I realize that title sounds a little provocative, but it’s the truth: there is one thing that evangelical Christian leaders really don’t want Christians to ever figure out about mixed-faith marriages, and we’re going to talk about it today.
The reason it’s on my mind is because Neil Carter wrote a great post over at Godless in Dixie called “Help! My Husband Has Become an Atheist!” As you might guess, it’s about a Christian lady whose husband deconverted recently. She was asking Neil how to deal with this new development. She doesn’t want to dump her husband, but nothing in her toolbox is helping her right now.
From the sound of her letter, I’m guessing she’s evangelical. Christianity wasn’t just “his way of life”, she explains, but “our way of life” (emphases are hers), which is a very common way of describing one’s Christian faith for evangelicals; he was a minister, but now–20 years into their marriage–he’s told her he’s an atheist. She wants to know how to love him without seeming like she “condones” his disbelief, another very common evangelical trope. So I’m making an assumption here, but I think it’s a sound one. If I’m wrong and she’s really Presbyterian or something, then I know a lot of other folks here will recognize their situations in what I’m going to discuss today, and much of it will apply to her anyway regardless.
First off, I want to applaud her for being so resolute about not dumping her now-atheist husband, and second, for asking for help from people who actually know what her situation is like. As many of us know in the ex-Christian community, that’s not as common a resolution and decision as one would hope. The soulmate obsession in the religion all but guarantees that people in it will be a little on the self-serving side when it comes to their mates–and that if their mates aren’t quite up to snuff somehow, these same Christians, convinced that they must have been totally misheard their god about who their “soulmate” was, are the first to destroy their marital vows in hopes of finding their real “soulmate” on the next try. They’re not the only ones; anybody who really buys into “soulmate” ideology is at major risk of losing their relationship over bumps in the road that less dogmatic people would just roll with.
Alas, the idea of a specially-picked-out mate for each and every one of us is so incredibly flattering that church leaders are quite willing to keep pushing the idea even if it results in divorces aplenty. Finding a long-term partner is already hard enough, but it’s hard to resist the idea that nothing less than a deity (or fate, or the cosmos–this isn’t just a Christian idea) has arranged one because it’s a super-priority to him too.*
From the earliest age that a child can understand the rhetoric, the idea gets pushed of this super-special mate who’s been picked out from well before that child’s birth. When Christians get married, they tend to talk the same way: that they found the person their god picked for them, that they’re doing their god’s divine will in marrying that person, that they view their marriage as an act of obedience to their deity’s demands and see their marriage as part of that deity’s plan for their lives and an overall part of his divine plan for his church and the world generally.
The idea of marrying a non-Christian is so far past unacceptable that it veers into genuine revulsion and anathema. I’ve got an old binder from a marriage seminar I attended at an SBC church in my mid-teens that painted non-believers as repulsive, ugly, dirty, unkempt people–in one illustration, a hobo-like non-believer is marrying a young woman in a perfect white bridal gown. I’ve seen countless blog posts from Christian leaders openly wondering if non-Christians have the capacity to love at all, or can even conduct themselves in an honest and compassionate way. I’ve even seen a rabid pack of frothing-at-the-mouth evangelicals on a website devoted to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ dogpile a visiting atheist to scream at him that there’s no way he could really love his wife of many years and that he might as well rape her as give her flowers because atheists have no idea what love is anyway and it’s all the same to them. That’s the kind of demonization that non-believers are up against. So when a Christian lady finds herself suddenly married to someone who her faith system has been treating that way for decades, then yes, absolutely she’s going to be a little spooked.
Some leaders soft-shoe it by saying they just don’t “recommend” that Christians undertake that kind of “challenge,” painting such Christians as capitulating and weakening in their faith, or worse, actively violating the “icon” of the metaphor they perpetually paint of marriage as some kind of reflection of Jesus Christ’s relationship with the church. They use words like “mission” and “business” to describe the most important personal relationship most of us will ever have.
