I have spoken to several American Orthodox Christians about getting married in the church, and what they said sounded very familiar to me before I found my wife: 1) it is very difficult to find another member of the church to marry, 2) the church counsels strongly to marry within the church, and 3) non-Orthodox marriages are not considered to be participating in the “fullness” of marriage possible. All three of these are similar in Mormonism.
Encouraging your members to marry within the faith makes sense on numerous levels. First, it helps maintain inter-generational unity within the church. There is a reason that the Old Testament prophets counseled Israel to only marry within the Lord’s chosen people: marrying someone who worships a different god results in children that are, at best, confused, and at worst, weak believers in both (or believers in neither). This principle is even stronger in places like the Middle East, where there are several very strong faith communities that have lasted thousands of years – no doubt partly because of rules forbidding intermarriage with other faiths.
Additionally, it helps maintain unity within the marriage. Mixed-faith marriages have a dismal divorce rate. From a 2010 Washington Post article:
But the effects on the marriages themselves can be tragic — it is an open secret among academics that tsk-tsking grandmothers may be right. According to calculations based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.
In a paper published in 1993, Evelyn Lehrer, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that if members of two mainline Christian denominations marry, they have a one in five chance of being divorced in five years. A Catholic and a member of an evangelical denomination have a one in three chance. And a Jew and a Christian who marry have a greater than 40 percent chance of being divorced in five years.
More recent research concludes that even differing degrees of religious belief and observance can cause trouble. For instance, in a 2009 paper, scholars Margaret Vaaler, Christopher Ellison and Daniel Powers of the University of Texas at Austin found higher rates of divorce when a husband attends religious services more frequently than his wife, as well as when a wife is more theologically conservative than her husband.
It is very hard to “make it work” with a spouse that does not share the same spiritual goals. It causes conflict and disunity in obvious ways (going different ways on Sunday, conflicts over how to raise the children, a belief that one’s spouse might not make it to heaven, etc.) but in non-obvious ways too (if a teenage son or daughter is mad at one parent, he/she might switch to the other parent’s religion in order to gain bargaining leverage, etc.).
So there are good reasons to marry someone in your faith (and even to marry someone with your same level of devotion), and good reasons for leaders of a faith to encourage this practice within their flocks.
However, considering just the United States for the purpose of this discussion, there are not many Mormons and not many Orthodox. A range of estimates puts the number of Eastern Orthodox in the USA between 1.2 million and 4 million (depending on how you count – which is a very tricky methodological question that I won’t get into here). One estimate of Mormons in the USA puts their numbers at around 6 million. Considering there are over 300 million people in the United States, this means that the average Mormon or the average Orthodox who wants to marry within their faith probably isn’t going to have a possible spouse living down the street.
For me, growing up Mormon out in a rural area in Appalachia, it meant basically not dating at all. My first girlfriend (whom I didn’t start dating until I was 16) lived about three hours away. We met at a church youth dance, and we’d just rack up large phone bills and beg our parents to drive us out to see one another. When we broke up, I didn’t really date anyone for a couple of years.
It was actually very difficult for me. I had female friends in high school and, of course, I got crushes on several of them. However, I very rarely dated outside Mormonism for very long, and those few times that I did were filled with anxiety and guilt. But this was the decision that I had made – I wanted to marry someone in my religion and dating was the path to marriage. Therefore, most dating was simply off the table for me. It was lonely, but gave me a chance to make decisions that would affect me the rest of my life. It is a good thing to learn how to make tough choices because you believe in tough principles.
Both faiths, from what I understand, have had to figure out what to do with mixed-faith marriages within their own churches. So I know this for sure – if my family becomes Orthodox, I would not really be improving the chances that my kids will marry in their own faith – it will be probably very similarly difficult in either church.