couples. Jews marrying Christians have a 40% chance of divorce! In general, there is a trend that the a tolerant society is fodder for interfaith marriage.

Finally, Riley pays special attention to the Jews and the Mormons. The former has a high percentage of people marrying people of other faiths. The latter has the least. Yet, in terms of numbers, they are similar. Riley seeks to find out why, paying special attention to the differences in how these two groups prosyletize. The more aggressive faith will tend to eventually make the couple of the same faith, namely, the more active one.

My Thoughts

This is a book that tries to interpret the statistics of a very complex problem. In fact, the data at best is a snapshot of a sample size. The trouble with this is that it changes rapidly. Given the fact that many interfaith marriages take a long time before couples decide to marry, it is also entirely possible that it will take a long time before they can find agreement after the marriage ceremony. The author has also conceded that there are multiple variables and complexities that have not been studied in detail. What is best done is a general guess of the trend, of how people are shaped by secular and societal values. One key factor is tolerance. The rise in interfaith marriages corresponds to the growing level of tolerance. Perhaps, this is a counter-reaction among the young generation when they see their own parents' strict adherence to their religions as not making much of a difference in the first place. Does love wins? We really do not know, for divorces are common too, if not more so for interfaith couples.

That said, the complexities that stem from uncommon faith is far-ranging, and makes any relationship tricky to begin with. Faith is a very personal thing, and yet also very communal. As long as interfaith couples stick to their guns and not impose their religions on each other, it is generally ok and peaceful. What if there is a clash of ideals? What about the religious stability that the children needs? How then do parents pass godly upbringing to their young?

For me, interfaith marriages hold much more complications for any couple. This is because faith matters cut deep through relationships, religious perspectives, parenting, traditions, and especially, truth claims. If two truth claims clash, and if both parties do not budge, not only are they in for a serious theological debate, they are putting their very own marriages on the line.

I must commend Riley for the scope of research as well as the summary of the results. That said, the book raises more questions than answers. The biggest value this book has for me, is that it raises up very relevant implications for interfaith couples to consider. Maybe, the title of the book is already a giveaway. It is not "'Til Faith Do Us Part," but "'Til Faith Do us Unite."

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Oxford University Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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