When Jews, Christians, or Muslims choose spouses outside their faiths, the resulting marriages may provoke family and societal tensions, says Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im. These marriages, he says, serve as a “useful prism for understanding relationships among people and communities of different religious traditions.”

One such couple, Sameera Khan, a Muslim, and Manesh Patel, a Hindu, didn’t let their different faiths deter them.

“Manesh and I met on a trek. When we decided to marry, religion wasn’t an issue between us,” says Khan. Nor was the fact that in Bombay, where they live, most marriages are still arranged.

As wedding plans evolved, however, the couple realized their families’ differing beliefs and traditions would have to be addressed.

“We knew we had to keep it the way we wanted and also placate each side,” Patel says.

“I’m constantly trying to negotiate these things within myself,” Khan adds. “If it pleases my in-laws, I’ll do certain things. It’s not for the gods I’m doing this, it’s for the human beings.”

An-Na’im is studying the ramifications of religiously mixed marriages in Bombay, India; Istanbul, Turkey; and Dakar, Senegal, as a senior fellow in Emory’s Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion (CISR).

Created in the fall of 2000 with a five-year, $3.2 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the CISR is meant to encourage research and education on religious themes. Its first two-year project, “Sex, Marriage, and Family and the Religions of the Book,” has prompted research on family law in Islamic societies, the depiction of women in the Hebrew Bible, same-sex unions and the Christian church, a historical view of illegitimacy, the impact of religious beliefs on contraceptive practices, and the perils of a celibate clergy, among other topics.

“We are summoning our resources and getting the religious community in all its diversity to deal with the hardest questions modern society is asking: What goes on in the womb and before? Where do you define the edges of marriage and non-marriage? In what forum can sexuality best be expressed and disciplined?” says Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law and Ethics John Witte Jr., director of the CISR.

Under the auspices of the center, eighteen fellows from public health, law, theology, English, women’s studies, and several other disciplines are examining how scripture and the collective wisdom of religious traditions–largely Christianity, Judaism, and Islam–can be applied to contemporary social problems.










Joining colleagues in the “ongoing conversation about the nature of a just society and of a good person,” has been an engaging experience, says CISR senior fellow Robert M. Franklin. “These ancient categories have animated intellectual and grassroots discourse for centuries.”

Franklin, recently named a presidential distinguished professor of social ethics at Candler, has focused his research on the future of African-American marriages and families, particularly the growing absence of young black men as husbands and fathers.

“This phenomenon could compromise efforts to increase black marriage rates and provide caring parents for all of our children,” Franklin says. “There are some innovative congregation-based efforts, both Christian and Muslim, to reverse this exodus of men.”

In addition to fellows’ research projects, the center also sponsored six lectures on such controversial issues as cloning, same-sex unions, and celibacy in the priesthood that reached more than 1,200 members of the public–one of the mandates of the grant.

“It’s our hope that centers such as the one at Emory will do work that enables not just campus communities but the public at large to see how religion works in society,” says Diane Winston, program director for religion at Pew.

The sex, marriage, and family project culminates with an international conference March 27-29 at Emory involving more than eighty scholars and public intellectuals who will lead panels on such topics as, “I Do, I Don’t: The Cases for and Against Marriage,” “Suffer the Children? Contraception, Abortion, and Reproductive Stewardship,” and “Living Alone: The Vocations of Singleness and Celibacy.” The concluding keynote, “Sex, Marriage, and Family: The Challenges of the New Century,” will be given Saturday, March 29, at 7:30 p.m. by Colgate University President Rebecca S. Chopp, former Emory provost.

Twenty-nine books have been generated through the CISR–seventeen written by the fellows, such as Michael Broyde’s Marriage, Divorce, and the Abandoned Wife in Jewish Law and Don Browning’s Marriage and Modernization, and a dozen anthologies from the public forums and conference.

The church can no longer shy away from controversial matters but must weigh in, says Witte, adding its voice to the public discourse and creatively adapting and applying the ancient wisdom of scripture, whether it be to public policy debates or private decisions.

Religion and sex may seem strange bedfellows, he admits, but their entanglement–and the importance of one to the other–cannot be dismissed.

“Sex,” Witte says, “can be the most sublime of human interactions and the most scarring of human violations.”

The following three profiles represent a sampling of the research being conducted by CISR fellows.

For more information about the center and the conference “Sex, Marriage, & the Religions of the Book: Modern Problems, Enduring Solutions”, go to www.law.emory.edu/cisr.

I. The Cases For and Against Legal Marriages

Marriage has five dimensions, according to the Council on Families in America–natural, religious, economic, social, and legal. Anita Bernstein, Sam Nunn Professor of Law, is interested in the fifth: marriage as a legal concept, from which other “privileges and disabilities ensue.”

When men and women marry, they acquire a new status in the eyes of the state. From that point on, the law will treat them differently with respect to contracts, crimes, property holdings, and finances.

