Interfaith Marriages by guest Madam Curie

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A recent post by Cr@ig on Main Street Plaza caused me to reflect on the strength of interfaith marriages. I had hoped to generate a follow-up post on this topic at MSP. However, since the comments on the Cr@ig’s post devolved into a blame game of whether the believer or non-believer was more responsible for marital dissolution, I decided it was probably best to avoid a second opportunity for mud-slinging.

Differences in religious belief can be the death knell to a marriage. For that reason, many organized religions strongly advocate against being “yoked with unbelievers”. This is not only a Mormon phenomenon; you see this in any faith tradition that teaches that they alone have exclusive access to God. Even before marriage, it is rare for the unmarried, devout Mormon to even consider dating (let alone marrying) a non-Mormon; most LDS women raised in the Church are taught from an early age to make a temple marriage to a returned missionary their primary goal.

Likewise, in the Catholic Church, marriage to any non-Catholic (including Protestants!) is not permitted within a Catholic church building, and is not considered to be a Sacrament. In particularly conservative Catholic cultures, it really is considered a heresy to marry someone not of the (same rite of the) Catholic Church. Consider, for example, the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding: Toula refuses to marry Protestant Ian until he joins the Greek Orthodox Church (thus leading to a humorous scene of Ian being baptized).

Similar to Mormon ‘Marriage Prep’ and ‘Temple Prep’ Sunday School courses, dating Catholic couples are required to pursue a several-month course of marriage preparations classes, known as Pre-Cana. Similar to Mormons, Catholics who have pre-marital sexual relations (usually known from the resulting offspring) cannot be married on Catholic church grounds. However, they can have their marriage “convalidated” at a later date, similar to to a family being ‘sealed’ a year after a civil marriage.

I compare these things not so much to indicate how Catholics do things so much as to show just how non-unique Mormons are in many ways with regards to their approach to interfaith marriage.

Disbelief that comes after marriage, however, is harder to deal with. Despite the admonition of Paul in the 1 Corinthians that:

[I]f any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy. (1 Cor. 7:12-14)

it is really not all that uncommon to see marriages Mormon temple marriages dissolve once one member of the union loses faith. The same can also be true in Catholic culture, where one of the vows made at the altar is to raise your children Catholic.

A few examples, then, to illustrate some of what I am talking about:

A Mormon female friend of mine (who also happens to be a reader of this blog) attended a non-LDS university for college. Her Patriarchal Blessing was explicit that she was to marry an RM in the temple. When a Baptist schoolmate asked her on a date, she turned him down several times before giving him an ultimatum: She would only go on a date with him if he would read the Book of Mormon and consent to taking the missionary discussions. Confident that the Mormon church was misguided, and that he could show her the error of her ways, he consented. He joined the LDS Church and they two were married in the temple a year later. Obviously, she and the Church would consider this example to be a huge success story; his Baptist family, in contrast, at that time considered their daughter-in-law to be the devil incarnate. (I suspect that they mellowed with time).

Another friend at the same university for four years dated a non-Mormon off and on, and was fairly involved with him physically (although never so far that she needed to go to the Bishop). She loved him and he proposed to her, but since he was not interested in the Church, she said no. Several years later, she met and married a convert of 1 year, in the temple. Another Church success story.

A Jewish friend attended a Jew-friendly university, but did not find a spouse. She later moved to an area in the Midwest that was predominantly Protestant, and met and fell in love with a Protestant. They moved in together, but when her family would call or visit, she threw him out of the house for the weekend. When her parents found out that she was dating this man, they first gave her a series of lectures on being ‘married under the canopy’ and of all that her grandmother had suffered at Auschwitz. They then cut off all verbal communication with her. When the grandmother found out about the boyfriend, she literally suffered a stroke. She broke up with the boyfriend, and later married an Orthodox Jew and was welcomed back into her family.

A Muslim co-worker of my husband’s met and married a Hindi woman. The parents of the Muslim refuse to acknowledge their daughter-in-law, and the parents of the Hindu refuse to call the Muslim by his real name, instead calling him by the Hindi equivalent.

When I married my husband, we were both Mormon, however I had converted to the Church as a young adult. My mother’s side of the family (who are culturally Catholic) refused to speak with my husband at family functions and boycotted our wedding. Indeed, my own marriage might now be considered as an interfaith marriage, with each of us losing our faith in the LDS Church and taking divergent faith paths. I’ve left the LDS Church and now consider myself a post-Mormon liberal Catholic, returning to the faith of my mothers (since Catholicism in America is largely passed down matriarchally). My husband is an agnostic atheist who remains actively Mormon: regularly attending his meetings and ‘magnifying’ his calling, held in the church by the faith of his fathers. My family is urging me to do what my responsibility as a Catholic mother would be: to baptize my son Catholic and raise him in the Catholic Church.

