Lingering Questions on Interfaith Marriage in America

April 15, 2014

On April 4, 2014, two authors, Erika Seamon and Susan Katz Miller, discussed their research on interfaith marriage at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. The event involved an engaging presentation from each author, followed by an informative question and answer session with the audience. However, the three student planners of the event—Trishla Jain, Joelle Rebeiz, and Aamir Hussain—still had lingering questions regarding the admittedly vast subject area of interfaith marriages and relationships in America. Below you will find their reflections on some questions that they wished they would have asked, and other questions for which they wanted more satisfying answers.
What first sparked my interest in this topic was the realization that many of my friends were in interfaith relationships, but the majority of them would never think to use that characterization to describe their relationship. My question to the authors was about any general advice that they had for college students who are in interfaith relationships or tips for those who want to broach the subject of their relationship with families and friends that might be hesitant to the idea. One idea that I heard in both of their answers was the notion that the parents of the members of an interfaith couple usually become more accepting of the relationship when that couple has children because their parents want to have a relationship with their grandchildren. This advice, while valuable, does not really apply to the relationships of college students. I believe that the balance of asserting independence and living up to parental desires is uniquely challenged when a student informs their parents that they are in an interfaith relationship, if only because many parents may not know how to react when their child has a significant other that is different than they expected. Navigating this area is always tricky, and I hope people will continue to explore this realm in order to aid this and the subsequent generations of American interfaith couples.

Although I had the opportunity to speak with the authors after their respective discussions, I was left continuing to think about both the causes and consequences of the trends that Seamon and Katz Miller spoke about; if interfaith marriages are on the rise, how did this happen, and what does this mean for the future? In the first place, I couldn’t help but think of a fantastically outspoken Jewish scholar named Elizer Berkovitz, whose words about fostering relationships I will never forget: “It is not interreligious understanding that mankind needs, but inter-human understanding.” In reflecting on the growing acceptability of interreligious marriages, I cannot help but wonder if there is a growing tendency in the United States to consider first the inherent humanity of a potential life partner, and only second his or her religious affiliations. Perhaps, as Berkovitz suggested several decades ago, individuals are increasingly treating others with a respect that is due independently of theological differences. If so, this trend bodes well for the next generations of American married couples—to which Trishla, Aamir, and myself will possibly one day belong—who have seen divisive, extreme, and largely ignorant religious rhetoric overrepresented on the American public media circuit. Although I’m projecting my own musings onto a well researched and documented scholarly discussion, I feel justified in my optimism.

When reading Erika Seamon’s book Interfaith Marriage in America: The Transformation of Religion and Christianity, I was most interested in the chapter that summarized the theological standpoints of various religions towards interfaith marriage. While some traditions had very specific guidelines or prohibitions, others had little to say on the topic. However, when hearing the panel discussion on interfaith marriage, relationships, and families, I was intrigued that theology seemed to play a relatively minor role. Although nearly 90 percent of Americans report a belief in God, many (Millennials in particular) are moving away from organized, institutionalized religion. Thus, it appears that when Americans consider interfaith marriages, we focus on mutual attraction, compatibility of lifestyles, and other aspects of long-term commitment without explicitly considering theological implications. If time had permitted, I would have asked the panelists whether they agree with this observation based on their own experiences.

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Lingering Questions on Interfaith Marriage in America