If media reports are to be believed — and let's say they are for the sake of this conversation, shall we? — actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes have split up based, in part, on a dispute over the religious upbringing of their 6-year-old daughter, Suri. In case you are reading this from under a rock somewhere, Cruise is the highest-profile Scientologist in the history of Scientology, and Holmes — well, she ain't. (I've read she was raised Catholic, which probably means she's a Buddhist by now — ha ha.)
There may well be much more to the divorce than this — always is — but what I wouldn't give to know how this pair has gone about discussing religion with that kid.
Suri's age sure seems significant. While the topic of religion may be blissfully avoided for the first several years of a kid's life, most children get God-curious around age 5 — which is about the time they start school and meet other kids. It's quite possible that, in the Cruise-Holmes household, religious differences played a supporting role until very recently, when Suri (through no fault of her own) pushed it front-and-center.
A child changes everything.
That's what they say, and that's how it is. A new birth has a rather magical way of changing our lifestyles, interests, priorities, and relationships. Most of the time, of course, the changes are for the good — especially when it comes to the relationships part. Children can make us parents stronger, more resilient, more mature, more committed, more loving. But sometimes, the changes are…. well, let's just say challenging. Like how our "parenting styles" (which some of us didn't even know we had!) can bump up against each other, creating tensions and resentments where none existed before. Things we didn't think were important AT ALL now seem to matter A WHOLE FREAKING LOT. And compromise is especially hard to achieve when our little innocents are the ones who might suffer when we give up too much — or too little.
Interfaith marriage is so much more common than it's ever been. According to recent studies, upwards of 25 percent of American marriages are mixed. And, as religion loosens its grip on each passing generation, that percentage is expected to rise. In my own survey, which concluded a couple months ago, 20 percent of the nonreligious parents surveyed were married to people who held religious beliefs different from their own.
Of course, in a sense, this is wonderful news. America is, after all, the great melting pot. And the more couples comingle, the fewer divisions we'll have and (theoretically at least) the fewer conflicts we'll have. But interfaith marriage isn't easy, either, and that is especially true when a couple bears children.
According to an excellent piece in the Washington Post (Interfaith marriages are rising fast, but they're falling fast too) many interfaith couples underestimate the importance that faith plays in their lives. And some of them intend to become more religious after marriage — something they may not share with their partner before the vows are taken.
The Post article cites a paper published in 1993 by Evelyn Lehrer, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who found that divorce rates were higher among interfaith couples. A Catholic and a member of an evangelical denomination had (at the time at least) a one-in-three chance of divorcing, Lehrer found. A Jew and Christian had a greater than 40 percent chance of being divorced in five years. (Same-faith marriages, by comparison, divorced at a rate of one in five.)
"As Lehrer points out, a strong or even moderate religious faith will influence 'many activities that husband and wife perform jointly.' Religion isn't just church on Sunday, Lehrer notes, but also ideas about raising children, how to spend time and money, friendships, professional networks -- it can even influence where to live. The disagreements between husband and wife start to add up."
One of my husband's heroes is Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., a Presbyterian minister, civil rights activist, gay-marriage proponent and proud liberal. In his sermons, Coffin equated God with love, and love with God and didn't let anything dilute that one true meaning.
Sloane married plenty of interfaith couples in his day, and his personal contention (which he outlined during an interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air) was that marriages could absolutely withstand differences in faith — especially when the parties shared the same "level" of faith. For instance, he said, a Jew and a Christian who are both slightly religious won't have any problem at all; the same with a Jew and a Christian who are both very religious. His reasoning: One's devotion to faith matters more than the underlying faith itself, as long as the couple share a genuine respect for the other's religion.
You notice who's left out of Coffin's feel-good scenario, though, right? Couples with different levels of faith.
Coffin contended that most problems arise when one parent is very religious and the other isn't; when one person wants to attend church or mosque or temple, for example, and the other wants to stay home. If a couple's religiosity is uneven, we're led to believe, couples may feel as though there's a "winner" and "loser" when it comes to deciding how much of one religion to bring into the house — or keep out of it.
It's an interesting point. Especially when you relate it back to Tom and Katie. (Yes, dammit, I'm still writing about this shameful topic. Let it go.)
If it's true that Cruise came to the marriage holding firm to the, I don't know, staff? of Scientology, while Holmes came draped in the light mist of her parents' Catholicism, then they're level of devotions were certainly not aligned. Perhaps she thought they were stronger than the sum of their religious parts. Perhaps he thought she'd come around.
The point is, interfaith marriage can work, but it doesn't always work. And the more couples think about their faith/non-faith in the context of child-rearing BEFORE THE CHILDREN ARE BORN, the less likely they'll be to end up on the front of Us Magazine over a story about their impending divorce.