On Faith & Love
Exploring the joys, challenges and life-changing impact of interfaith relationships and marriages

Sally Quinn, Ellen McCarthy and Annette Mahoney
Washington Post staff writers, psychologist
Monday, November 16, 2009 11:00 AM

Welcome to our On Faith and Love discussion. This feature is a new Washington Post project exploring the experiences of interfaith couples.

The Post's Sally Quinn and Ellen McCarthy were online Monday, Nov. 16 at 11 a.m. ET to answer your questions and discuss some of the issues facing the men and women in these relationships. Joining them today is Annette Mahoney, a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University who, with support from the Templeton Foundation, recently completed an exhaustive review of scholarly research on the role spirituality plays in our families and homes.

Today's column: The wonders and worries when traditions converge

For more on our new this feature, to watch video of Steve and Cokie Roberts talk about their experience and to read an essay by Newsweek's religion editor Lisa Miller, visit washingtonpost.com/onfaith.


Sally Quinn: Hi< I'm Sally Quinn, co-moderator of "On Faith". I'm so pleased to have you all join us this morning. We were all stunned, when we started thinking about this feature to learn than nearly one third of all Americans are in some sort of interfiath relationships if you count different protestant denominations. And when we talk about interfaith we're also talking about marriage between people of faith and no faith. This becomes especially difficult when the questions of how you raise the children becomes an issue and during holiday seasons as well, which is why we are launching this now. We're here to save marriages and relationships by tying to help you weave your way through the maze and deal with the difficulties you may face around faith. So we hope you will stay with us during the chat and continue to follow "On Faith and Love " on "On Faith" on the Post web site and in the "On Love section of the paper. Thanks. Sally Quinn


St. Lucia and Washington, D.C.: Thanks so much for addressing the issue of interfaith families. My husband was raised Catholic (12 years of parochial school) and I am Jewish. We are currently raising our 6-year-old with both religions, but recognize that eventually she may choose to practice one, the other, both, or neither. We try not to place too much weight on the path she chooses, but I do worry that she feels a sort of pressure or guilt, no matter how hard we try. For example, recently when "channel surfing" she finds that she loves the Christian Evangelical kids cartoons. Truthfully, I am particularly comfortable with these shows, but when I express my discomfort, she responds, "Don't worry mommy, I think I will be Jewish when I grow up." YIKES! My question to the panelists is how have you managed to let your children explore their faith/culture independently and not feel guilty about their choices. On the flip side, how do you as a parent manage to let go of the idea that your child will follow in your path (and the path of your ancestors) in terms of his / her faith tradition? Thanks!

Sally Quinn: When we were raising our son Quinn I was then an atheist and my husband was a on practicing Episcopalian. He went to my parents for religious instruction and they read him bible stories. I wanted him to learn about religion so that he could make up his own mind. I think it's important to expose children to all faiths and let them choose what they believe in the end. You can't do it for them. I know that many people feel different about that and in some instance they may be right. As it turns out Quinn decided (now 27) that he believes in God but doesn't go to church. He says he is glad I told him the truth about my beliefs and his fathers and that he is a spiritual person but not religious.


Define mixed faith: When you say "different" faiths do you mean Catholic and Baptist, or completely different faiths like Jewish and Methodist? I guess some might consider the former completely different too...maybe I just answered my own question.

Ellen McCarthy: Good question. And I think you're right that it's a personal one. The research from Pew found that 25 percent of married people were wed to someone of a different belief system. But that number rose to 37 percent when you include Protestants of different faiths. I certainly think some devout Catholics would consider Evangelical Christianity to be of a different faith, and vice versa.


Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thanks for taking questions on this important topic! I'm wondering if there has been any research about couples in which one party is religious/spiritual and one is not at all (either consciously atheist or agnostic). Do either of you have experience with these kinds of relationships, and if so, how do they work? What kinds of compromises can be made to respect both philosophies?

Annette Mahoney: There is a small body of research on links between one spouse have a religious affiliation & the other person saying "none" for type of religion. These kinds of interfaith relationships are at slightly higher risk of divorce & marital unhappiness than when both partners endorse the same affiliation, but not much different than other types of interfaith marriages where both report an affiliation to different traditions. What seems to matter a great deal more is whether there are serious disagreements about fundamentalistic interpretations of the bible, and whether people hold deep and different religious/spiritual views of their marriage itself.

