Some singles are seeking the perfect religious match

April 01, 1992|By Ruthe Stein | Ruthe Stein,San Francisco Chronicle

To their wish lists of what is desirable in a mate, single people in their 20s and 30s are adding a surprising item: same religion.

Singles are paying hundreds of dollars to Christian and Jewish dating services and making the rounds of events at Bay Area churches and synagogues to increase the odds of finding a religiously correct partner. They are even attending services, ogling each other over prayer books instead of margaritas.

Some will not even consider going out with anyone of a different faith, saying that to do so would be like playing Russian roulette. Many singles say they fear that inherent religious and cultural differences would lead to major problems down the line.

This is of great concern to young singles today, who are the first generation to grow up surrounded by divorce and to see its devastating effect on families. In addition, some sociologists believe that the emphasis on common religion is part of a general return to traditional values highlighted during the conservative years of the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Milton Marks III of San Francisco is part of this generation. Because both his brother and sister married non-Jews, he feels pressured to marry within the faith, so he goes to Jewish singles events and has joined a Jewish dating service.

"I think my parents expect it of me," said Mr. Marks, 32, who works for his father, a state senator. "I always had more connection with being Jewish than my brother and sister."

Psychologists and others view this trend as a backlash to the proliferation of interfaith marriages in the United States. But they say it may be a while before the reversal shows up in statistics, which reflect a steady rise in the number of Americans marrying outside their religion since the mid-1960s.

For example, studies show that 40 percent of Catholics are married to non-Catholics; 70 percent of Protestants are married to someone of another Protestant denomination and 18 percent are married to non-Protestants; and 17 percent of Jews are married to non-Jews. Last year, more than half of Jewish marriages were to non-Jews.

Still, experts say they are certain that the return to marrying within one's religion is a growing phenomenon.

"Sure, there is a backlash," said Joel Crohn, a Berkeley psychologist who researched mixed marriages for the American Jewish Committee. "It goes with the more conservative times. People are beginning to look back to what they have given up. There's a reconsideration of tradition in the '90s."

Indeed, mixed marriages do have a higher divorce rate.

"I think singles are looking around and thinking: How is it that the average couple stays together?" said Rambo Lewis, professor of religion and psychology at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. "They recognize on a practical level that if they marry someone of a different religion, it can cause problems."

At 29, Hayes Latin, a project manager at Pacific Bell in San Ramon, Calif., is already a divorce statistic. Mr. Latin, who was brought up Presbyterian, is convinced that his marriage broke up because his wife did not share his religious beliefs.

"I wanted to make the marriage work, but she didn't have a 'Christian' belief in the sanctity of marriage -- that marriage is for life and you work things out," he said.

Mr. Latin said he will consider only a Christian when he remarries. Looking for love as well as spiritual enlightenment, he goes every Sunday to a special worship service for singles at Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church.

"I truly believe that the bonds of marriage are tied to religious beliefs," he said. "Maybe this is the new movement of the '90s."

Roman Catholics also seek a strong religious connection, a longing that is evident in the activities of the groups they join.

Members of a young adult group at St. Dominic's Church in San Francisco attend mass together every Sunday before getting down to the social part of the evening: dinner at a nearby restaurant. The meal starts with bowed heads as one person at the table says grace.

Three marriages have come out of the group, an inspiration to Leticia Alvarez, a 25-year-old civil engineer who wouldn't mind being the fourth.

"I couldn't really see myself getting serious about someone unless he shared my faith, because Catholicism is pretty central to my life," she said.

Other singles reject mixed marriages more for cultural than religious reasons. Jews, in particular, are looking for a mate "comfortable with lox and bagels and the external trappings of being Jewish," as Mr. Crohn put it.

For example, Nancy Zimerman, a 34-year-old legal secretary, describes herself as "not really religious" but is nonetheless religiously pursuing a Jewish husband. At a recent singles party sponsored by the Jewish Community Federation, she eyed every prospect to come through the door.

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