By Melody Fox
Chelsea Clinton’s upcoming Methodist-Jewish nuptials prompted me to reflect on interreligious marriage as an important part of my generation’s – and our country’s – coming of age story. Those of us who grew up with the notoriously private Chelsea (I was born in the same year she was) have watched her bloom from an awkward adolescent into a sophisticated, dignified, successful young woman.
Chelsea’s young adult life, notwithstanding her status as American royalty and the subject of much public scrutiny, mirrors the experience of many in her generation: after trying out a first job, getting a master’s degree, and choosing a career, she is ready to commit to a life partner. The fact that the partner of her choice belongs to a different faith tradition from her own is something that many couples can relate to.
I relate to Chelsea from my own experience of growing up in a Catholic/Jewish family and now, in my married life, as part of an extended family of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Interfaith dialogue is an intrinsic and essential part of my life. The first time my parents met an imam was at my wedding. Now they know about Ramadan, have read Rumi, and most importantly, have a new understanding and respect for Islam.
Interreligious marriage has become increasingly common. More than 25 percent of U.S households are reported to be mixed-faith, up from 15 percent in 1988. Many of us know couples in interreligious marriages today, and where it once raised eyebrows (as I felt it did in my small Georgia town), it has now become a new norm in our globalized, diverse society. Changing immigration patterns, wider social boundaries and greater knowledge of different religions have led to increasing numbers of interreligious marriages.
Some statistics indicate that interfaith marriages are less likely to succeed. Naomi Schaefer Riley notes that couples in interfaith marriages are three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who married within the same religious tradition.
Other studies show a more positive outcome. Last year, intrigued by the same questions driving the debate on the On Faith page, the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, where I work, conducted a study on interreligious marriage in America. Led by Dean Chester Gillis, ten undergraduate student fellows in the Doyle Building Tolerance Initiative completed a study of 45 couples in Christian/Jewish, Christian/Muslim, Christian/Hindu, and Christian/Buddhist marriages. The research results were hopeful about the benefits that interreligious marriage brings to many couples, and the potential positive implications it can have on wider society.
While we heard of common challenges and tensions in each couple’s marriage, mainly centered on children, family, holiday and cultural issues, our sample group offered a valuable perspective into the lives of people conducting interreligious and intercultural dialogue every day. At the micro level of their own families, these couples are making their interreligious marriages work.
Couples that had already sorted out a strategy for how they would celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, or decided that their children would study both Islam and Christianity, or had designed a Christian and Hindu wedding ceremony to please large extended families, found that the average trials of marriage were less challenging in comparison. Successful couples had already passed through many spiritual and cultural minefields before taking their vows – minefields that have destroyed many couples who skipped the stress and saved the tough conversations for later, when it was often too late.
The Undergraduate Fellows found evidence in their interviews to conclude with hope for the future, noting:
“While the challenges of family and community could be overwhelming, toleration and acceptance of their spouse’s religious tradition helped these couples to confront the challenges. These lessons of tolerance and communication can inform global interactions as well – understanding can undermine conflict.”
The constant process of debate and dialogue over matters of faith and spirituality in my family life has enriched my worldview and inspired me to work towards the common good. I strongly believe that while tolerance and understanding of the “Other” starts at home, it can rapidly expand to influence friends, colleagues, and community.
Nearly ten years after 9/11, we long for a more tolerant and peaceful society, where we can discuss differences from a foundation based on true knowledge about other religions and cultures, and not based in fear and ignorance. Unfortunately, we have a long journey ahead. There are preachers, prominent politicians, journalists, and others that persist in linking Islam with terrorism – challenging the building of new mosques from Ground Zero to Murfreesboro, TN, calling the religion a cult, and calling for Sharia to be outlawed in, of all places, Oklahoma. A primetime TV commentator has compared Islam’s holy book to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and a member of the U.S. Legislature advocated the nuking of Mecca. In the past few months, mosques in Iowa, Florida, Georgia and New York have been targeted with physical attack. Sadly, nearly ten years after 9/11, fear of the “Other” threatening the American way of life still dominates our discourse, daily news, and daily life.
In this challenging environment, positive examples of interfaith cooperation must be lifted up and disseminated widely. They are happening throughout the country, but receive little media attention. For example, a minister offered his church to the congregation of a Tennessee mosque that was targeted during a recent protest.
In our survey of interfaith marriages, rather than focusing on the challenges they heard in the interviews (such as the refusal of one bride’s father to attend her interfaith wedding and other tales of alienated family members) the students pulled forth a lesson we can all learn from, whatever our views on marriage and the importance of religion to it. They found that the key to successful interreligious marriage lies in communication and compromise.
This is sound advice that all of us should follow in a nation built upon ideals that celebrate diversity, pluralism and religious freedom. Succumbing to stereotypes, fear of the unknown, and mass hysteria bred by ignorance will cause Americans to divorce themselves from the founding principles of our nation that pledged us to offer freedom from persecution and freedom of worship and religion to all. Like it or not, we’ll be living together as a nation until death do us part, so let’s work out our differences amicably.
Melody Fox is Director of Programs and Operations at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.