And so it goes, and so it goes. Its remarkable how adherents of all faiths claim that God will only recognize marriage in their church.

Through it all, my husband and I have retained enormous respect for each other and our religious decisions, as well as the effect that those decisions have on our son. I think respect for each other is really the only way such marriages can survive. My husband’s loss of belief was founded in his respect for me: Trusting that my reasoning was sound, he wanted to determine for himself what validity there was in my conclusions. Obviously, we came to different end-points, but part of respect is learning to accept (and even welcome) differences of opinion and conclusion.

My questions for the readership are these:

  • What are your stories?
  • How can a couple who finds themselves in a Mormon interfaith marriage make the relationship work?
  • Is it possible to maintain a believing Mormon/non-believer relationship?
  • If so, what components are required?

Comments 30

  1. What a thoughtful post. Thanks for this, and for shedding light on what must be a difficult path for any couple in a relationship where there is not a common faith.

    My oldest son left the church in his middle teen years and last year married a wonderful young lady, daughter of Catholic parents. She also left the church of her youth, and to my knowledge, they do not practice any religion. I do not know if they consider themselves spiritual or not. But they have found some unity in their both having moved from their parents’ churches.

    I remember when I was a freshman at BYU, President Kimball delivered what has become an oft-quoted talk on marriage, in which he encouraged, among other things, as much commonality in a couple as possible. He suggested in those remarks a remarkably pragmatic approach (and one that I considered at the time to be rather loving advice, rather than doctrinal direction) that the more a couple has in common, the easier it will be to work through whatever inevitable differences there may be in a marriage. Those commonalities, he suggested, may be religious, racial, social, economic, educational. He suggested that differences in any one of these might lead to conflict.

    I have found in my own marriage that my wife and I, somewhat unknowingly, I think, because we did not specifically discuss it before we married, decided that our marriage would survive whatever came our way. We’ve been fortunate to share a common faith, but certainly other differences have arisen as we’ve spent 30 years together.

    I believe the marriage promise, whether made in a temple or at a justice of the peace, is still significant, and honoring it by both parts of a couple will bring blessings to the union.

  2. Is it possible to maintain a believing/non-believing relationship?

    I would also think that more finely delineated differences might cause problems as well. e.g. my wife is often surprised (and a little upset) with my less than orthodox views on some issues. I think that because the differences are not as large the problems are also diminished but I sense that it can be an issue.

    I suspect that in part whether this can be managed is in large measure dependent upon how people entered the marriage. If they entered the marriage believing/non-believing then the chances of making it work might be higher than if some becomes unbelieving after being in a believing/believing partnership. However, I suspect that in all these relationships the believing differentiation needs to become a smaller part of the marriage if it is too work, which might mean compromises on both sides.

  3. This reminds me of a recent conversation with a friend. His father died a few years back, and his mother is getting back into the dating scene. She’s sealed in the temple already, and the children have long moved out, but she is still concerned about dating or marrying a non-member because of “the message it might send to the grandchildren.”

    I would suppose that the cultural and religious importance of “staying within the faith” greatly diminishes once you hit that age, but if I were in her place, I’d still need my new partner to respect my religion and not hinder my practice of it in any way.

  4. I’m not sure you’re giving a faithful rendering. The LDS Church is one of the few of those, who take their faith seriously, and still will perform a marriage in the chapel for practically anyone — for time only, yes, but a legitimate and recognized marriage.

    A few good friends are married to nonmembers. Their life reflects the struggle that exists; their spouses often express exasperation at the principles they want to hold up.

    Our son is married to a nonmember (actually, it’s a “civil union” since they were legalized by a judge, not a priest, but whatever) — their civil marriage took place in the City Hall — and they are quite well accepted by all parties (except her father, but that’s nothing to do with the Mormon thing, he’s been hostile since his wife divorced him, and apparently also before it).

    Now, what would be the point of having different churches, if their adherents weren’t of the opinion that theirs is a “better” faith. I am not sure that there is a set of dogma that would lead to our salvation. I am very convinced, however, that we have the priesthood keys, and that’s what counts. But that doesn’t give me reason to despise anyone else’s faith.

