Thinking in Public
Dr. R. Albert Mohler
“With This Faith I Thee Wed? – A Conversation with Naomi Schaeffer Riley”
Monday, March 3, 2014
RAM: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Naomi Schaeffer Riley is a former Wall Street Journal editor and a writer whose work focuses on higher education, philanthropy, religion, and culture. She is one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals. Her writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the L.A. Times, and the Washington Post, among a host of other publications. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in English and Government. Her latest book has been published by Oxford University Press. Its title is ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America. Naomi Schaeffer Riley, welcome to Thinking in Public.
NSR: Thank you. I so appreciate you talking to me.
RAM: Naomi, your new book, ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America, fills a void that I don’t anyone else has yet addressed. In the book, you come to tell us quite naturally how you came to write this book. So why this book? Why now? Why you?
NSR: Well, I think from the personal perspective there are a couple of reasons that I decided to write this book. I’m in what some might call an interfaith marriage. I think it’s a faith-no faith marriage. I’m a conservative Jew married to an ex-Jehovah’s Witness. We’re raising our children Jewish. I think more than that what drove me to this is my decade and a half as a religion reporter. I had obviously been very familiar with the debates within the Jewish community about interfaith marriage, and this is typically thought of as a Jewish issue. However, I found in my report that a lot of other communities were having these discussions. A lot of religious leaders were deeply concerned about the issue of interfaith marriage and how it was affecting both the strength of marriage and the strength of their religious communities. Why now? I think what you see now is a huge rise in the percentage of marriages that are interfaith. I think it’s important to really examine this trend as it’s taking off.
RAM: So you perceive the trend, but then you actually move to a quantitative study. You actually were behind a pretty massive piece of sociological research into the realities of interfaith marriages in America today. Let me ask you. You were working on the basis of a perception, which you largely came to journalistically, but once you had looked at it scientifically, in terms of the statistics and data, were you surprised that interfaith marriage was actually happening even more than you had expected?
NSR: Yes. I think that there really wasn’t a lot of quantitative research in this area. I did a twenty-five hundred person nationally representative survey on the subject of interfaith marriage. I found that the interfaith marriage rate in the United States is around 42%. I was really shocked by that number. I should say that that number includes mainline Protestants married to evangelicals, but it did not include marriage within an evangelical or mainline community, even if it was across denominations. I think what I really found most surprising was not even just the percentages, but I looked at some other important things. I looked at the likelihood of divorce, and I also looked at marital satisfaction rates. There, I think, the numbers are particularly startling for people. When you look at divorce overall, there was not a great deal of difference between same-faith and interfaith couples, but when you broke it out by particular religious groups, there was a really big divide. For instance, the likelihood of divorce for evangelicals married to other evangelicals is about thirty percent. For evangelicals married to non-evangelicals, that likelihood rises to fifty percent. For an evangelical married to someone of no religious affiliation, that number rises to over sixty percent. So you can see a clear trend there.
I found this also looking at rates of marital satisfaction. This is something that sociologists use to determine how happy someone is in their marriage. The biggest gap in marital satisfaction was definitely for evangelicals and black Protestants married to someone of another faith. These are really important things for religious communities, religious leaders, and families to keep in mind as they think about marriage.
RAM: You put this entire issue in a context, especially within a narrative, that I really hadn’t thought so much about in terms of tolerance and interfaith relations. You make the point that this rise of interfaith marriages is an important vehicle for assimilation and a major driver of religious tolerance. I think you make that point most graphically when it comes to Jews who marry out, as you say, to use that expression. Before we go there, I want to ask you the definitional question. You really did speak to this a moment ago, and you make it clear in your book to the extent that it’s clear. That’s the issue of definition. In other words, you said you count as an interfaith marriage when a liberal or mainline Protestant marries an evangelical, but within evangelicalism you wouldn’t suggest that an evangelical Presbyterian marrying an evangelical Baptist is interfaith. I find this to be something that the secular media routinely confuses. As if a Baptist marrying a Presbyterian or a Baptist marrying a Methodist is the same as a Baptist marrying a Muslim. They’re just not the same thing.
