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October 23, 2017

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Tied in knots over interfaith weddings

Wedding season is officially upon us, and one needn’t be marrying a “Bridezilla” star to find the planning comes with some stress. Interfaith couples seem to have more than most as they try to satisfy not only each other but two extended families and two religious communities.

I interviewed dozens of interfaith couples from across the country for a book on interfaith marriage. One husband and wife I met had planned to get married in a Catholic church to accommodate the bride’s family — which was actually quite a sacrifice because the groom’s father was a Lutheran minister. But things got particularly difficult because the bride’s mother became very sick and requested that the ceremony also include a Mass. Catholic weddings don’t have to have a Mass, and most priests are disinclined to offer one at an interfaith ceremony because the non-Catholics will not be allowed to participate.

“They key to marriage is unity,” the Rev. Eric Andrews, a Paulist priest in Southern California, tells me. “If the first meal — if you will — as husband and wife is the Eucharist, and one can eat and one can’t eat at that table, what message is that?”

But priests at least are allowed to perform interfaith ceremonies. Most rabbis and many Protestant pastors, on the other hand, are not. Imams perform marriages between a Muslim man and a Jewish or Christian woman, but not the other way around. And this is where the engaged are often in for a rude awakening.

Rabbi Charles Simon, a leader in the Conservative Jewish movement, recalls the way an older colleague dealt with requests that he perform an interfaith marriage. A couple would come to him and say: “I’m Jewish, she’s not, we want to have a rabbi and a minister. Would you participate?” The older rabbi would say: “No, but I’ll tell you what. I’m a chaplain. I was in the war. So, I know the Christian liturgy. I’ll do both.”

Then the couple would reply, “You can’t be both a rabbi and a minister.” And that, said Simon, was the rabbi’s entrance, his segue to getting them to understand the differences between the faiths and why they are important. And why he couldn’t simply paper over those differences to perform a ceremony alongside a priest or minister.

In a 2,500-person nationally representative survey commissioned for my book, I found that weddings with religious leaders of different faiths are rare: Only 4 percent of interfaith — and, surprisingly, 2 percent of same-faith — couples employ them. Instead, interfaith couples are much more likely to have used a civil official: 43 percent vs. 31 percent for same-faith couples.

Mark Brewer, the pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian Church, says his denomination doesn’t prohibit him from officiating at interfaith ceremonies with other clerics. But he doesn’t do so anymore because it feels to him like “riding shotgun.”

Many of the clergy members I spoke with clearly understood the pain that an interfaith couple might feel if they did not get some kind of communal approval from a religious leader. Not only might they be personally hurt but their families might be angry.

Still, religious leaders do not view their role as simply “pleasing grandma,” as one clergy member put it. Rather, they often see it as their duty to dissuade couples from “marrying out” — or at least warn them of the potential pitfalls.

My survey found that interfaith couples are, on average, less happy than same-faith couples. And that certain combinations of faiths were much more likely to end in divorce. For instance, while roughly a third (32 percent) of all evangelicals’ marriages end in divorce, that climbs to nearly half (48 percent for marriages between evangelicals and non-evangelicals). It is especially high for evangelicals married to someone with no religion: 61 percent. The American Religious Identification Survey of 2001 found that interfaith marriages are three times as likely to end in divorce.

There are any number of reasons for this. Religious belief affects the three things that couples are most likely to fight over: how to spend time, how to spend money and how to raise children. Will we go to church every week? Will our children attend Jewish summer camp or Catholic school? How much will we give to our mosque? Which holidays will we celebrate and how? Are we going to have an Easter egg hunt or will we talk about the Resurrection?

Interfaith couples have surprisingly few conversations about how this will all play out. I found that more than half didn’t talk about how they would raise children before they tied the knot (and that’s not counting the couples who didn’t intend to have children).

Of course, by the time a couple approaches a religious leader to marry them, the relationship is pretty far along and any turning back will result in great embarrassment, not to mention thousands of dollars spent on rings and catering halls.

Clerics say they would be happy to have these conversations earlier but no one seems interested. One pastor in Atlanta suggested that Americans need to be more “intentional” in the way we date. We plan years in advance to go to the right college, find the right job and buy the right house. But when it comes to marriage, we expect the right person to just fall into our laps. And the only time we seek counsel from others is after the proposal.

Like most husbands and wives, interfaith couples tend to breathe a sigh of relief when the wedding day is over. “Look, we’re married now and our families didn’t kill each other. Phew.” But a wedding ceremony is one of the most choreographed events in life. We invite some and leave out others. We control what people say publicly. We make friends and relatives sit in particular places, and we can tell everyone when it’s time to go home.

The rest of life, for better or worse, is more unpredictable. Interfaith marriage only makes it more so.

Naomi Schaefer Riley’s latest book is “’Til Faith Do Us Part.” She is Jewish; her husband is a former Jehovah’s Witness. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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