After living for eight years in Provo, Utah – first as a student at Brigham Young University and later as faculty – I am moving to Georgia. As with most moves, this decision is at once exciting and heart-breaking, as I will meet new people and encounter wonderful experiences, while also leaving behind friends whom I have come to cherish. But this move has also made me aware of my place in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a new way. Perhaps most notably, as I prepare to move, I find myself reflecting on what it means to leave the land of Mormon singles, while still single.
In the area of Georgia where I’m moving, there are actually a lot more members than I would have guessed. The area includes two family wards, as well as two branches, and I’ll be about an hour and a half away from the Atlanta temple – as well as a more plentiful pool of LDS singles in Atlanta. But all the single female grad students I spoke to when I visited Athens, Georgia expressed little hope of dating. With limited dating options, they wondered if they had chosen a career over a family. As a 26-year-old woman, I still consider myself young, but the prospect of facing such limited dating opportunities for four to five years has me approaching the question of my romantic future in an entirely different way.
As I discussed this issue with a friend, she said something surprising. She said, “This may sound blasphemous, but I wonder if you would have better luck finding someone if you dated outside the Church.” She’s not the first person who’s suggested as much, but she is the first fellow Mormon. And that’s not the only surprising part of the idea – the very way my friend framed this suggestion reflects a hesitancy in how we, as a group, view interfaith marriages. Her suggestion was so bold and potentially offensive that she framed it with the disclaimer of “this may sound blasphemous.”
On a doctrinal level, marrying outside the faith is not a sin, but members sometimes discuss interfaith marriage as if it were, at the very least because it can be seen as a deviation from prophetic counsel. Because Mormons view marriage as something that should ideally be for eternity, and only active, worthy members are eligible to enter into the covenant that makes marriage eternal, many leaders have counseled against interfaith marriage. For instance, in a 1981 talk addressed to young men, Gordon B. Hinckley encouraged Mormon boys to be respectful of people who are not Mormon, but he added this caution:
Now, in saying this I am not suggesting that LDS boys date non-LDS girls, or vice versa. Your chances for a happy and lasting marriage will be far greater if you will date those who are active and faithful in the Church. Such dating is most likely to lead to marriage in the House of the Lord.
Hinckley’s statement illustrates the concern with which interfaith marriages are approached by most active Mormons: such decisions are likely to leave a person with a marriage that is till death do us part, instead of for time and eternity. At the same time, his statement does not actually condemn interfaith marriage. In fact, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” a document which the First Presidency of the Church released in 1995, says nothing that directly opposes interfaith marriage. The concept of eternal marriage is only discussed briefly, and it is discussed in terms of potential:
The divine plan of happiness enables family relationships to be perpetuated beyond the grave. Sacred ordinances and covenants available in holy temples make it possible for individuals to return to the presence of God and for families to be united eternally.
Given that interfaith marriage is not a sin and that the number of worthy, active women in the church exceeds the number of worthy, active men, it is hard for most single Mormon women to ignore the question of marrying a man who is not Mormon. On the one hand, family is an essential doctrine and focus of the Church, and dating men who are not Mormon but who share a good number of one’s values can increase the likelihood for a Mormon woman to be married in this life (rather than in the next life, as single Mormons who have done their best to obtain a family in this life are promised). But marrying a man who is not Mormon carries its own set of challenges.
One aspect that complicates the question of interfaith marriage for Mormon women even more than for Mormon men is the importance that most members place on having access to The Priesthood in their home. Because all worthy men are eligible to hold the priesthood, fathers tend to bless and baptize their own children. When a father is unable to perform these ordinances (rites), it is looked at as a very sad thing. When I was growing up, I recall hearing stories of the horror women felt when they married outside the Church and then realized that their husband would not be able to baptize their children. The situation was treated with fear.
And for any Mormon in an interfaith marriage, there will be a question as to whether their marriage will extend past mortality. When Mormons are married and sealed (or sealed after being married) in the temple, they are united in a bond that we believe lasts forever, provided they live up to their covenants. That if can be a big if, as evidenced by the number of couples I know who have been sealed in the temple only to later divorce. But the uncertainty is much higher for a couple that is not sealed, which can lead to the Mormon spouse hoping and praying for the other spouse to convert. It’s not just a matter of wanting to be sealed to a spouse – there’s also the question of children, who can only be sealed to parents who are sealed to each other.
This worry about children comes up in an article from 2004, in which two LDS women in interfaith marriages discuss some of the resulting challenges they face and offer encouragement to others who may feel alone. One woman describes a moment when she had to record on paper the fact that her child had not been “born in the covenant,” meaning that her child was not sealed to her:
The first time I felt totally alone—isolated by the fact that my husband is not a member of the Church—was the day our first baby was blessed. Shortly before the meeting began, the ward clerk handed me a small card to fill out. Most of the questions were routine, but one made my heart leap to my throat: Had my baby been ‘born in [the] covenant’?
Suddenly all my faith, activity, and service in the Church seemed painfully inadequate. I had failed, it seemed—failed myself and my innocent child. I have never felt so empty as when I checked the small box that said ‘no.’
Understanding that feeling of inadequacy – that feeling that everything she was doing as a member of the church was eclipsed by the fact of her interfaith marriage – is key to understanding why so many Mormons flat out refuse to date outside the faith and why articles that give advice on “Loving the Unbelieving Relative” are necessary. Despite the fact that such feelings of inadequacy reflect an inaccurate understanding of the Gospel, those feelings can still feel overwhelming and can leave many cautious. When I was a teenager, I had a youth leader who was adamant in opposing dating outside the faith – as a result I kept my relationship with a Catholic boy from school a secret.
That one interfaith relationship helped me see that an interfaith marriage would likely never be right for me. He was a sweet and innocent boy who was, in all honesty, already living a Mormon-compatible lifestyle, but my knowledge that temple marriage was no option down the road kept me from becoming emotionally invested in him the way he became emotionally invested in me. And ultimately, when most Mormon women compare the prospect of a marriage in the faith with a marriage outside the faith, if all else is equal the marriage in the faith will win any day.
But that still doesn’t resolve the dilemma of women who belong to a family-oriented church and who choose the long-term hope of marriage in the faith, with the knowledge that such a decision may leave them unmarried until the day they die. It’s a choice of an eternal family over a temporal family, but with all the uncertainties this life brings, it’s still a difficult decision to make.