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 sharing
memories. Yet amidst the cheer and warm fuzzies there can be emotional
undercurrents of a different kind, particularly if we are in interfaith
marriages, or for whatever reason are in religiously mixed
families---indeed, nothing less than anxiety and tenseness.
difficult time for us," says Melissa Stover, a 38-year-old Catholic woman
who is married to a Jewish man and living in Massachusetts. What prompts
Melissa's comment is that at Christmas her devout Catholic parents still
expect her to attend Mass and to set a good example of churchgoing for her
young son, while at the same time her husband's parents and siblings press
her about Judaism and ask if the son will grow up mindful at all of his
father's religious heritage.
It's not so much an irreconcilable problem in
their marriage as an underlying, nagging source of tension that pops up
every year about this time. And around Easter and Passover as well. Their
son Jesse is too young to experience it, but for many children only
slightly older the situation can be stressful. Often children feel they
must choose between their mother's or father's religion, and sometimes
wonder if they are as good as their all-Jewish or all-Christian cousins.
With the increase of interfaith marriages and blended families, pressures
mount in the direction of privatizing religious belief and behavior. It
becomes easier not to discuss, much less to claim religion as a shared
A survey of baby boomers I conducted ten years ago uncovered a
fascinating trend in the United States. We asked our respondents: "Is it
important to you to attend church/synagogue as a family, or should family
members make individual choices about religion?" Almost half--forty-five
percent--of our respondents replied saying that family members should make
their own choices. That so many people responded in this way is in one
respect not all that surprising. Individual choice in religious matters is
very much respected today and indeed is very functional for many interfaith
households. It helps to minimize conflict between marriage partners and
among children brought into families through divorce and remarriage.
Increasingly, the family is a microcosm of the larger society reflecting an
expanded pluralism of belief and lifestyle.
Yet in another respect, that so many have adopted a "privatized" view
toward religion within the family is staggering. Such a view goes against
a traditional conception of a "shared religious" family that reined
triumphantly up until the 1960s. We are only a half-century away from a
time back around mid-century which produced a highly celebrated claim that
"families that pray together stay together." Even if it were more a slogan
than a reality even at the time, still it signaled a normative mood and
ideal that was widely accepted. Family was where parents modeled moral
virtues and faith and where children learned what it means to belong and to
share through ritual practices. Moreover, shared religion was a part of the
family's buffer against the pluralism and competition of the public realm,
an emotional haven in a heartless world. The family was a microcosm first
and foremost of a faith tradition, and defended as such even if not always
Many families now attempting to pray together risk tensions and
conflicts--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 and
emotionally; they sustain, and are sustained by, shared belief and values.
Regarding matters of faith and spirituality, this can be a thin layer
indeed, yet it is still a layer. Privatized religious realities are not
only precarious, they easily erupt into broader debates within families.
Such eruptions are predictable around religious holidays, but also at other
times, such as when a family member is undergoing a rite of passage, or
when children press questions about God, death, and suffering upon their
parents. Privatization generates a countertrend pushing toward more
negotiated-- yet at least minimally shared--religious interpretations.
Couples and families find it necessary to work out "strategies" for dealing
with religion, even if the strategy is like that of Melissa and her husband
of not really dealing with it. Several strategies appear now to be
emerging. One is that the most religious spouse or parent sets the
spiritual style, and the other accedes to it but without feeling one must
discard his or her own faith. This makes for a family faith of sorts while
also creating possibilities for religious dialogue. It works well so long
as the precarious on which it rests is maintained.
A second strategy is
more equally multi-religious: in a Jewish-Catholic marriage, for example,
they may have a Seder one evening and Easter dinner the next day. People
adopting this approach try to recognize and celebrate all the options
within a marriage or family. It has the virtue of democracy even if at
times it can be confusing for children--leading to what one skeptic calls
A third, and more disciplined strategy building off the
second is for participants to focus seriously on each of the traditions
within a family, and to discuss how they differ, emphasizing that children
will have to make up their minds about which faith to follow later in their
lives. This encourages reflection and commitment while at the same time
Still another strategy is found in gender-based
celebrations, among mothers and daughters and fathers and sons. Here the
emphasis is less on family as a whole and more on creating strong bonds
along gender lines. What this offers is focused energy and ritual bonding
but potentially can intensify religious differences.