Mormonism, Interfaith Marriage, and the Practice of Pluralism

Behold, I say unto you that all old covenants have I caused to be done away in this thing; and this is a new and an everlasting covenant, even that which was from the beginning. (D&C 22:1)

As America continues to navigate the intended and unintended consequences of pluralism, interfaith marriage has become a significant arena of interest. This week, Stanley Fish highlighted Naomi Schaefer Riley’s new and provocative ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America. In the last decade, nearly half of all American marriages involved individuals of different faiths. On the one hand, such a statistic both reaffirms and perpetuates the nation’s increasingly pluralist tradition: besides demonstrating the extent to which individuals have become tolerant of other faiths, interfaith marriages also ensure that the succeeding generation(s) will come to accept religious diversity as commonplace. Richard Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace persuasively argued that America’s, well, grace is found in the nation’s increasing exposure to and acceptance of religious pluralism, largely through building a network of kinship and friendship with those outside one’s own faith.

But Riley, herself part of an interfaith marriage, does not only focus on the benefits of pluralist matrimony. Indeed, much of her book explores the problems and hurdles such unions face. Besides the practical issues—how to celebrate holidays or worship on Sundays, for instance—those who enter interfaith marriages often underestimate how much of their worldview is shaped by their religious heritage. It turns out working out the kinks of tolerance is tougher than expected, especially within the home.

And what faith tradition, in Riley’s extensive research, claimed the most people hesitant to enter into interfaith marriages? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Which, of course, shouldn’t come as a surprise: Mormonism claims a long history and deep theology that has made this kind of thing expected.

Starting in Nauvoo during the early 1840s, Mormons understood marriage rituals in a distinct way. Rather than merely a civil union granted by the state and sanctioned by the Church, Joseph Smith sacralized marriage as a necessary covenant and made it a mandatory religious rite; more than a union of love, it was the required ticket to the highest order of salvation. (This understanding of marriage as a primarily religious function has shaped Mormon political discourse on marriage to the present day.) Proper marriage required proper authority, and that authorization was not only dependent on ecclesiastical approval but also only available to worthy members of the faith. Just like the status of baptism for those previously baptized in other faiths, members whose marriage was sanctioned by non-Mormon clergy were required to repeat their nuptial in the LDS temple. From that point on, most Mormon youth understood a temple “sealing” to be their primary goal and life’s true purpose, which meant marriage only with those who share their views and faith.

Coupled with this theological impulse was a tradition of cultural separateness. Internal circumstances and external pressure in the nineteenth century forged an identity centered on otherness; some went so far to even posit a unique Mormon ethnicity. Even after the “gathering” ceased and LDS membership spread across the globe, Mormon insularity remained. Frequent church activities for average members, institutes as centers of socializing for young adults, singles wards maximizing dating potential, and Mormonism’s generally proud tradition of embracing their own have made strong congregational bonds, but also limited external engagement. Indeed, Putnam and Campbell’s extensive research revealed Mormons to be among the least likely people to have close friends outside their own faith, a status that had negative social consequences within the authors’ thesis. It makes sense, then, even when theology is set aside, that Mormons look within their own “tribe” for someone to perpetuate their cultural activities.

Mormonism rightly plays a major role in Riley’s book because LDS members often embody the tensions she wishes to tease out: not only does the faith’s theology shape their view of both family in particular and life in general, but the cultural traditions of those raised within the faith sometimes make interfaith relationships difficult. A religion that frames one’s worldview and demands so much participation and allegiance often makes compromises and bargaining, the key ingredients in an interfaith marriage, a tough sell; partners are often left to choose their allegiance between their spouse or their Church. This leads not only to more difficulty for Mormons who are in an interfaith marriage, but it leads to a much smaller number of Mormons entering into an interfaith marriage in the first place.

Further, while there are obvious benefits to Mormonism’s emphasis on temple marriages, particularly the preservation of the faith’s tradition from one generation to the next, there are side effects that can at times be painful and unfortunate. For one, there often exists a tenuous position for those who do not match the Church’s family ideal, and singles, single parents, or mixed-faith families struggle to find a stable and validating position within the peripheries of Mormon culture. But perhaps just as significantly, the lack of interfaith marriages often maintains barriers between LDS members and other faiths and evades the benefits of America’s practice of pluralism—the practice that, if sociologists are correct, has led to greater religious tolerance and civic stability. In Putnam and Campbell’s research, again, they found that those faiths that gained greater integration into the nation’s mixed society have driven societal balance and strength. (Not to mention theology: those who had more friends outside their faith were much more likely to have a more inclusive view of heaven.) Interfaith marriage is perhaps the most tangible example of the practice of pluralism by not only expanding one’s exposure to another’s beliefs but also introducing a broader network of kin outside of one’s faith borders.

Mormonism and, more specifically, individual Mormons entering into—or not entering into—interfaith marriages posit a poignant example of the tensions of religious pluralism within American religion. Can a faith tradition with strong truth claims and a seemingly exclusive understanding of marriage avoid the pitfalls of separatism and tribalism? Such tensions embody the paradoxical union of religion and, well, religious liberty.

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  • Jettboy

    “those faiths that gained greater integration into the nation’s mixed society have driven societal balance and strength.”
    It could just as easily be argued lost the faith that they had and become more secular than religious.
    “were much more likely to have a more inclusive view of heaven.”
    Depending on what you mean by this, Mormons have been shown to be the most likely to believe those outside the faith can be saved. This has more to do with theology than interaction.
    ” avoid the pitfalls of separatism and tribalism?”
    Would they want to while falling into the pitfalls of inclusion and pluralism?

