The minister at a beautiful outdoor wedding I attended last month wore a shawl with symbols of numerous faiths. The person sitting next to me whispered in my ear, "That woman has found a growing industry."
In the 21st century, interfaith marriage is not a deviant life choice -- it's the norm. According to Pew Research, 45 percent of Americans are intermarried, including 46 percent of mainline Protestants, 32 percent of evangelical Protestants, 22 percent of Catholics, and 44 percent of Jews. This means there are many interfaith weddings.
Negotiating what customs from each of the religions can be a wonderful opportunity for couples to sort out their religious beliefs before marrying. On the other hand, it can be a tremendous source of trouble among family members. In the old days, marriages were occasions for parents and communities to welcome a new couple into their community and give them permission to start families. Now, weddings celebrate a couple's love and willingness to make a commitment to each other.
Families often feel left out when the couple does not consult them about wedding plans. Every wedding detail including the color of the napkins, the size and location of the wedding, who will walk down the aisle, can lead to war. But nothing hits harder at the core of the parents' hearts than when the long-held dream of a church or synagogue wedding filled with familiar customs is shattered.
Some parents are upset because they believe that if the sacraments are not met the couple will not be legitimately married. Others feel that their families have always had particular wedding traditions, and by breaking those, they are dishonoring their ancestors. Still others are uncomfortable with unfamiliar customs and unmet expectations. Whatever the reason, couples do well to acknowledge their parents' disappointments. For example, "Dad, I know you always dreamed of walking me down the church aisle. You'll still have the opportunity to walk me down the aisle, but it won't be in a church. "
When the couple grapples with each and every decision about the ceremony, they engage with their religious traditions and have a chance to learn about each others' customs. This helps them to not only make decisions about their wedding, but also about the customs they will celebrate in the home they make for themselves.
Couples today have many more acceptable choices for religious practice than in the past. In the past, interfaith couples might give up religion entirely and become the interfaithless, or one member might convert. Now, however, religion is less of a family choice and more of an individual choice. Often two religions coexist in one house. Couples often separate their religious practices, and have mommy's religion and daddy's religion, with a balance of representation. Other couples synchronize their two religions, emphasize the universals, and celebrate all of the holidays. Still others focus on spirituality, not religion, and explore rituals that speak to them. Just as there are many more family configurations than parents ever thought possible, such as single parent families and gay families, so there are many more religious communities in which the couple can find acceptance. The parental worry that an interfaith family will find no community is no longer true, and this might provide some consolation to parents. However, couples are wise to acknowledge the difficulty their union poses for their parents rather than be defensive.
Couples can mitigate their parents' disappointment by showing respect and understanding. Parents might be reassured if their children promise them that their grandchildren will learn about their religious background, even if they won't practice it. Couples can also reassure their parents that they will still go home for their traditional holidays. They can assure their parents that they still will have a place in their grandchildren's lives. None of this will overcome the loss the parents feel. Couples don't have to follow every demand of their parents. However, if they allow their parents to share what is most important to them without assuming intention to convert, everyone will feel more comfortable at the wedding and beyond.
It will take many years for family to accommodate to all the new customs and beliefs, but the atmosphere created at the wedding can have a long impact, helping or harming the respect families have for each other. Honoring "thy father and thy mother" during the wedding is a great place to start your marriage.