NSR: No, they’re definitely not. Yet, I do think a lot of researchers working in the field of religion now seem to agree that there are worldview differences between mainline Protestants and evangelical Protestants. That’s sort of the dividing line. I see, just as somebody who has studied a lot of different Protestant churches. It’s important to draw the line there. That being said, I will tell your audience that even if you threw all the Protestants into one pot, as it were, you would get an interfaith marriage rate in this country of 36%, which is still remarkably high given what most people think of as a minor phenomenon.
RAM: Well, it is significantly higher, I think, than most of us would estimate, especially in the evangelical world and for reasons we’ll talk about in just a moment. You are writing as a Jewish writer, you identify yourself with conservative Judaism, and when you look at this, I found it really a very interesting narrative, as well as the data you provide. In terms of what this means for the Jewish community, I’ve had a conversation like this with Allen Dershowitz of the Harvard Law School, who you know is a very active participant in many of these conversations from the Jewish side. He wrote the book, “The Vanishing American Jews,” in which he said that he felt that Jewish intermarriage is going to be the end of Judaism. By the time you finish the book, you find out that his own son has married out. You’re arguing that it is really becoming so much so that the greatest rates of intermarriage, or you might say the individual most likely to enter marriage, is one who right now is with a Jewish identity.
NSR: Yes. I looked at a variety of religious communities. I found that Jews were the most likely to marry out. Mormons were the least likely. Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants fell somewhere in the middle of that. Yes, I think this is sort of the narrative in the Jewish community and is very consistent with what Allen Dershowitz suggested. You get these very high rates of interfaith marriage, and there was certainly a kind of alarm that was raised after a 1990 Jewish population study about the likelihood that any of these people would be raising Jewish children, let alone that they would have Jewish grandchildren. Obviously, the Jewish community is in a particular situation here because there is this demographic reality and ever shrinking number of people in the community. That being said, I did try to think constructively in the book both in my interviews and in using the demographic information that I gathered in the survey about what really matters in terms of keeping people in the fold. One of the most important conclusions that I found was that a child is more than twice as likely to adopt the faith of their mother as the faith of their father. This is something that all religious traditions can keep it mind. It seems that religion in America has in many ways become a women-run phenomenon. Women are responsible for taking kids to Sunday school or Hebrew school. They’re more often found in the pews. They’re often responsible for religious rituals, which take place in the home. The combination of those phenomenons sort of leads you to understand exactly why they have such a huge influence on the religious identity of the children. There are certain things that the Jewish community has undertaken. There are things called “The Mothers Circle,” where the non-Jewish women who have agreed to raise their children Jewish will learn more about Jewish traditions. There a sense that there needs to be more buy-in from these women.
The bigger question is really about what attitude the Jewish community should take toward things like conversion. This is something that comes a little more naturally to various Christian denominations, or even to Muslims. The question is “So you want to marry someone of our faith. Would you be interested in joining our faith?” Jews, obviously, for a long history have not engaged in that kind of proselytization. I’m not the first person to observe that religion in America is sort of a marketplace. Maybe the Jewish community wants to think more seriously about presenting itself as an option. There’s a lot of religion switching that goes on in this country. For the Jewish community interested in preserving itself, having people who are marrying a member of its community, actually consider converting to Judaism itself might be a good thing.
RAM: You know, there are several different lines of argument that are clear in your book and some that were clear in my mind as I read your book. One of the lines that was very, very clear to me is that the change in marriage had to precede the change that would lead to these rates of interfaith marriage. For instance, the rise of romantic models of human marital relationships, what the sociologists call companion marriage, or expressive marriage. Those things had to come first, because in an age of community and clan arranged marriages, this wouldn’t have happened. This can only happen after marriages change.
