Interfaith Marriage

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Interfaith Marriage

Religious intermarriage as it reflects interaction in an open society is a gauge of changing social structures and norms. The extent to which interfaith marriage is possible and the degree of social and religious institutions' acceptance of interfaith couples indicate the breadth and depth of such changes.


Generally, members of religious minorities are increasingly likely to marry out of their religious traditions as the unavailability of same-faith prospective partners combines with sociopsychological pressures toward becoming part of the majority. For example, a US Catholic Study of Catholics in the United States (Official Catholic Directory 1997) found that although only 18 percent of Roman Catholics married non-Catholics in dioceses with greater than 50 percent Catholic populations, the rate of intermarriage by Catholics rose to 51 percent in dioceses with less than 10 percent Catholic populations. This phenomenon might also reflect the possibility that those who live in areas with low numbers of individuals who share their religious faith already identify less strongly with their religious faith and so more likely to intermarry.

In the early 1970s, about 7 percent of married American Jews had unconverted non-Jewish spouses; by 1990 this figure had risen to 28 percent, while the figure for all marriages involving American Jews between 1985 and 1990 was as high as 52 percent. This exponential growth rate has been attributed to several factors, such as: the disappearance of social and economic barriers against Jews, the later age of marriage (in which presumably couples are less influenced by childhood training and parental guidance), the geographic shift from areas of high Jewish concentration, the increased presence of women in the labor force with accompanying opportunities for out-group contact, and the increased incidence of divorce and remarriage ( Jewish Outreach Institute 2001). However, the 52 percent figure should be dissected to make it clear that Jews who marry out tend to be older than those who marry in. For many of these older couples, the interfaith marriage is a second or later marriage, in which children are not expected or where there are preexisting children whose religious identities have already begun to be formed. As of 2001 about 40 percent of children of American Jews married to non-Jews were being raised with no clear religious identity, that is, not as formal members of a religious institution. Interfaith marriages are of particular concern to Jewish communities because of the great losses incurred through the Shoah (Holocaust) and other persecution, and, ironically, because of attrition resulting from greater freedom and toleration in pluralistic societies.

India has a state policy of freedom of worship, not favoring any particular denomination. However, by 2000, tensions between Hindus and both Muslims and Christians had risen to a point of creating some alarm in proponents of maintaining the secular state (U. S. Department of State 2000). Within the context of official religious pluralism, furthermore, are practical obstacles to the interfaith couple. In India, Muslim law controls Muslim marriage, and provisions for divorce and polyandry/polygamy are applied with vastly different consequences for men and for women in Muslim marriages.

There is a similar gender-based inequity in Indian laws regarding divorce among Christians. In 1994 in Bombay, 10 percent of weddings conducted in Catholic churches involved a non-Catholic partner (Association of Interchurch Families 2000). The Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872, made no mention of intermarriage. However, the Indian Divorce (Amendment) Act passed in 2001, mandates that no marriage between a Christian and a non-Christian may be conducted in a church (U. S. Department of State 2001).

In 1999, there were more than 150,000 inter-cultural couples in Malaysia (Melwani 1999). These are not strictly interfaith, since by Malaysian law, a non-Muslim spouse must convert to Islam. However, the Malaysian Hindu community sees this phenomenon as a direct loss. The Malaysian intermarriage situation is further complicated by the government's fear that intermarriage will lead to an influx of foreign workers demanding citizenship by right of marriage. Therefore, the government in 1997 enacted a ruling restricting such marriages by limiting opportunity and benefits available to inter-faith couples, for example, by denying the foreign spouse an extended stay, a permanent residence visa, or citizenship (Ragataf 2000).

The population of Israel in 1996 comprised 4.6 million Jews, 840,000 Muslims, 180,000 Christians, and 100,000 Druze (plus 80,000 people who fell into the "Other" category) (Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics 1996). Interreligious marriage of all sorts is illegal in Israel, partly because of the disproportionate political power wielded by the Jewish Orthodox minority and partly because of the historic spheres of influence of the other religious faiths, which tend to cling to their own separatist and exclusivist policies. However, Israeli law recognizes marriages contracted in other countries. Because Israeli couples wishing to intermarry often do so abroad, and because a number of interfaith couples who married elsewhere have immigrated to Israel (for example, from the former Soviet Union), inter-married couples are by no means unknown there.

