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The following were reader responses to a post on the Times Free Press Facebook page asking for thoughts about interfaith relationships:

“I’m a Christian and my ex-husband is an atheist. We are now divorced. If I was to ever marry again it would have to be to a God-fearing man. Families that pray together stay together. He will have to love God more than he loves me.”

— Catherine Schlegel Mackleworth, Chattanooga

“Being religious isn’t as important as being faithful and supportive. If your religion gets in the way, then you need it more than you need a relationship. I believe in God and try to live by the word, but my family is important and I will love them as I need to.”

— Barry Wilson, Cleveland, Tenn.

“[My husband] Travis is Lutheran. I … am an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church and a devout pantheist. … If a couple is considering marriage, [religion] is definitely a component to consider. Just how much will it really bother you if an otherwise perfect mate is Buddhist and you aren’t? Can you compromise or is it a deal-breaker? For us, it wasn’t. We’re lucky.”

— Heather “Hippie” Kilgore, Rossville, Ga.

“I’m an atheist. I’ve dated a Christian man, and it was annoying that he tried to convert me. … I don’t like being around people who think no matter what I do, I’m going to burn for all eternity because of my blasphemy and refusal to believe their God exists. It’s just awkward.”

— Amy Edmonds, Chattanooga

From open flames and gasoline to toothpaste and orange juice, there are certain things that natural law dictates just aren't meant to be together.

But what about nuptials between Buddhists and Baptists? Hindus and Muslims? Methodists and Jews?

According to the Religious Landscape Study released in 2015 by the Pew Research Center, marriages between people of different religious backgrounds are more common than ever in the U.S. Between 1960 and 2010, the study found that interfaith marriages in America more than doubled, from 19 percent to 39 percent of the total number of marriages.

Not all such unions were meant to last, however, as Marcel Schwantes, a Seventh-Day Adventist, discovered after differing beliefs and values led to the collapse of his first marriage to an atheist less than two years after saying "I do."

A Chattanooga-based leadership and life coach, Schwantes — who met his second wife in 2006 through a dating website tailored to Seventh-Day Adventists — admits he probably should have known better. Among the couples he's counseled, similar religious beliefs are "up in the top five" on the list of non-negotiable qualities people look for in a potential partner, he says.

"You can be easily be persuaded into many fuzzy romantic interludes leading to the marriage altar," says Schwantes. "But if the Christian marries the atheist on romantic compatibility alone — as I did in my first marriage — values and 'root issues' will cause grief, confusion, strife and possibly divorce. That was my experience."

'Stumbling blocks'

In general, marriages between those with different religious beliefs are more likely to fail, according to a poll commissioned in 2010 by New York Post columnist Naomi Schaefer Riley. The study, which was conducted by online pollster YouGov, contacted interfaith couples and received more than 2,400 responses.

Riley's poll found that partners in such marriages tended to be less happy and that certain religious pairings were more likely to end in divorce, including — as in Schwantes' case — 61 percent of marriages between Christians and those with no religious beliefs.

About 80 percent of the respondents to Riley's study said sharing views on secular subjects was more important to the strength of their marriage than being of the same faith, but the poll's sponsor said her findings suggested otherwise.

"The sentiment is understandable, even admirable, but often unrealistic," Riley wrote in a 2013 New York Times editorial. "I found that interfaith couples were less satisfied than same-faith couples by a statistically significant margin — and that the more religiously active spouse, as measured by attendance at religious services, tended to be the unhappier one."

Even couples who are members of different denominations of the same faith can experience marital difficulties if they don't make their respective views on religion abundantly clear, Schwantes says.

"In this day and age of divergent religious, social, lifestyle and even political views, two Methodists or two Baptists will set themselves up for failure if one is firmly grounded in the 'letter of the law' while the other is not," he says. "Or (when you realize) down the road that you're a 'spiritual' grace-oriented Christian while your partner is a 'religious' legalistic Christian. All these things can become huge stumbling blocks down the line."

Respect and flexibility

Yet there are those who have managed to make it work, building long-standing relationships despite holding fundamentally different religious views.

In 2010, Chattanoogan Michael Walters, a self-described "disinterested agnostic," married his wife Anne, a lifelong Roman Catholic whom he describes as "the most truly Christian person I've ever had the pleasure of knowing."

They may not always agree with each other, the 45-year-old Walters says, but they've learned to accept their religious differences and celebrate the things they share in common.

"Despite the differences in our religious heritages, we both have a strong — and similar — moral sense," he says. "A significant portion of that morality we share is allowing people to be who they are, because that's better for all of us.

