The Potentials and Pitfalls of Interfaith Marriages

The Potentials and Pitfalls of Interfaith Marriages

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The Potentials and Pitfalls of Interfaith Marriages

As more Americans enter the cultural melting pot and cross ethnic and social barriers, the rate of interfaith marriages has increased, not because persons are less committed to their faith traditions, but because there is a new reality in which old barriers are breaking down. In the western hemisphere the issue of interfaith marriage is widely debated among all religious traditions. Many conservative denominations believe that, "A believer marrying or intending to marry an unbeliever is clearly going against the expressed commandment of God" (J.J. Lim) . Other religious denominations view intermarriages as, "The unity within diversity that adds a richness and beauty to marriage and to life" (Rev. Tom Chulak) . Regardless of one's religious denomination, a person's religion comprises the framework of meaning and the source of his or her values. When two people marry they bring with them their strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears, and their religious dimension that plays a significant role in their relationship, decisions and responses to each other. For this reason, many issues and challenges arise within interfaith marriages that require accommodations by each person including how the couple will deal with their religious difference, what religion they will teach to their children, and how their respective religious communities will respond to interfaith marriages. No two couples manage the adjustments that need to be made within an interfaith marriage in the same way. This is because there is no standard or typical Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim. Their knowledge, commitment, practice and attachment to the respective religious traditions, and their knowledge of, attitude and affinity toward the religious tradition of their spouses are so different that no two couples have the same experience.

There are a number of factors that influence the rate of persons marrying outside of their religion, which are pertinent to all denominations and religions. The number of eligible marriage partners who are of the same faith group is limited and therefore it is more likely for individuals to look outside of their faith group for a spouse. Increasing enrollment at colleges and universities puts more young people of different faiths away from home and into social contact. Movement from ethnic neighborhoods into the more heterogeneous suburbs lowers barriers to interfaith dating. As secular influences gain strength and church attendance rates fall, young people are being increasingly raised in homes that have little religious commitment, which has been shown to increase the rate of interfaith marriages.

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With the decline in attendance at Sunday-school classes, the gradual drop in church attendance, religion is probably decreasing slowly in significance among youth. The children of religiously mixed marriages are more likely to have interfaith marriages themselves, so the rate will naturally increase with time. As increasing value and tolerance is given to religious diversity, people are liable to be more willing to consider a mixed-faith marriage.

All marriages and other lifetime partnerships are mixed relationships. Sometimes the two spouses are of different religions, nationalities, races, ethnic groups, economic levels, etc. The more significant differences in background that a couple has, the greater are the challenges that need to be resolved before and during marriage. Sometimes their efforts to reach a consensus can draw the couple closer together. With other couples, their differences could drive them apart.

The way in which interfaith couples handle religious differences varies widely from family to family. There are no general rules that fit all or even most interfaith couples and the degree of differences and amount of conflict vary widely. However, there are seven common techniques used by interfaith couples in order to resolve differences in a marriage. One technique is that both spouses withdraw from organized religious activity. They might stop attending church and avoid religious discussions within their marriage. This has the advantage of minimizing friction over differences in religious tradition, but it may not be sustainable. Membership and activity within a faith group may be such an integral part of one or both spouses' spirituality that they cannot suppress it for long. The second approach is that one spouse converts to the religion of the other. This has the advantage of avoiding friction due to religious differences, but only if the conversion is sincere and accepted without pressure. The third technique is that both spouses convert to a compromise religion. Here, both spouses leave their religious tradition and settle on a new faith group. This could be a denomination "half-way" between their original religions. The fourth option is referred to as multi-faith in which both spouses affiliate with both denominations. Each would support the other in their religious activity. If church regulations permit, they might even join each other's church. This is not in an attempt to homogenize religious differences, but rather to honor the sacredness and uniqueness of each faith. The fifth approach is for the two spouses to merge their religious traditions, and essentially combine the two faith groups within their family. Although such couples are showing the type of compromise necessary to achieve unity many conservative denominations condemn such compromises. The sixth technique involves each spouse, having a high level of commitment to their faith, choosing to follow their past religious heritage without any form of compromise. This is considered the least desirable approach by many couples because it reduces the amount of time that they spend together, diminishes the level of companionship in their marriage, and poses difficulties when raising children. The seventh technique is based on the fact that organized religion plays a minimal role in the lives of one or both spouses and they might feel that their commitment to religion is so low that they would not want to spend the time and energy needed to resolve their religious differences. For this, religion takes a back seat in the lives of the partners, by their having little or nothing to do with the religious communities they came from, and by not discussing religion at home. This is often disrupted with the arrival of children. Even those who do not practice their religion oftentimes become deeply conscious of their religious identity when they start a family because they want their children to have experiences similar to their own.

