An intimate look into the challenges of interfaith marriage

(Names have been changed to protect the families’ privacy.)

Religious holidays, wedding planning, and raising kids can all be uncomfortable situations for couples who observe different religious traditions. Intercultural marriage has become increasingly popular throughout the United States, and although many secular Americans welcome this rise in interreligious unions, several of these marriages encounter unique challenges and complications. 

According to Judith N. Martin and Thomas K. Nakayama, authors of Intercultural Communication in Contexts, people in the U.S. tend to believe that everyone should be free to practice any religion they wish; however, conflicts arise when some of those religious beliefs are imposed on others who might not agree with them. Today we live in a globalized world in which we are constantly meeting people from different cultural backgrounds. Falling in love can engender issues when the individuals share different beliefs. Research indicates that marriages between members of the same religious group is more durable than those of interfaith. Nearly 39 percent of Americans who have been married since 2010 have a spouse who is affiliated with a different religious group.

Photo by Lauren Zurcher

Interfaith marriages were — and still are in some cases — considered a betrayal of one’s faith, but they now represent a growing segment of all marriages in the U.S. One of the reasons for this is because society continues to become more open and diverse, and it has become more common for people to meet their significant others in the workplace instead of places of worship or in school.

Henry and Laila met in graduate school. He was born into an atheist family, while she was raised in a Muslim household. Although she does not practice the religion now, her parents do, which has caused some tension between Laila and her family, according to her husband Henry. They dated for three years before Laila told her family about her relationship with Henry.

“I guess she was afraid of what they would think of her, dating a non-Muslim, let alone dating a non-believer,” said Henry.

Laila felt conflicted when deciding to date her atheist boyfriend because of her familial and cultural traditions. Henry explained how it is a big sin for her to willfully be dating someone who does not believe in God, in the eyes of her parents. On top of that, Laila had begun to stray away from her parents’ religion. She never wore the traditional hijab. 

Once her parents found out about Henry, it took them a while to warm up to the idea of them eventually getting married. The Quran does not explicitly forbid Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men, rather it is advised for people to marry someone who will be compatible and with whom they can live harmoniously. However, the Quran suggests that someone who believes is a better partner than someone who does not. According to Henry, once Laila’s parents realized how well he and their daughter bonded, they gave them their blessing.

“I highly advise couples of different faiths to communicate with each other, as well as with their extended families,” said Henry. “Make that a priority if you really love each other.”

An important aspect that comes with marriage is the possibility of having kids. Waleed, a Lebanese Maronite Christian man, and Martha, an American Mormon woman, have been married for almost 30 years and have raised three kids — Brian, Ariana, and Sarah.

The couple was married by Waleed’s uncle at St. Philip the Apostle Church in Bakersfield, California. Waleed’s parents would not have seen their marriage as a true unity, according to Martha, if she had insisted on getting married anywhere other than the Catholic Church. 

“I didn’t want to cause any problems from the start, and I understood their beliefs and traditions,” said Martha. “I didn’t really find it a problem. I knew it was expected.”

Martha explained that she never asked to be married in her church — she would not have been able to regardless. In the Mormon Church, members get married at the temple. In order to be worthy to enter the temple, both spouses have to be members of the church for at least a year.

“The Bride” by Pamela Compton. Courtesy of 73 Art Agency, LLC. 

“Well, I knew that wasn’t going to happen, so I wasn’t so sad or upset with it,” said Martha.

Martha and Waleed discussed how they would raise their kids with both religions prior to their wedding. However, once they were married that changed right away — Waleed did not find the idea appealing anymore. To keep peace in the family, Martha went to Catholic Church with her kids and Waleed. All three kids were baptized when they were babies, had their first communions and were confirmed in the Catholic Church. Waleed’s family baptized their son, Brian, at another family member’s wedding rehearsal without Martha knowing. 

“They said he was being confirmed. I didn’t know what it meant, not being Catholic,” said Martha. “I thought it was just a church blessing, like at my church. I had no idea.”