The political friction between Palestinians and Israelis, and between Muslims and Jews within Israel, makes marriages particularly problematic; however, they do exist. As for Christian/Jewish marriage in Israel, it has reached sufficient proportions that at least one networking group for such couples was operating in 2002 (Rosenbaum 2002).

Special Considerations: Challenges and Benefits

Interfaith marriages are subject to challenges, both internal and external. The primary internal challenge may derive from differing notions of the nature of marriage itself. Some examples follow.

Buddhist. Marriage is a social, rather than a religious undertaking. Maintaining the proper relations and duties between the partners will aid them in following the Eightfold Path to enlightenment (the set of beliefs and actions that govern the Buddhist belief system). However, the nature of those relations and duties will vary with the culture.

Hindu. Marriage is a sacrament binding man and woman to a lifelong commitment. It is seen as both fulfilling a sacred obligation to one's ancestors and as a means of spiritual growth. In some ways, this can lead to greater difficulty gaining the acceptance of the extended family and the broader society, particularly in India. In other ways, some Hindu religious leaders consider that intermarriage does not necessarily compromise the religious identity of the Hindu partner.

Islamic. Strictures against intermarriage may be mitigated by the opinion that Muslims are enjoined only against marrying unbelievers, that is, polytheists. In this view, Christians and Jews are acceptable partners for Muslims, with the provision that any children will be raised in Islam.

Jewish. Marriage is understood as the ideal human state, established by God, for the purposes of companionship and procreation. The primary context is that of human society, rather than of a heavenly or sacramental ground; still, marriage is held to configure the relationship of God to Israel, and as such bears both a divine and a socioethnic component. In this context, some rabbis feel that a Jewish intermarriage is a contradiction in terms. (Studies indicate a softening in general in American rabbinic attitudes, however [Jewish Outreach Institute 2000]).

Orthodox Christian. Marriage is not a human construction and does not depend on human social institutions for its character and essential nature. The sacramental essence of marriage makes a union of two people into a monad, simultaneously two and one, united in God. This formulation restricts Orthodox marriage by definition to that between two baptized Christians.

Protestant Christian. Marriage is not a sacrament, but Christians are called to marriage as a positive good in God's gift. As a result, most Protestant denominations will allow interfaith marriage.

Roman Catholic Christian. Marriage between two baptized partners constitutes a sacramental ongoing mutual bond as a sign of the bond between Christ and the church. Ecumenical or interchurch marriage has become increasingly acceptable since the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) Interfaith marriage in which there is what Canon Law terms disparity of cult may be undertaken with episcopal permission, subject to varying restrictions.

External pressures on interfaith couples vary according to the level in which tolerance and pluralism are considered positive values by the larger society. The incidence of intermarriage among Hindus ranges from very rare in rural India to increasingly acceptable in the United States and other countries, such as Malaysia, in which Hindus are in the minority. However, Hindus who marry out, particularly those whose partners are members of Western religions or cultures, may find greater difficulty in adjustment. Differing attitudes toward polygamy, the role of women, and extended family are among those most likely to create friction. When it is the woman who is the Hindu, however, traditional ideas of gender-related submission and cooperation may result in less overt stress than in marriages involving a Hindu man and a Christian or Jewish woman. Theologically, polytheistic (belief in multiple gods) elements of Hinduism may cause the greatest conflict in marriages to Christians, Jews, or Muslims. This potential can be ameliorated by the Hindu partner's focusing on the underlying concept of Brahman as Universal Being. Similarly, Hinduism's traditional multiplicity of approaches to the divine can result in greater tolerance for a non-Hindu spouse's faith, and in less feeling of confusion or alienation for children, than intermarriages between partners who each believe in a single divinity but identify this being differently.

Another external factor in the relative difficulty faced by partners in an interfaith marriage is the socioeconomic position of each of the groups represented by the partners. The change in U.S. Jewish marriage patterns can partially be attributed to Jewish upward mobility in economic and educational status, and to the concomitant tendency for the Jewish population, particularly those born in the United States, to disperse out of primarily Jewish urban settings into more heterogeneous situations. These phenomena, coupled with reduced anti-Semitism and the population pressures known as the Baby Boom that took place after World War II, have led to increased tolerance for intermarriage both inside and outside the Jewish community.

