Sunday, June 6, 2010

This morning, over at the online edition of The Washington Post, I read this article about interfaith marriages: how challenging they are and how likely to fail.

This August, I will have been married 22 years, but I still remember my mother's dating advice. She urged me not to date anyone from too different a background, particularly in terms of religion. I thought that showed a certain prejudice, but she insisted she was simply being practical. She reminded me that any date might eventually lead to marriage, and so I had to think about that possible end result, even before going on the date.

At the time, I couldn't imagine ever getting married, and so her advice seemed stuffy. But largely by accident, I married someone of a fairly similar background, a lifelong Lutheran who had spent considerable time at church and in youth groups. That similarity serves us well.

I wouldn't have predicted it would matter so much. In my twenties, when I tied the knot, I breezily dismissed religion. Little did I know that we would both feel a longing to return to the church of our upbringings. How much more difficult it would have been if we had come from vastly different religious traditions. How impossible it would have been if there had been children involved.

Naomi Schaefer Riley, the writer of the article, points out:

"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."

She makes some of the same observations that sociologist Robert Wuthnow pointed out in his book After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion (recently I wrote about this book here and here). People in their 20's are at the least religious they're likely to be in their lifetimes, and yet this time period is when they make a lot of important life decisions.

Her statistics about divorce amongst the religiously different couples are sobering:

"In a paper published in 1993, Evelyn Lehrer, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that if members of two mainline Christian denominations marry, they have a one in five chance of being divorced in five years. A Catholic and a member of an evangelical denomination have a one in three chance. And a Jew and a Christian who marry have a greater than 40 percent chance of being divorced in five years.

More recent research concludes that even differing degrees of religious belief and observance can cause trouble. For instance, in a 2009 paper, scholars Margaret Vaaler, Christopher Ellison and Daniel Powers of the University of Texas at Austin found higher rates of divorce when a husband attends religious services more frequently than his wife, as well as when a wife is more theologically conservative than her husband."

I know we believe that love can conquer all. But the statistics don't bear that out, not in terms of religious differences, financial differences, class differences. Marriage is tough, and any sort of radical difference seems to make it that much tougher.

After this depressing article, perhaps you need something to remind you that sometimes, the news is good. I loved Nicholas Kristof's article in today's The New York Times about his recent cancer scare:

"This is trite but also so, so true: A brush with mortality turns out to be the best way to appreciate how blue the sky is, how sensuous grass feels underfoot, how melodious kids’ voices are. Even teenagers’ voices. A friend and colleague, David E. Sanger, who conquered cancer a decade ago, says, 'No matter how bad a day you’re having, you say to yourself: ‘I’ve had worse.’ '

Floyd Norris, a friend in The Times’s business section, is now undergoing radiation treatment for cancer after surgery on his face and neck. He wrote on his blog: 'It is not fun, but it has been inspiring. In a way, I am happier about my life than at any time I can remember.'

I don’t mean to wax lyrical about the joys of tumors. But maybe the most elusive possession is contentment with what we have. There’s no better way to attain that than a glimpse of our mortality."

Contentment--may we all learn this skill, without having to suffer a tumor or a failing marriage!

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