Jeff Wheeler, 22 — a Catholic-turned-unaffiliated — and Kaitlyn Smith*, 19 — a Hindu — may have been dating for the last 11 months, but they don't let their differing religious and spiritual upbringings create riffs in their relationship. Instead, they use them to grow together from a shared foundation, developing their own independent, modern ways of thinking about the religions they were raised in. Although religion is no longer a priority in their lives, they still choose to live with the morals and culture it has provided them with.
Before meeting Phil Mendez, Rachel Reiss had never given much thought to interfaith relationships. Sure, she was raised Jewish, but more culturally so. All she knew was that she wasn’t into Jewish guys.
When Mendez came around, the pair hit it off. It didn’t matter much to her that he was raised Catholic. They both had characteristics in common that enhanced their compatibility: a curiosity about diverse religions and spiritual practices, understanding the value of asking questions and raising skepticism, having authentic discussions, and letting differences in beliefs enhance their relationship rather than strain it.
Two-and-a-half years on and hundreds of miles apart — Reiss, 23, works for IBM in Washington, D.C., while Mendez, 25, studies medicine in South Carolina — they’re still going strong. They’ve overcome distance and the initial doubts of Reiss’ traditionalist grandparents who wanted her to preserve her Jewish heritage.
As time goes on, millennials like Reiss and Mendez are realizing that religion shouldn’t be a deciding factor in the dating world — affection should. After all, her own family gave her proof.
“My two uncles did not marry Jewish – one married Methodist, the other married Catholic,” Reiss said. “My dad was the one who married Jewish, and his marriage to my mom was the only one that failed."
The stats show us that younger generations are placing less importance on same-faith relationships.
According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2015, only 61 percent of pairs who married between 2010 and 2014 both practiced the same religion. That figure was the lowest in the survey, the latest manifestation of a trend that has gone downward since the 1960s.
By our estimates, this trend will only continue.
The finding probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to Reiss. Although she isn’t sure what the typical millennial mindset on the topic would be, she believes the majority of the generation wouldn’t care. In her eyes, true love breeds respect, both for one’s personal and religious inclinations.
“As a whole, I think (millennials) are becoming increasingly apathetic to religious differences. The world is growing more secular — mixed both religiously and ethnically,” she said. “The more we discriminate on these things, the less chance we have of finding our ‘one.’”
Once someone finds their person, communication becomes key. In 2015, Reverend Jim Burklo, associate dean of religious life at the University of Southern California, called interfaith marriages “an occasion for learning about your own faith.”
For Reiss and many others, it opens an additional dialogue: How would she want to raise her own children?
“I think it is important to not force a child to choose,” Reiss said, “but also to not deny that religion exists just because each parent comes from a different background.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY
That decision-making streak is a hallmark of the baby boomers who raised them. And, according to another survey conducted by Pew in 2016, their openness to interfaith relationships may be another byproduct of their parents’ philosophy.
Per this study, 27 percent of millennials were raised in an interfaith household — the most of any age group dating back to the Silent and Greatest Generations (those born between 1901 and 1945).
That exposure, in turn, freed them to make their own choices about religion. For instance: In a study on Jewish child-rearing, Pew found that, in 96 percent of households where both parents were Jewish, parents fully raised their children in the faith. That number dropped to 20 percent if one spouse was non-Jewish.
Carli Chiarelli fits in that second demographic. The daughter of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, the 23-year-old was raised in the former’s faith.
However, despite attending Hebrew school until she was 10, she slowly
realized Judaism wasn’t for her. Around that time, Chiarelli opted out
of her bat mitzvah and stopped attending her religious classes. By the
time she hit her teens, she couldn’t escape the feeling that her faith
had been forced on her.
Since then, Chiarelli’s come full circle. In recent years, she’s worked to
cultivate her spiritual side. She still identifies as culturally Jewish, but
has recently prioritized prayer and intelligent discussion with devout
religious followers to deepen her relationship with God.
“I feel like it's a part of myself that I have never fully understood or explored,” she said. “Now that I'm an adult, I can take my religious (and) spiritual journey into my own hands and figure it out for myself.”
Wherever that road leads her, it’s unlikely it’ll inhibit her search for love. Echoing her parents, Chiarelli noted that marrying within the Jewish community isn’t at all important to her. Instead, what matters is giving her future children the freedom to find their own road to God.
“I would want my kids to be raised in a home where they feel like they can ask questions and be free to explore their beliefs,” Chiarelli said. “I … want to provide them with structure, but not so much structure that it feels forced.”