After that, Martha decided she would plan her daughters’ baptisms and parties. She was the one who took them to church and taught them the lessons — she even taught Sunday school at St. Philip without being a member. However, a lot changed for the family when their daughter Ariana was diagnosed with a hole in her heart and needed surgery at 10-years-old. Martha had been going to the Catholic Church for approximately 12 years — although she explains that she did not want to be Catholic nor did she believe in its teachings. She turned to her church for support and direction and began taking her kids to the Mormon Church. All three kids were baptized Mormon. 

After a few years of going to the Mormon church, the kids were put in a Christian school in Bakersfield. According to Martha, Christians are very opposed to the Mormon Church, so her kids would hide the fact that they were Mormon. 

“Slowly, each one of the kids turned away from my church — way too many rules — and turned away from the Catholic Church,” said Martha. “I think they all did not want to choose between churches or make either one of us mad, between Waleed and me, so they didn’t go to either.”

To this day, Brian does not go to church. Martha said he does not like organized religion, but he will join the family at the Catholic Church on special occasions. Ariana does not go to church often, but she accepts the Catholic way, the Mormon way or any Christian way, although she leans more towards Catholic. Sarah goes to a Christian church when she is back home from college, and Martha and Waleed accompany her.

“As you can see, my kids are confused,” said Martha. “They were raised both Catholic and Mormon, yet they went to Christian schools and were exposed to that. So, they can go anywhere, yet belong nowhere.”

As far as household traditions, celebrations and holidays, the family does not have many. They pray before all their meals, holding hands — which is a Christian ritual, and they go to Catholic or Christian church at Easter. For more than 19 years, they would feed the homeless at the rescue mission in Bakersfield on Christmas Eve and then have an open house party with large numbers of attendees. However, the tradition came to an end when they decided that it was too difficult to spend Christmas away from home. It was the best tradition, according to Martha. 

Martha observes that being married to someone of a different religion than yours is not easy. 

“You either have to go to your own church without each other — which doesn’t work, I know that through experience, follow the other spouse’s religion or just accept each other’s religion and beliefs,” said Martha. “Because whatever way you were raised will be a huge influence on your children. You have no choice but to instill your beliefs on them, but you have to be understanding and accepting or it can destroy your marriage.”

Martha firmly believes that the decision on how an interfaith couple will raise their kids should be etched in stone way before marriage, otherwise, it will cause countless arguments, a lot of resentment and anger, and blame for anything that goes wrong with the children, which all occurred between Martha and Waleed.

“I don’t recommend [having an interfaith family] unless everything is talked about, open and decided on prior to having kids. Actually, before getting married,” said Martha. “It really has to be a complete understanding, or you’ll end up with kids like mine who are confused and don’t have religion in their life.”

Photo by Lauren Zurcher

Further Reading: Are Mormons Christian?

Yes and no. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — also known as the Mormon Church — is a nontrinitarian, Christian restoration church. Nontrinitarian is a form of Christianity that declines the mainstream Christian doctrine of the Trinity. It is considered by its members to be the restoration of the original church that was founded by Jesus Christ, which is why many Mormons undoubtedly consider themselves to be Christians. Essentially, the Mormons believe that Christ established a church during His mortal ministry that was lost over time. Hence, they believe that Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism and of the Latter-day Saint movement, was a prophet whom God called to reestablish Christ’s church. Therefore, the Mormon church is the “restored,” not “reformed” church of Jesus Christ. The doctrines and scriptures of this church focus on the role that Christ plays as Redeemer, Savior and Son of God. Joseph Smith explained that the core values of the religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, and the fact that Jesus Christ died, was buried and rose again the third day and ascended into heaven. 

Although they worship God in the name of Jesus Christ, more recently people have claimed that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a Christian church. The main reasons, according to the official website of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are because Latter-day Saints do not accept the creeds, confessions and formulations of post-New Testament Christianity, the church does not originate from the historical line of traditional Christianity and Latter-day Saints do not believe scripture consists only of the Holy Bible. For many people, being a Christian means agreeing to the principle of “sola scripture,” or the self-sufficiency of the Bible. The Mormons’ belief in an open canon — which permits the addition of books through the process of continuous revelation — and additional scripture (e.g. the Book of Mormon), sets them apart from other Christians. However, although the Mormon ideology differs from that of many Christian churches, it is consistent with early Christianity.

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