It’s marriage – no adjectives needed

Chelsea Clinton, raised Methodist, and Marc Mezvinsky, Jewish, will wed this weekend. Statistics show that 37 percent of Americans have … Continued

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.

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  • captn_ahab

    I do not make a value judgment, but only an observation. The path that Ms. Haffner recommends ignores the important differences between religions, and her path only results in a dilution of the religious and cultural meanings of both religions for the children of the marriage. In contemporary America, we would put the happiness of the two people involved above the importance of any commitment to a particular community. For a minority religion like Judaism in America, it also would mean the eventual disappearance of the religion into the dominant religious culture . For better or for worse, I guess that is up to the man and woman involved in the marriage.

  • umprof

    Ahab, I respect your opinion, but it sounds like a value judgment to me, not just “an observation”. In my experience, the thoughtful negotiation of differences can clarify and deepen the religious and cultural meanings of beliefs and practices for each individual. But then, I am a Unitarian Universalist in a mixed marriage.

  • Blueslyn

    I agree that the adjectives to marriage are kind of beside the point. In the 28 years my NE Philadelphia Jewish husband and I, Irish Catholic from South Texas, have been married we find regional differences far greater than the religious ones. It helps a lot that we, too, are members of a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

  • TimManhattan

    My parents were Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist. When they married in 1944, that was considered an interfaith marriage, and probably still is in many parts of the country. My siblings and I were raised Catholic, but I always felt a little richer for having that Southern Baptist strain in my family. If two religions enrich a family, I’m guessing it’s a good thing for the country as well. And while I’m at it, thanks to Rev. Haffner for pointing out that gender and sexual orientation make no difference to the quality or success of a marriage. She’s fortunate to live in a marriage equality state — if only New York would follow Connecticut’s lead!

  • DadofTia

    I like the concept of not inserting adjectives before the word “marriage.” While marriage between persons from differing religious traditions can certainly include challenges, I have seen many instances of people who came to better understand their faith and deepen their faith through their relationship with someone from another religious tradition. The love of God is beyond all of our labels and descriptions.

  • lepidopteryx

    My daughter was not raised in the religious tradition in which I grew up, nor in the religious tradition I practiced when she was a child, nor in the religious tradition of her dad or her stepdad. She was exposed to as many different faiths and concepts of spirituality as possible, and allowed to accept whatever ideas made sense to her, and reject any that didn’t. She has grown up to be the compassionate, loving, ethical, agnostic daughter of a compassionate, loving, ethical UU/Pagan and a compassionate, loving, ethical Buddhist. My husband and I follow different religious Paths, which have some similarities and some differences. Neither of us expects the other to give up one iota of hizzer religion. Some aspects of our Paths we are ale to share, and we do so with joy. Some aspects of our paths we do not share, and we give each other the time and space needed for those.