    I would say, that the problem is with “intercultural” marriage; different cultures and customs are often a bone of contention. So it is with two Mormons, who get married from vastly different backgrounds. That is not a reason to put a blanket prohibition. I happen to know some women married to nonmembers, who have been very successful in keeping their relationship very close and non-confrontational. Even to the point that they’ve been able to raise their kids in the Church. In the last couple of years, two of those have seen their husbands baptized — after three or four decades… and to a Mormon that’s always good news. 🙂

  5. I wrote a long piece on my interfaith marriage over at a couple years ago now. If you search for ‘finding faith’ you’ll find it–it’s a two-parter. I think you’ll find quite a bit of commonality, specifically related to raising your children in the faith of your childhood.
    I think it is easy to maintain the relationship of the couple, but children make it a heck of a lot harder. My children ask a lot of questions most children don’t ask until they’re much, much older.

  6. I think that the aspect of “faith” that is often overlooked in marriage is the faith that one’s God is available to actively assist in making the marital covenant work. That matters a lot whether the marriage results from same-religion-attraction (the dreaded SRA) or not.

    In either case, at some points in life we discover that the person we married was not or no longer is the person we thought we were marrying. It really helps to be able to rely on the idea that your commitment to each other is being reinforced by Someone who understood who you were all along.

  7. FireTag, your comment #7 gives a good idea of what goes on. God respects a marriage covenant. That’s why in the Church both men and women are told to respect their spouses’ decisions as regards religion, and overall; they’re told to make the marriage work, because the Lord isn’t building his kingdom by breaking families.

    There may be some cases where irreconcilable conflict exist, I guess. And I guess it’s as often the more religious one who is less forgiving as not….

  8. I’m sure anyone on the Bloggernacle who is remotely interested in this topic has seen this before, but here it is again just in case. My story:

    My Mormon-Evangelical Interfaith Marriage

    I think the hardest thing about interfaith marriage is the tug-of-war over the fate of the children. The spiritual loneliness can be bad sometimes, too. I often feel like a single as far as religion is concerned.

  9. Thirty years ago I held out on my no-mo boyfriend until he was baptised,we married in the temple a year later.I felt strongly that it was the right thing to do,and my DH was a natural Mormon,although more liberal.I woulf have found it hard to marry otherwise.

    But I also accept that this is going to be an unlikely course for my daughters.They don’t feel as strongly about their faith as I did,and I would rather they had partners and children if that is what they want in their lives.I really hope I will be up to the task of being as loving and supportive of their decisions as I would ideally want to be.I accept that there are parts of my experience that I cannot currently share with them that relate to my spiritual experience.That’s hard,but true,and part of respecting them as autonomous human beings.

    It’s been a great privelege to walk thus far with a man who has chosen to suspend his disbelief sufficiently to experiment upon the word.Frankly,in the long term it’s one of the few things that we have shared as we are very different people-I just would not have had the maturity to make this work otherwise.It would have been tempting to blame our differences on our spiritual differences if they had been more marked.It would have become our scapegoat.

    I hope our daughters will make their choices based on something more than religion,because there are other interests and pursuits that we can share,and these are also significant in the long term.I don’t think it’s my palce to judge,but to support their choices,particularly once they are made.I’m really grateful to those who have shared here ,I’m particularly impressed by how grounded and non defensive you have been,and I feel strengthened in my resolve to make this work as a consequence.What matters is the love we make.

  10. I think the keys are (i) each person must respect the faith/non-faith tradition of the other (without any overt attempt at conversion; the time for that is before marriage), and (ii) each partner is going to have to stand up for his or her spouse to familhy and faith community. If those two characteristics are present, it can work.

  11. It can work, but it usually doesn’t. Though a majority of marriages in the US don’t make it and it has nothing to do with religion but more with lack of a real commitment. The one thing the same religion does give is a basis for the commitment.

    I suspect those interfaith marriages that do survive are in many cases, just lucky that the two people make it work in spite of the possible differences in faith. Most of the time people of different religious persuasions marry, it is because one or both are not active in their faith. And so it is not really an issue.

  12. It is hard enough dealing with the differences within the same faith, I would think that having a completely different faith (in which they are active) could get very lonely and build a pretty big wall between the couple. Add children and I think it could become unbearable. Because religion can be such a huge part of a person’s lifestyle I see there being a lack of unity when religious faiths are different and both are active in their church, especially in child rearing. I think a lack of unity is something that really grinds on a relationship and wears it down.

    Having said that, I do believe people can make interfaith marriages work, but those involved may never feel as fulfilled as they could have if they had married someone of their own faith.

  13. “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong — but that’s the way to bet.”

    OK, so interfaith marriages are not to be recommended because any marriage is hard to begin with. But how do we support paople in such marriages improve their odds?

  14. #15, Firetag: We love them. We support them. We avoid giving them ulterior motives to pit against one another (“when is your husband going to get baptized?”). Presumably people marry because they are attracted to one another. Hopefully they continue to make themselves attractive to one another through the years.

