Alexa P. Summer ’06 always assumed that she would raise her children Jewish. Now that she’s in a serious relationship with a practicing Catholic, however, her children’s faith is no longer quite so certain.
“It’s more up in the air than it’s ever been for me,” she says.
In deciding who they want to date, most college students say they do not think about marriage or children.
But the choice to date someone may have unexpected implications—especially if that person does not share your religion, Summer says.
Faced with these complexities, many students say they will not date members of other religions, and those who say they are willing to do so admit it isn’t always easy.
WHAT WILL GRANDMA SAY?
Santosh P. Bhaskarabhatla ’09, who is Hindu, says he thinks “a relationship shouldn’t focus on a person’s religious tradition and background but mainly on personal characteristics and compatibility.”
His parents would not agree.
Interfaith dating forces many students to make a difficult choice: conceal their relationship from their parents, or face fighting with them about it, Bhaskarabhatla says.
He adds that many Indian families would not support interfaith relationships, and that this attitude is characteristic of many other cultural traditions as well.
“A lot of parents feel that you’re going to dilute your culture if you date someone of a different culture,” he says.
In contrast, Summer says she found that the strongest reactions came not from her family, but from her religious community.
She says that when she ran for the position of Hillel President last year, some notable people in the community expressed concern over her involvement in an interfaith relationship.
“It was not a huge issue,” she said, “but it was something that I had to justify.”
Many Harvard Jewish students say that both dating and marrying within the faith are important to them.
“I think that dating within the faith...is a strong value that many Jews have. To have the president or the moral leader of the community not acting in line with that value is a questionable thing,” Summer said.
GIRLFRIEND VS. GOD
Some students say that having a partner of a different faith or with a different level of commitment to the faith may interfere with their own relationship with God.
Brian S. Gillis ’08, a Protestant from an Evangelical background, says the importance of shared religious beliefs is emphasized in The New Testament.
Citing a Biblical passage which points to the danger of being led off course by a relationship with someone of a different faith, Gillis says that his religion has a clear position on interfaith relationships.
“The important thing to realize, from a Christian perspective, is that God is supreme. Nothing matters more than God, including your wife,” Gillis says. “[Dating someone of a different faith] means you’re making them first before God,” he adds.
But Gillis says he realizes that, theology aside, the reality of interfaith dating is more complicated.
“It’s all in the heart and the intentions,” he says.
Susie E. Skoda ’07, who is also Christian, disagrees that an interfaith relationship might strain a person’s relationship with God.
“[An interfaith relationship] might create more dialogue between you and God,” Skoda says.
She says that such a relationship would inspire questions such as “How is it that I see this and my boyfriend or girlfriend can’t or doesn’t want to see it at all?’”
Muslim student Zain Khalid ’08 says that since most Muslim students do not date, they do not have to confront the implications of dating someone from a different faith.
Khalid adds that, when it comes to marriage, an interfaith relationship is not a problem as long as the person is a Christian or a Jew, according to Islamic theology.
Yet more than theological issues, students say that personal feelings influence them to reject the possibility of an interfaith relationship.
“It would be impossible for me to consider spending my life with someone who did not agree with what I spiritually believed in,” says Sarah H. Arshad ’09, who is Muslim.
Sara A. Manning ’09 also said she could not picture herself in a serious relationship with someone who doesn’t share her faith.
“Judaism is such a big part of my life...It doesn’t seem feasible to me that I would relate to someone on such a deep level if we didn’t have that common ground,” she says.
CULTURE, GENDER & (NO) SEX
When it comes to interfaith relationships, religion often dictates broader differences in opinion beyond strict theology.
Many observant Christian students, for instance, say they do not believe in having sex before marriage.
This view differs from the mainstream college culture in which sex is common in romantic relationships, says Chiduzie C. Madubata ’06, an Episcopalian.
“Christians consider sex to be something more than some pleasurable act. It’s an actual union between two people becoming one,” Madubata says. “That makes the idea of sex so much more sacred.”
Different views of gender roles can also complicate a relationship, Summer says.
Summer says she disagrees with her boyfriend’s belief that he is responsible for supporting her when she begins law school in the fall and he enters the work force.
“I think it’s my financial responsibility,” she says.
Summer says that she and her boyfriend have also discussed the potential tension that could arise between fulfilling traditional parental roles and pursuing their career goals.
Some students argue that the problems with interfaith dating are essentially the result of cultural differences.
Nimay K. Mehta ’09 says he would prefer to date a fellow Hindu, but says that shared culture, more than shared faith, is what’s important to him.
“A lot of Indian girls are vegetarian, and they speak the same language. There’s no cultural gap or disparity. With language comes a lot of cultural ties,” he says.
THINK OF THE KIDS
Students say that their broadest and most constant concern about interfaith dating is the faith of their children.
Whether or not religious students choose to date outside their faiths, most say they usually plan to marry someone of their own faith.
“I think a couple should decide to have one religion, to transmit one to their children, otherwise [the children will] feel divided, and it won’t be easy for them to form an identity,” says Jonathan Hernandez ’09, who is Catholic.
Catholic Students Association Chaplain Faye Darnall agrees that children brought up with two conflicting religious traditions may not feel truly connected to either of them.
But Darnall says that choosing the faith of one parent can pose its own difficulties.
“It’s a loss to not raise your children in your own tradition, if you choose to raise them in your partner’s tradition ...That can be an irreconcilable problem at times,” she said after a forum on interfaith dating last month.
Though these concerns may seem distant now, Summer says that if she were to marry her current boyfriend, they would have to make a decision about how to raise their children.
“The options are to raise our children as Jews, as Catholics or as atheists. And I think it is very unlikely that we’ll raise our children as atheists,” she says.
Despite these complications, some students are willing to pursue interfaith relationships.
Some Christian students jokingly refer to interfaith relationships as “missionary dating,” pointing out that conversion might be a consequence of the relationship.
Skoda says the phrase negatively connotes one person setting out in a relationship in order to convert the other person, and she says she thinks that this happens infrequently, if at all.
In a more positive interpretation, Gillis says that sometimes a person who is initially interested in Christianity ends up committing to the faith with the help of a boyfriend or girlfriend.
But Madubata warns that interfaith dating, whether “missionary dating” or not, can be potentially painful.
“Christians eventually marry other Christians. If you take things to a level with someone who’s not Christian it’s going to be hard to back away after a while,” he says.
Students that choose not to back away from these relationships say they must embrace compromise and that interfaith dating can be rewarding as well as difficult.
Sean A. Darling-Hammond ’06, who does not identify with a specific religion, sometimes attends Shabbat dinners with his girlfriend, who is Jewish.
“More than anything, we learn from each other,” he says.
Summer and her boyfriend, she says, regard their differences as “a source of growth and understanding. We talk about things. It’s never a point of contention,” she says.