Interfaith America: 'Being both' is a rising trend in the US
Interfaith marriages that remain with mixed-faith partners has shot up to 40 percent, from 20 percent in the 1960s. And raising interfaith families is increasingly common and supported by a growing number of grass-roots organizations.
Kensington, Md. — Jean Tutt was a freshman at Harper College in Palatine, Ill., when she met Brian Saucier. He was not at all her type, she recalls – but not because of their different religions. He had long hair and wore a denim jacket with skulls on it; she had more the button-down cardigan style. He was a member of the College Republicans, while she was a fairly uninterested Democrat. Considering all this, the fact that she was Jewish and he was Roman Catholic barely registered.
Then the two got to know each other better. Jean realized she liked Brian’s sarcastic sense of humor and found him to be incredibly kind. They started dating, and by the time they graduated, they’d decided to marry.
And then, the religions did matter. While they hadn’t cared much about their faith differences while dating – the attitude still held by the majority of Americans under 35 – they wanted to get a better sense of how their mixed family would work before they tied the knot. Neither wanted to convert – the standard solution a generation ago when people of different faiths wanted to get married. And neither wanted to drop his or her religious affiliations, which is another typical path today for the rapidly growing number of American interfaith couples.
Then they discovered the Jewish-Catholic Couples Dialogue Group – a support network for interfaith couples that was connected to the Chicago Interfaith Family School, which taught both Catholicism and Judaism. The people involved were welcoming, and had a message nearly unthinkable a generation ago: It was possible, even advantageous, to raise a family that was actively and faithfully two religions.
It was a huge relief, Jean recalls. “We thought, ‘Oh, now we can get engaged.’ ”
Soon, Brian and Jean, standing before a rabbi and a priest, under a chuppah in the Hotel Intercontinental in downtown Chicago, found themselves at what many scholars say is the growing, extreme edge of the new interfaith America. The Jew and the Catholic were looking toward a future in which they, and their children, would “be both.”
Over the past 50 years, the United States has seen a dramatic growth in both the number and acceptance of interfaith marriages. In what scholars see as a steady progression since the 1960s, the country has morphed from a society in which religious intermarriage was relatively rare (1 in 10 marriages in the beginning of the 20th century) to one today in which it is more likely that couples marrying will come from different religious backgrounds. While a generation ago a marriage between a Catholic and a Jew would raise the ire of not a few family and clergy members, today it is generally uncontroversial; in 2008, about 80 percent of adults ages 18 to 23 approved of intermarriage.
But the path that Brian and Jean Saucier had decided to try – one that is increasingly common and supported by a growing number of grass-roots organizations – pushes Interfaith America to a new level altogether.
Some clergy members criticize this trend to “be both” as impractical, an exercise in taking American individualism to an unholy extreme. But supporters say they’re putting the “faith” back into “interfaith,” creating a new generation of peacekeepers who will be able to practice the sort of religious love and understanding the world desperately needs. Regardless of one’s perspective on the matter, this new way interfaith couples are navigating religion reveals a lot about America at its most intimate – about the country’s relationship with marriage, religion, and family.
Embracing both, excluding neither
On a Sunday morning earlier this fall, in the cafeteria of the Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, Md., a group of about 250 people arrived for the regular “gathering” of the Washington, D.C.-area Interfaith Families Project (IFFP). Led by the Rev. Julia Jarvis and Rabbi Harold White, the former Jewish chaplain at Georgetown University, the group recited the interfaith responsive reading, written by members of the Palo Alto, Calif., interfaith community.
Leader: We gather here as an Interfaith Community
To share and celebrate the gift of life together
All: Some of us gather as the Children of Israel
Some of us gather in the name of Jesus of Nazareth
Some of us gather influenced by each....
They also recited the Shema – a core prayer in a Jewish service – and the Lord’s Prayer, and sang a number of songs that the spiritual leaders had picked for this service, such as “Return Again,” by Rabbi Schlomo Carleback, and the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.” Then, after a short reflection from Mr. White, the group broke into an adult discussion group and a bustling Sunday school. The fifth-graders went to their class to learn about the life and times of Jesus. Next door, a teacher gave a lesson on the Hebrew alphabet. The teenagers started debating the definition of a meaningful life.
Washington’s IFFP is one of the largest such organizations in the country, with clergy on staff, a set interfaith religious curriculum for its Sunday school, and an attendance that has grown tremendously since four families got together to start the group in 1995. There are 300 active members, with more joining every month. And while Ms. Jarvis, who joined in 1998 when there were 30 families involved, says she is still a theological outlier among clergy colleagues and laypeople, she has also watched the organization become increasingly mainstream: “We’re not so much an anomaly anymore.”
A growing number of families say they are relieved to find an organization like IFFP, where neither spouse feels pressured to give up his or her faith and both religions are regarded equally.
