If major religious differences doom a marriage, mine should have been toe-tagged at the altar. Our religious differences were arguably as major as they could get.
By the time I approached that altar in a century-old church in San Francisco, I’d identified as an atheist for 15 years. I read the Bible critically at 13 and debated preachers in the college plaza at 19. I was a vocal critic of many aspects of religion and still am.
The woman approaching down that long aisle was a born-and-bred Southern Baptist. I’d recently witnessed the adult baptism ceremony that confirmed her in the faith. Her stepfather, uncle, and grandfather were Southern Baptist ministers. Her parents met at a Baptist college. She attended church and planned to continue doing so once we were married. And the Bible is plenty clear about marriages between believers and nonbelievers: Do not be yoked together with unbelievers, it warns. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?
Given all of those alarm bells, why was I crying tears of joy as she came down the aisle? Why was she smiling as she approached me? And why are we still happily married 30 years and three kids later?
It would take a whole book to answer that question. (Good thing I wrote one.) But I’m thinking about weddings a lot lately because I’m officiating a nonreligious one on Sunday, so let’s start there.
If you’re in a mixed-belief marriage of any kind, it’s an arresting thought to realize that you probably wouldn’t have been if you’d married in the 1950s, at least not openly. Even differences that seem pretty small now—a Methodist marrying a Catholic, say—just didn’t happen all that often then. In the late 1950s, as few as one in five marriages were between people with different religious beliefs. Three generations later, the frequency of mixed-belief marriages has skyrocketed. Nearly half of the weddings since 2000 (45%) have joined people with different religious views.
My actual wedding was not even slightly nonreligious. No one there would have guessed there was an atheist in the room, much less that he was the one in tux and tails. The setting was a beautiful, historic Lutheran church in San Francisco that we’d chosen not because it was Lutheran but because it was beautiful and historic and in San Francisco, Becca’s hometown.
It was easier for me, as a nonreligious person, to be flexible on these details because, unlike mixed marriages joining people of two different religions, I wasn’t bringing a rigid rulebook with me.
We upped the religious ante with not one but two ministers—a Methodist friend of the family, and a Southern Baptist uncle of Becca’s whose contribution included a rafter-rattling reference to Matthew 21:21, the assurance that faith can move mountains. The readings were all Christian, ranging from “love is patient, love is kind” in First Corinthians to a popular excerpt from The Prophet by the Christian mystic poet Khalil Gibran.
If we married 10 years later, I’d have certainly included some secular poetry or meditations and maybe nudged the scriptures a little—a nice humanistic bit of Ecclesiastes, say, instead of a verse on the telekinetic properties of faith. And if we were getting married today—well, we’re both secular now, so we’d choose together. But at 28, even though I was no less secular in my point of view, it was a much smaller part of my identity than it would be later on.
At 28, I was defined by music. My degrees were in music, and I was four weeks from beginning a 19-year career as a conductor and professor of music, so I was given complete say over that aspect of the ceremony. I’d have been more offended by crappy music than by the crappiest verses in Psalms. It could have rained little pillows embroidered with Proverbs for all I cared. The music was mine.
I included Ravel’s “Jeux d’eau” and the “Menuet” from Sonatine, both played by my unreasonably talented brother Ron, plus Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” (from the incidentally secular Hunting Cantata)—a warhorse gone awesome in an arrangement for strings and two recorders. Becca entered to Bach’s “Air on the G String,” one of the most perfect things ever written, played by the San Francisco Conservatory String Quartet. That moment nearly killed me. We lit the unity candle to a prelude I wrote myself, also played by Ron, and left to the exuberant Widor Toccata for organ played by the brilliant organist of San Francisco’s Grace (Episcopal) Cathedral.
For those of you keeping score, we had now achieved the Protestant quadfecta: a Lutheran church, an Episcopal organist, and Methodist and Baptist ministers. I was awash in Christian ritual, text, and symbols — and I didn’t care. I’d made my own heaven musically.