How to Make Interfaith Relationships Work
Today, Shanny and Kimberly Luft are married with two children. She still identifies as a Protestant, but they are raising their kids Jewish. How did they make it work? In part, by old-fashioned concessions. Initially, she conceded by agreeing to raise their kids Jewish. More recently, he conceded by agreeing to trim a Christmas tree and organize an Easter egg hunt. "You have to allow yourself to be on this uncomfortable ground," Shanny explains, adding that "to her credit, Kimberly was able to do that before me."
In my new book, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter, I make the case that interreligious harmony depends not on pretending the great religions are the same but on recognizing their differences and then coming to respect and perhaps even to revel in them. The same seems to go for interfaith romances. When it comes to our most intimate relationships, the pretend pluralism of the "all religions are one" variety just doesn't cut it. Muslims know that Islam is different from Hinduism just as surely as Jews know that Judaism is different from Islam. The way forward for most couples is to explore the differences and then to learn to accept and perhaps even to celebrate them.
Old models of interfaith dialogue—let's call them Interfaith 1.0—were really monologues, welcoming only to liberals and progressives who affirmed the unity of all religions. But new efforts—call them Interfaith 2.0—such as those of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core bring together a wide variety of Orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians and traditional Muslims precisely because there is no requirement that participants check their distinctive theologies at the door.
Shanny and Kimberly started out their relationship doing Interfaith 1.0—"we looked more for commonalities when we first started dating," Shanny explains—but gradually they shifted to Interfaith 2.0. "The longer we were together, we were more comfortable discussing our differences," he says, including, "What I don't agree with and what makes me uncomfortable."
Religion is, of course, a formidable force in both our public and our private lives. In the end, however, religious differences may not be all that different from the other differences every couple must navigate. "Every marriage is a mixed marriage," says Nora Rubel, a Jewish college professor from Rochester, New York, who is married to a Protestant man. "Everybody comes from a different perspective than their partner. If you aren't brother and sister, it's a mixed marriage."
Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University and the author if God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.