Chelsea and Marc: Marriage Highlights an Interfaith Trend

The pending marriage of former first daughter Chelsea Clinton and investor Marc Mezvinsky has been billed as "America's Wedding," a blowout affair of the political and entertainment elite.

But, according to one expert, this wedding is a lot more than that. It's a confirmation of America's shifting religious landscape.

"This is a state wedding that is claiming for all of us that things are changing," says Rabbi Irwin Kula of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, referring to the increase in interfaith marriages. "It's the public confirmation ... the public reflection of a reality that already exists."

Clinton was raised a Christian, and Mezvinsky is Jewish. Fifty years ago, even less than that, this marriage would never have taken place. The pressure to remain faithful to one's own kind was too great.

But the tide is changing. The General Social Survey shows that in 1988, 15 percent of U.S. households were mixed-faith. That number rose to 25 percent by 2006.

And a survey from the 2001 National Study of Youth and Religion found that less than a quarter of 18- to 23-year-olds who responded thought it was important to marry someone of the same faith.

But although attitudes are a-changing, it doesn't mean there aren't challenges to making an inter-faith marriage work. As Evangelist Rick Warren says, "Before marriage, opposites attract. After marriage, opposites attack!" Although he was mostly referring to any romantic relationship where people of "complimentary neurosis" fall in love and marry, the same can be true of interfaith marriages. Differences make a difference.

Statistics vary depending on the study, but experts generally agree that interfaith marriages have a higher divorce rate. And divorce statistics vary according to how interfaith is defined, whether it's a Protestant and Catholic, Lutheran and Baptist, Reformed or Orthodox Judaism... as well as Christian and Jewish. As Naomi Riley reported in the Washington Post:  

"In a paper published in 1993, Evelyn Lehrer, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that if members of two mainline Christian denominations marry, they have a one in five chance of being divorced in five years. A Catholic and a member of an evangelical denomination have a one in three chance. And a Jew and a Christian who marry have a greater than 40 percent chance of being divorced in five years. "  

So it's clear that differences in faith tradition pose challenges for couples, and the likelihood that the marriage between Chelsea and Marc will last "till death do us part" depends on how well the couple is prepared for those challenges, says interfaith expert Sheila Gordon.

"I don't know what they've done so far, but my first advice would be for them to think both separately and together the role religion plays in their lives."

Gordon is the president of Interfaith Community, an organization in New York City that works with interfaith families to help them smooth out the rifts between their different faiths. She boasts a "practically zero" percent divorce rate among the group's clients.

"We think you should start with education," says Gordon. "Sometimes it means you need to learn more about your own religion, and to process it as an adult."

A lot of people, says Gordon, haven't processed anything about their faith since they were 12 years old, and need to take an honest look at why they believe what they believe.

And it's not just about the difference between Moses and Jesus, or Buddha and Muhammad. A lot of folks have been brought up in the culture of their faith. It's the rituals and the relationships that give their religion meaning and importance. They may not have given any real thought about the core tenets of their beliefs. It's usually when children come on the scene that conflicts over things like baptisms, menorahs and Christmas trees start to come into play.

The most recent example is the rancorous divorce battle between Rebecca and Joseph Reyes of Chicago. She is Jewish. He is Catholic. Their case became a national news story when Joseph was slapped with a contempt charge and the threat of jail time for defying a court order not to take the couple's toddler daughter to church.

Kula says it's really about the sacredness of family and not sacraments. "Religion in America is not about theology or beliefs," he says. "It's about religious practice that affirms the tribal kinship. These are primal and deep-rooted feelings about family."

As far as he can see, Chelsea and Marc are on the right track. "She's done the Passover Seder and Yom Kippur with him, and I'm assuming he's done Christmas as well. It seems like they have it together," Kula says.

And what appears to be the greatest help in making an interfaith marriage work is support from the parents, he says. "The Clintons and the Mezvinskys obviously support this marriage. That's the shift!"