Religious difference must be addressed and negotiated
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?
In our multicultural society some may opine that religious difference makes no difference, but this is naïve. However, to suggest that religious difference erects insurmountable barriers is equally naïve. Religious difference must be addressed and negotiated thoughtfully by each partner if the couple wants the relationship to evolve into a permanent union. And the wedding symbolizes a moment in this process, not an end to it. Religious identification or non-identification, practice or lack of practice, children's religious affiliation, significant life markers (birth, adulthood, marriage, death, for example), and family traditions must all be negotiated. Even for those who are not religious, they must agree to be so. Couples may not wish to admit that religious difference matters or they may be reluctant to face the inevitable issues that religious difference surfaces. Love may conquer all, but not without a struggle. Exploration of religious identification (or non-identification) does not seem the usual topic with which romances begin, but it is sometimes one at which they end and, therefore, must be taken seriously.
In many cases one partner chooses to convert to the other's religion. This encourages harmony only when the conversion is undertaken not simply for convenience but with genuine conviction. In other cases each partner plans to continue to practice his or her religion, respecting the religion of the other and conferring on the children a dual religious identity. Others begin their religious life anew by joining a "neutral" religion that is new to each partner, thus not favoring either previous religious identification. In some instances the couple chooses to abandon religion all together. All of these choices have inherent complications that affect the couple and confront them with decisions regarding the single religious, dual religious, or the non-religious identity of children.
While the trend towards an increasing number of interreligious marriages signals a decline in religious isolation and bigotry, it also creates complications that may not have been anticipated. For example, a minority religion like Judaism faces the debilitating effects that assimilation by marriage presents. In the 1920s only 2 percent of Jews married Christians in America, today that number has increased to as much as 50 percent by some estimates. Marriages between Muslims and Christians, now more common than a generation ago, require delicate negotiations about religious and cultural practices that affect couples and their families. The same is true for Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others who now have a significant presence in America. Marriage commitments and ceremonies often require creativity and concessions, but they represent only the beginning of interfaith decisions that multiply with child rearing, religious practice, and social relations.
Of course, not all couples believe that the religious dimension of marriage represents a vital aspect of married life. Substantial numbers of Americans do not take religion seriously and it plays little to no role in their conception of marriage. This ranges from outright antagonism towards religious identification to apathy. Often couples maintain a veneer of religion by having some quasi-religious ceremony to begin their married life but the motives for this range from placating parents and relatives to lack of another ceremonial model that is sufficiently dignified.
Whether or not couples are devout, religion virtually always must be considered when choosing a life partner. This remains as true for those who profess no religion at all as it does for the weekly churchgoer, because religion touches not only individuals and couples but families and society. While religion may not be the determining factor in a marriage relationship, the fact that 75 percent of marriages in America still take place in a church or synagogue means that religion plays some role in the majority of marriages in America. For some, religion represents customs and traditions that are as easily tied to ethnicity and family as they are to religious practice. Thus, even for those who do not practice their religion by going regularly to religious services, or who do so only a few times a year on widely celebrated occasions such as for Christians, Christmas and Easter, or for Jews, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, for example, religion maintains an importance that exhibits itself plainly when considerations of marriage arise. A dimension that may be in the background in daily life often comes to the foreground when considering a marriage partner. Usually, potential mates do not inquire about religious identification when they first meet for dinner or a movie. But when they establish a relationship, inevitably what religion each professes becomes known, making it a bridge or a potential obstacle. And if the couple does not broach the subject, family members surely will inquire. Parents, grandparents, siblings, relatives, and friends will exhibit a natural curiosity about a potential mate's background, family, profession, and religion. It may be none of their business, but that will not prevent them from asking. And when a potential partner's religion turns out to be different, often it will be cause for advice, speculation, and concern. After all, if she is from New York and he from Seattle, people will wonder where they will make a home. If she is Methodist and he is Jewish, how will they negotiate difference? In the words of the popular play, The Fantastiks, "a bird can love a fish, but where do they make a home?"
