This article originally appeared on Beliefnet in 2000.
Once again the holiday season is upon us, and with it the cheerful images of families together and sharingmemories. Yet amidst the cheer and warm fuzzies there can be emotionalundercurrents of a different kind, particularly if we are in interfaithmarriages, or for whatever reason are in religiously mixedfamilies---indeed, nothing less than anxiety and tenseness.
"It's adifficult time for us," says Melissa Stover, a 38-year-old Catholic womanwho is married to a Jewish man and living in Massachusetts. What promptsMelissa's comment is that at Christmas her devout Catholic parents stillexpect her to attend Mass and to set a good example of churchgoing for heryoung son, while at the same time her husband's parents and siblings pressher about Judaism and ask if the son will grow up mindful at all of hisfather's religious heritage. It's not so much an irreconcilable problem intheir marriage as an underlying, nagging source of tension that pops upevery year about this time. And around Easter and Passover as well. Theirson Jesse is too young to experience it, but for many children onlyslightly older the situation can be stressful. Often children feel theymust choose between their mother's or father's religion, and sometimeswonder if they are as good as their all-Jewish or all-Christian cousins.With the increase of interfaith marriages and blended families, pressuresmount in the direction of privatizing religious belief and behavior. Itbecomes easier not to discuss, much less to claim religion as a sharedfaith. A survey of baby boomers I conducted ten years ago uncovered afascinating trend in the United States. We asked our respondents: "Is itimportant to you to attend church/synagogue as a family, or should familymembers make individual choices about religion?" Almost half--forty-fivepercent--of our respondents replied saying that family members should maketheir own choices. That so many people responded in this way is in onerespect not all that surprising. Individual choice in religious matters isvery much respected today and indeed is very functional for many interfaithhouseholds. It helps to minimize conflict between marriage partners andamong children brought into families through divorce and remarriage.Increasingly, the family is a microcosm of the larger society reflecting anexpanded pluralism of belief and lifestyle.
Yet in another respect, that so many have adopted a "privatized" viewtoward religion within the family is staggering. Such a view goes againsta traditional conception of a "shared religious" family that reinedtriumphantly up until the 1960s. We are only a half-century away from atime back around mid-century which produced a highly celebrated claim that"families that pray together stay together." Even if it were more a sloganthan a reality even at the time, still it signaled a normative mood andideal that was widely accepted. Family was where parents modeled moralvirtues and faith and where children learned what it means to belong and toshare through ritual practices. Moreover, shared religion was a part of thefamily's buffer against the pluralism and competition of the public realm,an emotional haven in a heartless world. The family was a microcosm firstand foremost of a faith tradition, and defended as such even if not alwaysfully practiced.Many families now attempting to pray together risk tensions andconflicts--in what amounts to a 180 degree turnaround in recent times.Even so, privatized religion is hard to sustain. By their very nature,marriages and households are bonded to some degree, socially andemotionally; they sustain, and are sustained by, shared belief and values.Regarding matters of faith and spirituality, this can be a thin layerindeed, yet it is still a layer. Privatized religious realities are notonly precarious, they easily erupt into broader debates within families.Such eruptions are predictable around religious holidays, but also at othertimes, such as when a family member is undergoing a rite of passage, orwhen children press questions about God, death, and suffering upon theirparents. Privatization generates a countertrend pushing toward morenegotiated-- yet at least minimally shared--religious interpretations.Couples and families find it necessary to work out "strategies" for dealingwith religion, even if the strategy is like that of Melissa and her husbandof not really dealing with it. Several strategies appear now to beemerging. One is that the most religious spouse or parent sets thespiritual style, and the other accedes to it but without feeling one mustdiscard his or her own faith. This makes for a family faith of sorts whilealso creating possibilities for religious dialogue. It works well so longas the precarious on which it rests is maintained. A second strategy ismore equally multi-religious: in a Jewish-Catholic marriage, for example,they may have a Seder one evening and Easter dinner the next day. Peopleadopting this approach try to recognize and celebrate all the optionswithin a marriage or family. It has the virtue of democracy even if attimes it can be confusing for children--leading to what one skeptic calls"Christmukkah." A third, and more disciplined strategy building off thesecond is for participants to focus seriously on each of the traditionswithin a family, and to discuss how they differ, emphasizing that childrenwill have to make up their minds about which faith to follow later in theirlives. This encourages reflection and commitment while at the same timehonors choice.
Still another strategy is found in gender-basedcelebrations, among mothers and daughters and fathers and sons. Here theemphasis is less on family as a whole and more on creating strong bondsalong gender lines. What this offers is focused energy and ritual bondingbut potentially can intensify religious differences.