When a Family Member Converts

What are the choices when a loved one leaves the family faith (or non-faith)? Though we may think we're far beyond the bickering of our forebears, our choices have remained much the same since the Reformation.
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What are the choices when a loved one leaves the family faith (or non-faith)? Though we might like to imagine that we're far beyond the silly religious bickering of our forebears, our choices in the West have in fact remained much the same since the Reformation, when the modern practice of individual conversion emerged on a massive scale: that is, we can reject, tolerate, or accept other-believers.

Erratic sources and fluctuating emotions make it unlikely that we will ever know just exactly how many families confronted such choices, or how many behaved in this way or that at a particular time. But years of study have convinced me that families who completely rejected other-believers, sometimes through killing them but usually through severing ties, have been a small minority, including in the Reformation.

Far more common, I'm convinced, has been for families to find the great messy middle of the spectrum and to adopt some form of tolerance. This tolerant super-majority isn't as rosy and cozy as it sounds. For all of its appeal in the modern West, tolerance was a dirty word when it emerged in the Reformation -- much inferior to religious unity, and preferable only to killing someone or cutting him off. No more. Even today, the root meaning of the word tolerance (to bear, to endure) suggests the inherent limits of the concept: when you tolerate, you put up with someone's unfortunate choice, someone's inferior religion, and you hope for his return to the truth. The other-believer is not an equal, but a misguided soul requiring pity and help. Full fellowship and equality can occur only through the convert's rejoining the family religion, or the family's joining the convert's new faith.

In short, tolerance was not (is not) the opposite of intolerance, but the other side of the same coin. Tolerance implied intolerance. Again, in practice tolerance has taken many forms, ranging from uneasy coexistence to highly peaceful interaction, and for peace-loving families coexistence is an improvement on rejection. But what all tolerant families have had in common, even the most peaceful, has been the wish that other-believers would change, that they would be other than they are. In this sense, tolerance too is a form of rejection.

A third choice for families confronted with religious difference, and again probably a minority choice both today as well as in the Reformation, has been for family members to fully accept the religious decisions of others. In these families, the other-believer's decision has been respected, not regretted, and any hope of change has been relinquished. Most of all, the goal has gone beyond coexistence to an equal and satisfying relationship. Such families have not agreed on every religious point, obviously, but they have found a way to make their relationship the highest expression of their faith.

Two examples from many found in my research, one from seventeenth-century Europe and one from modern America, give these abstractions some flesh and blood, not to mention show the continuing relevance of the challenges presented by Reformation-style conversion.

In 1654, Jacob Rolandus, son of a Dutch Reformed preacher, secretly converted to Catholicism, then ran away from his family forever. His parents and sister tried to persuade him to return, through long, emotional letters that lamented his most assured damnation. Jacob in turn wept that he would be separated from his family in the eternities because of their false religion. This uneasy state of mutual tolerance soon turned into total alienation, however, as Jacob's family gave up their efforts and never responded to his letters again, for the remaining 29 years of his life.

In 1973, the young Californian Michael Sunbloom (not his real name) broke his parents' Evangelical hearts by converting to Mormonism. His parents did not cut him off, but Michael's new religion severely strained their relationship and was not to be mentioned around them -- a classic Reformation scenario. Then came the modern twist to Michael's story, which still highlighted the old, old dilemma: how to reconcile convictions and relationships? After three years as a devout Mormon, Michael realized he was gay. He quit his new church, which delighted his parents -- until they found out why. This new revelation tested their relationship even more severely than Michael's Mormonism had. In the end, however, they found a way to accept their son, on religious grounds, concluding that their love for him was a stronger imperative than any other aspect of their faith.

Family disputes have always involved more than religion, though the disputes take on new forms over time. But the Reformation's disputes over religion still have much to teach families today, whatever the particular subject. Moreover, with more than 40 percent of American adults now reporting that they have changed religions at least once in their lifetime, and with an increasing number of religions to choose from, old-fashioned struggles over religion have hardly disappeared. Indeed the need to understand the meaning and consequences of our reactions to the religious choices of loved ones, or for that matter of strangers---not to mention the need to understand the limits of tolerance---is arguably greater than ever.

Craig Harline is a professor of European History at Brigham Young University, and author of the just-released Conversions: Two Family Stories from the Reformation and Modern America (Yale University Press, 2011)

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