NSR: There is a lot of truth to that. You used to have families, extended families, and religious communities that had much more of a say over who an individual married. It was not a matter of finding your soul mate as they say these days. I do think you have these sort of two things happening at the same time. You did have this breaking down of religious barriers that was just happening as a result of more tolerance in America and the advent of a lot of things that happened in the second half of the twentieth century. Religious tolerance was part of that trend. The interfaith marriage rate has really accelerated that in many ways. I talk in the book about some research that other academics have done. They have found that if you marry someone of another faith, you are more likely to like people of that faith. It seems kind of logical, but that is actually not true in a lot of the world. America is kind of unique in this sense. It’s also the case that when you do that you sort of take your family along with you. Suddenly, maybe you haven’t had an experience of actually having a real conversation with a Mormon before or a Muslim, and now you find yourself at family gatherings really engaged in personal conversations with them. That can change your attitude toward the entire religious group. Like I said, it’s a vehicle for assimilation in that sense.
RAM: We’re talking about marriage developing into expressive form of companionship and that transforming marriage such that people are looking for spouses in the way that three or four hundred years ago they wouldn’t have been looking. They’re looking elsewhere than they would have been looking. Something else had to change in American society. The walls and barriers that had stood in between all these religious groups have become far more porous than they were in the past. Explain what had to happen in the country, whether it’s the melting pot idea, which you actually reference in the book, or some other sociological, political demographic change that took place. How do we reach the point that our religious identity, even as American citizens, changed such that there was a new openness to interfaith marriage.
NSR: This is probably even more of your area of expertise than mine. Certainly, religious people have become somewhat less religious. They’ve become less committed to particular denominations. It has become less important to people that they attend church regularly. I’m talking on average here with regard to Americans. You have the rise of “the none’s,” the people of no religious affiliation. The other thing, which I think is important to recognize and this is sort of a marriage question but it also has to do with the secularization, is the age of marriage has risen. For instance, now the average age of first marriage for women is over twenty-seven and for men is over twenty-nine. The twenties, the period after you leave your parent’s home but before you get married, has traditionally been a kind of religious down time. People do not tend to attend religious services as regularly. They move around. This is what researchers now call “emerging adulthood.” This is the period where you find different jobs, different friends, and you date different people. All of that has sort of loosened the sort of institutional ties that people have. Then at the end of this sometimes ten-year period, young adults are finding their mate. I’m not suggesting in the book that they’re purposely misrepresenting themselves, but I think many of them are even underestimating how important religion may become for them later in life.
RAM: I want to get to that in just a moment. I want to linger on my second line of argument here for just a moment because this is not so clear in your book. One of the sociological and demographic changes, the cultural changes, has to do with the fact that young people of the age looking for a spouse are actually now in a situation that did not exist a hundred years ago. They are in the presence of young people the same age who are of a different faith. For instance, if you were to go to the most prestigious universities in America a hundred years ago—and you did, you went to Harvard—you would have been there on two counts: as a woman and as a Jewish person. Now that’s just taken for granted. If you were a twenty-two year old Jewish young person and there was a twenty-two year old catholic person, the social contact a hundred years ago would have been negligible, if at all. Now, we just take it for granted that that’s common place every day, twenty-four, seven.
NSR: I think you’re right that if you compare it with a century ago, you certainly see higher rates of mobility around the country, and you also see higher rates of education. I do want to emphasize, for instance looking at my survey, the rates of interfaith marriage actually did not change based on education, based on where in the country you were from, or based on income level. Your story is definitely true, in the sense that if you look back a hundred years ago people led much more sheltered and religiously isolated lives; however, now, I don’t want to give people the impression that it’s only people going off across the country to new exciting universities and running into people of others faiths that is responsible for this trend. You could stay in your hometown, wherever that may be, and still be very likely to marry outside your faith, as well.
RAM: I’m going to argue that that still is a new thing. Having grown up in a town in the South, my point of the university is simply an example. The reality is that I was the first generation of my family to go to high school with Catholics, Jews, and others. I think that’s a huge thing because my parents never had the opportunity to have friendships that could have led to some kind of romantic attachment with somebody.
NSR: Absolutely, and we marry the people that we work with, the people we go to school with, and the people that we participate in recreational activities with. To the extent that we just simply have more contact with these people, that is a large part of what is driving this trend.
