Sunday, July 26, 2009

Helping Interfaith Marriages Succeed

I was just poking around the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life site and found this graphic about interfaith marriages:

June 4, 2009

Early summer is a traditional season for wedding ceremonies in the U.S. Data from the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life in 2007, shows that many marriages are between people of different religious faiths. According to the survey, Buddhists and the religiously unaffiliated are the most likely to have a spouse or partner with a different religious background, while Mormons and Hindus are the least likely to marry or live with a partner outside their own faith.

Marriage chart

Source: Pew Forum U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007 and released in 2008. Based on respondents who say they are married and respondents who say they are living with a partner. Results for other religious groups are not reported due to small sample sizes. Due to rounding, figures may not add to 100.

1. For mainline Protestants,
evangelical Protestants and historically black Protestants, this category includes marriages and partnerships between people from different Protestant denominational families (e.g., a Methodist married to a Lutheran).

Baha'is are free to marry outside of their faith and many do so. Because the Baha'i community is numerically small, the pool of potential mates (what marriage researchers call a 'marriage market') is also small. Thus for many Baha'is, getting married at all means marrying someone who is not a Baha'i. To the best of my knowledge, there is no data about the success of such marriages vs. marriages where spouses are both Baha'is. Anecdotally however, I have heard that interfaith marriages can be challenging in a variety of ways. I believe that similar to interracial marriages, interfaith marriages have much to teach us about what unity in diversity means at the most intimate level. If this is true, helping interfaith marriages succeed should be an imperative of the Baha'i community. This means that addressing those challenges which may be unique to interfaith couples should become an explicit part of marriage education in the Baha'i Faith.

"A family is a nation in miniature. Simply enlarge the circle of the household and you have the nation. Enlarge the circle of nations and you have all humanity. The conditions surrounding the family surround the nation. The happenings in the family are the happenings in the life of the nation. Would it add to the progress and advancement of a family if dissensions should arise among its members, fighting, pillaging each other, jealous and revengeful of injury, seeking selfish advantage? Nay, this would be the cause of the effacement of progress and advancement. So it is in the great family of nations, for nations are but an aggregate of families" (Abdu'l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 100)


  1. Hi Phillipe, I agree very much that we should consider how we can provide support for interfaith marriages within the Baha'i Faith. Now that we are emphasizing the participation of everyone (of all Faiths) in the core activities, including devotional meetings, there are many more opportunities for non-Baha'is to participate if they choose in the religious life of a Baha'i spouse. I think some of this support will also come from the growing sensitivity of the Baha'i community to the challenge of an interfaith family(i.e. not necessarily viewing non-Baha'i spouses as a potential "convert" but recognizing their spiritual path). Do you, or any of your readers, have any more concrete ideas on how we can support these marriages? I think this can be a great conversation.

  2. Phillipe7:43 PM

    Anne, thanks for encouraging more discussion about this. One recommendation is having marriage education in the Baha'i community generally be informed by social science research on what supports successful marriages. Most of what I have read has been about interracial marriages but there is definitely literature out there about interfaith marriages. Also, Baha'is who are in such marriages could share what they have been learning about what works and what does not work in more systematic fashion. Our various sites of Baha'i education, such as the permanent and summer schools could take on the challenge of including interfaith marriages in their marriage education courses. The potential good is enormous. I'm curious what other people think about this.

  3. Great topic. There is increasing social science reseach since the '50's on variables that affect marital"go-no-go" decisions on interfaith/interreligius marital satisfaction/happiness. Since then, in the US, there's an increasing "secularization" of marriage,meaning many people are more open to marrying outside their faith/race. Catholics and conservative sects are less likely to marry outside their faith. "Outmarriage" is also less likely among southerners in Protestant denominations and, it seem, Jews are also less likely, depending on Reformed/Orthodox,et al practice. Stats among US Muslims are similar, although research is thinner here to my knowledge.
    More educated people tend to be more open, and when the woman has more education, the marriage framework seems to be more open (based on some studies). From one sociologists' standpoint-mine-the reason we see higher rates of intermarriage across all variables (except class) in the Baha'i Faith is due to 1)the lack of clergy and, therefore, clerical influence as a form of social control,2) the principle of the independent investigation of truth which modfies our thinking toward openness as a factor in choice, 3) the absence of religious ritual, an aspect of interfaith marriage that can make/break marriage, and 4) the organizing principle of the equality of men and women, a principle of Baha'u'llah's Revelation that, finally, prepares the way for a level playing field in partner decision-making, challenges the inequities in 'traditional'/repressive/customary marriage in societies in wch. women have no rights, and acknowledges/reinstitues the legal rights of women. These insights may not stand up to scrutiny when we consider issues of class or same sex marriage, two aspects of our global cultures that pose challenges to the nature of marriage. I see that the coming of Baha'u'llah, the Divine Messenger for this era, is destined to bring greater clarity, reconciliation, unity, love, and mutual respect between men and women in marriage, one of the few social contracts that has stabalized society since ancient times.

