In 1870, 99 percent of Protestants and 95 percent of Catholics married someone in their own faith tradition.


Today, Protestants and Catholics are only four to five times more likely to marry a fellow Protestant or Catholic as they are to wed someone of a different tradition, reports sociologist Michael Rosenfeld of Stanford University.

But ecumenical, social and cultural trends not only paved the way for widespread acceptance of intermarriage among Christians; new generational shifts mean that religious leaders increasingly encounter the issue of interfaith marriages.

For small groups immersed in a larger Christian culture, the changes are dramatic. Today, estimates of Jewish people marrying non-Jews are as high as 50 percent. And the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey  found that more than one-third of Buddhist adults were in mixed-religion families.

As the nation becomes more religiously diverse -- including large increases in nonaffiliated adults -- the question of how to address spouses of a different faith is becoming more common across the religious landscape.

There are no easy answers as religious leaders seek to uphold the value of their own tradition while being sensitive to the spiritual needs and challenges of interfaith couples and their children.

In general, conservative or traditionalist strictures against interfaith marriage do appear to have an impact when individuals are younger and congregations and families still exert a major influence on their lives, said sociologist Barry Kosmin of Trinity College, a principal investigator of the ARIS study.

But those influences wane as young adults become older and more independent and their social circles grow wider, researchers said. At the same time, the authority of religious leaders to “just say no” appears to be diminishing. Some faith leaders will not perform interfaith marriages as a matter of conscience.

But that may not deter individuals seeking to marry: 60 percent of respondents to the Portraits of American Life Study said their religious beliefs, teaching or congregation have little or no influence on their decision about whether or whom to marry.

Respect for inclusivity and a strong social priority for romantic love are an integral part of modern culture, Rosenfeld said. Excluding people from the community doesn’t work as a threat,” Rosenfeld said. “Interfaith unions are a part of American life.”

In contrast to the loss of influence that comes with shunning someone’s spouse, researchers said, welcoming the couple into the religious community can have many benefits, from increasing the possibility that the couple’s children will be raised in that faith to opening the door for the other spouse to become a member of the congregation.

The choices congregations make may also have great potential to be a healing force for interfaith couples as they face conflicts in reconciling different traditions and rejection from others in their lives who may oppose the marriage.

“There is growing recognition that faith traditions need to become more broadly inclusive to adapt to contemporary couples and families and be responsive to their relational and spiritual needs,” writes Froma Walsh, co-director of the Chicago Center for Family Health, in an article on multifaith perspectives in family therapy in the journal Family Process.

Her recommended practice guidelines for clinicians include drawing on clients’ faith beliefs to “facilitate compassion and possibilities for forgiveness and reconciliation.”

The general lesson for congregations, experts say: Strive to be a caring, spiritually vital congregation throughout the life cycle. Such a congregation will provide a positive spiritual experience and greater exposure to people of the same faith that will make it more likely for an individual to choose a partner from the same tradition, and it will keep the doors open to succeeding generations.

Interfaith marriage in itself is a neutral term, according to Rosenfeld. Reaching out to an interfaith couple carries the potential to increase thenumbers of Jews, Buddhists, United Methodists, Catholics, Muslims or members of whatever tradition takes the initiative.

But, Rosenfeld said, “once you reject somebody’s choice of a life partner, you have very little influence over them in the future.”