Why Intermarried Couples Do Not Become Single Church Couples
1. Familiarity With Their Religious Tradition
Participants repeatedly stated that they could not imagine themselves belonging to another faith tradition other than their own. Statements such as the following two were frequently shared:
"I feel very close to Orthodoxy,… I could never consider converting."
"I just feel as if my Protestant faith is still something I want to hang onto… and that's that. I guess down deep, I'm still Protestant."
Participants also stated that their lack of familiarity with their partner's religious tradition tended to inhibit their efforts to worship God. The following remarks by a Catholic participant were typical of how many non-Orthodox felt about their Greek Orthodox partner's faith tradition. "When I go to the Catholic Church, I know the mass by heart and what's going to happen next. It's not like that when I attend the Greek Church." To that end, numerous participants in this study tended to view conversion as a risky option that might serve to compromise or impair their religious and spiritual development, as well as their relationship with God. "I guess I'm happy where I am," said one, "If I decided to change, I just don't know how that might affect my relationship with God."
2. Doctrinal Differences
Participants' discomfort with some of the doctrinal differences that existed between their religious traditions was also occasionally alluded to as a factor that inhibited them from considering conversion. The position their partner’s faith tradition assumed on issues like abortion, capital punishment and female priests were generally either considered too rigid or too ambiguous.
3. Strong Ethnic Ties
Greek Orthodoxy was often conceptualized in ethnoreligious terms by those who participated in the IRP. The following comments exemplify this point. "I just don't think you can take the Greek out of my experiences when I come to church. There's a cultural and religious blending that I experience, and I don't feel like they can be separated." Several non-Greek Orthodox with strong ethnic attachments stated that their moderate to strong ethnic ties prevented them from considering conversion. For example, one respondent said, "Thinking about converting is a very emotional subject for me. Whenever I consider this idea, I think about my ethnic background and know that I could not convert because you almost have to become a little Greek to belong to this Church, and that would mean I would have to become a little less Brazilian." Such participants associated conversion with a loss of a fundamental and important part of themselves.
4. Weak Religious and Ethnic Ties
Results from the IRP suggest that spouses with low levels of religious and, or ethnic commitment have very little incentive to become a single-church couple. These respondents stated that making any changes in their religious status did not seem to them to be "cost effective," since conversion requires "time" and "effort" and, "a commitment to a way of living and thinking that may not always fit with our current world view."
Nominally religious participants often remarked that because religion did not play a role in their lives, their mate’s religious affiliation was not a chief consideration during the dating process, nor was their mate's religious affiliation perceived as playing a primary role in their marriage's well-being. Other factors such as their spouse's personality, family values, world view, and their mutual love for one another were mentioned as being more important reasons to explain why they were attracted to their mate, why they chose to marry their spouse, and why they remained married.
These respondents maintained that because of their nominal religious and, or cultural attachments, they had not considered conversion because they could not perceive how conversion might improve the quality of their lives. Their observations suggested that their religious and cultural differences were only occasional irritants in their lives that did not justify the effort it might take to convert.
5. Betraying One's Family and Faith Background
Converting to another faith tradition was conceptualized by many participants as a type of "renunciation" and "betrayal" of their current belief system.
Several respondents also considered conversion an act of "betrayal" and disloyalty to their culture, family, parents, or grandparents. The following is a typical response that was shared. "I really feel strongly about being Greek-Orthodox, and to a large extent that's probably because my family is Greek. Conversion would make me feel like I have been disloyal to my family and who they are." A concern not to upset or insult extended families was repeatedly mentioned as a factor that discouraged conversion. These participants frequently stated that if they opted to convert, they feared that this decision might somehow hurt their parents and perhaps their grandparents.
6. Growing up in an Interfaith Home
There were some participants who had been raised in an inter-Christian home environment that was both stable and happy. These individuals concluded that their positive family-of-origin experiences had made it easier for them to choose to enter and remain in an intermarriage. One such respondent said, "I grew up in an inter-Christian household. My father was Greek Orthodox and my mother was Catholic. My parents got along really well, and I have nothing but good happy memories of our home environment. So when I considered getting married, I wasn't concerned with the fact that we weren't going to have the same Christian background."
