if you were in an interfaith relationship, how would you raise your children?
j(wh) and i have asked that question several times as we’ve discussed what the future may hold for us. and it will continue to be a topic of conversation, i’m sure. i have, from very early in our relationship, taken the stance that, if we were to marry and have children, our (hypothetical) children should be taught the beliefs and history of both of our faith traditions; that they should attend both quaker and mormon meetings regularly (not both every Sunday, but on some kind of split schedule); that they should have both quaker and mormon communities; and that ultimately they should decide for themselves (when they’re older than eight) which tradition works for them—or that neither works for them.
j(wh) sees the balance and fairness in such a suggestion, but he still has reservations about raising his children with any exposure to mormonism. primarily because he fears the ways in which mormonism could cause them pain—the pain and depression he’s seen me experience because of the church’s teachings about gender and marriage; the pain men and women close to us have felt as they’ve attempted to fit themselves into the mold the church prescribes; the pain some of our friends felt as they left the mormon community. he doesn’t want to expose his children to a belief system that can generate such deep psychological and spiritual hurt. and i do not blame him. in fact i agree with him. i don’t want my children exposed to such pain either.
while we haven’t resolved this particular problem, we both very much believe there is a middle ground—a way to teach our (hypothetical) children about both of our faith traditions while doing our best to control for teachings we believe are harmful. that middle ground is possible because j(wh) and i share deeply cherished values and we envision living those values in similar ways. in other words, while our formal faith traditions are different, our beliefs are very similar.
as we’ve discussed this question, j(wh) has asked me whether i know anyone who has raised their kids the way i’m suggesting we should raise our (hypothetical) children—half in the mormon church, half in another church. and i’ve had to say that, no—i don’t. so i went searching the bloggernacle for other people’s experiences, trusting i would find useful information. i was rather surprised at what i did find.
there was some solid info available. several posts at feminist Mormon housewives offer what seems to me good advice. i discovered faces east, a discussion forum meant to help support those in part-member (or part-believer) families. i found several compassionate posts and comments about the experience of one spouse withdrawing from the church.
but i also found ideas that very much disturbed me. here’s a few, in brief:
- that a woman will be ‘available’ to be sealed to a man in the next life, regardless of whether she stays single or marries a non-mormon. the implication being that were such a woman to marry a non-mormon, she would not be sealed to her non-mormon spouse.
- that marriage to a non-mormon pre-supposes a ‘divorce-upon-death.’ again implying that it’s impossible for an interfaith marriage to be sanctioned in the next life.
- that there should be a pre-nup understanding that the non-mormon spouse’s failure to actively support the LDS lifestyle would constitute sufficient grounds for divorce.
- that a mormon marries a non-mormon out of desperation for sex and companionship.
- that when a mormon marries a non-mormon, the mormon has settled for marrying someone who does not cherish the same values.
- that marriage is about making babies, not about the spouses. that therefore, because marrying a non-mormon will jeopardize future children’s moral character, interfaith marriage should be avoided at all costs—even the cost of debilitating depression and loneliness.
- that interfaith parents necessarily compete for control of their children’s moral training—because clearly they couldn’t have moral values in common.
- that the children of interfaith marriages should, obviously, be raised exclusively mormon.
- that marriage is teleological—about the ends achieved, rather than about the way life is lived now.
- that mormons in interfaith marriages should be pitied, as if their marriages must be a daily burden instead of a source of joy and happiness.
- that only mormons with serious testimony issues or rebellious natures marry outside the church.
- that marrying a non-mormon constitutes a deliberate and active sin.
as i read these various posts and comments—literally hundreds of comments—i was stunned. and furious. and sad.
sad because essentially what i heard over and over was that interfaith marriage is inherently lacking; that it constituted sin; that it was begging for trouble. sad because of the lack of faith—faith that god will sanction any marriage built on love and equality and sound foundations, rather than just those begun with the proper ritual and form. i cannot understand the privileging of form (starting a marriage with a temple sealing) over principle (building a strong, loving, lasting marriage—a ‘celestial’ marriage, if you will). i cannot understand it in spite of my acceptance of the importance of saving ordinances.
my search for ideas about how to build interfaith marriages and families also took me to a couple of articles in dialogue. and it was there i found what felt right to me. in his short article “eternity with a dry-land mormon,”* levi peterson explains the rites of “baptism, confirmation, healing, and wedding” as ordained by god “for the comfort, not the condemnation, of human beings. a ritual is not a ticket allowing one to enter a certain door or gate. it is a reminder and a symbol; it concentrates meaning and rouses emotion” (113-4). this understanding of ordinances resonates with me. it makes sense to think of rites as focusing attention on living principled, examined lives while recognizing that they are not the only means of doing so.
peterson later concludes: “a wedding announces a marriage, celebrates it, establishes its hope and ideal, but doesn’t create it. the joy a couple has in one another’s presence creates their marriage. i therefore believe that, if god grants althea and me to participate in the miracle of the resurrection, he will also grant us the privilege of continuing our marriage. there will need be no other reason than that we have loved each other long and dearly” (115). i could not agree more fully. for me, love is the well-spring of the gospel. it is the power that should direct our daily lives. it is the hope i feel for myself and my world. love—not form—will lead to exaltation. form, ritual, ordinances can only help set expectations of love, focus attention on love; they cannot take love’s place.
because my own interfaith relationship is with a quaker, i read heidi hart’s article “householding: a quaker-mormon marriage”** with great interest. i appreciated her story of spiritually journeying away from mormonism into quakerism; of her and her husband’s efforts to not only preserve their marriage, but to use their divergent spiritual paths as an opportunity to strengthen their marriage. she speaks of a jewish creation story in which “god’s divinity is shattered into pieces at the beginning of the world. . . . that our job as human beings is to gather the pieces of goodness scattered all around us,” regardless of where they lay (142). i understand this vision because i see goodness everywhere in my world. i have no interest in making all of that goodness mormon, in redefining it so it fits neatly somewhere in the mormon cosmology. i am interested in exploring the goodness where it lays, in coming to understand how the goodness in mormonism and the goodness outside mormonism work together to make a beautiful world.
it is that desire, as much as any sense of fairness, that inspires my desire to raise (hypothetical) children with j(wh) as truly interfaith. i know it’s an unusual desire for a mormon. i know it will be a course with challenges. but i believe it can be done. because i believe that “it’s not our differences that divide us. it’s our judgments about each other that do” (150)**.
so why am i writing this post? i suppose i’m writing it in hopes that i’ll find some mormons who don’t agree with the crazy notions i encountered in the bloggernacle. more importantly i’m writing it hoping for thoughts about how to go about raising truly interfaith children. i don’t particularly want to repeat the extremely long, extremely hurtful discussion that happened at times & seasons a few years ago; which means that i’m not particularly interested in talking about whether a mormon should marry a non-mormon in the first place. the reality is that it happens. instead, i’m interested in ideas about how to go about building a strong, interfaith family (not just a mormon or a quaker family with one parent who believes differently).
* Peterson, Levi S. “Eternity with a Dry-Land Mormon.” part of “Eternity Be Damned? The Impact of Interfaith Vows,” a Dialogue panel. Dialogue. Vol. 23, No. 2 (Summer 1990) 109-133.
** Hart, Heidi. “Householding: A Quaker-Mormon Marriage.” Dialogue. Vol. 38, No. 4 (Winter 2005) 141-152.