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?
The fact is that religious people are intermarrying, and I believe this trend will continue and even accelerate. The question is not whether this is a good or bad idea, but how we help families incorporate religious understanding and tolerance into their lives. That is the route to happier families, a more open society, and increased religious vibrancy.
As a Protestant pastor, I’ve officiated at many weddings and commitment services, and co-officiated at such services in an interfaith context. Putting the ceremony together for an interfaith wedding or commitment service is difficult enough; but doing the pre-marital counseling is often where the greatest difficulties lie. Getting people who are about to get married to talk about sex can be awkward. Getting them to talk about money is even more awkward for many couples. But the most awkward conversations of all can be about religion.
Since more than a third of Americans have a spouse of a different faith, learning to communicate about religion is crucial. Yet, most Americans know little of other faiths. Once a dating couple discover they are of different faiths, they are sometimes reluctant to explore an area where one or both are uncomfortable and/or uninformed. Even when the relationship becomes serious and moves to an engagement, I have often found that couples who are of different faiths have not discussed their religious views with each other. Younger people (under 30) simply assume that religious differences are not all that significant–the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd tend to merge religion into spirituality and reject doctrine. They tend to see “doctrine” and “religious institutions” as the source of religious conflict, whereas “spirituality” is regarded as transcending religious differences. This reluctance to discuss religion, or a dismissal of religious differences as unimportant, does not bode well for the future of the relationship.
Even when couples say they are of the same faith, however, this lack of knowledge can obtain. First of all, as the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has shown, Americans’ religious affiliation has been shifting dramatically in recent years. More than one-quarter of American adults have left the faith in which they were raised and moved to another. The Pew finding is that finds that “religious affiliation in the U.S. is both very diverse and extremely fluid.” This “post-denominational” landscape often means that people don’t know a great deal about the faith they currently espouse as it is their second, third, even fourth religious affiliation.
In addition, couples very often have mixed family religious affiliations. In my “Religion in America” class that I teach at Chicago Theological Seminary, I have the students write a paper on their family religious history. Sometimes, when they engage extended family members about the family religious history to do their research, they discover that there has been significant religious variety in their families. From time to time, they also discover that religious differences are part of estrangement in the family, something they may not have known before.
When couples decide to enter into a life-long partnership, they merge these family histories and create a new history. When the marriage is of two people from very different religious backgrounds, all of these histories come together not only in the service itself, but also will influence their future relationships in their extended families. How to raise the children, and what religious holidays to celebrate are on-going potential sources of conflict.
It is absolutely essential, in my view, to include religion in pre-marital counseling whether the couple say they are of the same faith, or not. It is surprisingly difficult, however, to get people to talk about their views on religion in pre-marital counseling. This can be because, as was noted above, they really don’t know all that much about their current religious affiliation, they are ‘spiritual but not religious’ and think ‘all that’ doesn’t matter, one person in the relationship is not a person of faith and the other is, and/or they fear that talking about religion will cause problems in the relationship.
Pre-marital counseling is a way for couples to explore, in a supportive environment, all these ramifications of religion for them, and practice communicating frankly about their own religious views, their families and those religious histories, and what they hope and fear about religion in their future life together.
Learning to communicate openly and honestly is absolutely essential for couples to nurture and sustain their marriage or partnership. Finances, sex and religion change over the decades of a relationship, so starting off with a good model of communication is very important for showing couples how they can help their relationships to stay healthy and happy hopefully for all of their lives. Practicing good communication helps enormously with child-rearing, and over time children grow and change and make their own decisions about religious faith. To avoid estrangement with your grown children, habits of good communication practiced over many years is essential.
Religious professionals need to help couples explore this area of their relationship in depth, and couples need to ask the person doing their wedding or commitment service to explore religious beliefs with them as part of their preparation for committing to a life together.