The arrival of children is liable to increase the level of religious tension in the family. This dialogue between spouses may lead to a mutually acceptable arrangement, however, it may lead to fierce arguments, and even break-ups. The arrangements made for the children differ from family to family. When a couple has children they will have to decide in which faith the child will be educated. Some couples educate their children in both faiths, male children in the religion of the father, and girls in their mother's faith (or vice versa), their first born in the father's religion, the second in the mother's faith, etc., or they educate their children in a compromise faith. The idealistic approach is to expose children to both religions in the hope that they, when old enough, will choose from among the two faiths, or to bring them up multi-faith. Different faith groups advocate varying beliefs and practices concerning family size, abortion, birth control, artificial insemination, diet, food preparation, sexual abstinence, the sharing of power between the spouses, the sharing of decision making with the children, etc. However, the religious community offers little to no help to couples dealing with these problems related to children and other issues that arise concerning interfaith marriages, and if these factors are not addressed until after the couple has started their family conflict and friction could arise.

Although a new human reality has begun to emerge in which old barriers are breaking down and interfaith marriage rates have begun to increase, the attitudes of religious communities continue to show that many inter-religious communities treat one another as mutually exclusive or rival groups. Therefore, the regulations governing inter-religious marriages are primarily designed to discourage and prevent such marriages, or when they do happen, to use them as opportunities for conversion. All religious communities recognize that there is a new, irreparable inter-religious reality that is emerging in today's society, however, the attitudes and rules that govern such marriages show little recognition of this new reality.

None of the religious traditions have any meaningful way of addressing the series of difficult issues that arise in interfaith marriages, such as: the type of marriage ceremony that should be performed, religion in the home, the public practice of their respective religions, the religious affiliation of their children, religious education of the children, festivals to be celebrated, rites to be observed, etc. No Christian religions have any type of plan to prepare a couple before marriage or provide pastoral help after marriage. In Buddhism and Hinduism there isn't even a concept of an organized pastoral accompaniment. In Christianity, where this concept is an important component of the ministry, the help received is based entirely on the minister or priest involved. Because of this, it is oftentimes difficult for couples to find any sustained help from the church or the church community. According to Wesley Ariarajah, there are three reasons for the seclusion of interfaith couples from their respective religious communities . First, especially within the Christian and Islamic traditions, when a person decides to marry a Buddhist or a Hindu there is a sense of betrayal among the members of the community involved. It is interpreted that the person wants to leave the religious community, even though this may not be the case. The second reason is attributed to the behavior of the couple. Having possibly faced initial resistance from parents and relatives, and obstinancy from their religious community, couples may lose all confidence in these sources of support and no longer seek their advice and guidance, even when their marriage is in trouble. The third reason is that spiritual leaders, especially Christian clergy, oftentimes are reluctant to maintain contact with the respective partner in an interfaith marriage because they are concerned about being accused of interference.

There are a variety of issues and challenges that result from interfaith marriages including children, religious education, practice of religion at home, and dealing with resistance from religious communities. These are unsolvable problems only if they are not addressed or discussed. Many who marry across faith traditions have enough ingenuity, trust and love to resolve the problems that arise. Many couples show a healthy respect for each other's faith and support each other in their practice of it. Some couples also manage to relate to each other's religious communities. Some make decisions in advance about how they will bring up their children, so that the arrival of children does not cause a crisis for the family. There are even occasions where couples enter into a deeper dialogue about their respective religious traditions and learn more about each other's faith backgrounds. According to James Pike, "An initial diversity of religious faith, which may at the outset present more difficulty than a more homogeneous situation, has at least the advantage of bringing the matter of religion in the marriage to the fore, with the result that if a solution is found the marriage is usually better grounded religiously than that where the couple has not been forced to take so seriously the spiritual aspect of their union" . There are potentials and pitfalls involved with interfaith marriages. There is a need for a high degree of patience, understanding, and skill in dealing with each other, the children, and religious community where two distinct religious affiliations are involved. However, if the adjustments are made honestly and in love, with a determination to solve them, then the marriage will most likely succeed.


Ariarajah, Wesley. Not Without My Neighbour . Geneva, Switzerland: WCC Publications, 1999.

Besanceney, Paul. Interfaith Marriages: Who and Why . New Haven, Connecticut: College and University Press, 1970.

Genne, Elizabeth and William. Building a Marriage on Two Alters . Public Affairs Committee, 1971

Kreykamp, Father A.M.J., et al. Protestant-Catholic Marriages . Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Pike, James. If You Marry Outside Your Faith . New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1954.

Simon, Paul and Jeanne. Protestant-Catholic Marriages Can Succeed . New York: Association Press, 1967.

Robinson, B.A. Inter-Faith Marriages . 16 March 1999. (6 March 2003).

Rose, Anne. Beloved Strangers: Interfaith Families in Nineteenth Century America . London, England: Harvard University Press, 2001.

B.A. Robinson, Inter-Faith Marriages , 16 March 1999. . (6 March 2003).

B.A. Robinson, Inter-Faith Marriages. 16 March 1999. (6 March 2003).

S. Wesley Ariarajah, Not Without My Neighbour . (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1999), 92-99.

James Pike, If You Marry Outside Your Faith . (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1954), 26.
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