    I have had two good male friends whose wives were not members of the church. Both of them also felt the lonliness of being the “believing” spouse. (Their wives were each not only not members, but resesnted the time their membership took.) These men — both of them, out of love for their wives, found ways to limit their church activity in a way that allowed them time with their wives and also time to worship as they wanted to.

    One of them stopped coming to church for many years, and when his children finally were out of the house he returned.

    I’m not recommending that as a solution, but I’m suggesting that people who will honor the covenant of marriage will also go to great and difficult lengths to do so. And I commend them, especially when it is so difficult for them.

  15. My first encounter with my future in laws saw me kicked out of their house on the basis of my religion and their atheism. They didin’t attend our wedding, pressurised my wife into rethinking the whole thing, but I was too good a catch for her to allow herself to be influenced and redirected towards a parent-aproved choice. If they were practicing Muslims, then we would have clashes I guess, unless my appreciation for that faith (I love listening to the call of the prayer on satellite channel at the Mecca)would invite tolerance on their part as well.
    2 points:
    1/ I suppose some particular commendments would be specifically challenging to a relationship in a believer/non believer marriage, tithing for exemple. Particularly if the ‘lost my faith’ partner is the husband. And what if one of the partners adopts a different faith years into the marriage, and then believes that the home should be ornemanted of pictures of Gurrunanak?
    2/ I am not necessarily comfortable with the idea that we have chosen each other in the pre-existence. Likely in some cases, but all of us married Mormons? I believe that God is particularly interested in how we make a covenant with one spouse and keep that covenant for life. Therefore, I believe that one could fall in love many thousands of times in a lifetime, but must choose one and fund a home and a covenant with that one. So, depending on our encounters and opportunities at various times, we may meet people from various backgrounds (travelling salesman/businesman, student in multifaith uni…). But isn’t is wonderful, and wiser, to look formoppportunities among people sharing the same glorious and fulfilling spiritual aspirations, beleieving that thein relationship can reach and blossom into the eternity? Mormonism is strongly promoting this engaging doctrine of marriage forever.

  16. Its a tough dilema. I live over here in the UK and there are maybe double the activity rate of young women vs young men when they get closer to the serious dating age. I would much rather my daughter marry someone nice and a non member than a guffball but active.

  17. Thanks for the thoughtful responses, everyone.

    #1 (Paul) and #7 (FireTag)- I think you both make a good point in indicating that in every marriage, there are going to be things that happen that “weren’t in the contract”. I think that is an important distinction to be made, as we often make a spouse’s loss of faith larger than life.

    #3 (Rico) – I would be interested in knowing how you and your wife have minimized argumentation over your less orthodox views. Do you choose not to discuss them, or can you reach common ground?

    #5 (Velska) – I hadn’t realized that most Mormon bishops would marry anyone in their meetinghouses. Does that include two non-Mormons being married, out of curiosity? I must admit, though, that I am sure there is significant peer pressure around two individuals who choose to go that route over a temple marriage. I chose the temple marriage example because many (if not most) who marry in the church would be heartsick if they thought their marriage was going to end up in the meetinghouse rather than the temple.

    #6 (E-dub) and #9 (Jack) – I will definitely check out your respective stories. (Although I think I have read yours, Jack, and it was fascinating).

    #11 (Kevin) and #12 (Rico) – Yes, “standing up for one’s spouse” is one of the most important aspects… and one of the most difficult, when you are dealing with a loss-of-faith scenario.

    One of the things that have been brought up is the issue of child-rearing in an interfaith marriage, and the difficulties that poses. Those of you who are in mixed-religious marriages: how do you and your spouse navigate that? If you or your spouse lost your faith after marriage, how do you decide who gets to say what church the children attend? How do you answer your children’s questions about religion and belief?

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  19. This is an interesting post and topic, but I just wanted to point out that almost everything said in the post about the Catholic Church is (I believe) incorrect–at least if you’re talking about the Roman Catholic church. Some specific issues:

    1. “Likewise, in the Catholic Church, marriage to any non-Catholic (including Protestants!) is not permitted within a Catholic church building, and is not considered to be a Sacrament.”

    Catholics certainly may marry baptized non-Catholic Christians (Protestants, at least; perhaps not Mormons) in a Roman Catholic ceremony, in a Roman Catholic church, and the marriage is a sacrament. My parents (a Methodist and a Catholic) were married that way 35 years ago; I was married that way 9 months ago. Such a wedding may or may not include a full mass (often they do not, because the non-Catholic and his or her family could not participate fully); whether there is a mass does not affect whether it is a sacrament.