If it were only theological differences that couples must negotiate, the task would be difficult but focused. However, religious difference implies a host of other areas of concern not limited to but including social, familial, cultural, and personal. What sacred days does an interfaith couple celebrate when their traditions differ? What do they serve at table when two extended families with different dietary sensitivities and restrictions sit together? What religious symbols (if any) do they display in their home? Who in the extended family is likely to be offended by their food, symbols, or religious participation (or non-participation)? For many, religion intertwines with culture such that the two become inseparable. To be Jewish, for some, may not necessarily mean being religious, but it does mean being Jewish. To be Muslim implies Islamic culture as well as religion. To be Hindu means that caste carries significance. To be Buddhist means that non-violence is a way of life. For the majority of Americans, religion is important, and to deny this is to set oneself up for trouble.
Exogamous marriages produce complications that endogamous ones do not, and inter-faith couples cannot afford to be sanguine about them. At the same time, religious difference should not inhibit couples from pursuing a relationship and marriage. For cultural, social, or religious reasons, some may try to prevent interreligious marriages, but no one disputes their increasing presence in America. Religious communities may seek to preserve their identity, parents may discourage their children from seeing potential marriage partners from another faith, and society may look awkwardly at interreligious combinations; yet despite these disincentives, such unions are increasing, not decreasing, in the United States.
Negotiating difference is never easy, and religious difference presents unique sensitivities and challenges. After all, if someone has been taught all her life that her religion is the "right" one, the implication follows that other religions are somehow, or to some degree, "wrong." Her heart may be telling her this is the right man, but her religious upbringing delivers a different message. However, different does not necessarily imply wrong. The theological thinking that she was exposed to in her religion no doubt centered on a single religious path to God and did not suggest that other available paths may also lead to God. In my view, God cannot be sequestered, and religions should treat one another with greater respect and encourage mutual understanding. Religious provincialism seems to be a natural state of being for many religious communities. By separating themselves from "the other," they can more easily ensure their own doctrine.
Clearly, the statistics support the notion that religious unity affords greater stability to marriages. Nevertheless, not everyone finds the love of their life at church. Social and professional circles foster contact with a wide diversity of people who come from a variety of religious backgrounds. In America, people fall in love with all kinds of people. The tradition of marriage for love in the United States allows greater autonomy for those who wish to pursue marriage, but its lack of restrictions also sometimes complicates the process of choosing a spouse.
Different theologies have engendered different religious identities, identities that often pit one religious person or religious community against another. These theologies often clash into one another in awkward and painful ways when persons from different religions contemplate and/or enter into marriage. Some prefer to circle the wagons and protect the purity of their religious identity at all costs. However, this strategy works only imperfectly unless strict vigilance and enforcement accompany it. Even when it succeeds, it can lead to a xenophobia that separates and distinguishes the religious community even from its American neighbors. Unless the members of the community live in close proximity to one another, maintaining religious purity usually becomes problematic. Some may wish to promote exclusively intrareligious marriages for reasons of religious purity. Others may want to protect the ethnic identity of the community. Each of these objectives has an internally coherent logic as long as purity does not imply prejudice. No one faults communities for preferring "their own kind." And, indeed, these congruent combinations often work best. If the preference implies denigration of those who are religiously different, then it casts a different shadow over the community. Religion provides a rich dimension of commonality for couples and thus accords a legitimate priority when seeking a spouse. Shared dimensions lay the foundation for harmony in a marriage. Differences bring novelty and often expand the horizons of each partner, but they also present obstacles.
The obstacle of religious difference must be taken seriously, but it should not be considered insurmountable. Most religious communities do not teach their adherents how to negotiate religious difference. Instead, they create theologies of separation and pastoral practices that cater to their own and largely ignore the religiously "other" or treat them as an aberration. They think and act as if God has been revealed exclusively to them, even though they know the world is religiously plural. However, those who believe differently from them are not about to disappear, and ignoring them fosters ignorance that, as we have seen, time and again leads to caricatures and misunderstanding. The time to think about religious difference is before marriage. However, the time for love is before and during marriage, and that can be the characteristic that makes all the difference.
July 26, 2010; 5:01 PM ET
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Posted by: big_oil | July 28, 2010 1:48 PM
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