Sally Quinn: As I was saying, my husband was not an atheist but was nonpracticing. As it turns out I no longer call myself an atheist. (That's another story>) But if you look at the basic tenets of all religions you will see that they all begin with the golden rule. I think what matters most is how you live and not what you believe. For my son Quinn and my husband Ben, they could see that my values and morals and my acts and words were those that I tried to follow. I taught Quinn to treat people the way he would like to be treated and to care about others and try to help others who are less fortunate and to feel gratitude every day of his life. That's what's important if you are married to someone of no faith. How do they live, what are they're values.


Washington, D.C.: My wife is Jewish and I was raised Catholic. Our approach for child rearing is to expose our kids to both religions, while taking the religion out of it, so to speak. The religious leader whose writing and thinking most closely align with my own point of view is Bishop John Shelby Spong, particularly his views on the post-theistic age that is emerging. We do not want our kids to feel as though it is imperative that they only choose one or the other religion. In our view, this is a false choice. They can comfortably honor both traditions and assume both identities without doing injustice to either.

Sally Quinn: I think that is a healthy attitude. You are right in that this is a post -theistic world we are living in for so many people. They shouldn't be forced to choose. Expose them to all faiths, even if they don't practice any of them so that they will have a better understanding of others and their beliefs. Obviously for many religion is more than just beliefs. It's about culture. Culture can sometimes be more important. Why can't they both enjoy and experience both cultures. It seems to me that that would only broaden their minds.


Olney, Md.: When my husband and I fell in love over 50 years ago, he was Catholic and I was Presbyterian. I converted to Catholicism because at that time the Catholic Church was less forgiving of members converting that Protestant churches were. We are about to celebrate our 49th anniversary. Our three daughters were raised Catholic, but they went to public schools and CCD, as we felt the public schools provided a better education. Our granddaughter has been educated from kindergarten on in a Catholic school.

Although there are some Catholic doctrines I don't agree with (such as forbidding birth control), I know I've made the right choice.

Two of my daughters married Catholic men and the third married a divorced Baptist, so they were unable to be married in the Catholic Church. They are all happy. Everything is good.

Ellen McCarthy: Congratulations! It sounds like flexibility was key for you. Do you have any advice for others in the same boat?


Princeton, N.J.: My husband (Jewish) and I (Methodist) have been married for 17 years and have two children (Jewish). We celebrate all holidays, and are members of a reformed synagogue where I have always been made to feel welcome. I have a natural fascination for and love of religions, and enjoy the cultural aspects of Judaism. However, I don't belong to or attend a church, and I feel that, although the Rabbi at our temple delivers some wonderful sermons, I'm missing a spiritual connection and feeling of contentment that I used to get when going to church. Should I join one on my own? Would it be disrespectful to my husband and kids? Invite them to come with me? We decided before we were married to raise our children in the Jewish faith, and I have no intention of trying to convert them back to Christianity -- since we had to convert them as babies to Judaism. But I don't want it to feel like any kind of power struggle, just something I want to do for myself. Can you offer any advice? Thank you!

Annette Mahoney: My best advice, really, is to have long discussions with your husband about this. I would label such conversations as a form of "spiritual intimacy." For me, this refers to two people each disclosing openly and honestly their thoughts and emotions about sacred matters, and being able to listen with empathy and respect to each other. Couples do not have to agree with each other or be similar/identical to enjoy spiritual intimacy. Initial work I am doing on this idea indicates that such discussions can be powerful avenues for fostering closeness. If your child observes this and knows that you two can converse at this deep level that would probably be a good thing.

Sally Quinn: Go to Church. The whole thing about religion and spirituality is what give your life meaning. If you are missing a spiritual connection and feeling of contentment why on eath should you not be able to fulfill that need. I can't imagine your husband or your children wanting to deprive you of that, especially since you agreed to raise them Jewish and have no intention of trying to convert them. We all find peace and solace in our own ways. Your husband has found it in his, presumably your children have found it in theirs so why shouldn't you have it in yours?