“As people come to this country from elsewhere – whether we’re Muslim, Jewish, Hindu – we go to the same public schools, we go to the same universities, we’re in the same workplaces. And we fall in love and get married,” says Susan Katz Miller, a member of IFFP and the author of “Being Both,” a book exploring her interfaith world. “[IFFP] provides a community where neither spouse feels excluded.”
Indeed, research shows that not only are more Americans marrying people of other religions, but a rapidly growing proportion are remaining interfaith. In other words, not only are people from different religious backgrounds getting married, they are keeping those separate faiths rather than converting. In a paper released earlier this year, David McClendon of the University of Texas at Austin crunched existing survey data and found that the proportion of interfaith marriages that remain with mixed-faith partners had shot up to 40 percent in the early 2000s from 20 percent in the 1960s. (Those couples who do not hold on to their differing faiths tend to take one of three paths: One spouse converts, both pick a new religion together, or they drop religion altogether.)
Often those partners who keep their own religions simply go their separate theological ways; the wife goes to church and the husband goes to synagogue, for instance. But there are studies that suggest significant numbers of families – like those attending the Chicago Interfaith Family School or IFFP – are pursuing a joint, intentional interfaith existence.
Some of the most detailed research about intermarriage, for instance, has focused on Jewish Americans. A Pew Research Center survey last year rocked the Jewish community with its finding that among Jewish respondents who had married since the year 2000, nearly 6 in 10 had a non-Jewish spouse. And among those in interfaith marriages, only 20 percent said they were raising their children Jewish. Concern arose about the possibility that Jewish Americans are assimilating themselves out of existence. But Ms. Miller and others in the interfaith world noticed a different statistic: Among Jewish Americans with a non-Jewish spouse, 25 percent say they are raising their children partly Jewish and partly something else.
“Jewish institutions have this choice right now,” Miller says. “You can continue to exclude families who are teaching children about both religions. In which case, you’re excluding that 25 percent – a large cohort. Or you’re going to agree to engage with them and provide access to Jewish thinking and Jewish practice, and understand that those children will make their own choices about religious identity.”
While Jewish-Christian groups are most common in the US, there are small groups or Web forums that focus on Muslim-Christian intermarriage, Jewish-Hindu marriage, and others. All suggest a path that, to outsiders, may seem impossible. Sure, “interfaith” sounds good. But what about Jesus? That whole “chosen people” concept? Allah?
Sure enough, Jarvis says, “for a long time, I believe people thought we were just nuts.... They just didn’t know what we were doing. They thought it was some sort of new religion we were starting.... And sure, if you were looking at us from the outside, you didn’t know what we’re about. They’d say, ‘How in the world can you be Jewish and Christian? How can these kids be both?’ ”
The answer, says Jarvis and many in interfaith organizations, has to do with the way religion is defined. Many describe their interfaith journey as putting the truths and beauty of different faiths over human interpretations – of realizing they are “taking different paths up the same mountain.”
“I have thought more about the connections between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity more than I ever did before,” says Trina Leonard, a member of IFFP who identifies as a “Catholic woman who is going to be cooking a lot of brisket.” Her family joined IFFP after trying a number of religious institutions; it was the first place she, her Jewish husband, and their teenage son, Daniel, felt fully welcomed and faithfully embraced.
“I am squarely in the ‘both’ camp,” Daniel says. “I love and feel part of both religions. IFFP has given me a positive outlook on both.”
Would-be theological sticking points – Jesus as savior, for instance – start to melt as families find commonalities between doctrines and beauty in difference, they say. Besides, working through religious quandaries and incompatibilities is a good exercise in the sort of faith searching that many go through as adults.
Take Jarvis, the IFFP spiritual leader, herself. When she was growing up in the South, she says, she would pray for non-Baptist Christians because she was sure they were going to hell. She became an evangelical charismatic for a number of years before attending the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., where teachers shocked her by suggesting the story of Adam and Eve might be a myth. With growing religious tolerance, she says, she moved toward different denominations as well as social justice organizations, hospital ministry, and, eventually, IFFP. “By that point I felt like a universal child ... connected to all traditions.”
A big part of the interfaith religious education, say those involved with interfaith Sunday schools, is providing children with enough religious literacy that they can follow their own faith paths.
Not less religious, just open to more faiths
All this feeling, searching, and shifting, scholars say, is particularly American.
“[A]t the core of this trend toward interfaith families is a very American way of thinking about religion,” says David Campbell, a University of Notre Dame professor who co-wrote the book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” “In other parts of the world, ‘preference’ is the wrong word. Religion is not a preference; it is something you are born with.”
In the US, though, a 2008 Pew Religious Landscape Survey found that 28 percent of Americans have left the religion of their childhood, switching to a new religion – or no religion. That rate jumps to 44 percent if switches between Protestant faiths are included. Americans have also become increasingly willing to drop religion – at least temporarily. The percentage of Americans who say they have no religion, or are unaffiliated with a religion, has increased to 20 percent, Pew surveys show, with higher numbers among Millennials. But as Professor Campbell notes, somewhere between a third to a half of those who identify as having no religion will tell other surveys later that they do have religious affiliation.
