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Interfaith marriages increasing—and failing

by Brad A. Greenberg

June 7, 2010 | 9:55 am

I thought I had mentioned the story of little Ela Reyes, but I can’t seem to find it anywhere in this blog’s archives. In sum, her mother, Rebecca Shapiro, was Jewish and father, Joseph Reyes, had converted from Catholicism when they married. There was an ugly divorce that led to a restraining order, which led to the father being barred from taking his daughter to church.

Writing in the Washington Post yesterday, Naomi Schaefer Riley (whom I owe a column to tomorrow) picks up on this story as the lead in for an interesting column about the high failure rate of interfaith marriages. She writes:

The Reyes-Shapiro divorce is about as ugly as the end of a marriage can get. Some of the sparring is an example of the bad ways people act when a union unravels. But the fight over Ela’s religion illustrates the particular hardships and poor track record of interfaith marriages: They fail at higher rates than same-faith marriages. But couples don’t want to hear that, and no one really wants to tell them.

Figuring out how to raise the kids in a mixed-faith household is difficult. Religions, if taken seriously, are often mutually exclusive (not withstanding the argument of Reyes’s lawyer, who told me that taking Ela to church was not a violation of the court order because Jesus was a rabbi and “there is no sharp line between Judaism and Christianity”).

Most families work things out, peacefully deciding on one religion, both or neither. But the fact is that conflicts such as the one between Reyes and Shapiro will probably become more common.

According to the General Social Survey, 15 percent of U.S. households were mixed-faith in 1988. That number rose to 25 percent by 2006, and the increase shows no signs of slowing. The American Religious Identification Survey of 2001 reported that 27 percent of Jews, 23 percent of Catholics, 39 percent of Buddhists, 18 percent of Baptists, 21 percent of Muslims and 12 percent of Mormons were then married to a spouse with a different religious identification. If you want to see what the future holds, note this: Less than a quarter of the 18- to 23-year-old respondents in the National Study of Youth and Religion think it’s important to marry someone of the same faith. ...

But the effects on the marriages themselves can be tragic—it is an open secret among academics that tsk-tsking grandmothers may be right. According to calculations based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.

Knowing what we know about the wedges religion causes between people, whether internecine or interfaith, that failure rate shouldn’t be too surprisingly. You can read the rest of the column, “Interfaith marriages are rising fast, but they’re failing fast too,” here.

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