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, N.M., 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.
When they learned she was pregnant, they committed to getting clean, said Stuart, who told his story on the condition that his full name not be used to avoid revealing the couple’s drug use to his daughter, now 2. The couple began meditating and decided to start saying grace again. But what to say, when they don’t believe in God?
Stuart found an answer when he went to work on a medical marijuana farm in California. There he met a Native American man who taught him to give thanks to the spirits for his food.
Now Stuart and his fiancee pray with their daughter to the spirits of the earth for fruits and vegetables, and to the spirits of “the four-legged ones” for beef. One recent day, with chicken on the table, Stuart thanked “ ‘the winged ones’ for providing one of those that we may feed our bodies.”
“Whether or not I really have a firm belief in something, I believe it’s always best to give gratitude for the things that are given to you in life,” Stuart said. “Adopting this mind-set and these practices has allowed me to get past a lot.”
Three hundred miles away in Portales, N.M., Carl Smith, 31, was raised in a mainline Protestant church but no longer has a congregation. “I’ve kind of stopped going to church,” he said. “I don’t like organized hypocrisy.”
But the practice of saying grace has stuck with him, he said, calling prayers before food “a habit thing.”
Smith, who answers emergency calls for 911, often prays for the desperate people on the other end of the line. “There’s some rough stuff here on the phone sometimes,” he said. So he engages with God, “like a conversation with a friend.”
“I say, ‘Hey, God, this is what’s going on. If you could get some help in this direction, or help me understand why this is going on, I’d greatly appreciate it.’ “
For those who don’t like to improvise grace, numerous denominations offer specific formulas. The Lutheran table prayer is popular: “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed.”
Reciting a prayer before meals is also traditional in other religions, including Islam, Hinduism and Bahai.
For Aaron Gold, an Orthodox Jew living on Long Island, the blessing before meals is just one of many prayers he says each day. “Before you eat something, you have to say a blessing,” he said, “whether it’s one glass of water or a whole big feast.”
His children, 3 and 5, have mastered the Hebrew prayer before meals, which means, “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brought forth bread from the Earth.” Now he’s teaching them to sing the longer prayer that comes after the meal.
The act of teaching his children makes “you concentrate more on it, and you think about it more,” Gold said. “You grow closer to your kids through it. It’s a bonding experience.”
Clergy and theologians say the association between food and prayer exists in nearly every religious culture. “It feels like a human luxury to pause before eating,” said Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and popular author.
Anne-Marie Dole, 56, has been saying the same Catholic grace since she was a child, every time she eats a meal. When she recites the prayer for a stranger, she chokes up at its power.
“Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts – I can’t do it,” she said, breaking down in tears. “I’m just saying thank you to God to have food at all. You know, it’s a horrible thing to go hungry.”
Once a professional horse breeder and trainer, Dole was left permanently disabled after a car crash. She needs more surgeries and a new wheelchair, and she just broke up with another boyfriend who hit her, she said. Going hungry is a familiar pain.
Sitting in her faulty wheelchair in Cortland, N.Y., she’s down to 99 pounds. But she has dinner waiting, one she picked up at church that morning.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to be grateful and thankful,” she said.
And so before she eats, Dole will say grace.