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Sherri Keaton, Published August 21 2010

Interfaith marriage not unique union in Fargo-Moorhead area

Lynda Johnson was a 28-year-old single mother of three in a laundromat when she met the man who changed her life.

Johnson’s future husband, David Johnson, then 33 years old, came up to her on that August day and told her a thing or two.

“In walks this guy and I thought, ‘Hmm, he’s interesting,’ and the next week, he asked me on a date,” says Johnson, a Forman resident.

Twenty-nine married years and another child later, Lynda and David Johnson have sliced out an imperfect piece of harmony pie when it comes to keeping their marriage together and raising their children.

Their rules: No infidelity. Respect one another. Don’t talk about God at the dinner table.

“Over dinner, we don’t talk about (faith),” David Johnson said. “We have a continual disagreement.”

Lynda Johnson is a born-again Christian in the Assemblies of God Christian denomination; David Johnson is an atheist. And though the pairing carries with it a sense of irony, their interfaith marriage is not a unique union in Fargo-Moorhead, a trend reflected nationwide.

According to The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a 2008 study finds that 27 percent of marriages in the United States are interfaith. That number rises to 37 percent if different protestant religions are involved.

These increasing numbers suggest the old adage “The family that prays together stays together” doesn’t always ring true, especially for Lynda and David Johnson, who try to keep their faith disagreements at bay when common marital challenges arise.

“Every so often, it blows up into an argument, and we are pretty good about diffusing it between us, and we both go our merry mental ways,” she says. “We do have small areas where we can come together in agreement.”

Just like any marriage, there will be problems, but with interfaith relationships, couples may have to work harder to keep their union together. According to another Pew Forum study, interfaith married couples are “three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.”

Jon Lindgren, president of the Red River Freethinkers group and former Fargo mayor, has counseled interfaith couples and said those marriages may not always work. But he says people considering an interfaith marriage should make sure they can live with their differences.

“Hopefully the nonbeliever is tolerant of the believer in a marriage,” Lindgren says. “Work hard at this tolerance.”

He added that interfaith couples shouldn’t move too far into the other’s space of faith because if they each become uncomfortable, it isn’t good. Lindgren also says individuals in interfaith couples should have their own “faith” social circle for a spiritual outlet to talk.

Adjusting faith

Judy and Tom Jenkins didn’t hold back on talking about God when they met. And the Moorhead couple has never seen their initial interfaith relationship as a challenge.

Judy Jenkins, 64, is a member of the Baha’i religion and has been for 40 years. When she met Tom Jenkins, 63, and they married in 1972, he was Lutheran. However, he merged his faith into Baha’i a few years after their marriage.

“I can’t think of any challenges that came up,” Judy Jenkins says of their interfaith marriage.

“We were very up front right from the beginning,” Tom Jenkins says. “She didn’t push anything on me, and she let me continue in my religion.”

At first, Tom Jenkins’ family was a little wary of Judy Jenkins’ religious background. But that changed after meeting her.

Judy Jenkins says her parents were concerned when she stopped being Lutheran and merged into the Baha’i faith at 25 years old, but that lessened in her parents very quickly.

“Because they knew what I stood for,” she says.

Not only has the number of interfaith marriages risen, but society might

be more accepting of interfaith couples because there is less emphasis on denominationalism, says Jeff Sandgren, pastor at Olivet Lutheran Church.

Sandgren says he thinks there is less of an issue with denominationalism because couples and families are really looking for a sense of community and less of a denomination-based church.

There are stats to back up his claims.

According to a 2008 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study, “unaffiliated” is the fastest-growing segment of religious Americans.

“More people are choosing their own faiths and not just continuing in the faith of their parents,” Sandgren says. “We are meeting more people of other faiths, and we are becoming a more diverse community.”

David Johnson’s belief in atheism represents the different ideas more individuals and couples have.

“People are raised in a certain faith, and they believe that faith for the rest of their life, and they really got no good reason to,” David Johnson says.

When it comes to uniting the couple’s differences, Lynda Johnson says it is easier to stay positive and not look at the negative.

“Regardless of what our faith is, if we are looking at a more positive direction, we’re going to find it,” she says. “And I guess that is part of what keeps us going.”