A HOME UNITED:Strategies for Couples with Different Beliefs (A Participatory Study Guide). By Robert R. LaRochelle. Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2015. Viii + 71.
Once upon a time in America, when young people began to look for a mate, they looked to their own kind. That is, they chose to marry within their faith community. A Methodist might marry a Presbyterian, but it would prove scandalous for a Catholic and a Presbyterian to marry. The couple might be joined in deep passionate love, but their families likely wouldn’t approve. Conversion to one or the other would likely be demanded, making the other family left out. Yes, it’s better to marry within the faith. That was then, and this is now. We’re not as religiously ghettoized as we once were. Muslims, Christians (Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, Orthodox), Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, each with their own varieties are found together. Unless, that is families choose to educate their children in religious homogenous private schools!
Hormones don’t discriminate with regard to religion. Two people find themselves attracted to each other. They decide to date and perhaps ultimately mate, so where does religion fit into the equation? Do you ignore it or deal with the realities? Of course, you could choose to set aside religion completely, but is this the right course? Could those religious values and experiences that one brings into a relationship be of great value, if only they were recognized? If you’re going to have the conversation, when do you have it? Up front, early on, or when the children come? If the latter; is it too late?
These are important questions to factor in, as religion is an important component of human experience. This is true even if one doesn’t embrace “institutional” forms of religion. If one person is committed to a faith community and the other is spiritual but not religious, how does the couple work out the challenges and differences of expectation and approach? What is needed is wise counsel from someone who has experience with such matters. That person would be Robert LaRochelle, the author of this brief but useful guide for couples (and those who work with them) that offers “strategies for couples with different beliefs” so that they might have a “home united.”
Our author is a United Church of Christ pastor, currently serving an Evangelical Lutheran Church, who once was a Roman Catholic deacon. He is also married to a Roman Catholic, with three daughters, all of whom have chosen to remain within the church of their mother. This is both a pastoral book and a personal one. While a marriage of a Catholic and a Protestant isn’t as challenging as it once was or as challenging is one between, let’s say a Muslim and a Christian, the lessons learned are transportable. This book fits into a series of books that he has written that explore the benefits and challenges of Crossing the Street (the title of a previous book telling the story of his move from Catholic to Protestant).
A Home United is a contribution to a series of study guides that encourages group participation (I am currently writing a guide on marriage for the same series). While useful for group discussion, it is also useful for couples to read together so that they might have the important conversation about where religion fits into their relationship or simply individuals who have questions about the challenges and even benefits of such pairings. The author believes that religious difference, while often challenging can also be enriching. For it to be enriching, however, couples need to address religion early on the relationship, before patterns get set and children come along. Yes, children are a major complication. Are you going to raise the children in both traditions, in only one, or as often is the case, none. Does one partner simply acquiesce to the other? This is often true of men, who assume that religion is the realm of women. Rather than choose a default position of neutrality or neglect, why not choose a more enriching direction.
This is not a lengthy book. It is brief and focused on raising questions that will lead to a consensus that values both traditions. The point is not conversion of the other, but honoring the gift that each brings. This will not be satisfactory to all, especially more conservative members a faith tradition. In order to facilitate the conversation, the author seeks to bring our attention to the changing dynamics of religious life in America and the issues that this raises. He discusses the variety of religious expression present in our culture. To get a handle on this question, he offers a basic definition of religion: “one’s personal approach to the mystery of life” (p. 28). That is a fairly broad definition that includes a goodly number of people. Of course religious traditions will fill in the definition, but this gives the author a starting point for offering strategies. His contention is that simply being of the same faith doesn’t make for a good relationship, or that difference makes for a bad one. Still, a conversation needs to be had, so LaRochelle offers a series of question to grapple with that range from one’s understanding of God to the practicalities of religion in the home. Not all religions are alike, and not all religions will relate with each other the same. Therefore, the issues that emerge in a Protestant-Catholic relationship will be different from Jewish and Muslim persons. I remember having an interesting conversation with a Muslim friend about what happen if my son dated his daughter. Family issues would be key! While there are challenges to be faced, LaRochelle is convinced that there are strengths to be found in inter-religious couplings. It’s not they are preferable, but they can be enriching nonetheless. What is of greatest concern to the author is “when couples opt to take religion off the table as a topic for discussion, all too often out of fear that discussing it will be far too divisive” (p. 51).
If one is in an inter-religious relationship and has reached chapter six of the book, they will find a series of strategies for building a more united home. These include suggesting that both partners learn everything possible about the other’s faith tradition. If possible, don’t abandon your tradition in the name of unity. Where possible find common worship experiences—and as a word to religious leaders, a recommendation to provide such experiences for couples, or at the very least educational experiences. If worship isn’t possible, then find some ways of being present at the other’s religious community, such as a fair or carnival. Finally, when it comes to children, don’t leave “religious questions and practice to one member of the couple, but thoroughly talk through every possible facet of the ‘which way to raise children’ issue” (p. 56). What stands at the heart of Bob LaRochelle’s message is a call to be open, transparent, and true to one’s own conscience and faith. One shouldn’t convert for the sake of the relationship, if it is not true to one’s identity.
As a study guide, this book offers questions for discussion and guidelines for leaders. It is a worthwhile read, especially if you are in such a relationship or contemplating one. It is also a good resource for clergy and others who are working with such persons. It is also a good resource for dealing with religious difference and pluralism. After all, religion tends to get mingled in with family life and values.
As a pastor myself, I understand the value of a family sharing the same faith tradition. I can understand why we try to affirm it. But the reality is that this will not be true for all, and if our goal is to build strong families then we need to wrestle with this question. One thing to note as well is one of perspective. With the coming of the recent Supreme Court decision on marriage equality, same-gender couples will be facing the same issues. Bob is one, like me, who assumes that what applies to heterosexual marriages also applies here.
This is a fine book that wrestles with an important issue of our day. I highly recommend it!