    With permission, Catholics may also marry non-Christians in a Catholic church, but such marriages are not sacramental. Two of my best friends, both Catholics, married agnostic men in such marriages; I was a bridesmaid in one of their weddings.

    2. “Similar to Mormons, Catholics who have pre-marital sexual relations (usually known from the resulting offspring) cannot be married on Catholic church grounds.”

    I have never heard of such a policy, and my husband and I were never asked any questions about this during pre-marriage preparation. Most couples I know who have been married in the Catholic church were living together prior to marriage (typically with the knowledge of the priest). Individual priests might refuse to perform marriages for particular couples, but this is not the policy of the Church.

    3. “The same can also be true in Catholic culture, where one of the vows made at the altar is to raise your children Catholic.”

    I’m not sure where this comes from. My husband and I made no such vows at the altar during our wedding. During pre-marriage counseling, the priest told my husband and I that the Church asks that I (the Catholic half of the couple) promise to do what I could do to raise the children Catholic. He sought no such promise from my husband, either before or during our wedding.

    Some information on Catholic marriage policies from the US Conference of Catholic bishops that address some of these issues:

    In general, having been raised in a faithful Catholic family and having mostly Catholic friends, I’ve found that Catholics marrying non-Catholics is extremely common and basically not a big deal at all–at least if the non-Catholic is willing to be married in the Catholic church. I, my father, my aunt, most of my cousins, and most of my Catholic friends have done it, almost all in Catholic ceremonies in Catholic churches.

    1. I know this is a VERY old thread, but I concur with what Anna G. wrote here. I am a former Mormon (from birth) who converted to Catholicism years into adulthood. I was married in a Catholic Cathedral while still LDS. I appreciate Anna’s clarifications. She is spot-on. There were other discrepancies in the “facts” of your guest post. I was disappointed that you were trying to speak with such authority on something you clearly know little about. “Madame Curie” or whatever our guest poster is called has A LOT to learn. Good luck with that. Please study. Many people look for accurate information on the articles here. Thanks. (p.s. she is absolutely confusing some pre-Vatican II rules (before the mid-1960s) with the realities of current Catholic policy of the last 45+years.)

  20. Mormon bishops are willing to marry people and do funerals for non-members in their ward boundaries (or possibly with family in the ward boundaries).
    I went to my neice’s wedding. She is not a member (neither was the groom) but her parents are completely inactive members. The wedding was at their home. I was listening to the guy performing the wedding ceremony and it suddenly sounded quite familiar and I was eventually convinced they had asked their local bishop to perform the ceremony (I was right). They probably thought it was cheaper (bishops are free) than paying some other random person to perform the wedding.
    The thing about weddings and funerals performed by the bishop is that the bishop will have a few ground rules in how the ceremony will need to be performed. In funerals they will always give a talk about the plan of salvation, for instance.

  21. @ Anna (#20) – I believe that a lot of the policies are local. I lived as a Roman Catholic for the first 20 years of my life in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and all of my commentary is based on first-hand experience there.

  22. Concerning your specific points, as follows:

    1. Marriage to non-Catholics cannot be performed in a Catholic Church – Several of my aunts and high school friends were forbidden from being married on Church grounds because they married non-Catholics (Protestants). In addition to my father’s mother, who couldn’t marry in the Catholic Church b/c her husband was a Protestant.

    2. Re: Sexual relations – Two of my friends (one in high school, and one was the older sister of a friend in grade school) had a child out of wedlock, and the priest of our parish forbid her from being married at the Church building. My aunt Col had the double-whammy of not being able to be married in the Catholic Church building because she was marrying a Protestant AND was pregnant with his baby at the time.

    3. Re: marriage vows – My sister was married in 2004, and was required in her Pre-Cana to promise to raise her children Catholic.

    As I said, it should be noted that all of these instances took place in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and under the same Bishop (Bevalaqua). I had some similar comments to yours on my blog when I posted this piece. I can only affirm that what you have read here has been my experience in the RCC, to the best of my knowledge, based on 12 years of Catholic School in that Archdiocese.

  23. Madame Curie:

    Thanks for your responses; our different experiences (mine were in Texas, Missouri, Illinois, and Colorado) make me wonder if the policies are supposed to be local, or if individual priests and bishops are just going off on their own, without authority from the Church. But that is not relevant to your post or this blog, so I won’t discuss it further.

  24. Anna – I do appreciate your input here. Its not at all unrealistic for me to see how the RCC varies significantly from place to place. I think that many of the bishops in my area have been ultra-conservative, based off of things I have heard and Catholic retreats I have attended. I suspect that much of that was also impacted by the fact that many of the congregation were very conservative as well.

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