Alexandria, Va.: Good morning. My husband and I are of different faiths -- he is Catholic and I am Protestant. We are both interested in creating a spiritual base together, but we are both hesitant to participate in the other's church traditions because our own is more comfortable. How do we go about either choosing one of the faiths to follow or attending 2 churches? We see faith as vitally important to a relationship and a marriage -- we just don't know how to compromise on this.

Ellen McCarthy: Last week I sat down with Tracey Moe, an interfaith minister who helps couples tackle this exact question. (Look for the story on her Nov. 29.) Her approach was to have couples sit down and really think through what it was they agreed on -- the existence of a higher being, say, or the truth of the Golden Rule -- and to build from there, honoring their differences but also building something new together.


Buenos Aires, Argentina: "Faith" "Religion" and "Tradition," while linked, are vastly different things.

The basic simplest truth about religion is that IF you have "true faith" in a religion that posits its status as the only "true" religion, which most of them do, and you marry someone from a different religion who doesn't convert, then in fact you are not a faithful follower of your religion. A Christian who truly believes that you MUST admit Christ's life and death as the sole thing that allows you entrance to heaven can't marry a Jew or a Muslim because they would be marrying an infidel who, according to the tenets of their faith is doomed to hell for all eternity.

The truth is that most people who claim subscription to such belief systems are actually participating in cultural practices, which are much more flexible. Of course they don't REALLY believe in the nonsense written in these ancient tomes, if they did we would still stone people to death in the streets of our communities for sleeping with other people's spouses. The bible specifically calls for this action, with no arguable misinterpretation. It also forbids interfaith marriage expressly.

I believe the bible is a compilation of cultural writings that has been given far too much importance in modernity and I don't believe in god, though I do find watching the "faithful" writhe in their attempts to live a normal life while constricting themselves, their families and society as a whole into untenable positions in order to defend the sanctity of the nonsense they ascribe to very entertaining....

Sally Quinn: I used to feel the way you do. But after three years of moderating "On Faith" I have come to respect all religious traditions (I'm not counting fundamentalists of any faiths) and most those views you are referring to are those of fundamentalists. The important thing is to have an open mind, to be respectful of other's views and faiths. It sounds to be like you are a bit of fundamentalist yourself. You are being contemptuous of all faiths when those who are extremists are in fact perverting the real meaning of their religions.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Does anyone know the traditions of orthodox Jews towards dating non-Jews? To what degree is this shunned versus accepted within the general orthodox Jewish community?

Sally Quinn: It depends entirely on what community of orthodox Jews you are talking about and even the views of specific orthodox families. There are some who are so extreme that they will sit shiva (Mourn the dead) and banish a member of their family if that person marrieds outside the faith. Others can be more accepting. Also there are varying degrees of orthodoxy. If you are in a relationship with an orthodox Jew and are notone you should go see a rabbi and find out.


A-religious offspring: When we were meeting with pastors to perform our wedding one flat- out refused to perform the ceremony because my husband-to-be was Catholic and I was Protestant. The pastor insisted that children of mixed marriages usually become a-religious and practice no formal religion (because they don't see the need/value). The meeting was pretty insulting for many reasons, but I couldn't help but feel he was somewhat correct. Most of the people I know with mixed religion parents, especially from my generation (Gen Y), have no formal religion -- just general spirituality. I think that's a trend that is likely to increase.

Ellen McCarthy: Thanks for chiming in with your experience. I didn't come across any research with firm statistics on this, but I think it's an interesting point. Have you decided how you'd approach this if you have children?


Philadelphia, Pa. : I didn't see where in your article you may have addressed a twist on this:

One person faithful and the other not.

This is my situation. It helps that I'm not terribly dogmatic (or have become less so over the years). It also helps that the agnostic was raised in a similar tradition and takes comfort in that tradition. Being married to an agnostic or atheist means that there's less of a conspicuously competing message among children (possibly) -- no tension between traditions. But perhaps it's a bit more impactful at the end of the run -- when one person has more hope for something beyond than the other one does...


