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Interfaith marriages are rising fast, but they're failing fast too

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As distinctions between Christian denominations have faded somewhat during the past half-century, and as other factors -- such as the division of household chores when both spouses work full time -- have become more important to marital happiness, there is some evidence that having the same religion as a spouse matters relatively less than it used to for family stability. In addition, as our society becomes more tolerant, interfaith families are no longer outcasts in their communities.

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Still, a religiously tolerant society does not a happy marriage make. As Lehrer points out, a strong or even moderate religious faith will influence "many activities that husband and wife perform jointly." Religion isn't just church on Sunday, Lehrer notes, but also ideas about raising children, how to spend time and money, friendships, professional networks -- it can even influence where to live. The disagreements between husband and wife start to add up.

Remember the famous counsel, the family that prays together, stays together? It's not just a come-on from preachers looking to fill pews. There is sociological research to back it up.

Modern couples seem blind to this, however, especially because they are getting married later in life. And the period between when children leave their parents' home and when they start a family is a religious downtime. Young people move around, date, drop in and out of school, try different jobs. They have few institutional ties, religious or otherwise.

Today, the median age of marriage for American men is 27, and for women, it's 26 -- by the time wedding bells ring, many young people don't think of themselves as religious. On top of that, the country has embraced a more ecumenical spirit. While faith-based online dating sites, such as JDate and CatholicSingles.com, are hugely popular, a growing number of people don't consider religion to be a key factor in choosing a date or a spouse.

Is it any surprise that, according to psychologists, a lot of couples don't even talk about religion before tying the knot?

Even among those who have tough conversations, says Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonpartisan research organization, religion can become a serious point of contention later on. One parent may agree to raise the children in the other's faith, he says, but then that faith "becomes repellent" to him or her. Coleman doesn't think that people get married with the intention of deceiving their spouse; "they just have no idea how powerfully unconscious religion can be."

Bridget Jack Meyers, an evangelical Christian who lives outside Chicago, married her husband, Paul, a Mormon, only after a lot of counseling and a lot of research. Meyers, a student at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, jokes that there aren't a lot of books on evangelical-Mormon marriages. So she looked at ones on Christian-Jewish relationships. "A lot of the advice was to pick a religion and raise [the kids] in one. But neither one of us wanted to give up ours," she said. So the couple agreed to raise their children in both faiths, letting them choose their own path at some point.

Shortly before their first anniversary, her husband walked out. Meyers, who writes about her interfaith family at ClobberBlog.com, explained in one posting: "He claimed that I had been a perfect wife and he had no complaints about me, but he was having second thoughts about a lifetime of interfaith marriage. He had decided that he wanted to get married in the temple and have his children be sealed to him, and he wanted to raise his children in the church, so he thought it would be best if we went our separate ways before any children entered into the union."

The two reconciled and, according to Meyers, religion wasn't the only issue. Still, it's clear to her that these questions are lurking. "We didn't account for all the ways that the different religions will affect our children," she told me. Mormons typically baptize children around age 8. But Meyers believes that is too young. Since her daughter is only 3, she says, "I'm not getting worked up over it yet." But she worries that if they wait too long, her child will be ostracized in the Mormon church.

As for the long term, she tries not to "religiously manipulate" her daughter. But Meyers knows she will be disappointed if her daughter chooses her husband's church.

The belief among young couples that love will conquer all is not exactly new. But today some young Americans seem to even pride themselves on marrying someone very different from themselves. One woman I spoke to who was raised as a Catholic recalled her thoughts on dating when she went off to college a few years ago: "To limit yourself to only people of your own religion seemed bigoted. . . . There is a whole world of people that I don't know." To write them off as potential partners before she even met them "seemed rude," she said.

Her language is revealing. It's as if our society's institutional rules about nondiscrimination in hiring an employee or admitting someone to college have morphed into rules for screening romantic partners.

Ten years ago, the journalist Philip Weiss wrote in the New York Observer that Jewish objections to interfaith marriage are "racist." And today, some young people go to great lengths to make sure that they don't appear to earn that label.

The issue is on evangelicals' radar as well. In "Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch in Marriage," former megachurch pastor Lee Strobel and his wife, Leslie, write that Christians should not give the wrong impression when they turn down a date from a nonbeliever. "Don't send the subtle message: 'I'm good, you're bad, so stay away from me.' "

So what does the future hold? A recent Pew survey on the millennial generation shows that adults ages 18 to 29 are less likely than previous generations to affiliate with a religious group and tend to pray less often than their elders. Their beliefs about the certainty of God's existence and life after death, though, are not so different from their parents' and grandparents'.

All in all, millenials may be more suited to making interfaith marriage succeed. Maybe they will care less about the strictures of religion, or they won't be as emotionally attached to the rituals of their religious communities. And maybe their commonly held notion that there are many paths to salvation will help them through the conflicts that arise in interfaith marriages. But then there is this: In the National Study of Youth and Religion, most of the respondents say they plan to become more religious when they get married.

The question is: When do they plan to tell their future spouses?

Naomi Schaefer Riley, a former editor at the Wall Street Journal, is the author of "God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America." She will be online Monday, June 8, at 2:30 p.m. ET to chat. Please submit questions before or during the discussion.


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