By: Marion L. Usher, Ph.D.
“Adam was Jewish and I was raised Mormon. We grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah. We had known of each other our entire lives and were reacquainted on a flight home for Thanksgiving for a truly Hollywood-style story. Our interfaith marriage class greased the wheels of conversation for both of us. After each class, we felt comfortable talking about such challenging issues as children, families, — and Christmas.”
For many who work with interfaith couples and families, the big questions being asked about Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky’s wedding are, who will perform the wedding ceremony? Will the service reflect Chelsea’s Methodist upbringing or Marc’s Jewish faith? Or both? Or neither?
I too am curious about these questions, but I am far more interested in whether Chelsea and Marc have taken the time to answer the central religious questions that will permit them to build a religious life together.
Chelsea and Marc each come from families where religion was an integral part of their lives. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that they too will want religion incorporated in their home. Consequently, a central issue for them, and all interfaith relationships, will be to make choices and to decide precisely how religion will be practiced in the new family they are now establishing.
Choices, we know, always involve losses and gains. In an interfaith relationship the losses stem from the fact that each person comes from a different cultural and religious background, and cannot share the easy familiarity of having grown up in the same religious experience. The acknowledgment of this difference and of the loss of similarity is the first step in the decision making process. Gains can only emerge as the couple grapples with defining ‘what will religion look like in our home?’
The salient question every interfaith couple needs to answer is, “Will we practice both religions equally or will we choose one religion to be the ‘lead religion’ in our home?”
I have coined the term “lead religion” because it describes a sometimes challenging reality: the existence of two religions in the home. Even when there is a conversion, there are still two religions in the home since each person comes from a different religious background, and parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins come from and celebrate different religions. Embracing a “lead religion,” means practicing one religion as the dominant religion in the home, while still respecting the other religion. This is an approach that both honors and welcomes the other religion, a vital decision for any interfaith family.
This article is the first in a series that will cover key issues relevant for interfaith couples. The second will discuss the places interfaith couples can go for help. The third will focus on constructing a religious identity. The fourth will present “best practices” on how to have a successful marriage, and the fifth will present how to create an interfaith wedding ceremony.
Marion L. Usher, Ph.D.