Sally Quinn: No matter how similar your beliefs or lack of beliefs are at the end of the day nobody but you knows what will give you peace and strength and happiness and meaning. You have to decide for yourself. There are many atheists and agnostics are who are just as happy or even happier than believers. Each of you has to follow your own heart. We're all going to die. Where we go and what happens afterwards is simply a matter of belief. If you believe you will see your spouse in the afterworld and he doesn't just be smug and say, see you later.


Annette Mahoney: A comment on Sally Quinn's comment to St. Lucia and Washington, D.C. Sally noted that "I think it's important to expose children to all faiths and let them choose what they believe in the end. You can't do it for them." This is true. But I think it is important for adults to be aware of very strong research evidence that children are extremely prone to "inheriting" the same exact level of religious or spiritual commitment & seriousness as their parents. This seems to happen whether parents intend for it or not. If a parent is lukewarm then it is very likely that the child is going to be lukewarm. Conversely, if a parent takes their faith very seriously then it is very likely the child will too, in the long run. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. But the data are very compelling.

For those of you who are interested in numbers, here is a summary from a paper I wrote: "Parents are also unaware of or unmoved by studies demonstrating that youth are strongly influenced by their parents' stance toward religion, with or without much direct discussion. For example, about three in four U.S. teens consider their own religious beliefs to be somewhat or very similar to their parents. Only 6 percent consider their beliefs to be very different from their mother and 11 percent very different from their father (Smith, 2005). A closer look at responses to the question of how important religion is to daily life helps to illuminate the well-established and powerful "transmission effect" from parents to offspring for variables such as religious affiliation, frequency of attendance and prayer, etc. The National Study of Youth and Religion(NSYR) revealed that 67 percent of U. S. teens who report their faith is extremely or very important in their daily lives have parents who also say that their faith is extremely important; but only 8 percent of devout teens have parents who view their faith as not very or not at all important. At the other end of the continuum, 61 percent of teens who say their faith is somewhat or not very important in their daily lives also have parents who say the same thing; only 8 percent of the less engaged teens have parents who say their faith is extremely important. Finally, when parents say faith is not at all important in their daily lives, 47% of their teens also say this. So, contrary to the notion that children spontaneously discover the sacred when left to their own devices, most youth become deeply engaged in a faith life when their parents are. Conversely, most youth who are minimally engaged in either private or public spheres of faith have parents with lukewarm feelings about religion and low levels of religious activity (e.g., attendance, prayer). The take-home message is that parents nearly always shape the spiritual identities of their children one way or the other."


Clifton, Va.: Wait a minute, your son is named Quinn Quinn?

Sally Quinn: No. His name is Quinn Bradlee. My husband's name is Ben Bradlee.


Washington, D.C.: I am currently in a relationship. I am LDS though currently rather ambivalent about my church. My girlfriend was raised in China. I don't know that I would call her an atheist but due to being raised in China she has seems to have no feelings one way or the other about religion. So not only do we have the religious differences but the cultural differences though she has been in the US for over 20 years. We are both around 50 and divorced.

Because of my ambivalence about religion and the lack of need to discuss how to raise children I don't see religion as an issue. But at times she seems to have a lot of anxiety about it but she can't seem to say what it is that is bothering her.

I have not talked much about my religion because I don't want her to feel I am pushing it on her. But I wonder if at times that makes her feel more alienated in that aspect of my life.

Any insight?

Ellen McCarthy: Talk to her. It seems to me you have the opportunity to deepen your relationship here, by being very open about your own religious journey and giving her the chance to do the same.


Alexandria, Va.: Hi Sally,

What is the definition of spiritual, but not religious? I hear it said a lot, but I am not 100 percent sure what it means, or does if mean different things to different people. Thanks!

Sally Quinn: There will be some who dislike the comparison or the differentiation of those two words. To me if someone is religious it means that they ascribe to a certain organized religion and participate in the rituals of that religion. If someone is spiritual, it means that they believe that there is something larger than we are, though they may not define it as God, but they are always looking for a way to connect with the divine.


Savannah, Ga.: My mom is Catholic and my dad was agnostic/atheist (hard to say what he really believed other than that organized religion was a scam). I can see how it influenced me and my siblings, (2/3 of us are practicing Protestants, the other is a semi-practicing Catholic). I didn't like how it separated our family, however. I was always jealous of those families that went to church together every Sunday -- that was never us.

