Seth and Tracy Preminger of Chicago, Illinois, make for a rather unorthodox couple. Seth, 34, is Jewish; Tracy, 33, is Roman Catholic. Despite their different faiths, however, the couple shares a core set of principles. “We joked at the time when we were dating that we have the same beliefs and values, just a different God to get there,” remembers Seth. What might have been a more challenging divide for the interfaith Democrat couple to bridge? Politics. “Before I met Tracy,” says Seth, “I was talking to a Jewish Republican, and I was like: ‘I can’t deal with you.’”
The old maxim that one should never discuss politics or religion at the dinner table is well-intentioned advice, but it’s always been somewhat unrealistic. For one thing, those topics are two of the most thought-provoking ones that humans have ever devised for discussion, and checking them at the door seems an unnecessary act of conversational sabotage. But, perhaps more important, the maxim ignores that you have some say in whom you decide to sit down with at the dinner table — and for many that choice means selecting partners and friends who share similar views on religion and politics.
The nature of this self-segregation, however, is changing in some fascinating ways in the United States. For decades, religion was considered a divisive issue for prospective couples, but now religious belief is taking a back seat to politics. According to recent surveys from the Pew Research Center …
30 percent of Americans are married to someone from a different religion, but only 10 percent of Republicans and Democrats have stepped on the other side of the political aisle to wed.
In short, American couples appear much more likely to tolerate religious differences than political ones when it comes to whom they spend the most time with at the proverbial dinner table. But what’s driving this? Are political values becoming more important than religious ones?
The rise of interfaith marriage in the U.S. in recent decades is pronounced. While 39 percent of Americans who have married since 2010 have a spouse who belongs to a different religious group, just 19 percent of those who wed before 1960 do, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey. And when it comes to unmarried couples, the numbers are even higher: about half of unmarried couples are in an interfaith relationship. In 1958, a Gallup Poll found that 72 percent of people wouldn’t care what political party their child’s spouse belonged to. By 2017, that number was down to 45 percent. Across the Atlantic, a 2016 YouGov poll indicated that British partisans would be even less open than American ones to someone of the opposing party joining the family.
Political differences are part and parcel of a broader cultural divide.
The rise of interfaith relationships mirrors the decline of religion in American lives. According to Pew tracking surveys, 58 percent of Americans said in 2010 that religion is important in their lives, down from 75 percent in 1960. And while nearly half of married couples say sharing religious beliefs with one’s spouse is “very important” for a successful marriage, other factors — such as having shared interests or a satisfying sexual relationship — rank higher as ingredients to a successful union.
At the same time that religion is becoming less important in our lives and relationships, politics is becoming more so. Indeed, partisan identification is now a bigger wedge between Americans than race, gender, religion or education level. According to a 2017 Pew survey of more than 5,000 respondents asked about 10 political issues — from government regulation to same-sex marriage — there was, on average, a 36-point gap between Republicans and Democrats. When Pew first started asking those questions during the mid-1990s, there was just a 15-point gap between Republicans and Democrats, a divide not much different from the one between Americans of different faiths. Tracy Preminger thinks religion in her generation has become a lot less black and white. “People find their own communities and ways of practicing. But politics is becoming more divisive.”
Are these two trends related? Are we more likely to seek political tribes and relationships when past outlets for tribalism like religion are waning in influence? David Campbell, a University of Notre Dame political science professor who studies religion’s role in U.S. civic life, says he sees little evidence that the decline of religious practice in the U.S. has led people to political tribalism. But, he argues, “the fact that religion is so tightly connected to politics does exacerbate political polarization because it is one more reason that Republicans and Democrats do not associate with each other.”
Fifty years ago, for example, it was difficult to predict someone’s political party by their level of religiosity. Over the past two decades, however, the correlation between religiosity and being Republican has increased. During that time, according to Pew, church membership among Democrats has fallen from 71 to 48 percent (compared to a drop from 77 to 69 percent among Republicans).
In some ways, however, political differences are part and parcel of a broader cultural divide. Party affiliation also correlates with several other traits and interests like the communities where we live, the restaurants we eat at and the TV shows we watch. “It is not necessarily that people are consciously choosing to marry people who share their political views,” argues Campbell. “Rather, they are marrying people who are compatible with them in many ways, which often includes their politics.”
There may be no signs that partisanship in America will decline anytime soon, but cross-party relationships could ultimately be a force for helping heal that divide. As Campbell points out, one of the results of increasing interfaith marriages is a rising tide of religious tolerance, and “if there were more inter-partisan marriages and close relationships, then we should expect a similar rising tide of political tolerance.”