But our Christian letter-writer doesn’t sound like one of those sorts of completely-indoctrinated Christians and she’s not willing to instantly throw in the towel. She’s old enough and experienced enough to know her indoctrination might be wrong here. She’s bought into a lot of her religion’s teachings, but not all of them. She’s a little resentful that her husband never brought up his doubts before they got married and hints that she feels baited-and-switched, but one can easily understand why he didn’t; doubt is one of those things that fundagelicalism has a really tough time dealing with. They’re taught to be okay with doubt, but only up to a point and only if it brings about a surge of renewed faith once it’s been resolved; otherwise it’s a sin and must be avoided. We don’t know why her husband didn’t share that feeling of doubt with her, but frankly I can’t blame him.
I can tell you one thing, though. Our letter-writer doesn’t know the one thing that her preachers and teachers don’t want people like her to know about mixed-faith marriages:
Millions upon millions of people have mixed-faith marriages and are doing just fine–in many cases enjoying more happiness and success than the Christian-only marriages do.
That means there’s no intrinsic problem with the idea of a mixed-faith marriage that makes one automatically doomed to failure.
Christianity–especially the evangelical and fundamentalist branches of it–teach that a couple cannot have a successful marriage marked by love and respect if one person isn’t exactly in step with the other religion-wise.
And I am here to tell you: that idea is totally false!
Something like one in five marriages in the United States involve couples with different religions. And that’s just major differences, like Judaism and Christianity** or Catholicism and Protestantism, not minor differences like denominational shifts. The older folks are when they get married, according to a survey commissioned by author Naomi Schaefer Riley, the more likely they are to marry outside their faith, which tells me that these older folks are aware of the shortcomings of their religion’s teachings about interfaith marriages. And yes, these marriages can be really difficult to navigate–especially for fundagelicals,*** whose religious ideology specifically tasks them with some very unreasonable expectations regarding marriage and some very inaccurate suggestions for how to behave in relationships even in the best of circumstances.
But fundagelical leaders don’t want anybody to know that it’s even possible.
As far as they’re concerned, the second someone deconverts it is officially ON, this war for the now-ex-Christian’s soul. All the stops get pulled out, all the guns are fired, all the pedals get mashed to the metal to get that person back into line. I’ve even heard of Christian wives who were counseled–by their pastors–to throw their non-believing husbands out of the house and ostracize them utterly as a way of making the ex-Christian realize he needed to figure out how to believe again so he could get his family back.
That tactic sounds monstrous to those outside the faith–inhuman, barbaric, cruel, manipulative, nasty, hateful, and more besides–but to fundagelicals, who have been taught for decades that the ends justify any means no matter how foul or underhanded, that’s the very least of what they’re willing to do to get someone back into the “loving” arms of the tribe. And they may do it through tears, but you may rest assured they will be going to church the next Sunday to sing about love. Longtime readers of my own blog are well aware of the extreme (and abusive) lengths my fundamentalist preacher-wannabe husband went to in order to try to reconvert me–attempts that failed utterly and backfired, as you might guess. If the ex-Christian repents, recants, and returns to making the motions at least, then the war is called off and everybody rejoices and “forgives” the problem child for acting out like that (which in Christianese means they’ll all pretend the incident never happened unless it needs to be thrown in that person’s face later).
I have seen this game of Relationship Chicken play out many times over the years. It’s not in me to condemn someone for folding before the threat of the loss of everyone and everything he or she holds dear, but you can imagine how I feel about the people who use the threat of such a loss as leverage to force compliance in others.
The more conservative a Christian is, the more likely this mindset is to come into play as that Christian (and his or her community) gets more and more desperate to get the non-believer back into line.