In other words, Americans are not really becoming less religious, but are more likely to switch and drop faith, and pick it up again. Indeed, says Campbell, by almost all measures, such as church attendance and donations, Americans are still far more religious than people in most other Western nations. Just not, perhaps, when they get married.
As Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of the book “ ‘Til Faith Do Us Part” points out, Americans today tend to marry at the most secular part of their lives – in their 20s, a time when young adults have moved out of their parents’ orbits (and churches), but haven’t started families. This is the age group most likely to tell researchers they have no religious affiliation. And most couples, Ms. Riley says, don’t discuss religion, or the faith in which they’ll raise their children, before they marry, underestimating “how important religion is in our lives later,” she says.
That, Professor McClendon says, ties into an overall shift in the American concept of marriage. “We have a different idea now about the function of marriage,” he says. Two generations ago, marriage was an institution primarily about family. Today it is focused on individual satisfaction, he says.
Qualities such as personal compatibility and shared values rank highest on lists of what people look for in potential spouses. Only when a baby is on the way, Riley found, do previously secular couples focus on the religious fit with their spouse. Suddenly, that little fact of personal background, which seems like one of those marks of difference – like skin color – that matters far less than shared values and goals, looms large. Faced with this surprising, and seemingly insurmountable, conflict, many mixed-faith couples decide to just not deal with religion; one or both spouses simply opt out of any religious activity. But this, Riley found, was often an unhappy decision for those involved.
“A lot of the individuals I interviewed felt themselves spiritually thwarted,” Riley says. “They were not able to fully practice, or not able to fulfill their own spiritual dimension.”
A number of studies – though contested – show a greater divorce rate among interfaith couples than same-religion couples.
Two religions more fulfilling than one?
Which is why, says Jean Saucier, interfaith communities can be so valuable.
It is not always easy to figure out how to bridge the difference between her Judaism and Brian’s Catholicism, she says. She struggled with the idea of having her child baptized – ending up with an interfaith ceremony that was both a Jewish baby-naming and a baptism. Other couples may wonder whether to make plans for both partners to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, say, or a Christian one. Still other families work to overcome misgivings about whether or not to have a Christmas tree. But going through these decisions with a network of others helped her and Brian come to peace, Jean says, and a new faithfulness that feels more spiritually fulfilling than either of their religions alone.
Their son, Jacob, is in the fifth grade of the Chicago Interfaith Family School, where Brian and Jean teach Jewish folklore.
“For people who don’t work at it – who don’t really consciously come to agreement, it really won’t work,” Jean says. “Someone will feel slighted; someone will feel disrespected. We wanted both of us to be comfortable in our home. We wanted our children to have an identity that makes sense. I think we’re achieving that, but it’s not always easy.”
Indeed, many interfaith parents say that learning to grapple with faith is one of the benefits for children growing up in two religions. Jean says that Jacob is starting to ask more questions about faith, Jesus, and how to meld Judaism and Catholicism.
“To try to really explain faith to a little guy, to really get down to that nitty-gritty, is a challenge,” she says. “But ... we welcome those discussions for them.”
Erika Schechter, who also sends her 13-year-old son, Justin, to the Chicago Interfaith Family School, recalls a graduate of the school at a parent meeting saying friends considered him fortunate to get both Christmas and Hanukkah. But, she says, “he told them, ‘Yeah, but I also get Reconciliation and Yom Kippur.’ ” For these children, she says, religion is not superficial: “They experience from both sides people saying, ‘How dare you say you are both – you can’t be both.’ But they learn to be strong and say, ‘Yes, I am. Yes, I can. You can’t tell me what my beliefs are.’ ”
This depth of questioning and conviction is important, parents say, even if they worry about their children not fitting in with any mainstream religious community. For children themselves, the interfaith organizations often offer religious homes. Daniel Leonard, a 16-year-old high school student, for instance, says, “I remember going to church, trying synagogue, and really not liking either...,” he says. “I actually like coming [to IFFP because] it’s a community where people care about you, they understand you.”
He and other students say they develop better insight than their peers into religious difference and conflict. And their parents talk about modeling the understanding and emotional work that will serve young people well in all facets of their adult lives.
“All the talking that we did as young people in our 20s, and all of that effort to get to a place of comfort, has made us more open and observant of differences and different cultures and different traditions,” Jean says.
Indeed, in their book, Campbell and co-author Robert Putnam detail the American phenomenon of individuals feeling warmer toward other religions the more exposure they have to people of those faiths. In other words, when Americans add a person of a different faith to their social networks – a co-worker, say, or a brother-in-law – tolerance and understanding increase.
Intermarriage, Campbell says, is both cause and result of this, as well as the unique combination of religious devotion, diversity, and tolerance in the US.
“The story about religion in America,” Campbell says, “is the story about these very interesting interfaith relationships.”