The search for common ground

At holiday time, interfaith couples can teach the nation about getting along with those of different religions

In the Shipley-Harris house in North Haven, Conn., December means Christmas, and Christmas means decorations. Hundreds of them. On counters and tables. On the six-foot Christmas tree. Nearly every nook and cranny is filled with holiday color.

But this year, as Vivian Shipley and her husband, Ed Harris, think about the holiday season, they're also thinking about Sept. 11 and why, once again, the perversion of religion has led to violence.

"So many atrocities have been committed in the name of religion," says Mr. Harris. "We'd all be so much better off if we stopped labeling ourselves 'a Christian' or 'a Muslim,' and learned to get along."

Harris knows something about getting along with people of different faiths. After all, he is Jewish, and his wife is Christian.

For them, the interfaith issue - in a marriage or a nation - boils down to two important precepts: Focus on similarities, rather than differences, and work toward the common good.

"I define myself first as an American," says Harris. When he and Ms. Shipley were married in 1981, he focused not on their different religious backgrounds, but on the fact that "we both worshiped the same God, just in different ways."

His wife agrees, adding that both Judaism and Christianity emphasize certain basic values: family, education, taking care of the weak, the old, and the sick. "We shared the same set of values, the same morals," she explains, and this was a top priority, especially since she had three young sons from a previous marriage. "Ed always put the boys first, and that was more important than whether he accompanied me to church."

"Religion has never been an issue with us," says Harris, who considers himself "a spiritual Jew, but not a very observant one." Still, this does not mean there have been no compromises. When the two were newlyweds, they, like many interfaith couples, had to negotiate certain issues.

Some decisions were easy. Shipley, who regularly attended a Congregational church, would continue going to church, and the boys would attend Sunday school as well. (Both spouses believed that a religious education was important.)

Harris, who had attended an Orthodox synagogue until age 10, and then a Conservative temple, would accompany the family to Christmas and Easter services. But he would not join them on a regular basis.

Harris understands that some might find it odd that he enjoys Christmas with the family, but does not light a menorah. "I love the whole Christmas season," he says, including the annual "argument" over which tree to buy and how to hang the ornaments.

For Harris and Shipley, the matter always circles back to their shared God and shared values. "When I go to church services with the family," he says, "I'm struck by the commonalities between the two traditions."

Harris does not view Jesus the way his wife does, but that doesn't bother him. "What's important is that you worship; how is not so important."

Clearly, Shipley and Harris have found a solution that works for them. But, say social scientists and theologians, one solution does not fit every interfaith family, and many interfaith marriages do not survive. Indeed, the divorce rate among interfaith couples is said to be higher than the national average.

Muslim-Christian accommodation

That fact does not frighten Muhammad and Jessica Haider of Braintree, Mass. The couple, who are Muslim and Catholic respectively, have been happily married for a year and a half.

The two are looking forward to this year's holiday season, which for them began this past Sunday, on Eid Al-fitr, a day of feasting and celebration that follows Ramadan, a month of fasting and reflection.

"We have much to celebrate," says Mr. Haider, who goes by his middle name, Ali. After Eid comes Mr. Haider's birthday (Dec. 24) and then Christmas.

Eid is a fairly simple celebration, he says: Mosque in the morning and then a big meal with his uncles and cousins.

Christmas is spent with Mrs. Haider's mother, several aunts and uncles, their spouses, and lots of cousins. "There are usually 25 or 30 of us," says Mrs. Haider, "and lots of joking and lots of food, especially desserts."

The couple puts up a Christmas tree in their apartment, but not until after Eid.

Mr. Haider, who attended Catholic schools in his native Pakistan, enjoys the tree and the exchanging of Christmas presents. He acknowledges that some Muslims do not approve of either custom, since they are not specifically sanctioned by the Koran.

But in his opinion: "The Christmas tree is just an expression of feeling, and the way that you celebrate brings you happiness. Gifts bring people closer to each other, and holidays are about getting together and building better relationships."

Both believe that the keys to a harmonious marriage - and a harmonious nation - are listening to one another and learning to embrace differences.

"I grew up in a very small town," says Mrs. Haider, "and everyone always talked about 'those people' [meaning foreigners], but no one actually knew 'those people.' Americans need to make the effort to get to know other cultures, to ask, 'What do you believe?' "

Her husband stresses that it's important to understand and respect a spouse's religious beliefs. "Religion is what makes you bright. It's what makes you glow. Why would you take that away from someone?" he asks.

The couple's love is another thing that makes them "glow," and they say that taking good care of each other is a top priority. "You must be good to the person next to you," Mr. Haider concludes. "That is how you make society better."

Ali S. Asani, professor of Indo-Muslim languages and culture at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., might not speak in such romantic terms, but he does agree that making room for other religious viewpoints is important.

He says that interfaith couples such as the Haiders can be important examples of "pluralism" in a post-Sept. 11 world, demonstrating the inclusive teachings of the Koran, the Muslim scripture: "that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are essentially based on the same principles and are all revealed by one God."

