Interfaith marriages are rising fast, but they're failing fast too

By Naomi Schaefer Riley
Sunday, June 6, 2010

When Joseph Reyes and Rebecca Shapiro got married in 2004, they had a Jewish wedding ceremony. He was Catholic but converted to Judaism after they married, and they agreed to raise any children in the Jewish faith. However, after their daughter Ela was born, Reyes began to worry about the fact that she had not been baptized. "If, God forbid, something happened to her, she wouldn't be in heaven," he told me.

Today, two years after the Illinois couple's bitter divorce battle began, the fight over Ela's religious upbringing involves criminal charges.

The fight escalated in November, when Reyes had Ela baptized in a Catholic church and e-mailed his estranged wife a photo. She filed a complaint, and a judge barred Reyes from exposing his daughter to "any other religion other than the Jewish religion." In January, Reyes violated the judge's order and brought Ela to church again, with a camera crew in tow.

The divorce was settled in April. Reyes is once again allowed to take his daughter to church. But he faces up to six months in jail.

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.

In some ways, more interfaith marriage is good for civic life. Such unions bring extended families from diverse backgrounds into close contact. There is nothing like marriage between different groups to make society more integrated and more tolerant. As recent research by Harvard professor Robert Putnam has shown, the more Americans get to know people of other faiths, the more they seem to like them.

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.

In a paper published in 1993, Evelyn Lehrer, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that if members of two mainline Christian denominations marry, they have a one in five chance of being divorced in five years. A Catholic and a member of an evangelical denomination have a one in three chance. And a Jew and a Christian who marry have a greater than 40 percent chance of being divorced in five years.

More recent research concludes that even differing degrees of religious belief and observance can cause trouble. For instance, in a 2009 paper, scholars Margaret Vaaler, Christopher Ellison and Daniel Powers of the University of Texas at Austin found higher rates of divorce when a husband attends religious services more frequently than his wife, as well as when a wife is more theologically conservative than her husband.

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