Who would buy a holiday card decorated with elves and dreidels? More people than ever apparently: Close to half of all marriages in the U.S. in the past decade have been between people of different faiths, and today more Jewish children live in mixed-faith than in purely Jewish households. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists intermix, and not only on the fringes—rabbis, Hindu monks, and ordained Christian ministers enter marriages with spouses of different faiths. In such a confusing environment, it’s no wonder books are emerging to offer advice, information, and stories about how to navigate this interfaith society.
In her memoir, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk (Fresh Air Books, Oct.), J. Dana Trent, an ordained minister in the Southern Baptist tradition, describes the joys and pitfalls of life with Fred, her Hindu husband. Sometimes coordinating two religions with little common ground feels “about as graceful as a baby giraffe learning to walk.” But the couple has persevered, and the encounter with Hinduism, says Trent, has not eroded her faith but instead helped her deepen her own religious walk.
Til Faith Do Us Part (Oxford University Press, April) by Naomi Schaefer Riley (The Faculty Lounges ... And Other Reasons Why You Won't Get the College Education You Pay For) moves beyond personal memoir to survey a broad swathe of people in interfaith marriages. Riley, who is Jewish, married a lapsed Jehovah’s Witness. For her book, she travelled across the country to gather the stories of people who married spouses of other faiths and to interview clergy who are involved in interfaith marriages. In her 2,500-person survey she finds that dealing with interfaith issues, especially when it comes to raising children, can be harder than couples anticipate, especially for those who marry in their late 20s and early 30s when religious interest is at a low ebb. She advises them to be realistic about confronting differences before they tie the knot.
A Reconstructionist rabbi, Michal Woll, and Jon M. Sweeney (The Pope who Quit), her Catholic husband, also explore interfaith marriage in Mixed-Up Love: Relationships, Family and Religious Identity in the 21st Century (Jericho Books, Oct.), both through their own experience and interviews with other couples. Woll and Sweeney discover that shared spiritual practices, not shared beliefs, provide a basis for a strong marriage. While their interviews with interfaith couples show loneliness often emerging as a theme for spouses following separate faith paths, the book focuses on how to build interfaith relationships that will thrive—not only within the marriage, but also with friends and family.
Susan Katz Miller was raised Jewish by a Jewish father and a Christian mother, and herself entered into an interfaith marriage—but decided to raise her children as both Christian and Jewish. In Being Both, (Beacon, Oct.) Katz uses her own story along with interviews and surveys with parents, students, teachers, and clergy to describe a growing grassroots movement of people choosing “and” rather than “or” in bringing up their children. Communities dedicated to raising children in two faiths are increasingly springing up, says Amy Caldwell, executive editor at Beacon Press. For example, The Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington offers a Sunday morning gathering that celebrates both Christianity and Judaism in one setting—but couples beyond just Jewish/Christian are also participating in this movement.
These books suggest that interfaith marriages and families have become a social reality, and that new paradigms for how to reconcile different faiths will continue to emerge. While we can’t know the future impact of the increased numbers of children raised in dual-faith households, “interfaith marriage is flourishing and interest in interfaith books is strong,” says Caldwell.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the author of Being Both. It is Susan Katz Miller, not Susan Miller Katz.