Most sociologists believe that the number of interfaith unions will continue to increase in the United States.

Currently, 50 percent of Jews marry non-Jews, and half of Catholics marry non-Catholics, according to the Journal of Marriage & the Family. In 1997, 30 percent of the marriages blessed by the Catholic Church involved interfaith couples, according to the Official Catholic Directory.

As these trends continue, say sociologists, they will reshape the social landscape. The increasing number of interfaith couples is already impacting religious institutions in the US, says Wade Clark Roof, chair of the department of religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

"New patterns are emerging," he says. "I ... doubt that specific congregations for interfaith couples would emerge. But churches and synagogues are already accommodating these realities, and will continue to do so."

Reform Judaism, for instance, has 14 outreach directors across the US who work with synagogues to help them to be welcoming of interfaith families.

Ronnie Friedland and Edmund Case of Newton, Mass., know firsthand about the accommodations mentioned by Professor Roof. Each is part of an interfaith family, and both have been active in interfaith outreach for years. Together they have co-edited a new book, "The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life" (Jewish Lights, $18.95).

It gently encourages interfaith couples to establish Jewish homes and to raise their children with one religion, not two. This, according to Mr. Case and Ms. Friedland, is less confusing for children, and allows a solid religious grounding. But, they add, it is also crucial for interfaith families to respect and honor the traditions of both sides of the family.

Uncomfortable beginnings

This may not always be easy, especially in the beginning. Friedland and Case each married Christians in the 1970s, and both raised their children as Jews. They celebrated Hanukkah, but not Christmas. However, they did attend Christmas dinners at their in-laws' home.

"My in-laws were always very good to me," says Friedland, who is now divorced, "and they were very accepting of our decision to raise the children as Jews." But taking part in their holiday celebrations seemed very unnatural at first.

"I felt as if I were betraying Judaism just by being there," she says, adding that the Christmas tree made her especially uncomfortable.

"I saw it as a religious symbol, and it reminded me of the fact that Jews are still a minority in this country. We were different, and I felt guilty just for going over 'to the other side.' "

Case, who is still happily married, had a similar reaction when he attended Christmas dinners at his in-laws' house.

"The tree really freaked me out," he says. "It is such an icon and a reminder [to me] of prior times when Jews were persecuted by Christians. I never did talk with my parents about those dinners."

But over time, Friedland and Case both became more at ease with their in-laws' traditions.

"I realized," she says, "that Christmas was not [necessarily celebrated as] a religious holiday. It was family time, and that by taking part, I was not affirming the divinity of Jesus."

Case agrees. He began to relax, he explains, and even to enjoy participating in his in-laws' Christmas celebrations when he realized "that Christmas did not have an impact on my children's religious identity. What at first feels strange does get easier," he says.

That, perhaps, is one of the most valuable lessons interfaith couples can share. Inclusiveness is another.

Darrel H. Jodock of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., who focuses on religious trends in America and Jewish-Christian relations, says that interfaith couples make important contributions to society - and not just during the holiday season.

"I view a family as a small community," says Mr. Jodock. "And in a family, a person begins to learn to negotiate the complex relationships that we face in a larger community.

"Interfaith families who take the religious development of their children seriously can model healthy and respectful pluralism. They can live out what should be the goal for society as a whole."

Tips for making interfaith marriages work

Interfaith couples often do well in the early stages of their relationship. But problems can surface later on, especially after a couple has children. That's when many people realize that religion is more important to them than it has been in the past. It is also a time when unresolved issues come to the forefront.

Patricia C. Feldtmose, a licensed marriage and family therapist who lives near Hartford, Conn., often looks at issues of faith as they relate to her clients' problems. Frequently, she says, couples come to her thinking, "I'm right, he's wrong. Convince him that I'm right."

Her job, she says, is to help couples get past the right/wrong mentality and to focus on "What can I support? What can we agree to disagree about?"

Often, she says, couples must work through loyalty and power issues, especially as they relate to their own upbringing. Couples must ask themselves: "What were the rules in my family? How did my parents relate? And do those models still work in today's world?"

Negotiation is important in any relationship, she says, but in interfaith marriages, it is crucial.

Ms. Feldtmose tries to help clients rediscover what brought them together in the first place. And she tries to help them find a "we-ness" that can't be threatened.

But for couples to really make a go of it, she says, "there must be some shifting in thinking to see that being flexible does not jeopardize their 'standing with the creator.' You can believe fervently, but fervency doesn't make you more right...."

Feldtmose often uses the analogy of the seven blind men who encounter an elephant. Each man can feel one part of the animal - the tail, the trunk, a leg - and each thinks that he understands everything about the elephant. But each knows only a small part of the story.

Couples need to look for the entire story, too, Feldtmose says, not just their parts of it. "You must try to understand why the other person is doing what she is. Often, we project motives onto the other person."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.