“It is peculiar for contemporary Americans to hold a status-label that limits their freedom,” says Bernstein, a senior fellow in the CISR. “Over time, American law has abandoned or weakened most status-labels, such as slavery and race. What is the reason for the status of legal marriage?”

Bernstein explores this thesis in For and Against Marriage: Strategies to Critique, Defend, Reform, and Appraise a Venerable Legal Category, asking scholars in law, anthropology, sociology, queer theory, religion, and political science to respond to the question, “Should American law get out of the business of recognizing marriage completely?”

The alternative, Bernstein says, would be that “paired individuals could think of themselves as ‘married’ or otherwise fused together if they like,” but the union would not be a legal condition.

With substantial reservations, Bernstein comes to the conclusion that state-sponsored marriage should not be abolished, if simply because research has shown that in America, married people tend to be “happier, healthier, and better off financially.”

Bernstein attributes these “utilitarian payoffs” to the fact that married couples occupy a favored status in society with regard to everything from insurance and taxation to social acceptability. But, she cautions, “like ‘affirmative action’ and ‘limited liability’ . . . the legal category of marriage should be understood to foster both good and bad consequences.”

The harmful effects include gender stereotyping and inequity, exclusion of same-sex couples, and oppression inherent in the institution.

If marriage is to survive as a state-conferred status, Bernstein says, “it must pay attention to the dignity and autonomy of the individual.”

II. Planned Parenthood?

Almost half of all conceptions and a third of births to American women are unintended. Conversely, more than a million women a year seek fertility treatments to become pregnant.

Both ends of this spectrum interest CISR senior fellow Carol J. Rowland Hogue, Terry Professor of Maternal and Child Health and Professor of Epidemiology at the Rollins School of Public Health, who is researching “Public Health at the Threshold of Parenting.”

Hogue hopes to discover ways public policy could be improved to foster planned families. She is exploring what role religion plays in the contraceptive practices of sexually active women; why some pregnancies occur seemingly without thought or preparation; and how the various paths adults take to parenthood–a “sacred calling,” a “duty,” or a “thing that happens”–affects the value they place on their role as parents.

Conventional wisdom on reproductive issues doesn’t always hold true, says Hogue. For example, most unintended pregnancies occur in adults, not teenagers.

“Basic tools, such as access to effective contraceptives, are not uniformly available, especially to impoverished adults and to workers whose insurance plans do not cover contraceptives,” she says. Medicaid now covers fewer poor women, and federal funds for Title X–which pays for contraceptive services not covered by Medicaid–have not increased since 1994.

A former director of reproductive health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hogue would like to see a comprehensive national campaign aimed at educating adults about sexual behaviors.

To this end, she has invited scholars with expertise in ethics, Christian theology, and public health to write about the intersection of public policy and family planning for the monograph Facts of Life: Family Formation as Medical, Moral, and Political Reality.

Another public health issue concerning reproduction, says Hogue, involves women for whom pregnancy is a deeply desired but elusive state that requires medical intervention. With assisted reproductive technologies–fertility drugs and in vitro fertilization–has come a rapid increase in twins, triplets, and more.

These multiple births pose greater health risks for mother and infants and contribute to more than $640 million in additional hospital costs annually.

In “Successful Assisted Reproductive Technology: The Beauty of One,” Hogue proposes that the focus of fertility treatments shift from multiple embryos to the birth of a single, live infant. Such a plan, Hogue says, “minimizes risks and maximizes the chance that a healthy couple will carry home a healthy baby.”


III. Sex, gender, and the Catholic Church

Most Catholic parishes in this country would collapse without the contributions of women, says Luke T. Johnson, the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology and a CISR fellow.

“I mean this in the very specific sense that women are carrying out most of the work of ministry in many if not most parishes,” Johnson said at the annual Currie Lecture in Law and Religion, where he spoke on “Sex and the American Catholic Church.”

“This exploitation takes place even while such women are denied ordination with the argument that only males can really represent Christ.”

Rejection of women, he continued, lies at the heart of a great deal of the church’s “twisted and confusing sexual teachings. . . . If Catholic women finally get angry enough to walk out, then the game is close to over.

“At the beginning of the twenty-first century, American Catholics are increasingly suspicious of–and hostile toward–a hierarchy that appears, in the harsh light of publicity, as no longer credible because of incoherence and even corruption.”

Johnson, a lifelong Catholic, has been a Benedictine monk and a Catholic priest, and is now a religious scholar and married layman with seven children, ten grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

“I am, therefore, not a detached analyst but rather speak as a participant,” he said.

The author of nineteen scholarly books, including Living Jesus and The Real Jesus, Johnson also condemned the mandate of a totally celibate priesthood.

“The church’s willingness to lose an ordained priesthood altogether, and with it the sacramental heart of Catholicism, rather than ordain married men or–horrors!–women, may appear noble to some, but to more and more American Catholics, it appears suicidal and self-delusional.”



© 2003 Emory University