But when religious pluralism hits home--22% of U.S. households now have more than one faith under one roof--the party's over for a growing number of families. Divorce is three times more prevalent in interfaith families with children than in same-faith households, according to the first national statistical look at the issue.
The American Religious Identification Survey 2001 (ARIS) finds that of all U.S. adults who have had children with someone of another faith, 10% are divorced, compared with 3% for parents of the same faith.
The finding emerged as demographers looked in depth at the survey's findings on the religious and spiritual choices of 50,000 people. Researchers from the Graduate Center at City University of New York were the first to ask people not only their own religious identity but also the faith of their current or former partner--and to ask how parents of differing religions were raising their children.
Few were surprised to add up 28.4 million Americans living in mixed-faith households, says Ariela Keysar, one of three co-authors of the survey. Couples come in more flavors than Lifesavers: Baptist/Methodist, Catholic/anyone, Jewish/Episcopalian, faith/no faith.
But the decisions they make for their children are not simply a private matter between each household and their higher power. The aggregate effects of parents' religious choices--from prenuptial negotiations through marriages and divorces--radiate across society as faith-based values guide belief and action in politics, education, health and ethics.
The survey found each interfaith household may cost religious denominations three to six future adherents when parents choose one faith, or none, for their children. Catholic parents in interfaith marriages are among those most likely to say their kids are being raised in their faith (66%). But retention rates drop to half for Lutherans (54%) and Methodists (51%) and less than one in three for Episcopalians (31%).
A 1990 study by Keysar, Barry Kosmin and Egon Mayer, the baseline for their 2001 survey, didn't asked these marriage, divorce and upbringing questions. "So it may be another 10 or 20 years before we can see which groups will gain or lose," Keysar says.
Those falling numbers alarm groups such as Southern Baptists who believe children must learn one absolute truth about God and minorities such as Jews and Muslims who fear assimilation or seek the clout that comes with growing numbers to increase their influence in the public square.
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says Muslim men, who are permitted in their religion to marry outside the faith, have trouble in custody disputes in U.S. courts. They are responsible for raising Muslim children, he says, but "we find the father's faith and ethnicity are used against him."
Often two distinct faiths can only work together if parents ignore theological gaps between divergent beliefs about the nature of God, the value and role of scripture and the path to salvation.
If Methodist Mom says all good people go to heaven, but Baptist Dad says salvation is only through Christ, it can be a ticket to confusion or indifference for kids, says religion researcher George Barna.
He says children need one faith because, "Without it, you wind up without an anchor, a community and a worldview for making decisions internally and eternally." But millions of Americans say mixing it all up works just fine.
So far, mental health experts have seen no lasting psychic misery inflicted by growing up with parents who take opposite stands, says Los Angeles attorney Marshall Zolla, a family law specialist.
Ed Johnsrud, whose grandparents came from a tiny Scandinavian fundamentalist Christian sect, married Patti Oblath, a Jew, and promising to raise children as Jews. When the Los Angeles couple divorced, he kept the agreement for their daughter but insisted on custody at Christmas, even though for him it's a cultural event, not a religious one. "I'm not celebrating the miracle of Christ's birth. I'm celebrating the American tradition of celebrating Christmas," Johnsrud says.
Broadcast news commentators Steve and Cokie Roberts often talk about their success honoring both his Jewish and her Catholic traditions. They are favorite speakers for the Dovetail Institute, which publishes newsletters and handbooks for parents on multifaith ceremonies and holidays.
But Lutheran pastor and church historian Martin Marty says the trend to "celebrating celebration" trivializes religious teachings, undercutting their power to inspire, guide and comfort lives. A rival group to Dovetail, InterfaithFamily.com, calls on parents to pick one religious identity for kids.
Andrea King of Santa Monica, Calif., who contributed several essays to the group's handbook, The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life, quotes a 17-year-old girl: "Having a religion should be like having a hometown" where "you know everyone and all the rules. You don't have to stay there, but you always know where it is, and you can come back whenever you want."
King observes, "When people mush it all together so the kids get all parties and no content, these (teens) will defend their parents at first. They will say their parents did the best they could. But, eventually, as you listen closely, a significant number will say, "I wish my parents had made a choice. I don't feel comfortable anywhere."
And attorneys and mediators increasingly see Christian vs. Christian and Jew vs. Jew when one parent turns devout in belief and practice while the other doesn't. Santa Monica Rabbi Jeffrey Marx, a professional divorce mediator, recently divvied up Muslim feast days between two Muslim parents.
Marx says religion is an issue in 95% of interfaith marriages and divorces, but only 20% of the time is it a thorny theological point. More often, he says, former partners club each other with the visitation schedule or try to appease in-laws. He negotiated one prenuptial agreement setting the exact height for the Christmas tree.
But contested divorces where one parent claims God for his or her side can get ugly. A frequently cited legal case illustrates a triad of troubles: different theology, different degrees of commitment and an insistence that only one faith, one parent, can be right.
The case involved Jeffrey Kendall, a nominal Catholic, who married a Reform Jew. The Sharon, Mass., couple agreed their children would be raised as Jews. But during the marriage, he joined a fundamentalist Christian church while his wife, Barbara Kendall, became an Orthodox Jew. Each was determined that God demanded obedience to opposite ideas.
After a three-year divorce battle, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the children were harmed by their father's insistence that their mother's life without Jesus was "damned." The court forbade him to teach his faith to his children.
Christians said the Kendall decision meddled in the father's constitutional freedom of religion. And they saw the three children's salvation at stake if he could not share with them the truth about Jesus. Jews said the decision honored a contract made before the children were born. And it offered a bulwark to help a Jewish mother preserve tradition.
Legal experts say the influential Kendall decision is a bold state intervention in a realm long considered sacred to the family. "It pits one fundamental right--the right to parent--against another fundamental right--the right of religious free exercise--while also falling within the zone where the government has to stay clear of preferring or disfavoring any one religion--or religion over non-religion," says Minow.
It also puts the courts in the awkward position of policing the weekly disputes that arise in divorced families, she says. Parochial or public school? Religious garb or trendy clothes? Special diet or ham and cheese on a bagel? Sabbath on Friday, Saturday, Sunday--or never? The hot buttons are almost always where religion overlaps with the other sore points in divided families--time and money, says the Rev. Carl D. Schneider, a United Methodist minister and director of Mediation Matters in Bethesda, Md.,
Generally, the courts will side with the most heavily invested parent in a divorce, but in rulings on enforcement for prenuptial agreements, the courts are all over the map, Zolla says.
Currently, New York and Massachusetts courts have ruled for enforcing prenuptial agreements "when, like the Kendalls, there is evidence that exposure to one or both will be detrimental to the child," says Zolla. But California and Pennsylvania courts have refused to enforce such contracts.
No matter the religious choices parents make, there's no guarantee their children will follow suit. The same ARIS 2001 survey found 16% of Americans say they switched their religious affiliation at some point in life.
Long after her parents' divorce, Elissa Oblath-Johnsrud, now 16, is proudly Jewish. Still, she says, "Who's to say if I'm any more spiritually in touch with myself than someone who just went on hikes with their parents?"
Neither does she worry about finding a Jewish husband someday. "You can raise your children however you want," she says.