The wonders and worries when traditions converge

By Ellen McCarthy and Sally Quinn
Sunday, November 15, 2009

We'll get ready, soon, to decorate the Christmas tree. Or light the menorah. Or celebrate Kwanzaa.

Ready to honor whatever tradition we hold most dear -- unabashedly filling our homes and lives with the spirit of the season.

Unless, of course, there's some domestic debate about the significance of that spirit.

Perhaps your atheist husband wants that manger scene off the mantel. Your Hindu wife is uncomfortable with the Hebrew blessings before dinner. Your Muslim mother-in-law doesn't want her grandkids sitting on Santa's lap.

The holidays can be a minefield for interfaith couples, unearthing disparities that lay mercifully buried throughout the rest of the year. Because the tree isn't just about the tree, of course. Like the menorah, or Iftar feasts at sundown during Ramadan, it's about family and ritual, identity and culture.

All of which can be called into question when life is shared with someone who grew up doing it all differently.

More than a quarter of married Americans have a spouse of a different faith, according to a 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. That statistic climbs to 37 percent when Protestants from different denominations are included.

The pervasiveness of this dynamic was the inspiration behind On Faith and Love, a new Washington Post project exploring the experiences of interfaith couples. Few things are more meaningful than our intimate relationships and spiritual beliefs. And few things can be more fraught and precarious -- especially when they seem at odds with each other.

Over the past month we've been collecting your stories on the topic. You told us how you grappled with the differences while dating, how you tried to honor both faiths in wedding ceremonies, how raising children forced the issue in ways you never expected. You told us how your parents felt -- and made their feelings abundantly known. Some of you wrote that having different religions was among the least challenging aspects of your marriages. Others, such as Jyoti Schlesinger, a Jewish woman with a Catholic husband, found it much more difficult. Trying to reconcile their differing faiths, she wrote, "became like negotiating nuclear proliferation with Iran."

We'll be publishing many of these essays, including Schlesinger's, online and occasionally in this space. Our hope is that you'll see yourselves or your friends reflected in these tales, and might be willing to share your own stories. Lisa Miller, religion editor at Newsweek, kicks off our online series with an account of the dilemmas she and her husband faced in building a family of two faiths.

Also online you'll find a video interview with Steve and Cokie Roberts, who say their differing beliefs have been the source of both contention and wonder over their 43 years of marriage. We'll bring you additional interviews with other interfaith couples and experts, including Marion Usher, a therapist who leads regular workshops for interfaith families, in the coming months.

And on Monday at 11 a.m., we'll be hosting an online discussion with Annette Mahoney, a renowned psychologist who recently completed a major review of academic literature on the role spirituality plays in our families and homes.

To join the conversation, read On Faith and Love essays, or contribute one of your own, log on to

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