7. Minimal Extended Family Pressures
When spouses perceived that members from their family of origin did not strongly resist their decision to intermarry, participants indicated it was easier for them to choose to enter and remain in an intermarriage. "If I had gotten the kind of flack from my family that some of the people tonight have described, I might have thought twice about marrying someone from another religion. But my parents were not very concerned about this, so long as she was Christian. As long as she was Christian it didn't matter. So it was kind of easy for us to ignore the religious issue and just get married." This respondent seemed to suggest that the minimal family-of-origin pressures he had received regarding conversion seemed to enable him to remain indifferent to the notion of conversion.
8. Conversion is a Personal Decision
We live in a society that espouses religious freedom. How one believes and what one believes is ultimately a personal choice.
Participants generally ascribed to this notion. They repeatedly stated that one's religious preference is more of a personal decision and less of a couple decision. They also frequently alluded to the serious nature of this decision, and observed that conversion should not be considered an option simply to satisfy the Church, their extended families, or their spouse. Conversion must be heartfelt and God-inspired, otherwise future resentments and regrets might develop which could serve to negatively impact the well-being of the marriage.
9. Respecting God's Will
It was not uncommon for participants to assert that they believed it was God's will that they respect each other's religious and cultural differences, and that a failure to do so was interpreted as disrespectful, unholy behavior. The following brief exchange between two members of a focus group is an example of this sentiment.
"And I have this feeling - sometimes very strongly - that I would love for him to convert. But the Lord brought him into this world a Catholic. So who am I to push my husband to convert to my church, as beautiful and wonderful as I think it is. So, I don't push him to convert, but sometimes I think, well, maybe I should, and we'd be better off. But then, again, I just don't feel that's my place."
Yes, I know what you mean. I feel the same way. Forcing your partner to convert isn’t God’s will. It’s got more to do with being selfish.”
10. Inclusive Worldview
Intermarried couples' broad, inclusive perceptions of their world also appeared to affect how they viewed conversion and single-church marriage. Participants frequently stated that they belonged to a global society that was not nearly as compartmentalized as it once was. As a result of this inclusive perception of the world, respondents often placed less value on conversion and the notion of a single-church marriage and family. While reflecting on the issue of conversion, one respondent stated. "In my mind, most of the differences between denominations are political and historical more than anything else. Even though my husband is Catholic and I am Greek Orthodox, I believe that we are both part of the same Christian Faith. So, I don't really see the need [to convert], except, maybe for the sacraments. But my husband is Catholic, and receives [communion] in the Catholic Church…. The world is getting smaller, and we have to stop compartmentalizing each other. I believe it’s the Christian thing to do."
11. Social Acceptance
Since intermarriage is socially acceptable in our dominant American culture, and is perceived as workable, this motivated many participants to discount conversion as a useful option. One respondent stated, "We live in different times. The world has shrunk, and people are marrying outside of their groups with more frequency. So, that's why I married my wife, and we weren't too concerned about our different religious and ethnic backgrounds."
Research has shown that as people mature, their view of life tends to be less malleable and they tend to be less inclined to make big changes in their lives. Some research on intermarriage has also indicated that the longer couples remain intermarried, the less probable it is that they will become single-church couples. Results from this study support and suggest that spouses’ age and length of time married might serve to deter thoughts of conversion. One respondent's remarks reflect this. "We've been able to share our two religions to our own satisfaction and our family's satisfaction and our spiritual satisfaction, so now we're content to go along that road after nearly fifteen years."
13. Additional Important Reasons
The following reasons for not converting were also mentioned, but with less frequency:
Some non-Orthodox stated that they had not considered conversion because they were not convinced that Orthodoxy was any better than their own faith tradition. While, others suggested that they had not converted to Greek Orthodoxy because the Greek Orthodox Church they attended had failed to convince them it was interested in having them become part of the Orthodox Church. In these instances, it appeared that some participants might have considered conversion if the subject was broached in a respectful manner.
More information about Greek Orthodoxy seemed important to non-Orthodox participants. While many stated that they would likely not convert if given more information, a small but significant number stated that they might consider conversion more seriously if they knew more about Greek Orthodoxy. One respondent stated, "The Greek Orthodox Church tends to be different then most other Churches. So I think that's why it's important that Churches make it a common habit to offer some regular classes for interested non-Orthodox."
Language and cultural differences were also mentioned as factors that prevented some non-Orthodox from considering conversion. Some said that the emphasis on both language and culture would make them feel uncomfortable, and not a part of the Church.