Chelsea Clinton, raised Methodist, and Marc Mezvinsky, Jewish, will wed this weekend. Statistics show that 37 percent of Americans have a spouse of a different faith. Statistics also show that couples in interfaith marriages are “three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/04/AR2010060402011.html) Is interfaith marriage good for American society? Is it good for religion? What is lost -and gained -when religious people intermarry?
Traditionally the various faiths of the world have been suspicious of each other, so it’s not really a surprise that interfaith marriages have high divorce rates. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean that you don’t harbor distrust at some level, in a secret compartment of the heart. If your family has conditioned you to believe that yours is the only true faith, a second element is added. Who wants to sacrifice part of themselves to please another person? When parents advise their children not to marry outside the faith, they aren’t passing on wisdom; more likely they are reminding their children not to stray from us-versus-them thinking.
The more productive topic is how to avoid such divorces. To do that, a young couple must find common ground in spiritual matters. This is happening already to some extent. The ties of dogma and orthodoxy have been weakening for decades. Yet there is something deep that needs to be solved: the paradox of faith. I would venture that faith itself can put strains on a marriage (I’m not working from pure instinct here: statistics show that the bible belt, where church attendance is highest, also enjoys the country’s highest divorce rate whereas the Northeast, which is much less religious — and also more educated, an important factor — enjoys the lowest). Faith becomes negative when it binds the mind into set, inflexible beliefs.
Sadly, this is the only type of faith that most religious people know, the type that prevents them from thinking about God or the soul on their own. The paradox, in simplest terms, is that having been told the right answers, people of faith feel less motivated to undertake their own spiritual journey. They aren’t troubled enough by doubt or be spurred by curiosity. Their chief dilemma is lapsed faith; they feel guilty for being less strict than generations which came before. (This is a generalization, of course; some spiritual journeys do begin on a strong basis of faith.) A faith composed of right answers sounds appealing, but marriages are about negotiation. That’s the bottom line, and when your spouse asks you to negotiate about religion, a small voice in the back of your mind is likely to guilt trip you. Religious practice feels literally like sacred ground.
Yet one person’s sacred ground is another person’s high horse. Couples must mutually decide to abandon the secret sureness of being right. This can’t be a tug of war. Nor can it be the sort of passive giving in that years later turns into active resentment. Faith is about conscience, so every step needs to be taken with a clear conscience. As love matures in a marriage, a shared spirituality becomes easier, because in your spouse you see aspects of the divine: love, trust, hope, and comfort. These serve as the basis for a practical kind of faith; God has acquired a human face. I suspect that when couples split on religious grounds — or at least cite religion in a long list of complaints — the real problem is that love didn’t mature. The issues brought into the union have continued to fester, generally out of sight.
If your faith becomes part of judging against someone else, it can’t help but be divisive. Faith becomes a uniting force instead when it renounces judgment, opens the way for shared belief, and hopefully expands into a true spiritual partnership. Those same elements are needed on any search for higher reality, whether you undertake it alone or with other people. The joy of reaching the goal together is a great enticement, but it will remain an illusion until the paradox of faith has been solved.
Published at Washington Post On Faith