Central difficulties experienced by interfaith couples, aside from the initial ones involved in planning and implementing the wedding ceremony itself, rotate around issues involving children: welcoming and other life-passage rituals, family holiday observances, and dealing with extended family. As the interfaith family resolves these issues, however, focus shifts onto the spiritual and religious lives of the marital partners. It is at this point that the fruits of interreligious understanding may begin to be felt (Rosenbaum 1998, 2000).

Cultural and ethnic patterns also play a primary role in forming the interfaith marriage. Catholic emphasis on family bonds meshes with that of traditional Jewish culture. Catholics and Jews, further, tend to have strong attachments to ritual and tradition in framing religious identities. In addition, the importance Catholics and Jews typically place on strength of religious identity may make them more tolerant of a spouse's maintaining connection to a family of origin's faith than a Protestant or a nonreligious person might be. These suppositions are at least partially borne out by a 1999 study indicating that individuals born into Protestant households who then marry Jews are twice as likely to convert to Judaism as are those born into Catholic households (Rebhun 1999). At the same time, the same study found that Jews married to Catholics were less likely to have strong institutional ties or affiliations to Jewish institutions than were those married to Protestants. This seeming anomaly may be explained by the actual or perceived level of greater exclusion from the Jewish group of those intermarrieds whose spouses maintain active ties to their parents' faiths (more likely to be Catholics).

Interchurch Marriage

In Ireland, ongoing political strife is demarcated along religious denominational lines, though the underlying issues are not religious in nature. Indeed, with the disappearance of linguistic and other distinctive cultural markers over the past three centuries, members of Unionist and Nationalist factions can be differentiated only by religious allegiance. This can make intermarriage between Catholic and Protestant literally a life-and-death matter.

The tension is exacerbated by the fact that the proportion of Protestants in the Republic of Ireland had fallen by some 40 percent between 1911 and 1981, partly because of emigration, partly because of the lower Protestant birth rate. But the major cause of the decline in Protestant population has been interchurch marriages (25 percent of all marriages of Protestants), coupled with the Irish Catholic Church's demand that children of these marriages be raised Catholic.

In Northern Ireland, the proportion of 57-to-43 Protestant-to-Catholic population remained fairly constant between 1981 and 1991, primarily because of the tremendous societal pressure to in-marry, and because the population of each group is large enough to provide an ample pool of prospective partners from within the group. There is also anecdotal evidence that, in Northern Ireland, even when mixed partners promise to raise children as Catholics, perhaps as many as half in fact raise them Protestant (Association of Interchurch Families 2000).

The former Yugoslavia is another area where ethnic animosities contribute to extreme difficulties for interchurch couples. Interchurch families in this region are subject to extraordinary political and social pressures, particularly people with Catholic/Serbian Orthodox partners (Association of Interchurch Families 2000).

Positive Prospects

Jewish institutions have tended to focus on the question of membership for interfaith families. Rela Mintz Geffen and Egon Mayer (1998) recommend, rather, shifting the emphasis to the needs of the families involved in such a way as to develop meaningful outreach services for such families.

Although the Christian Orthodox Church has some of the most restrictive policies on intermarriage, the rate has risen steadily around the world. The Orthodox response has been to focus on the opportunities offered by the possibility of pastoral flexibility expressed in guidelines known as economia.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) guidelines emphasize sensitivity to cultural differences and advise negotiating legal issues within the context of the non-Presbyterian community.

As intermarried populations grow worldwide, children, particularly, may feel less isolated; they will have specifically interfaith communities to identify with. In the United States, on the cutting edge of intermarriage trends, the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first has seen an exponential growth of nondenominational networking groups for interfaith couples and the beginnings of schools and curricula specifically designed for children of interfaith couples (Rosenbaum 2002).

Relatively high involvement and commitment of interchurch couples can be viewed as an opportunity for ecumenical understanding rather than a threat to traditional values (Association of Interchurch Families 2000). They may even provide a foundation for future reconciliation among Christian denominations. This opportunity may be extrapolated to other sorts of intermarriage to improve pluralistic tolerance. In North America particularly, the growth of the non-Christian population coupled with an emphasis on individual rather than communal identity may promote interfaith understanding, with intermarriage as at least one vehicle of communication.

See also:Buddhism; Catholicism; Evangelical Christianity; Hinduism; Islam; Judaism; Protestantism; Religion


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mary helÉne rosenbaum

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Interfaith Marriage

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