Ask Mr. Dad: Ground rules for parenting in a religiously mixed marriage

Kansas City Star

Dear Mr. Dad: My husband and I are in a religiously mixed marriage. Before we had kids, it wasn’t an issue and we usually just did our own thing. But ever since our daughter was born, everything seems a lot more complicated. Each of us is committed to our own religion and to our marriage. How are we supposed to raise our children?

The good news is that you’re not alone. Before getting married, fewer than half of interfaith couples discuss the religious upbringing they plan to give their kids, and 80 percent say that having “the same values” is more important than having the same religion, according to Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of “ ’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America.”

Interfaith marriages are getting more and more common. Back in the 1960s, only 19 percent of marriages were interfaith, according to a new Pew Research Center report. But among couples who married since 2010, 39 percent say their spouse is of a different religion (and 49 percent of cohabiting couples are in interfaith relationships).

The bad news is that, according to Schaefer Riley, interfaith couples are significantly less satisfied than same-faith couples, and that the more religiously active spouse is usually the unhappier one.

In some religions, intermarriage is prohibited. In the U.S., we’re generally OK with breaking those rules. In many other parts of the world, though – most notably the Middle East and Southeast Asia – some interfaith relationships are ended by “honor killings.” Since you got married in the first place, and you’re both deeply committed to your respective religions, you’re clearly in a place where compromise is both necessary and possible.

As far as how to handle your situation, one possibility is to do nothing. Schafer Riley found that children are “much more likely to adopt the faith of their mother than the faith of their father.” But that doesn’t seem entirely fair to your husband.

Or you both could keep your individual religions and one of you would agree to have the children raised in the other’s tradition.

Another option is for one of you to willingly convert to the other’s religion. That tends to resolve most of the religious issues. However, differences within religions are sometimes more problematic than differences between them.

For example, Schaefer Riley found that while a third of all evangelical Christians’ marriages end in divorce, when an evangelical Christian marries a Christian from another branch, the divorce rate gets close to 50 percent. And when an evangelical marries someone who is religiously unaffiliated, the divorce rate exceeds 60 percent.

Trying to parent effectively in a household with two different religions isn’t going to happen right away. While you and your husband are working things out, here are a few ground rules:

▪ Even if the two of you aren’t following the same religions traditions, you absolutely must respect each other’s religious independence.

▪ Share your beliefs with your kids, but don’t try to “win” a child’s conversion at the expense of the other parent. Ultimately, your child’s religious orientation is up to him.

▪ Rituals such as baptism, christening and first communion usually (but not always) signify a pledge of commitment to one religious denomination – something that’s easier done than undone. It also violates rule number two, above – letting children make their own religious decisions once they’re old enough.

▪ Decide which elements of each of your faith traditions are negotiable and which aren’t. You’re creating something new that won’t necessarily look like either of your traditions. Give where you can, and draw the line where you must.

▪ Always focus on what’s most important: the kids.

Armin Brott is the author of “The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be.”