Interfaith Marriage

March 16, 2015

by Martin Marty
Originally published on December 9, 2002 in Sightings
Sightings attends to public expressions of religion. Not too long ago, that would have left topics such as marriage, residential life, leisure life, and worship safely in the private sphere. The rest of the world then took care of public life: economic, political, social, and the like. That division of labor is no more. Marriage has its private aspects, of course, but its issues now reach into the public arena.
Cathy Lynn Grossman makes that very clear in a recent USA Today feature (December 5) on mixed-faith parentage, “Same House, Different Faiths,” subtitled, “But if there’s a divorce, who gets ‘soul custody’?” She mentions that 27 percent of U.S. households now have more than one faith under the roof, involving not just the mingling of mainstream Protestant or evangelical denominational couples, but also Catholic/Protestant, Christian/Jewish, and Christian/Muslim combinations. Her story is anything but romantic; it offers no cozy picture of couples with such dual commitments. 
The stability of marriage is very much a societal issue these years, with onlookers, taxpayers, believers, and non-believers having a stake in the outcome. Grossman cites groups like the Dovetail Institute, with which I am most familiar – a couple of my own friends, one Jewish, one Catholic, formed it – and  Interfaith Family to indicate the spectrum of options for interfaith couples. The latter is more wary and advises them to pick a faith, stay with it, and raise their children accordingly to avoid confusion.
Much of what is at issue is not formally theological, says Grossman, it’s often cultural, traditional, and familial; but in “contested divorces where one parent claims God for his or her side it can get ugly.” Must it? Dovetail says “no” –Interfaith Family also offers an alternative to this side of divorce.
I recall sharing a program with Robert Coles and Eli Wiesel at the 92nd Street “Y” in New York. The houselights were dimmed during the Q&A period that followed Coles talk on “the spirituality of children.” He explained how children tend to express spirituality not in generic but in “storied” and “pictorial” expressions of particular faith communities.
From the darkened seats came a question: what do I do? I’m a Jew married to a Japanese Buddhist? Or: I, wed to a “Born Again” Protestant? Dr. Wiesel at first scolded the couples for having married across faith lines, given the predictable complications. Then we discovered that such couples made up almost all of the audience. They had come to be guided, not scolded; he quickly changed his tone. He did not — none of the three of us did — nor will Dovetail or Interfaith Family find solutions.
We left on the agenda an issue that will intensify, not decrease, in the years ahead, as interfaith marriage moves into the category of “Public Affairs.”

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