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August 4, 2010

Column #1,510

Interfaith Marriages: A Risky Business

By Mike McManus

                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 precarious?

                “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 considered separately.

                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 reported.

                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).

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