I don't think I could marry someone who didn't share my faith (not necessarily the denomination, but definitely Christianity)- it's too big a part of my life, and I would want it to be a big part of my family.

Ellen McCarthy: Thanks for this perspective. I know it's one a lot of people share. What if you fell in love with someone who wasn't particularly religious at all? Would that change the equation?


Toledo, Ohio: How important is it to have supportive family members? I am an agnostic, but have exposed by children to faith through their grandparents. My 9-year-old was recently baptized at the church I grew up in and goes weekly with my mother. It's worked, but only because my mom is an advocate for my daughter's interest while maintaining support for me and my own path.

Sally Quinn: I think that is fabulous. That's what I did with my son, though he didn't go to church. If your daughter likes going to church with her grandmother and gets something out of it, how lucky can you be. You don't have to be anything but supportive of that relationship. One day she will be older and will make up her own mind. Now she can understand that you are not a believer but that some are and she can see that there are many different path in live to find meaning, connect with others and to become a good person.


Laurel, Md.: How much of the interfaith tension in a new couple stems from themselves versus coming from their religious institutions? My wife comes from an educated family of a different faith, and they hardly seem to care about the difference.

The pushback comes primarily from the professional clergy, whose years of particular training would have little market value if everyone thought all religions were about the same.

Sally Quinn: There are some religions who are more involved than others in the interfaith issue. Many Jews in particular care about interfaith marriage because they want to preserve their traditions and their believes. In fact, many of other faiths who do marry Jews will allow their children to be raised Jewish because it is more important to their Jewish spouses than to them. Some who marry into the Jewish faith will often convert. But my experience is that most people I know who have married Jews have been made to feel very welcome in their spouses synagogues and temples.


Follow-up Catholic & Protestant marriage: My husband and I are going to raise the children in both faiths (attending both churches). I think it's close enough where there shouldn't be confusion. I think the most important part in raising children of faith is modeling our commitment to God. As the long excerpt reflected, parental behavior is often followed by the kids. We pray at dinner, before bed, read the scriptures, and talk about God everyday. If they believe in transubstantiation, it's not a big deal.

Ellen McCarthy: And it sounds like you've really talked this through, which is great.


Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: I don't want to get too maudlin, but I'd be interested in knowing what plans people in interfaith relationships (especially Jewish and Christian) have made for their funerals.

Ellen McCarthy: This is an excellent question. The interfaith minister I mentioned earlier said this is something she deals with a lot. I think it's especially tricky if there wasn't a plan in advance and adult children are left guessing. Has anyone out there talked this through with an interfaith partner?


Research -- stats?: Did the PEW research discover whether couples discussed religion before marriage? I mean really discussed. It occurs to me that "religion" is one of the no-no topics for dating (along with sex and politics). Frankly, I think it should be one of the first things you ask about on that first date.

Ellen McCarthy: They didn't cover that. Why would religion be a no-no topic for dating? It doesn't have to be first date material, but if it's important to you, I would absolutely think it's up for discussion. (P.S. -- I don't think politics is off limits in this town, either.)


Washington, D.C.: My husband (Jewish) was raised in an interfaith home -- his mother is a devout Catholic and his father is an observant Jew. His brothers were raised Jewish and his sister Catholic. Before his bar mitzvah, he was given the option to choose his own path. He chose to remain Jewish. I was raised Catholic and we have a daughter who we are raising Jewish, and we will likely raise all our future children Jewish as well. The whole family celebrates holidays from both religions. In my experience, there is no need to lessen one's devotion to their religion when they enter into an interfaith marriage. Being respectful of your spouse's (and children's) religion and maintaining an open mind can lead to a rich experience where both religions are appreciated.

Ellen McCarthy: Great perspective. Thanks.