  4. Phillipe,

    This is a great topic, for sure. I just wanted to add that, at least in the present state of the world, it's hard to distinguish between interfaith and interracial marriages. For a lot of people, religion is tied up with ethnicity. You can see that clearly in the statistic that the vast majority of Hindus marry other Hindus. As a Western European married to someone of South Asian ancestry, I can say from my own experience that this statistic says more about the general conservatism of people from that region, whatever their religion, than about Hinduism per se. People from countries like Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh marry outside their own circle very rarely, if at all. And since they often don't distinguish their religion from their ethnic identity, they don't distinguish between interracial marriages and interfaith unions. Thanks for a thought-provoking piece.

    Brendan Cook

  5. Phillipe,
    Great blog post. This is an important topic. I know for myself, I felt that marrying another Baha'i was important to me and I thought it would be easier to have harmony with another Baha'i. I feel very strongly about the Teachings of the Baha'i Faith and hold these Teachings close to my heart and I didn't want these things to cause conflict in my relationship. I also did not want to have to always explain myself about things from the Baha'i perspective. I wanted to have a partner who already took those things for granted.

  6. Phillipe4:47 PM

    Maura, this Baha'i is happy you picked him.
    Dr. Chandler, thanks for bringing a sociologist's perspective to this issue.
    Brendan, it is true that in many cases one cannot separate religion and race/ethnicity. Therefore interracial/interethnic marriage should also be addressed explicitly in the Baha'i community.

  7. I am originally from England but grew up here in the US, I am about to get married to a non-Baha'i who is Rwandan and Catholic. There have been some issues only when one of us becomes fearful of the interfaith aspect of our married life, raising children, activities, etc. Sometimes we become discouraged and feel like the lack of common purpose of religion in our relationship will result in separation years from now. We talk openly with each other about our fears and our hopes/goals for the marriage. We both love and have a strong connection to God. We have different ways of communicating with God and different ways of understanding what God is ( which I think is normal for most people) but we both celebrate and praise God constantly. We both want our children to have a strong spiritual education beginning from when they are very young. My fiancé recognizes the importance of establishing a relationship with God as a child. My fiancé wants our children to be baptized and I have explained why as a Baha'i baptism in the traditional catholic sense is not necessary anymore. He expressed how important it was that I was there for the baptism and I told him that if he organized and arranged for a baptism for our future children that I would be there. He is familiar with devotions, feast, holy days, fasting, daily prayer, and more :) He is also excited to invite Bahai's to our home after we are married to host events, his culture and background is extremely supportive of many visitors and he is a much better host than I am and he has cooked and typed up feast writings for feast (while leaving during the actual meeting). Sometimes he doesn't come to Bahai events sometimes he does, it all depends on how he feels. As you can see, there are many things that we agree on, and support each other with. I know that his being Catholic is less about the religion and more about the culture he grew up surrounded by. He is very close with his community and mostly everyone is catholic or christian, I think if he met more/any Rwandan Bahai's he would be very intrigued by that. When we begin living together I will have great opportunities to serve within the Rwandan community and feel strongly that this is an important part of our union. I am writing now however because sometimes I have some very real concerns about interfaith marriage. My purpose in life is to serve the cause to the best of my ability, this is not the same as my fiance, another concern is that he drinks along with most other men in his community, while this is something I will never support it will happen in our home, is this ok? Do most Bahai's marry Bahai's? I am a relatively new Baha'i and my experiences are still new and few. I have met so many WONDERFUL Bahai couples, when I think of them I have concerns that an interfaith marriage might not be the most intelligent decision considering the struggles I will assuredly face with this inter-everything union. I have even been told by multiple couples in a bahai marraige that this union could prove to be a problem down the line, given our differences in culture, tradition, history, experience, religion, race, opinion, etc. On the other hand I am often given wonderful confirmations that attest to our ability to succeed together. Thoughts? Suggestions? Do you know anyone like me? Please let me know I have few people in my area or anywhere that are in this type of relationship that I can consult with. Thanks and God Bless <3

    1. This was such a heartfelt letter from Crk4. I hope she was able to access the many resources on the internet and elsewhere to help her with her concerns. I am also curious as to her final decision re marriage and subsequent experience. Thanks.