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Interfaith America: A globally unique marriage trend

The interfaith movement in the US, scholars say, is unique to the way Americans view religion, individuality, and marriage. In other religious parts of the world, faith is considered part of one’s being – not a choice.

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Instructor Carol Mollo takes notes as children ask questions about Christianity during Sunday school with the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, Maryland. This is part of the cover story package in the the Nov. 24, 2014 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly magazine

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There are interfaith families across the world. According to the Pew Research Center, many Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa – as many as 93 percent in Mozambique – have close Christian family members. In Israel, some organizations report that as many as 1 in 10 citizens is married to someone of a different faith. And Western Europe has a growing number of marriages between people of different faiths; two years ago, Muslim and Christian leaders in Britain responded with a document, released at Westminster Abbey, that outlined how people from differing religious backgrounds might marry. 

But the interfaith movement in the United States, scholars say, is unique to the way Americans view religion, individuality, and marriage. Although many in the US see religion as a personal choice, and often switch faiths, the nation as a whole is still deeply religious, says David Campbell, coauthor of “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” In  Western Europe, on the other hand, people tend to report much less religious commitment, marry across faith lines, and drop religion altogether.

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In other religious parts of the world, faith is considered part of one’s being – not a choice. When interfaith unions occur, the result is often conversion or hand-wringing. Despite the mixed-faith families in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, researchers found that the majority of African Muslims said they would not accept mixed-faith marriage for their children. In many nations, marriage across religious lines is even illegal.  

It is the unique combination of religious diversity, commitment, and religion-switching in the US that makes the American sort of interfaith existence possible, scholars say. “In ‘American Grace,’ we are trying to explain how America can be religiously devout and religiously diverse and religiously tolerant,” Dr. Campbell says. “One of the key explanations for that is the rate of intermarriage across religious lines.”