A Leap of Faith

If HBO is in any way a measure of societal trends, religious conversion remains strong.

This season, Sex and the City's Charlotte York abandoned her Christian roots to convert to Judaism so she could marry Harry Goldblatt.

Statistics on how many people convert for love are scarce, but it's not just fodder for television story lines.

"I haven't seen any recent studies on that topic," says Philip Goff, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University. "But it certainly is happening. The whole thing about how you have to marry within your faith is a very old tradition in many ways, and in some cases goes back to the Bible and when it makes references to the fact you should not be married to unbelieving people."

Rabbi Celso Cukierkorn of Temple B'nai Israel in Hattiesburg said in all actuality people marry because they find some common interests. A Sex and the City fan, he said York began to explore Judaism because of her love interest, but she converted because she found herself connected to Judaism. "She converted because of herself, not for him.

"I don't think people usually convert because they want to make their mother-in-law happy," he added. "They convert because they feel a calling, they feel a spiritual connection.

"When you find the right faith, it's like the right shoe — it fits."

The reasons for converting vary.

Some switch faiths for the love of a man or woman and because of children. Some say it's a bond that makes a marriage stronger as couples can share the same values, religious beliefs and morals. Others say they've done a lot of soul searching and found their "new religion" satisfying, because it was something they've studied and were exposed to through spouses or partners.

"I see a lot of this in my practice," said Dr. Sharon Jones, a mental health counselor for an Episcopal counseling center. "I do believe that questions of faith need to be seriously considered before a marriage."

Monsignor Michael Flannery, vicar general of the Roman Catholic diocese of Jackson, doesn't advise converting just for the sake of having somebody to go to church with. Just because you attend the same church or share the same faith doesn't guarantee a perfect marriage, he said.

"Here in Mississippi, the majority of the marriages in the Catholic Church are interfaith marriages because Catholics are in the minority here," he said. "Personally, I don't think marrying someone of a different faith is a bad thing."

Jones recommends that people think about why they want to make the switch and make sure they are educated about the particular religion.

"True conversion comes from inside and not as a result of wanting to marry someone to please them, family, church elders or for the sake of unborn children," Jones says. "If one converts on the outside, as they grow, they could find that it is not a decision that was good for them."

While sharing the same faith can bring families together, it also should not be the cause for marital problems, says the Rev. Douglas Bailey, campus minister at Florida Tech and an instructor of world religions and ethics.

"It's certainly a peg of compatibility if couples have the same religion, but it shouldn't be a divisive factor between couples, either," Bailey says, adding that students and Florida Tech alumni have asked for advice on the issue of conversion.

"I do think a reason why people consider conversion is because they are in love and they want to have a common bond," Bailey says. "But in the Catholic Church, we are very careful to inform people that they should be converting for one reason, and that's an inner conversion."

Sister Coleen Klinger, an office assistant at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Jackson mission, says individuals are advised to convert to their faith only if they believe the teachings in the Book of Mormon are true.

"We have missionaries that go out two-by-two to teach them and we also have six discussions with them," she says. "Conversion is a serious matter and we believe people can decide for themselves whether the teachings are true or not."

From the September 23, 2003 issue of the The Clarion-Ledger.