  • Ignacio M. Garcia

    Ben, good post. I have some thoughts that shed a different light. Mormonism is not “about” religious freedom or pluralism as much as it is about salvation and returning back to God, consequently the concerns are different. While people who confront those interfaith realities must be accepted and we must be sensitive to their feelings, the reality is that Mormonism does require a “temple sealing”(the ultimate un-interfaith wedding) either here on this earth or in the next in order for members to experience the fulfness of the gospel. The fact that we do temple work is an indication that we do not believe that other churches will bring eternal salvation because all we are doing is rejecting a person’ choice of religion–of yesteryears–and then baptizing and then remarrying them through a faith (not interfaith) covenant. A question to ask, given that I have not read the report, is whether the authors talk about how interfaith marriages have actually weaken most religious institutions and Americans’ belief in a particular doctrine. That is probably good for Mormons given that people who are only religious but not institutionally bound are those we have more success with, but it is not good for religion in general. And again, it may be good for secular society but not necessarily for a particular relgious society such as ours. One can be tolerant, pluralistic and sensitive to those with an interfaith marriage without having to promote that as a vehicle for one’s becoming a better citizen. We are too quick to grasp ideas and methods that facilitate our integration into secular society and we have to be careful. The great mark of a Christian life is to live among those who believe differently, to love and respect them, become fellow citizens but to avoid their ways. Many Christians have been doing that for years–and millions more having been failing at it just as long. Mormonism’s promotion of marriage within is, given the Mormon scriptures and prophets, probably the standard we should follow, though surely as many have found not the only way to get “there” as long as “there” is where we want to go. What should not be the standard is a self-righteous attitude about being better than someone else who’s life situation does not end up in that. People make choices that have consequences and we should respect them for it, but we don’t get to change the rules of the eternal game–and Ben I don’t imply that you are saying we should– just because we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, or we want to be seen as more “pluralistic citizens”. I have a son in an interfaith relationship and I don’t think she will find in-laws that will love her more but if I was to counsel my grandchildren, I would follow the “stay in the covenant” model, and then love them no matter what they chose.

  • Rockgod28

    “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven.
    But whosoever shall adeny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.
    Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
    For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
    And a man’s afoes shall be they of his own bhousehold.
    He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
    And he that taketh not his across, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.
    He that findeth his life shall blose it: and he that closeth his dlife for my sake shall find it.” – Matthew 10:32-39

    Not very comforting, but it is the reality of Mormonism (or Latter Day Christianity).
    Interfaith relationships especially those that result in marriage present a stark choice for the couple to choose a faith. To choose whether or not to acquire all the blessings Mormonism has to offer. A man and a woman really have to forsake the world, reject religious pluralism while at the same time reaching out to the community.

    There is a difficult balance to maintain for members of the Church. Most activities or outreach is done on Mormon’s terms or clearly defined parameters that are within the Mormon perspective. Career, family, church and free-time all have to be balanced. When that is achieved it is not ultimate goal of any Mormon. In fact you move to a new level. Greater responsibilities, greater work and even more is required from the member.

    It is a hard life you choose with potentially eternal rewards IF and it is a big IF you can endure to the end of your life. You can’t fake it. Even if you can to the end of your life do you really believe you can trick God?

    Being Mormon is a conviction, a determination and with a huge amounts of perseverance. Otherwise quit now. Mormonism is not an identity or a tradition. It is a nation, a tribe and a kingdom or even an Empire where the sun never sets. As followers of Jesus Christ we commit to follow him, forsake the world and then most difficult of all save it.

  • Abraxas

    For this Catholic, an amusing part of the story:

    “Mormonism claims a long history and deep theology that has made this kind of thing expected.
    Starting in Nauvoo during the early 1840s…,

    I guess it depends what you mean by “long.”

  • Daniel Ortner

    Based on the material you quote it seems that avoiding interfaith marriage has the effect of reducing dilution of true doctrine and as such should be celebrated.

    Moreover, the primary beneficiary of marriage is/should be children and being raised in a mixed faith home can be confusing and difficult to children. Simply put, children are owed a home where they can be raised by a righteous priesthood holder and a woman of strong faith in Christ and his gospel. That structure is one which helps children also be righteous and avoid the sins of the world.

  • Trent

    The New York Times article mentioned that Mormons are comparatively MORE happy than most believers or other faiths who when they were in an interfaith marriage- many in interfaith marriages who were LDS were confident that their spouse would eventually convert.

    Benjamin Park seems to suggest that mormons are harmed by their low rate of interfaith marriage, or that it makes it more difficult for those who do marry someone of a different faith, but the book’s author seemed to say that mormons in interfaith marriages do rather well.

    I think that marrying someone certainly is a strong encouragement to develop a better understanding of that person’s background, but I don’t think that interfaith marriage is required or even helpful for societal harmony. A higher rate of divorce probably does more harm than a higher rate of understanding multiple faiths does good. Pluralism doesn’t mean intentionally seeking out someone demographically different than yourself when you’re looking for a marriage partner, it means respecting people and getting to know them as they are (which I suspect is easier when you are in a stable relationship yourself). Put bluntly, you don’t need to marry someone to be their friend.