Spiritual intimacy: I think one of the problems with marriages where the spouses' religion differs is a lack of spiritual intimacy -- either the subject is not broached or the couple agrees to disagree. In Catholicism and Protestantism, strong faith/belief is the foundation of a healthy marriage. It seems there is a huge problem where one spouse's beliefs would have the other spouse "going to hell" for not believing. Methinks there is a correlation between marriages of multiple religions and lukewarm, dispassionate beliefs on both sides. If you don't feel strongly enough to marry someone of the same faith, maybe it's not that important to either party.

Sally Quinn: I must say I think it would be really difficult to marry someone who believes I would be going to hell if I didn't believe the way he did. That could be a deal breaker. And it brings us the question of why he would want to marry someone he knew to be going to hell or would want to father children with someone who would be going to hell. I think a lot of discussion and premarital counseling needs to be done if this is the situation. Certainly that is a radical form of belief. The issue should be not what you believe but how you live your life. And anyway, who decides who's going to hell?


Annette Mahoney: A-religious offspring & Alexandria, Va.. A follow up to both of these posts. There is huge debate in academia about how to define these terms.

The growing consensus is that "Religion" refers to beliefs, practices, relationships, or experiences having to do with the sacred (God & supernatural/transcendent powers) that are explicitly and historically rooted in established institutionalized systems OR when religious institutions promote desired outcomes that don't necessarily have much to do with spirituality (e.g., children's moral development).
Hang in there with me.
Spirituality more and more refers to beliefs, practices, relationships or experiences having to do with the sacred that are not necessarily linked to established institutionalized systems; OR the human motive to develop a relationship with the sacred, understood traditionally (e.g., divine, higher power, God) or nontraditionally (e.g., ultimacy, boundlessness, nature).

It is important to remember that religion is the only social institution whose main purpose in the world is to promote spirituality. People can try foster their spirituality through other means, but they are cutting themselves off (and kids) from tremendous resources in this pursuit. Of course, we all know that getting involved in organized religion brings with it the risk of spiritual struggles when our tradition advocates something we profoundly disagree with as an individual.


Annette Mahoney: To Saint Lucia and Washington DC
I would like to add that it is mostly likely that your child will pay far more attention to you and your husband's behavior with regard to your faith, not what you say. For example, does she observe either or both of you applying your faith to your daily life, prayer, and attend services. I would suggest that if one or both of you were hoping to provide your child with strong foundation to develop a spiritual identity, then you each would need to invest energy into developing and deepening your own respective spiritual identities.


Anonymous: I wonder why there is such a division between Catholics and Protestants. Do they not believe in the same god and the same savior? Does the exact Sunday or daily worship traditions cause major difficulties for the children...or is it that this is another area that parents create difficulties for their children and pose to their children that they are "different than others" to provide a sense of superiority.

Sally Quinn: You can't know what is in people's hearts and minds. I don't think the word "superiority" is really the issue. Besides, as you may have read recently, the Pope has invited Anglican priests into the Catholic Church. And they don't even have to be celibate! Most Abrahamic faiths believe in the same God. That means Jews and Muslims as well. I think the main difference between Catholics and Protestants is that their rituals are different. But certainly not insurmountable.


Maryland: Raising kids in both religions sounds good on paper, but if the parents aren't even committed enough to choose one, how do you expect the kids to be? Personally, I have a Jewish friend raised in "both" who tentatively practices Judaism but celebrates Christmas because she "likes the decorations." I love her, but I find that practice demeaning to practicing Christians, as it trivializes symbols of their faith and practices. Why not pick one for the family and be done with it?

Sally Quinn: Because maybe one is not enough. And maybe what seems trivial to you is deeply important and symbolic to them. Even all of the years that I was an atheist I celebrated Christmas and it was and still is my favorite holiday. I love the spirit of Christmas. Why can't you honor and celebrate all faiths. I love going to Yom Kippur services with my Jewish friends and I love Passover Seders. I also like Iftar's , the breaking of the fast in the Muslim religion during Ramadan. There are rituals and beliefs in all faiths which I particularly like. Why shouldn't I be able to enjoy and honor them all.


Vienna, Va.: We both believe in universal religion. Our both kids are exposed to Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. We teach them about all the great Primordial Masters who came in this world. Its time for us to be just simple loving human being. We both practice Sahaja Meditation, without which I would never come out of my nut shell. Thanks to Shri. Mataji Nirmala Devi for bringing us together. We both are from different background only one thing is common and that is universal love. We have friends all over the world from different religion, faith but we are all like one family in Sahaja Yoga.