"Religion comes up from time to time, but it's not a regular subject for conversation," he continues. When religion does come up "we're respectful and try to be considerate of one another."

Respect and flexibility are the keys to making an interfaith marriage work, one relationship therapist says.

The Rev. Jane N. Geiger is the founder and president of Grace Ministries, Inc., a nonprofit, faith-based counseling, education and writing center with branches in Chattanooga, Birmingham, Ala., and Dunedin, Fla.

In the 25 years she's served as a counselor and minister, Geiger has treated "thousands" of couples using an approach that considers many areas that may be at the root of a couple's issues.

Geiger says she has worked with married Christians deeply divided by disagreements about abortion as well as a Christian and Buddhist couple who built a lasting relationship around their shared values of honesty, integrity, physical affection and helping others.

"This couple is one of the most happy, content and peaceful I've ever known," she says. The general principles in their faiths are similar, she says, "while their deity is not."

Deeds, not words

Partners who claim seemingly opposing religious views don't necessarily face an uphill battle, Geiger says. Especially in the Deep South, membership in a church is often a rote fact of life — "words are cheap," she says — and a person's actions are generally a much better indicator of the staunchness of their faith.

"Religious affiliation often has nothing to do with romantic compatibility," she says. "Our practitioners treat many men who are sex addicts, adulterers (or who) showed up on the Ashley Madison list of married cheaters, and they all express their commitment to their faith.

"Integrity of character, commitment to honesty and applying conflict-resolution skills successfully are greater indicators of romantic compatibility than church attendance."

Often, she adds, interfaith relationships between those who are willing to accommodate and respect their partner's beliefs — spiritual and otherwise — are more likely to last.

"When spirituality and faith are expressed in a relationship, rigidity and flexibility are actually better predictors of relationship success and satisfaction than the church membership or affiliation," Geiger says. "Rigidity [and] absolutes are great as an individual commitment, but can be hell on relationships.

"This is more about friendship and respect than romance. Great friends respect each other's differences, engage, inquire and are eager to learn. A foundation of friendship and respect is a great launchpad for a powerfully spiritual romantic bond, which endures over time."

Taking it slow

For couples considering a relationship with someone outside their faith, experts say it's vital to not let romantic feelings override religious differences because faith-based incompatibility may present an insurmountable obstacle down the road.

"Early romance is a delusional stage making a relationship and the other person bigger than life. It's like being high on drugs," says Judy Herman, a licensed professional counselor with offices on South Broad Street.

Before committing to a relationship, she says, it's best to get to know a prospective partner platonically before allowing heady romantic infatuation to muddy the waters.

"It's always best to take relationships slow," Herman says. "Spend time getting to know the other in the context of their other relationships and interests, desires, goals, etc. It's much more than conversation about religion. It's time, seasons and various contexts that reveal more than anything on a first date."

That approach worked for Sherry Johnson, a self-described "old hippie" and a Southern California transplant to Northern Alabama. Johnson says she wouldn't consider being with someone who didn't share her faith, which emphasizes spirituality over adherence to organized religion. Fortunately, the 60-year-old says, her romantic feelings for her husband Larry germinated after a friendship that grew around their shared beliefs.

"It wasn't like we had a questionnaire for each other or anything. We just got to know each other as friends," Johnson says. "People do a lot of planning and investigating about things now. Now, they tell you to seriously talk about all these things. People used to — I don't know — fall in love."

For some, however, mutually shared beliefs are so crucial to the viability of a relationship, discussing religious views is practically a first-date tradition.

"I generally ask about faith within the first 48 hours of meeting or talking," says Chattanoogan Brittany Daniels, whose four-year relationship with a man named "Chris" ended on good terms in May 2015. "Once I know someone has a relationship with Christ, how they walk it out in their daily life can intrigue or interest me more, which could lead to a better romantic compatibility."

Daniels is a devout Christian raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Her ex-boyfriend was a member of Metro Tabernacle, a non-denominational church on Shepherd Road. While they were dating, they attended and worked at the same church and would assign each other passages of Scripture to discuss over coffee or lunch. That shared faith provided a solid bedrock for their relationship, she says.

"We both felt that when things such as tithing, fasting, holidays, children, sex and God's plan for marriage are brought up or set into motion, it is extremely important to be on one accord," the 27-year-old says.

"I want a husband who understands and appreciates a godly wife who puts him and his needs before my own needs and wants not a non-believer who mocks me or a spiritually immature Christian who takes advantage. (That) sounds like an extremely lonely and stressful life that I want no part of."

 

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

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