And yes, obviously, sure, we could talk all day about the Bible and how it actually tells Christians in this exact situation to stay married to their non-believing spouses. 1 Corinthians 7:13-16 specifically covers that scenario, specifically telling Christians that they are specifically not allowed to divorce a non-believing spouse as long as that spouse is willing to stay in the marriage. But since when do “Bible-believing” Christians really care what the Bible says when it gets in the way of something they really want to do? I’ve heard dozens of them rationalize why dumping a deconverted spouse is totally fine and even required, and the more Bible-thumpy the Christian, the more likely they are to have absorbed these rationalizations. When it comes down to their own personal relationships, a Christian who views the Bible as inerrant and utterly authoritative is more likely to dump a deconverted spouse than any other Christian is, according to that survey I linked to above from Naomi Schaefer Riley. Christian leaders can spin-doctor that fact all they want to make it less devastatingly obvious as a failure in their teachings, but that’s how it is. So non-Christians are well aware of what a losing game it is to try to hold literalist Christians to Biblical obedience. They’ve been playing that reindeer game much longer than most of us have, and they’re very good at finding some contortion that excuses them from any command that proves too difficult or inconvenient to obey. There’s little point in even bringing it up.
All of this means that a deconverted spouse has a lot to fear about sharing their doubts or deconversion with the mate who swore to love them and stay by their side forever in the name of their eternal god, especially if that mate belongs to a church that officially teaches that believers should follow the Bible literally and in all particulars.
Ah, but more and more often nowadays, the Christian spouse isn’t following the script and insta-dumping a deconverted spouse.
Even fundagelical spouses are holding back from doing what their culture insists they do. They’re swimming against decades’ worth of tidal forces, but more and more often that’s exactly what they’re doing. They might be very reluctant indeed to stay, but their senses reel back from the sacrifice their religious leaders are demanding that they make–and more and more often they aren’t seeing how that demand fits into a religion predicated upon the showing of love and mercy.
At that point, the door is opened to the worst specter of all: the boogeyman of familiarity.
That’s a boogeyman that Christian leaders fight against tooth and nail. They know that as their flocks get to know non-believers, they stop fearing them. The same thing happens with gay people, too, and Muslims, and ex-Christians, and all the other Others they’ve painted as their flocks’ dread enemies. The more we get to know someone in a distrusted and feared group, the less able we are to maintain that prejudice we once had. That’s why we often see a Christian fundagelical recant a previously-strong conviction of anti-gay bigotry once they’ve had a child come out as gay. It’s all but impossible to demonize an entire group when someone figures out that the war against that group is based on lies.
Christian leaders need their followers to see themselves as warriors in a holy crusade against their chosen enemies. Right now the enemies are Muslims, liberals, and atheists (a group you’ll often see them conflate with non-believers generally). Back in my day, the enemies were Wiccans and Satanists. In another few decades, it’ll be someone else entirely. There’s always another enemy once one has faded away.
Familiarity destroys that vision. With familiarity, Christians see that non-Christians–atheists, even!–aren’t the boogeymen their religion paints them as. If they’re willing to take a few steps with their newly-deconverted spouse, they will start figuring out what the rest of us know: that life goes on, that the really important part of a marriage isn’t a shared belief in something or a shared interest, but on the shared bond we have with our mate and the family we have created with that person, however large or small that family might be.
So, Um, Do You Think Russell Moore Knows We Can Totally Hear Him?
In the end, the big problem with “unequally yoked” marriages comes from one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s leaders, Russell Moore, in one of those links I gave you earlier wherein he inadvertently reveals what his group’s biggest objection to the idea of interfaith marriage is:
But in a marriage of a believer to an unbeliever, the church has authority and discipling capacity over only one party.
When I saw that quote, I was simply floored. Look, gang, I don’t know how to make the real agenda more clear than that quote does:
Christian leaders are not in this culture war they started to make marriages stronger. That is not the goal and that’s why their teachings about marriage fail as often and as hard as they do. There’s a reason why they’re teaching generations of believers that marriage to a non-Christian is the worst thing a believer could ever do and that it is impossible besides.
