Chelsea Clinton, raised Methodist, and Marc Mezvinsky, Jewish, will wed this weekend.
Statistics show that 37 percent of Americans have a spouse of a different faith.
Statistics also show that couples in interfaith marriages are “three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.“
Is interfaith marriage good for American society? Is it good for religion? What is lost -and gained -when religious people intermarry?
At my husband’s family’s party after our wedding, two middle aged redheads came up to me and took me aside. “We are so happy to have you in the family,” the woman said. “We’re happy to have a third Irish person among all the Italians”, the man said.
I didn’t have the heart to tell them that despite the freckles and straight nose, I was Jewish. Not being Italian was enough of a mixed marriage in my husband’s family; not being Roman Catholic might have been too much to handle at the celebration.
It’s not that our religious differences haven’t mattered in our marriage, but certainly not as much as our class backgrounds have and not nearly as much as our genders have. In the pre-children years, my husband likes to say “we ate our religion.” In other words, if there was a family meal or celebration, we did it easily. We had latkes for Chanukah, seven fishes for Christmas Eve, ham for Easter, chicken soup and brisket for Passover. Once we had our first child, we began looking for a religious home to raise her. We were delighted to find the Unitarian Universalist church which would allow us to celebrate both our Christian and Jewish heritages while claiming a faith that spoke to both of our hearts and souls. Our now young adult children identify as part Jewish, part Italian, and Unitarian Universalist.
Many years later, I began to study for the Unitarian Universalist ministry and learned that at least a third of our members are interfaith couples. Unitarian Universalism recognizes the wisdom from the world traditions, including “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.” My church recognizes and celebrates diverse religious holidays and traditions.
Marriage takes many forms. I don’t believe the religion, the biological sex, or the race of the partners makes much of a difference. Good marriages are based on responsibility, equality, and love, without restrictions based on the sex, procreative potential, or sexual orientation of the partners. They express the religious values of commitment, generativity, and love. It’s not interfaith marriage, same sex marriage, or interracial marriage. It’s just marriage.
The Religious Institute’s Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Marriage Equality says that good marriages “are committed to the mutual care and fulfillment of both partners, and increase the capacity of the individuals to contribute to the common good.”
When I am doing premarital counseling for couples from interfaith backgrounds, I ask them how they will bring their cradle religions into their new family. I encourage them to think and talk about which traditions they can’t live with, and which traditions they can’t live without. In my own life, I’ve learned to love our Christmas tree but said no to the crèche underneath it. My husband can say the blessings over the candles in Hebrew now, but didn’t want a mezuzah on the front door. We’ve worked it out.
And that’s what marriage is – a commitment to work together to create a life and a new family. When my children were small, I used to change the words to the end of the fairy tales. The books said, “They fell in love, they got married, and they lived happily ever after.” I would read, “They fell in love, they got married, and it was a lot of work.” Creating new family traditions from different religious backgrounds takes commitment and time, and yes, work, but so do so many other parts of two people joining their lives together.
May Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky – and all the couples marrying this weekend — be blessed in their lives together.