RAM: Even at this point, I think it is really important for evangelicals to consider the fact that our children are growing up, and this is a good thing, in the presence of those who are not evangelical Christians. It’s not just in terms of many of their school contacts but Little League baseball and organized volunteer activities in the community. They’re also part of a larger culture that has, for all kinds of good and necessary reasons, been assimilating in terms of racial, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and theological-faith issues as well. The identity of the people who live in our own neighborhood has become increasingly diverse, and that’s a good thing. We have to recognize that our own children, as they grow into adolescence and young adulthood, are in a context in which they’re developing friendships and relationships with people from many different ethnicities and religious backgrounds. It’s a good thing for those friendships to develop. You know, Naomi Schaeffer Riley is exactly right when she says that our young people have to be armed with a very clear and articulated set of theological non-negotiables before they enter into romantic relationships. If we do not arm our children with those very clear non-negotiables, the essential non-negotiable elements of the Christian faith, then they’re not going to have the adequate understanding of why they should or should not develop a romantic relationship with someone else. If that someone else is of a different faith, they’re unsure of how they’re to think about that. As we well know, when a relationship is established, all kinds of things can get confused. As her book makes clear, religion and theology are among the things that can get very, very rapidly confused in the romantic context.
RAM: The third line you already mentioned very clearly and that’s secularization. That’s a theological shift. There has to be a huge theological transformation in order for this to take place. To put it bluntly, exclusive theological claims would make it very difficult to enter into an interfaith relationship, much less marriage and all the complexities that would then follow. It certainly becomes clear to me as a theologian that what you have to have here is a rather massive secular shift in order to get to the place where you would have interfaith marriages at anything like this kind of rate. There are just huge theological issues that are involved if you are indeed deeply committed to the faith and especially if you’re an evangelical Christian believing in a Gospel that makes very exclusive claims. The Roman Catholic Church did at least until the midpoint of the last century, as well. So huge theological shifts had to take place for this to happen.
NSR: I think that you’re absolutely right. Yet, I do have to say, even in my interviews with younger evangelicals over the years, that that theological shifts seem to be happening even while these young people still claim to be evangelical. I agree with you that the shift has occurred, but sometimes you do sort of get into this sort of situation where there is a practical problem. As I said, women are much more likely to be in church then men. I have spoken with a number of young evangelical women over the years about the phenomenon of missionary dating, which is the idea that you are going to convince a non-believer over time that they should come to the faith. This does lead to some very difficult problems. I interview Lee Strobel for my book, who was at one point in an interfaith marriage. He and his wife both started off on the secular end of things and then his wife became a Christian long before he did. There was this sort of unevenness, or unequally yokedness, of their marriage. A lot of young people are placed in a difficult situation where they do want to get married. Sometimes, for better or worse, they will sacrifice some of their religious principals or simply assume that this will all work out in the end. One of the other things that was very interesting that came up in a number of my interviews with religious leaders is the idea that we do not talk to young people enough about prioritizing religious faith when thinking about marriage. As one pastor told me, you have to know what your non-negotiables are, and there are many young people, even self-described evangelicals, who don’t know what their non-negotiables are.
RAM: That gets to the fact that often religious identification is not highly theological, in terms of its substance. That’s clearly true for many Muslim young people, Jewish young people, mainline Protestant young people, and we have to say for many evangelical young people, as well. The point you made here about the gender imbalance did strike me very markedly because this is something that I face repeatedly as I’m speaking to student groups on college campuses and in churches. There are far more young evangelical women ready to marry then there are young evangelical men of approximately the same age ready to marry. Thus, there is an imbalance, and you make that very clear. It raised in my mind a whole new sympathy for some of those who are in this situation. Missionary dating, I think as a pastor, is a profoundly bad idea, but I do understand the dynamic out of which that kind of idea would come.