This culture war is about control over their adherents and gaining as many more as they can manage before the jig is up. And they know they can’t do that if their adherents start really getting to know non-believers and stop viewing deconversion as the worst thing that can possibly happen to someone.
They know that non-believers don’t put any pressure on believers to follow the rules–to obey the religion’s demands, to attend the religion’s services, to witness to non-believers, and most importantly to tithe and to vote the correct way. Without that peer pressure in the home, the tendency really is for Christians to back off from the most stringent demands their leaders make of them–and you’re fooling only yourself if you don’t think Russell Moore knows that.
Moreover, with someone in the house who openly thinks that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, that gives a believing spouse permission to reconsider that indoctrination as well. That’s not always what happens–I know several mixed-faith marriages that lasted a lifetime and went the distance, my own in-laws among them, in marriages filled with love, respect, joy, and mutual consideration. Of those, the Christian spouse stayed fervent the whole time and the non-Christian spouse never converted. But those marriages didn’t follow the script pushed by Christian leaders like Russell Moore. What usually happens is that the believer starts backing off from some of the nastier and more punitive doctrines–like universal torture in Hell forever for all non-believers and some of the worst forms of bigotry–and starts becoming a lot more loving and kind to those who aren’t part of the tribe. Their faith remains strong in many cases, but they start becoming more, well, Christlike. Some of the most loving and compassionate Christians I’ve ever met were married to spouses who deconverted.
Some of those couple are even finding that their marriages got stronger after a deconversion, because the couple starts relying on each other and rewriting all the other false teachings that right-wing Christianity pushes about marriage. They’re finding their own way, and while that might feel very confusing and scary at first, it’s a whole lot better than going the wrong way, isn’t it?
And I really cannot imagine a worse outcome from the perspective of leaders like Russell Moore.
My goal here is not to tell Christians they’re stupid or dumb for believing in Christianity or argue any Christians out of their beliefs (and please, y’all, don’t go there, okay? It’s not cool). Even if this was a post about the shortcomings of the religion, I wouldn’t do that. You can’t insult someone into reconsidering their beliefs or argue someone out of them. And anyway, I don’t care what someone believes. I care what someone does with their beliefs.
All I want to do is open the door for a little question to sneak through and raise its tiny hand for consideration:
What if it’s more than possible for a Christian and a non-Christian to live together in peace and to love each other for a lifetime?
What if Christianity’s cultural expectation and teaching about marriage, as it is structured right now, is wrong about this one thing?
That’s all I want to ask right now. Just that. Because yes, it is possible. More than that, it’s not only possible but it’s happening every single day in the lives of thousands upon thousands of couples. You don’t hear from them for a variety of reasons, but they’re there–and they’re doing fine, by and large.
All I want right now is for Christians in this letter-writer’s position to know it’s possible.
Once a Christian knows that a happy and successful mixed-faith marriage is possible, then all that’s really left is the asking of two very simple questions: does that Christian really want to do it? And exactly what are the logistics?
We’re going to talk next time about the pros and cons I see of staying in a mixed-faith relationship, and later on some ideas for the nuts-and-bolts of a mixed-faith marriage. I do hope you’ll join me here at Ex-Communications.
* This is what “God”/the cosmos/fate is doing instead of curing cancer and saving war victims. Playing matchmaker takes wayyy less mana, I guess.
** Incidentally, something like 60% of Jews were married to a non-Jewish mate. Just saying.
*** The term, which isn’t original to me, is a portmanteau of “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” and is in no way intended to be a pejorative. The doctrinal differences between the two groups are all but negligible at this point–their differences tend to be more cultural than anything else, relating to dress/behavior codes and how much engagement they suggest their adherents pursue with popular culture and society. 25 years ago when I was Christian, I considered evangelicals to be like Fundamentalism Lite, but a lot’s changed since then.