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When Interfaith Becomes a Family Matter

By Paul Chaffee


As interfaith culture emerges all around us, the most intimate, complex, and challenging arena is interfaith marriage. Religious institutions often disapprove. To this day getting married in most Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or Orthodox sanctuaries is forbidden or requires jumping through hoops for the outsider. Family members often are even more resistant and disapproving than clergy. And the prevailing wisdom has been that interfaith couples need to evolve into single-faith families for the sake of the children.

But we are in the midst of a sea change of opinion. The concerted disapproval is having less and less influence in an increasingly multicultural, multireligious population where, in the U.S., more than a third of young adults self-identify as spiritual independents. The numbers speak for themselves. According to the Pew Institute’s 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,

27% of married people are in religiously mixed marriages. If marriages between people of different Protestant denominational families are included, the number of married people in religiously mixed marriages is nearly four-in-ten (37%). Among married couples, young people are more likely to be in religiously mixed marriages as compared with their older counterparts...

Among all the major religious traditions, Hindus and Mormons are most likely to have a spouse with the same religion (90% and 83%, respectively). Nearly four-in-five Catholics (78%) and seven-in-ten Jews (69%) are also married to someone with the same religious affiliation. By contrast, majorities of the unaffiliated population, members of the “other faiths” category and Buddhists are married to someone of a different religious background than their own. For example, only four-in-ten (41%) unaffiliated adults are married to a spouse who is also unaffiliated.

As diversity increases and interfaith marriages move towards the halfway mark, every day thousands of couples face the complex responsibility of planning the rest of your life with a beloved partner from a different culture, religion, or race, or in many cases, all three. It’s a very different marital quest than our parents, much less grandparents usually faced! But love will not be denied, and interfaith marriages, like them or not, are flourishing.

About the Children…

How the children will be raised usually brings a couple’s complicated journey into sharp focus. (Some bride and grooms, researchers note, never address the matter, which is like planting a mine field in your front yard.) The traditional wisdom is that parents from different religions should embrace one tradition, abandoning the other to keep the kids from being confused, a clarity which risks some sort of spiritual suicide by the parent whose tradition is ignored. A more ‘liberal’ stance is to promote nothing religious, “so they can make up their own minds themselves someday,” as if the rest of us don’t make up our own minds.

Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America by Naomi Schaefer Riley is one of a handful of engaging interfaith-marriage books published last year. Though in an interfaith marriage herself, Schaefer Riley emphasizes how difficult they are. Her own polling suggests that interfaith couples are less happy (7.9 versus 8.4 on a 10-point scale) and more prone to divorce. Her book is filled with warnings, buttressed by the disapproval of religious institutions. Still, she acknowledges, interfaith marriage shows no signs of slowing down. She supports the conventional judgment that in interfaith families, children should be raised in just one tradition, since religious differences invariably generate tension and upset.

Three other 2013 interfaith-marriage books, reviewed here this month, take a different perspective. They don’t underestimate the inherent challenges of interfaith marriage but are full of hope. Their stories offer positive, constructive outcomes when couples create their own inclusive spirituality, drawing deeply from their home traditions without judging either to be better.

Being Both – Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller is a fascinating, in-depth exploration of what engaged interreligious, spiritual education can mean for an interfaith family and the larger community of interfaith families. (Samira Mehta has written an insightful comparison of the Schaefer Riley and Katz Miller books. She champions neither, but shows how two Jewish mothers married to non-Jews can come to such different conclusions based on how they understand religion and spiritual formation.)

All the usual issues are amplified when the bride and/or groom is a clergyperson. Such is the case in Mixed Up Love: Relationships, Family, and Religious Identity in the 21st Century by Jon Sweeney and Michal Woll, as well as Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How A Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk by Dana Trent.

Looking Forward

The trends suggest that interfaith marriage will grow as much in the next 50 years as in the past 50. The implication is that religious institutions trying to keep life and acceptance reserved for ‘all in our family’ will experience increasing heartache and a decreasing constituency. That tide will turn when they learn to reach beyond religious differences to support men and women in interfaith (faith-rich!) relationships. Some day human beings, per se, will be held more valuable than history, creed, tradition, membership, or any other ‘explanation’ of what life means. We will grow up.

Today thousands of clergy already support and serve interfaith couples, either as interfaith-friendly clerics or self-identified Interfaith ministers. Holy Rascals Production’s 15-minute video about an interfaith marriage, premiering in this issue, is a poignant story of one couple’s difficulties and joys.

Planning your own interfaith marriage? Now you can subscribe for free to Wedding Nouveau, full of multi-cultural, interreligious images and ideas. Just married a person from a different tradition? Visit and join the National Association of InterChurch and Interfaith Families, a virtual support community.  These resources are just the beginning.

Same-sex relationships continue to get gallons of ink in the media and religious communities, as they should. But the larger arena, the one facing many millions of young and old, gay and straight, people who fall in love and choose interfaith matrimony, that universe has only begun to come into view.

All of a sudden, appreciative interreligious education seems more important than ever. This issue of TIO is devoted to learning about interfaith marriage.