NSR: Right, and I don’t mean to suggest that I think it’s a good idea. I think what has happened here, like I said, if you have these practical issues. Then what happens, and this is where we started the conversation, on the other end of that, once someone gets further and further involved in a relationship. You have this sense that “we’ve already been dating for three years. This is a big chunk of my dating life. The clock is ticking. Sure, he hasn’t fully embraced the faith yet, but he’ll come around. We should just go ahead and get married. It will all work out.” I interviewed couple across the country in interfaith marriages, and even the happier ones will say that there is this element where they didn’t expect it to be as much of an issue as it was. This is something where I have a great deal of sympathy because even I, as I got into my marriage, said to my husband on our first date that I wanted to raise my children Jewish and asked if he was ok with that. This is something that most women would be hugely embarrassed to say because it sort of implies that you are some kind of lunatic who wants to talk about kids on the first date. That was my non-negotiable. Once I sort of thought I had won that argument, that is that he agreed readily to raise our children Jewish, I thought that would be the end of any tensions we would have over the issue. However, in fact, the tensions that arise in interfaith marriages are constant and sometimes very small. Whose house should we go to for this holiday? Should we pay for Jewish summer camp? Do we have to go to church every week? These are the kinds of things that come up day-in and day-out. A lot of interfaith couples don’t expect them to.
RAM: As someone who is very much in a marriage of one evangelical to another, I realize reading this book that my marriage and my family were free of a lot of the tensions that you document in this book. You do so quite sympathetically and movingly, by the way. There’s a great deal of heartbreak in this book. A lot of the heartbreak seems to come, as I read your book, when a couple that doesn’t believe that their religious differences matter a great deal and then at some point, usually with the arrival of children, it really does begin to matter. Sometimes, it matters with great hurt within this interfaith marriage.
NSR: You sort of have three options as an interfaith couple. One of the people can convert and you can be on the same page. You can try raising the children as both, which is a very unpopular option. I found that most interfaith couples are raising their children as one thing or the other. They at least felt the need to make that decision. You can just leave religion altogether. You can make a secular home, and many people choose that option. The heartbreak comes from both the tension that arrives. There is a higher rate of marital un-satisfaction and higher likelihood of divorce in certain combinations. The other thing I found is that some people said, “Look, I would really like to pursue my faith. This is where I think God is leading me, but my family, the strength of my family, and the unity of my family is more important to me at this point. So I kind of have to tuck that under the bed and forget about it for now to the extent that I can. Otherwise, it will tear us apart.” To me, that’s really the often untold story – the thwarting of people’s untold spiritual journeys because they, rightly I believe, do want to preserve the family.
RAM: You mentioned three different options there, but in the book, I think you actually mentioned a forth. The statistic that shocked me the most of any in your book comes on page 115. You write, “There is another option that some interfaith couples pursue when they want to join a religious community but do not want to join one of the ones from which they hail.” You went on and said, “Of the quarter of same-faith couples for whom this was true, we found that in nineteen percent of the cases, both husband and wife converted to a new religion.” That’s nineteen percent. That’s almost one out of five. I found that to be huge, and frankly, shocking.
NSR: One of the things that came up in my interviews was that you had people who decided on these compromised faiths in some cases. Not that the Unitarian church advertises itself as such anymore, but there are many Christian-Jewish couples who decide on a Unitarian church because they somehow feel that this is in the middle. I don’t think a lot of Christian or Jewish leaders would agree with that statement, but you do have people who have decided that they don’t want either person to feel uncomfortable. You also have this population of people, a smaller population of people then people who join the Unitarians, who join a messianic Jewish group. Again, this is where some people compromise on theology to where they both feel comfortable in some way. Every once in awhile, you just have a couple where they’ve both been exposed to a new faith, and they both decide together. This can even happen in same-faith couples where they both decide together, “Let’s try something new.” They’ve been welcomed into a new community, and that happens together as well.