Sally Quinn: Sounds good to me. The magic words here are "simple loving human being."


D.C. Metro: I recently met a devout, extreme Christian man, twice divorced, 3 kids. He is celibate, doesn't drink or curse or even listen to popular radio. I, on the other hand, raised Baptist and regularly attended church, but do not currently have a church affiliation and consider my self a spiritual believer, non practicing Christian (if that makes sense). This was a mix of oil and water. He thought it ok for me to drink around him but not curse. Was also very judgmental about lifestyle and the poor thing didn't even realize how hypocritical he was being, judging me, a single woman who has not gone through 2 marriages and dating while separated (but married). I just find it a shame that relationships that have potential are ended prematurely (I cut if off after 2 dates to his dismay) because of the interfaith conflicts that don't have anything to do with one's character or adherence to laws of the universe which I proudly uphold.

Sally Quinn: You did the right thing. It sounds to me like his was not a religion problem but a personality problem.


Anonymous: In regards to funerals, my husband and I were of different Christian churches. He was Church of Christ (pretty fundamental), I was Catholic. When he died he had already converted to the Catholic Church. We held two services, one in each church; and this worked for parents, children and me. The Catholic priest refused to attend the service at the Church of Christ, saying that he was "not allowed." At the end of the day, we family members were okay; but now as adults, the oldest son has joined a protestant church. Although parents have great influence on their children, perhaps the behaviors of the clergy (or rather the behaviors of people) and not the "religion" actually causes children to make their choices.

Ellen McCarthy: I have to think you're right about it being the behaviors kids witness that are most influential. It sounds like you were able to figure out a memorial service that honored your husband and both your backgrounds.


Alexandria, Va.: I am Jewish and my husband was raised Lutheran though he is currently agnostic. We spoke at length about what we would do if we had children and came to a decision together. It doesn't matter what the decision was but if I have advice for anyone contemplating marriage, it is TALK TO YOUR POTENTIAL SPOUSE. Goodness gracious, the number of people who don't talk about some really serious potentially life-alternating issues is really quite large and I can't help but think that it adds to the number of divorces. Don't assume, don't guess, talk about the numerous potential situations that may happen to you as a couple. From different child-rearing techniques (including religion) to money to career choices to where you see yourselves in 5 years, 10 years, etc. Yes, all of these things may change (including feelings about religion), but your ability to talk about this before you get married and come to consensus (actual, not resentful, thinking you are going to change the other person's mind later) is going to be a bellwether for whether or not your marriage can take life's curves.

Sally Quinn: Amen. I think premarital counseling is essential for everyone regardless of whether or not you are in an interfaith situation. Statistics show too, that those who do have interfaith or premarital counseling have a much better chance of making it work than those who do not.


Funeral Arrangements: My husband and I have discussed this (we are the Jewish/Methodist couple from N.J.) because we were recently at a Jewish funeral and paid shiva calls to the family, so the topic came up. We will do the whole Jewish funeral/burial/shiva for him, and the whole Christian wake/funeral/burial for me. Hopefully we will both have enough relatives alive of each faith to help the children make the plans. Since I have a lot of Jewish friends, we will probably have one day for them to pay shiva calls to my family when I die. I really think that we've been able to compromise so easily about most of these issues because we do not let ANY outside factors influence our decisions, i.e., family, clergy, friends. We do what's best for us and what we both agree to, and so far have not met with any substantial conflicts.

Sally Quinn: That's brilliant. And so helpful to your children and family who will not be left to guess what you would have wanted.


New York, N.Y.: My boyfriend is Protestant and deeply religious. I am agnostic. He knew this when we first started dating. We are both concerned about the implications of our religious differences for our future now that we have been together for over a year. He told me that our relationship has made him realize that he wants to share his life with someone who shares his faith and is hoping that I will convert (although he has never pressured me to do so and realizes it is a very personal choice). Is there a "place to glorify the love that transcends difference, without demanding allegiance to one tribe or another?" as Lisa Miller eloquent asked? How have other people resolved such dating issues or is there no hope?

