Americans united when it comes to saying grace

First Published      Last Updated Jun 18 2017 06:51 am

Omro, Wis. • One by one, the Weiss family rounded up the nine grandchildren, who had been running circles around the barns. They gathered under a towering maple tree, around a table laden with barbecue meatballs and French silk pie, and grabbed one another's hands.

"We ask your blessing on the meal we're about to eat," said David Weiss, 75, head bowed under his camouflage hat.

"Amen," his family responded — a quintessential display of one of America's most enduring religious traditions.

A poll by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that saying grace is a widespread practice in the United States. About half of all Americans take a minute to say a prayer over their food at least a few times a week, the poll reveals, making grace an unusual commonality in a politically divided nation.

Rural and urban Americans are equally likely to say grace, the poll shows. Northerners and Southerners, Catholics and Protestants, Democrats and Republicans, all say grace to varying degrees. Even some Americans who reject organized religion still say grace.

"It's a powerful way of reminding yourself that you are not self-sufficient, that you are living by somebody's grace, that plenty of other people who work just as hard as you don't have anything to eat," said Tim Keller, a prominent New York City pastor who wrote a book on prayer.

Keller said the physical act of bowing heads, closing eyes and folding hands is an important exercise in gratitude for people of many faiths, from childhood on up.

That's true for the Weiss family, evangelical Protestants who gathered on their 77-acre farm in Wisconsin. Silvie Weiss, 11, called grace "a peaceful moment to get away from the world." Her aunt Becky Sell, 36, said that "it offers me a chance to fix a point in my day where I am intentional about honoring and acknowledging what God has done for us."

In the Post-Kaiser poll, which was conducted April 13 to May 1 among a random sample of 1,686 American adults, 48 percent say they give blessings to God or say grace before meals at least a few times each week. Slim 51 percent majorities say grace in both rural and urban America; in the suburbs, 45 percent say grace regularly.

There's a larger partisan split: 62 percent of Republicans say grace at least a few times a week, compared with 43 percent of Democrats and 41 percent of independents.

There's a religious split, as well: Six in 10 Protestants say grace a few times a week or more, as do 52 percent of Catholics. But the practice is more prevalent among black Protestants (80 percent) and white evangelical Protestants (74 percent) than among white mainline or nonevangelical Protestants, 31 percent of whom report saying grace frequently before meals.

Overall, about 8 in 10 blacks, about 6 in 10 Hispanics and about 4 in 10 whites say grace at least a few times each week.

The tradition of mealtime grace is firmly established in the black church. For Lynn Thompson, 64, grace connects her to God even when she's not well enough to make it to her Arkansas Baptist church. She and her husband take turns leading the prayer.

"I say, 'Lord, I thank You for one more day, for waking me up this morning, for giving me the health that I have, whatever it may be,' " Thompson said.

Even 11 percent of people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or adherents of no particular religion say grace at least a few times a week.

Take Greg Epstein, a humanist chaplain at Harvard University, who asks someone to say a blessing when he hosts nonreligious students for dinner. Some bristle, he said, but Epstein believes in the act of gratitude.

"Why do we have to give up the good parts of being religious — including the mindfulness, the reflection that comes from a ritual like grace — just because we don't believe in the traditional wording of the poem that people recite when they sit down to a meal?" Epstein said. "Can we come up with new words that reflect our contemporary needs and values?"

Stuart H., 32, of Las Cruces, New Mexico, is a nonbeliever who incorporates prayer into his life. He grew up Catholic but later came to consider himself an atheist. His fiancee followed a similar religious trajectory, and as young adults they both became addicted to heroin.

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