RAM: One of the most innovative issues you raise in your book is what you call “The Racialization of Religion.” This just makes sense to me as I think about what’s going on here. We live in a society that has, for all kinds of good and necessary reasons, and reasons entirely to be celebrated, come to understand that racial differences really don’t matter. Therefore, diversity should not only be received but received as a gift and worked toward. You make the argument rather straightforwardly in the book that many people now see religion in just the same way. It’s a characteristic, like a racial characteristic; thus, there is almost an intentional on the part of some people who think it’s simply the right thing to do, to act as if theology and religious identity don’t matter in terms of looking for a marital partner.
NSR: I’ve been actually fairly surprised at the language that people use to describe why they were open to dating someone of another faith. Many of them actually suggested that if you weren’t open, you would be discriminating. That raises the point that we’ve lost the positive connotation for discriminating somewhere along the line. What has happened here is that people have chalked up any kind of religious differences and any sort of choice that you would make based upon those religious differences to be somehow a sign of bigotry. This is very surprising, and I for one think religious differences are substantive. There are things that people have thought about, in many cases significantly, and they affect the way we lead our lives. They affect where we want to live, how we want to raise our kids, how we want to spend our money, and how we want to spend our time. I don’t think raise has the same kind of effect as these practical things. We need to really make clear to people that there should be and there is an important distinction among religious groups. That isn’t to say that mine is better than yours. We’re not having that argument. We need to sort of respect these differences, because, if we simply ignore them and sweep them under the rug, these differences come back to bite us later on.
RAM: I wanted to ask you to look forward, because, if I could suggest a second volume to your work and research, it would be a look into the lives of the children of these interfaith marriages. As much as you are armed with the data you have here and the thinking you have invested, what do you think those kids are going to think about marriage, interfaith relationships, and for that matter, religious identity on the other side of this very seismic change?
NSR: It is certainly true that people who are the product of interfaith marriages are also more likely to marry someone of another faith themselves. You can sort of see how this demographic change will continue to snowball in the way that it has. These kids may choose secularization, but they may also come to see religion as something that they can go back and forth, in-and-out of. If you sort of see religion as something that your mother can choose one of and your father can choose the other one of, religion is not something that has an exclusive claim any more. This is partly the idea that is responsible for much of the religion switching that goes on in this country. Children of interfaith marriages will probably see religion as a choice much more than an obligation.
RAM: One final thought I want to ask you, Naomi. You know you are speaking to a largely evangelical audience here. You document very well the evangelical theological concerns and biblical concerns about interfaith marriage. As you look at us, are we messaging that very well, even with our own young people?
NSR: Oddly, it’s being messaged less and less. The age of marriage for evangelicals is also going up. As that happens, more and more religious leaders and parents are very reluctant to talk about marriage at a young age. That is really what has to happen. As I mentioned the pastor who talked about the non-negotiables, those non-negotiables need to be talked about, and a community that’s worried about its interfaith marriage needs to start talking about those when their kids are adolescents. They shouldn’t worry about this idea that “marriage is so far into the future. We don’t want to seem like we’re pressuring them.” This is something that kids need to start thinking about quite young.
RAM: Thank you so much for this conversation. Congratulations on your book. Have you been pleased with the reception in the larger cultural world of your book and its argument?
NSR: I have been. I actually have been a little surprised that I haven’t gotten more interest among evangelicals on this issue. I had many discussions, as you can tell from the book with Russell Moore and other people in this community who seem concerned about it, but when it came time, Christianity Today had a nice piece by me talking about this issue. Yet, I had sort of hope that religious communities would ask me to come speak and talk about what my research showed, but many people still don’t see this as an issue for Christians.
RAM: Well, I do, and I deeply appreciate this conversation with you. I appreciate your book, and quite frankly, your entire writing, research, career, commentary, and public engagement I deeply appreciate. Thank you again for joining me for Thinking in Public.
NSR: Thank you. I so appreciate you talking to me, too.
