August 4, 2010
Interfaith Marriages: A Risky Business
The recent wedding of Chelsea Clinton
to Marc Mezvinsky was a joyous moment for them, their families and friends.
However, the couple is assuming significant risk because of the interfaith
nature of their marriage.
The percentage of Americans courting
such risks is growing. Two decades ago 25 percent of couples did not share
the same faith. A 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life,
put the figure at 38 percent.
According to Naomi Schafer Riley,
currently writing a book about interfaith marriages, when a Jew marries a
Christian, the couple is three times more likely to divorce than couples
from similar religious backgrounds.
In Chelsea’s case the risk is
diminished by the fact they have known each other since high school. Marc
persuaded her to attend Stanford University with him. Another bond: both
have political fathers who humiliated them. Marc’s father, Edward, a former
Congressman, was convicted in 2001 of 31 charges of fraud of $10 million,
imprisoned for five years and paroled in 2008. Marc’s divorced mother,
Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, also was a Congresswoman.
Why are interfaith marriages so
“If you talk to marriage counselors,
people typically fight about three things: money, how to spend time, and how
to raise their children,” says Ms. Riley. “Your faith, particularly if you
are very committed, can affect all three of those issues. It is a
contributing factor to the conflict people are prone to have, especially the
raising of children.”
Chelsea was raised Methodist, while
Marc is Jewish. Next December do they celebrate Christmas with a Christmas
tree or Chanukah with a menorah, both or neither? Marc is one of 11
children, natural and adopted. There will be a lot of Jewish birth
ceremonies, Bar-Mitzvahs and Bat-Mitzvahs, etc.
A comprehensive study, “Religion as a
Determinant of Marital Stability,” was published by Evelyn Lehrer of the
University of Illinois in 1993 of 9,643 men and women who were part of the
National Survey of Families and Households in 1987-1988.
Protestants fall into two groups:
“ecumenical,” those who are more open to cooperation across denominational
lines, and “exclusivist,” such as Southern Baptists who have a stricter
belief system. Mormons, Catholics, Jews plus those of “no religion” were
After five years Mormons who married
Mormons had the lowest divorce rate of 13 percent, and those of no faith
were highest at 36 percent. About one-fifth of Catholics and both Protestant
groups had divorced.
But if Protestants married Catholics,
the divorce rate jumped to 34 percent for ecumenicals and 38 for
exclusivists. Christians marrying Jews broke up at a 42 percent rate and
Mormons, 40 percent -- double that of Christians marrying in their own
traditions. Protestants marrying those of no faith divorced at a 31-35
percent rate; Catholics had a 38 percent divorce rate with the unchurched.
The greater differences were associated
with “a higher likelihood of marital dissolution,” due to greater
conflicts. Interestingly, however, if Protestants or Catholics converted to
their spouse’s tradition, their marriages “were at least as stable as those
involving two members who had the same religion before marriage,” the study
Those results, however, are two decades
old. In 2001 the American Religious Identification Survey interviewed
50,000 people by phone. About 17 percent of all married people said their
spouse was currently in a different denomination than they were.
The Survey also interviewed
those who were currently divorced. A surprising 50 percent of divorced
people said their ex-spouse was from a different faith tradition. That’s
three times the percentage of the currently married who were in a different
tradition. Clearly, they are much greater risk than is generally realized.
What can be done to reduce that risk?
First, parents need to take a clear
stand. If your adult child is considering marriage across big
denominational lines, the mother and father need to sit down with the son or
daughter and say: “This is a conversation we will have only once with you.
We are concerned that you are considering marriage to X who is outside of
our faith tradition. Studies show that such marriages are two to three times
more likely to divorce.
“We want you to have a
lifelong marriage, but it is less likely with X. However, if you marry
her/him, we promise to love her/him and be supportive.
Second, clergy need to make a
similar case, citing Scripture. “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers”
(2 Cor. 6:14).