Ellen McCarthy: It's good you're getting this out in the open now. Have you considered approaching an interfaith minister or getting premarital counseling so that you have the opportunity to really hear each other on this?


Annette Mahoney: A final comment that address several posts about religious conflict between partners. We are finding that while it is relatively rare (about 15-20% of married couples), people can and do sometimes align themselves with God and religion against a partner. This is not a good thing empirically. I would advise people to be very cautious in accepting this kind of behavior from partners. E.g. a partner who implies that he/she is spiritually superior. Research on this is just beginning but it is worth mentioning.


Adult Kid here: Full disclosure, the sister and I claim that we have enough guilt to start our own religion, Jewish mom and Catholic dad.

But that being said, we grew up in a household that exposed us to both, and in fact in Odd Years We did Synagogue and Jewish Holidays, even years we did Catholic.

From a young age, we were encouraged to question and find our own path and faith. I tend to look at religion more anthropologically now, why do people believe what they believe, but also have a strong grounding in the faith community and somewhat of my own beliefs; however, I definitely feel strongly that experiencing both was an advantage.

So just to let ya know, inter-faith kids can grow up and be normal, although we might have a twisted sense of humor.

Ellen McCarthy: Odd years Jewish, even years Catholic. I guess that's one way of compromising! Glad your sense of humor was heightened by the experience.


D.C.: If two people are of different faiths, and they choose one of the two options to attend, how does the un-chosen faith still get nourished in the family? I understand not forcing children to choose a religion and I definitely support that -- but if the family decides to pick one of the churches (or holy places) to attend each week -- isn't that making the decision for the family?

Annette Mahoney: Yes, it is, and parents make all sorts of these kinds of decisions for their children (what school to attend, what friends to have, what kind of financial lifestyle to have). It is fascinating that in our culture that people are so individually oriented w/ regard to religion and spirituality. It is as if many people have taken a "shoppers" mentality to religion. They shop around to find a religion/spirituality as a way to get to the goals of meaning and personal happiness. Culturally, these are the most valued goals. But, ironically, our personal happiness is NOT the primary goal of most religious traditions which, fundamentally, all emphasize service to God and others.


Rockville, Md.: Have you done any research into the role religious difference plays in interracial relationships? Most African Americans are believing Christians, while young, socially liberal whites (the ones most likely to enter an interracial relationship) are commonly secular.

Annette Mahoney: Unfortunately, to my knowledge, there is little systematic & quantitative research on this topic.


Difference between Catholics and Protestants: There is a HUGE difference between these two faiths: salvation. Catholics believe in salvation through faith and good works (sanctification), Protestants believe in salvation through simple belief (justification). I know that may seem small, but it plays out rather significantly when you talk about heaven and hell, the importance of spreading the gospel. You may hear a lot of Protestants pray for "unsaved loved ones."

Sally Quinn: I haven'theard a lot of talk lately on "On Faith" about "unsaved loved ones." Most of the Catholics who write for us and who I know belief in faith and good works as do the protestants. In fact, more and more the two faiths and all faiths are moving away from single issues and focusing on doing good works.


It Does Matter: Sally,

It does matter what 'one believes' and not just how one lives. There are many people that live by the golden rule that are atheists, agnostics, etc. And that is good. But if you've read any of the gospels, Jesus makes it pretty clear that what you believe is the pivotal issue.

Sally Quinn: Honestly, I can't believe that Jesus would ever have rejected or even criticized anyone who lived by the Golden Rule, even if that person did not believe he was the son of God. What about all the believers who are evil?


Annette Mahoney: Goodbye and thanks for inviting me to participate. I feel obliged to express my thanks to the John Templeton Foundation for support they have given me and my research team to pursue research on faith and family.


Ellen McCarthy: Thanks to all for your stories and questions. We're still looking for personal essays on the topic. If you have one to share please email it to OnFaithandLove@washpost.com.


Sally Quinn: Thank you all for joining us. What an interesting discussion and the questions were thoughtful and sincere. Please join us again for another round of "On Faith and Love" and please join "On Faith" on the web site every day for these kinds of scintillating discussions. Sally Quinn


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