Successful couples share same religious or moral vision
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."
Is interfaith marriage good for American society? Is it good for religion? What is lost -and gained -when religious people intermarry?
Contemporary marriage is swathed in confusion and a near-total lack of social consensus. We are not just unsure about who should get married, but about what marriage is and whether it is even important or valuable. This problem extends far beyond the US and is a general affliction of all western nations. I would describe it as a result of a complex combination of the weakening of our religious traditions, the rise of expressive individualism, and the insidious effects of a market mentality in which all choices are in principle consumer choices that can be reversed the next time we go shopping. I deal with these complex issues in my book, Getting Marriage Right (Baker, 2004).
No religious tradition has the right to inscribe its own vision of love, sex, and marriage as the normative vision for everyone in our pluralistic country, and these days none has the power to do so in any case. I can therefore only describe what I say about these matters within my own religious community as a Baptist and evangelical minister and ethicist. I have had the great joy of preparing several dozen couples for marriage and then performing their weddings. These experiences help shape the comments that follow.
I teach the couples I marry that for the devoted Christian, all of life is to be lived in service to Jesus Christ. Every decision must be considered in light of its fidelity to God's will as revealed in Christ and in the Bible. Decisions regarding whether to marry, whom to marry, and how to live out the obligations of marriage are among the most important decisions in the life of a Christian, and must be undertaken under the authority of Christ.
Jesus speaks of marriage as optional, but binding once undertaken. His teachings on the permanence of marriage are quite stern, and they are echoed elsewhere in the New Testament. Any factors that structurally undercut a lasting marital covenant therefore ought to raise a red flag. Data shows that religious intermarriage is one of those factors--among many others.
Marriage is at one level an invitation to bring one other person into your closest circle of intimacy to have the greatest effect on the direction of your life. A general principle taught throughout the Bible is to be extraordinarily careful about what kinds of friends we put around us who are close enough to have an impact on the values we hold dear, and on our relationship with the God to whom we must one day give an account. In this sense, either religious intermarriage, or one might say moral intermarriage (marriage to someone who fundamentally does not share one's moral values), can be deeply problematic.
Of course, I tell couples that marrying someone who shares one's religious faith in a vague way is not at all sufficient. It goes so much deeper than whether a spouse prays to the same God or goes to a Baptist church rather than a Catholic church or Jewish synagogue; it has more to do with issues such as the level of faith commitment, the seriousness of ongoing religious practice, and the way in which religious moral values will genuinely shape lifestyle and childrearing. It's about whether the couple fundamentally shares a vision of what life is for and who it is for.
In this sense, I can think of religiously intermarried couples who are actually more "equally yoked" than "same-religion" couples who do not share the same religious or moral vision of life in any significant sense. A vague coating of shared religion can cover sharply divergent values, while people who worship differently can actually share a very deep set of moral values. Religion is about more than where one goes to pray on the weekend, but about what "gods" one really worships with one's life.
All of this being said, intermarriages do happen, and clergy have the responsibility to offer the best available counsel to help strengthen those marriages. Many last a happy lifetime, for which we can be thankful, even while hesitating before the signficant challenges that religious intermarriage presents.
July 27, 2010; 7:49 AM ET
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