When asked about the significance of her daughter, Chelsea, marrying Marc Mezvinsky, who is Jewish, and thus being married in an interfaith union, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded, “Over the years, so many of the barriers that prevented people from getting married, crossing lines of faith or color or ethnicity have just disappeared.”
True, the barriers have disappeared, but serious difficulties remain.
While some scholars argue that mixed-faith unions “serve as a refiner’s fire” that make the relationships stronger, the statistical evidence indicates this is all too frequently not the outcome. The American Religious Identification Survey of 2001 noted that mixed marriages are three times more likely to end in divorce or separation than same-religion marriages. According to Tina Molly Lang in Associated Content, studies of marriages between Jews and Christians indicate that they face even higher risks, with a greater than 40 percent chance of divorce within five years. Even so, estimates are that up to 50 percent of those in the Jewish faith intermarry, which is viewed as a grave threat by many in the Jewish community who watch the continual shrinkage of their numbers with dismay. Catholic research indicates increases in interfaith marriages among those of the Catholic faith as well.
Observers have noted that both Clinton and Mezvinsky were raised in homes where religious faith was central to family life and questioned whether one or the other would convert and how they would reconcile the practice of their different faiths.
While intermarriage indicates a “high degree of assimilation and tolerance,” it also means “the declining role of faith and religious identity in the minds of many young Americans,” according to Allan Schwartz, in the “Emotional Challenges of Interfaith Marriage.” In her classic book, The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts, Judith Wallerstein reports that couples set the stage for conflict, bitterness, and misunderstanding as they make the emotional and psychological separation from their families’ religious heritage. Problems begin as early as the planning of the wedding ceremony, where different traditions are in conflict, especially when certain symbols of faith “evoke powerful emotional responses.”
Questions about intermarriage face an increasing number of couples today, as Mrs. Clinton rightly observed. According to the General Social Survey, a quarter of American households are now mixed-faith families — an increase from only 15 percent in 1988. In their forum on the issue, The Washington Post published an essay by Janet Edwards, a Presbyterian minister from Pittsburgh, who said, “The bonds of interfaith marriage strengthen the tolerant fabric of American life,” and claimed, “Society owes every couple the best possible chance at happiness, and that includes having the confidence and support of the community that surrounds them.”
Mrs. Edwards’ comment misses the mark. In a landmark University of Illinois at Chicago study published in Social Science Research in 1993 and quoted in a recent article by the Reverend Albert Mohler, Evelyn L. Lehrer noted that the more conservative faith adherents were not intermarrying “at rates anywhere near the more liberal groups.” Dr. Mohler added, “When the level of doctrinal commitment is low, the barriers to interfaith marriage are correspondingly far less significant.” What this comes down to is that typically traditional “practices” and “activities” are simply adjusted and adapted — this is a gentle way of saying they get “watered down” to the point of irrelevance; central beliefs of committed adherents pose a larger, more difficult challenge, since they are far less amenable to compromise. As noted by Dr. Mohler, theological differences matter, and decisions that are made by a couple over the course of a lifetime — especially in raising children — affect the marriage.
Worldview perspectives, it turns out, are important on a daily basis. The Christian worldview is rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — making him the Lord over the Christian’s life. The Christian faith — indeed, virtually all religious faith, if taken seriously — is inherently exclusive because it is the lens through which all of life is viewed and shaped.
If doctrine is more than just cultural observances, there is no way it can merely be a casual, insignificant part of a believer’s life. For the true Christian believer, this means a life lived in light of Christ’s singular claim that He is “the way, the truth, and the life.” Taking His claim seriously, that He is the only way to the Father (John 14:6), means that all decisions are made in light of His teaching and commands. This includes His teaching that marriage is intended by God to be a life-long covenant — not just between the couple, but sealed by God and witnessed by fellow believers in the couples’ church community. That said, real Christian marriage includes a commitment to follow Christ, both in lifestyle and in childrearing.
Religion that is not practiced is little more than a set of myths and of no more significance than the fairy tales told to toddlers at bedtime. Faith that does not make demands on behavior is not faith at all. Inevitably, a lack of unity in faith entails multiple problems on both the little and the large issues that couples continuously encounter as they face the task of building a strong, meaningful, harmonious marriage. How could it possibly be otherwise?