RAM: I really benefited from reading Naomi Schaeffer Riley’s new book, ‘Til Faith Do Us Part, as she writes about how interfaith marriage is transforming America. If I could summarize here book, I think she is saying that the rise of interfaith marriage at these rates is sociologically good and advantageous for the United States. It’s theologically bad for religious groups and their identity. It’s often very painful and complicated for the couples who are involved. Most of the secular reviewers of her book have pointed to the fact that the book, actually as it points to something like marital reality, indicates that it’s more complicated than people often think as they get into an interfaith relationship and interfaith marriage. For one think, as Ms. Riley makes very clear, when the children get of an age within the marriage where religious education and religious habits and practices become very much an involvement, tensions may arise that never existed before. For instance, a Jewish man who married a non-Jewish wife and his Jewish identity didn’t mean much to him until he came to understand more about the Holocaust, and, all of the sudden, it meant to him a great deal. That changed the relationship, but that wasn’t the understanding when they got married. Of course, it can go the other way as well.
The statistical data in this book is absolutely fascinating. For instance, the fact that there is a huge determination made in terms of the religious identity of children by the religious identity of the mother, far more than of the father, in an interfaith relationship. Interestingly, new research is demonstrating that the father is very determinative when you have a father and a mother of the same faith, in terms of whether or not children stay in the faith throughout their lifetimes and raise their children, the original couple’s grandchildren, in the same faith. So fathers and mothers are both important, but in an interfaith relationship, Naomi Schaeffer Riley demonstrates that it’s the mother’s religious identity becomes determinative, in so far as either of the parents are determinative, of the religious beliefs, understanding, and identity of the children of that marriage.
There are so many other things in here. For instance, one of the most interesting issues she addresses in the book is the distinction between Mormons and Jews in terms of interfaith marriage in America. As it turns out, they’re religious groups of about the same size in terms of population. As it turns out, they’re at opposite extremes in terms of the interfaith marriage issue. Where the Jews are the most likely to intermarry, the Mormons are the least likely to intermarry. I think she’s on to exactly the reason why when she says that the age of marriage is the big factor here. The age of first marriage for Mormons tends to be twenty-two; whereas, for Jews, it tends to be twenty-seven. The difference in the expectation of finding a spouse of the same faith is radically different for a twenty-two year old than for a twenty-seven year old. The delay of marriage greatly increases, and she documents thoroughly the likelihood of an interfaith marriage thoroughly.
We talked about the fact that this mean that there is often an imbalance, because in so many faith traditions and in so many religious groups, the women outnumber the men by such huge percentages, including in mainline Protestantism and in many older Catholic parishes, that it’s virtually impossible for all the young women within those congregations and faith communities to find a spouse of the same conviction and religious identity. Evangelicals had better be paying attention to that as well.
Coming to the end of her book, Naomi Schaeffer Riley writes this “When you add up these cultural and religious attitudes, it’s easy to see why interfaith marriage is growing by leaps and bounds. We like diversity. We believe members of other faiths are not only decent, but can get to heaven. We see marriage as a largely individual decision. We will meet our spouse and marry him or her with little forethought about his or her religious beliefs. When we find a potential partner, we believe the relationship between spouses will be an all-consuming one and that our families and communities do not have any kind of competing claims on our loyalties. We think religion is important, but it is for kids and parents and not for young single adults.”
Now, I think that’s a brilliant paragraph. I disagree profoundly with some of what she’s asserting there, but she’s describing by means of that assertion the worldview and the culture changes that have produced this vast increase in the number of interfaith marriages. Yet, an evangelical listening to that particular paragraph and listening to that list of issues and criteria would and should hear one more clearly than the others. That’s where she writes “We like diversity. We believe members of other faiths are not only decent, but can get to heaven.” That’s a very interesting assertion. That takes us right to heart of the evangelical concern. After all, to be an evangelical is to love the Gospel. To love the Gospel is to understand that we don’t believe that all persons are going to heaven. We believe that heaven comes to all those who profess their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, repent of their sins, and follow Him. In other words, we do not believe and cannot believe, if we are consistently evangelical and truly biblical, that we can enter into an interfaith marriage without violating our very understanding of the Gospel. That’s why the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians that they should not be unequally yoked. He puts it within the context of the relationship between the Church and the world. If you’re looking for any empirical verification of why Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, was so concerned about this and why he laid down such a very clear principal for Christians of not being yoked in marriage of someone outside the Gospel, just consider the statistics that Naomi Schaeffer Riley shared.
