Today, “I do” seems to be one of the only surefire lines delivered at a wedding. The rest of the ceremony has become complicated as more and more marriages unite persons of different religious backgrounds: it’s not uncommon to witness a priest and rabbi at the same ceremony, readings from Gandhi and Genesis, or an agnostic bride signing the meher, the traditional Muslim marriage contract granting her part of her husband’s wealth. If the wedding symbolizes the union of two people—and often reflects two faiths—then it sets the stage for a lifetime of compromises.
In her new book, Til Faith Do Us Part, Naomi Schaefer Riley explores the cultural shift to interfaith marriages, and the implications it has on the couple, their family, and American culture. Riley conducted an original survey of 2,450 American couples, and found that more than any other single factor delayed marriage increases the likelihood of interfaith marriage: Among couples who marry between the ages of 16 and 25, 48 percent are interfaith, whereas 58 percent of those who marry between the ages of 26 and 35 are interfaith. And, the number leaps to 67 percent between the ages of 36 and 45.
The average female marries at the age of 27 and male at the age of 29; until the 1990s, the average rested in the low twenties.
Both the later age of marriage and the frequency of interfaith marriages erupt from a greater society change: a focus on the individual.
America has elevated the individual since the day it declared “all men are created with inalienable rights.” Yet, the people remained closely tied to their communities, as demonstrated by the distinct characteristics of the early colonies. The cultural differences among the various colonies were largely rooted in religious differences. Still today, a Southerner in New England might pass ten Catholic churches before she finds a Baptist one. More frequently, however, young people have stopped hunting for churches in the first place.
Once young people graduate college, move to a new city, and start a job, they are less likely to maintain religious observances. Princeton Professor Robert Wuthnow calculates that if divided evenly, each American congregation has lost about 21 young people since 1970. Why? Well, as Riley explains, why not? They are living on their own, no one is there to recommend it or attend with them, and they often don’t see the need. When religion lies at the bottom of a young adult’s totem pole, the search for the “soul mate” often remains at the top.
But according to Riley, this idea of a “soul mate” alters the previous view of marriage. Marriage wasn’t always viewed as a union between two people destined to be together. In a New York Times article, Lois Smith Brady notes the difference: “it’s like farming, once considered drudgery and hard work, but now seen as a soulful utopian adventure.” Today many couples view marriage as individuals’ choice to follow the longings of their heart in seeking a life-time partner.
The individual was not always at the forefront of marriage. Since God called Abraham to leave his family, many communities have adhered to an understanding that marriage must fit within a preordained religious structure, which meant that individuals must make sacrifices for faith, even to the point of giving up a loved one for a higher calling. Marriage was defined as a sacrament, and that holy act required men and women to be one spiritually. Their oneness was seen as a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality, and this tied them to a larger religious community of family, neighbors, and friends. When the married couple had children, they were immediately absorbed into a distinctive community that shaped the children’s moral habits and beliefs.
The difficulty now lies in the autonomy: two individuals are in love, they decide they are meant to be together despite cultural differences, they marry in ways separate from their family traditions, and then eventually they have kids. It is then that real problems begin to surface: will they be baptized as a baby? Will they go to Jewish school? Will they attend Mass on Sunday? Will they say prayers before meals? The lingering and seemingly unimportant questions pile up in the middle of the nursery, and somehow sorting through all the differences is much more necessary and simultaneously impossible. As the mother drags the little ones to church, and the father stays at home, that age-old idea of familial piety becomes more coveted. As one set of grandparents prepare for Seder and the other make an Easter feast, the parents must decide which family gathering to attend this year.
Naomi Schaefer Riley tells the tale of many couples who wrestle with these questions. In doing so, her vignettes demonstrate the ways in which interfaith marriage has promoted individual freedom while presenting larger quandaries for families, and ultimately American society. As a woman married to a man of a different faith herself, Riley knows firsthand the practical struggles couples face. Tempting as it may have been to simply elaborate on her own story, Riley presents a statistical and anecdotal narrative of couples’ initial apathy towards their differences and the later toll that it takes on their marriage, and ultimately their children and communities. Perhaps the most impressive feat is that she manages to not only conduct a substantial survey but to present the results in a captivating and integrated manner. This is not merely a sociological account, just as it’s not a historical commentary or personal memoir. Riley goes beyond any single discipline as she explores all factors that have contributed to interfaith marriage, and the cultural changes that follow.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the unchanging line remains “I do,” for that is the apex of individuals’ commitment. The difference, Riley suggests, rests in the understanding of those words.
Brittany Baldwin manages the George Washington Fellowship Program at Hillsdale College. Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Andrew Stiles
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl