There is a rapid rate of intermarriage among people of different faiths in the United States. Estimates are that 50 percent of Jewish men and women intermarry. Several articles about the Catholic Church have pointed out that many young people have left the Church and have intermarried. These facts are indicative of the high degree of assimilation and tolerance that is practiced in this country. This is taken as evidence of the declining role of faith and religious identity in the minds of many young Americans. Surveys, in fact, show that many do not identify themselves with any religion.
Interfaith marriage usually occurs between one person who is Jewish and another who is Christian. However, there are increasing numbers of young Catholics and Protestants intermarrying. Generally, this is viewed as less difficult for the young couple because of a commonly shared theology and culture. Nevertheless, even among Christian sects, interfaith marriage poses serious problems and creates crises for the couple and their respective families.
Separation and Guilt
According to Judith Wallerstein, author of The Good Marriage: How & Why Love Lasts (Warner Books, 1996), for a marriage to succeed, the young couple must psychologically and emotionally separate from their families of childhood. If the in-laws are against intermarriage, the stage is set for conflict, bitterness and misunderstanding, with damaging and long-lasting consequences for these relationships. Also, such hostility can provoke enormous guilt for the young bride or groom. This guilt makes the task of emotional separation more difficult to achieve.
Perhaps the greatest task of all is coping with feelings of guilt about having left the fold and defied the family. Until recently, there was little help for those who wanted to marry someone from another religion. Many such people agonized over the fact that they were leaving their religious heritage. Many priests, rabbis and ministers who were alarmed at the number of people who appeared to be abandoning the Church and the synagogue reinforced that guilt.
For Jews in particular, there is the guilt of contributing to the possible demise of their religion through the process of assimilation and intermarriage. Intermarriage confronts the Jew with the specter of the Holocaust and the memory of German Jews who believed they were assimilated until Hitler reminded them that they were Jews and not Germans. Here, too, members of the community accuse the person who is about to intermarry of being a Jewish anti-Semite, believing that the reason for the marriage is to escape a Jewish identity. They also blame this individual for contributing to the future disappearance of the Jewish people through intermarriage.
Faith, Conversion, and Religious Identity
The Christian partner does not fare much better. For this person, there can be the problem of coping with latent prejudice, which spills over when the family is faced with this new reality. Then, too, there is the matter of faith. Religious families decry the abandonment of the Catholic or Protestant way and fear for the soul of the individual who is departing from “the one true road to salvation.”
Many families resist the idea of a clergyman from another religion presiding over the wedding ceremony. If it is a Christian/Jewish marriage, they resent the possibility that no mention will be made of Christ. The Church has, in fact, become more tolerant of priests presiding over interfaith weddings, even if the non-Catholic does not convert. However, this tolerance may not allay the fears of religious family members.
All of this becomes even more difficult if one of the families refuses to attend the wedding because of religious differences and disapproval of the match. If the couple tries to appease the resistant family by agreeing to conversion, the other family may become so angry that they will refuse to attend. In some cases, if the couple refuses a religious ceremony of any kind, neither family may attend.
It is generally easier for a couple if one or both partners do not possess strong religious convictions or if one partner is willing to convert. Under those circumstances, the areas of conflict are reduced because the family and religious leaders of the religion to which the individual is converting more easily welcome the one who is converting. Questions of who is to preside over the wedding ceremony and how the children will be raised are automatically resolved.
The one possible exception to a harmonious resolution in these instances is the reaction of the family whose member is leaving the fold to join another religion. In a family where there is no real religious conviction, the problem disappears. In a family committed to their religious heritage and practice, the reality of a member leaving the fold can be traumatizing. It can result in all ties being severed. For example, a practicing Orthodox Jewish family will find the notion of intermarriage impossible to accept. In addition, Orthodox and Conservative rabbis will not preside over interfaith marriages. Similar problems can occur with Catholic and Protestant clergy.
Many young people reject the idea that they must have a religious identity at all. Consequently, they are not interested in traditional marriage ceremonies. This lack of interest is reflected in the fact that they refuse to have clergy from any religion presiding over their weddings. Family members often are angered by this rejection of religion. Nevertheless, the fact that the couple has a shared value system makes it easier for them to cope than for those who come from very diverse backgrounds with different value systems.
There is no more important task in marriage than the achievement of a deep level of intimacy and commitment between the marital partners. According to the Random House Dictionary, the word intimacy refers to the state of two people being close, familiar, affectionate and loving. It reflects a deep understanding and love for the other, with feelings of passion.
While sharing one religious tradition in marriage does not guarantee success in this endeavor (as the divorce statistics indicate), it at least increases the likelihood that two people have a certain mutual understanding because they share a common ethnic or religious background.
With intermarriage, the task of achieving intimacy is all the more daunting, since there is so much that is taken for granted when a person grows up in a particular type of home or community. There are all the nonverbal gestures and facial expressions, the idiomatic sayings and the types of foods and holiday celebrations that characterize a particular cultural experience. There are also the symbols of the different faiths, such as the Cross and the Star of David, which often evoke powerful emotional responses in people.
All of these things, which people of one faith and cultural background can understand and identify with in one another, help to build intimacy. When two people from different backgrounds and faiths come together, there is less common ground. The opportunities for misunderstanding, confusion and hurt feelings are plentiful.
After the Wedding
New challenges emerge when the wedding is over and the couple faces life as husband and wife. A crisis can erupt with the birth of the first child if the couple has not come to some decisions about child rearing, education and religion. People who marry within their faith usually make assumptions about these things based on how they were raised and on a commonality of experiences. Jewish couples assume that male children will be circumcised. Christian couples assume that all their children will be baptized. When the young parents come from different religions, none of these assumptions can be made.
In a Jewish/Christian marriage, a common stumbling block can occur at Christmas. The Christian partner may want to place a tree in the house to celebrate the holiday. The Jewish spouse may object to the tree. Something that seems natural to one partner appears foreign to the other. This is the kind of problem that is easily avoided before marriage but must be confronted sometime afterward.
Embracing Both Religions
One solution, which works for some couples, is to follow the rituals and holiday celebrations of both religions. Among these families, children attend church and synagogue services. They learn about the heritage of both of their parents and can decide for themselves, when they are adults, which faith they prefer to follow.
There have been a number of commentators who have stated that the mental health and well-being of children depend upon their having a clear religious and ethnic identity. In addition, the practice of religion has been found to help children avoid the influences of drugs, alcohol and adolescent sexual relations. These commentators miss the point: It is less the presence of a single religious identity in the home and more the parental style of discipline and involvement with the children and with each other that produces well-adjusted children. Research shows that children whose parents were firm, consistent, involved and affectionate did best in school and in their relationships later in life. The particular religious affiliation of one or both parents is less important to good adjustment than the fact that the parents love and support their children.
Help for Those Who Need It
Interfaith marriages can and do succeed. Many couples, however, experience significant and lasting benefits from professional support and counseling both before and during marriage. Fortunately, help is now available from many sources in the mental health and the religious communities to assist young couples facing the emotional challenges of an interfaith marriage.