Strategies for Supporting Successful Interfaith Families
Whenever there are two or more religions in one geographic area, there are going to be interfaith families. When we live side by side, people will inevitably marry each other across lines of race, culture, class, and belief.
There have always been, and there will always be, couples who find that love is more powerful than any societal boundary.
And these interfaith families form bridges between cultures, contributing to the possibilities for peace.
I come from a happy three-generation interfaith family, of Jews and Protestants and Catholics and atheists. In my family, Jewish and Catholic and interfaith cousins celebrate holidays from both religions, together, and with great joy. While researching my book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, I surveyed or interviewed hundreds of interfaith parents and children, as well as clergy and teachers working with these families. I am also in touch with interfaith family support groups in England (Jewish/Christian and Christian/Muslim), Scotland (Christian/Muslim), France (Christian/Muslim) and India (Hindu/Muslim/Christian). Below, I set out four basic principles for supporting interfaith families, principles I think hold true in any geographic region.
- A balance of power between spouses is key. If one spouse insists on exclusively imposing one particular religion on an interfaith family, the other spouse, and the children, may resent this imposition at some point, and feel drawn to the forbidden religion. Likewise, conversion should never be a requirement for marriage, and should always be an intimate personal decision made without external pressure.
- Clergy need to work together to support interfaith families. A couple from two religions needs pastoral counseling from both religions, ideally working together in one room. Respectful dialogue between the clergy members can enrich the interfaith lives of the couple and model deep engagement. In contrast, interfaith couples who only receive pastoral counseling in one religion may feel like they are only hearing half the story.
- Interfaith children need and deserve information on both family religions. Even if raised with a singular religious label, they are inevitably going to experience formative religious events (weddings, funerals, baby-welcoming and coming-of-age rituals) with cousins and aunts and uncles from two different religions. And in adulthood, they may well choose a different religious pathway than the one chosen for them by their parents. Thus, they benefit tremendously from multifaith religious education, in terms of strengthening their family connections to extended family on all sides, and in terms of ability to understand and integrate their own complex religious identities.
- Interfaith children need to be given a way to see themselves as peacemakers and bridge-builders, rather than as marginal or problematic. While many religious institutions still struggle with the reality of interfaith families, interfaith children are now the demographic norm in some areas and in some cultures. A dominant discourse that constantly stresses the challenges of interfaith families, rather than the equally real benefits, distorts the experience of children in these families.
Former Newsweek reporter Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (Beacon Press). She blogs at onbeingboth.com, and you can find her on Twitter @beingboth.