She said that among evangelicals married to other evangelicals, the divorce rate is somewhere around thirty percent. Amongst evangelicals who marry someone who is a believer of another faith tradition, that increases to about forty percent. If an evangelical marries someone of no religious identity, the anticipated divorce rate is nearly fifty percent. Now, let’s admit something. Thirty percent is a scandal to the Gospel, and it’s a tragedy. Forty percent is just that much worse. Fifty percent is just unthinkably worse beyond that. It tells us something that we already know. Theology matters. Worldview matters. It’s not just about the raising of our children. That is a very interesting point for many of the conflicts that arise in an interfaith marriage. It turns out that as children arrive we really do have concerns about them and what they believe, because we really do believe that it matters. Even for those who aren’t evangelical Christians know that it matters. Evangelicals know that it matters at a whole new level because we do believe that eternity is at stake. We do believe, as a matter of fact, that the Gospel requires that we raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. We can only do that if we are married to someone of the same faith.
Now, there are all kinds of pastoral issues that arise, and the skilled, convictional, and sensitive pastor has to be aware of the fact that he is going to confront people who come to him and say “I am a believer; I’m married to an unbeliever.” That’s going to be a pastoral challenge. It’s our responsibility to minister to that family and to that couple, but we must minister on the basis of the Gospel. We’re going to have people that come to us who are going to say “I intend to marry a person of a different faith.” That’s the point at which our Christian conviction is going to have to be very clear that this is not only a pastoral challenge. This is a theological crisis. It is a crisis that relates to the Gospel. Not just to the Gospel in terms of the non-Christian spouse, but the Gospel in terms of how the Christian church member understands the Gospel. What it means in terms of its essence, salvation through the atonement accomplished through the Lord Jesus Christ, which comes to use by the gift of faith. When you look at Naomi Schaeffer Riley’s book, you find all kinds of material for good thought. Of course, there is evidence here of the great shift around us that we call secularization. The trend that she documents here so well could not have happened if theology had not been diminished within so many churches, denominations, religions, and faith communities to where it really doesn’t matter. In other words, reading her book, there are many people who have many kinds of religious identity who have so little theology that there is little conflict in terms of how they relate to one another or someone of a different faith.
Yet, when it comes to Christian conviction, we have to understand that there is a clear biblical imperative, and we understand why. To understand the Gospel is to understand Paul’s concern and indeed, his command as given to us by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration as he was writing to the Corinthians and by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration as he was writing to us, the Church throughout the ages. We also have to understand, as we’re looking at this, that we’re operating in the midst of a culture in which our message will be increasingly counter-cultural when it comes to an openness toward interfaith marriage. As we look at this, we have to recognize that what Naomi Schaeffer Riley calls “The Racialization of Religion,” in which religion is just a personal marker of no long lasting or urgent significance. We have to understand that theologically, we can’t accept that definition. We can understand how good it is that Americans have come to embrace diversity and pluralism on so many different grounds. When it comes to worldview, and most importantly the Gospel, we understand that there is not only a common sense that explains why Christians should marry and marry only other Christians, but why it is that it is a matter of the Holy Spirit’s concern for the Church and Paul as an Apostle laying down a command for the Church. This is one of those things that puts us right back to where we were in the first century. In a world of religious pluralism, it was necessary for Paul to write this to the Church. Naomi Schaeffer Riley shows why it’s necessary that we understand that text and obey it even now. This is proof of the Bible’s relevance and proof of the fact that, as we know, theology matters.
Once again, many thanks to my guest, Naomi Schaeffer Riley for thinking with me today. Before I close, I want to invite you to join us on the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary the 14th and 15th of March for the Renown Youth Conference. This year we are seeking to equip this generation’s middle and high school age students in order that they can engage our modern culture. I’ll be joined by Sean McDowell, Dan DeWitt, and special musical guest Flame. For more information, go to events.sbts.edu. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.