Many Americans are still finding time to pray amid the unrestrained social and economic changes caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Pew Research Center published a study in late March showing that most American adults (55%) had prayed for an end to the spread of COVID-19. Even 15% of those who rarely or never pray said they’d prayed about the virus. The Pew findings indicate the pandemic was already shaping Americans’ prayers even in the early stages of its acceleration even if more recent research on this issue isn’t available.
This aligns with what researchers have long found about spirituality in the U.S. ― Americans pray a lot. Daily prayer is more common in the U.S. than in many other wealthy countries with high per-capita GDPs.
It’s not just Americans who claim a religious identity who pray. A significant number (36%) of those who have shunned traditional religious denominations and describe their religion as “nothing in particular” say they have prayed about COVID-19. This kind of spiritual activity is not out of character for members of this group ― and it doesn’t just happen in times of crisis.
While most Americans who say their religion is “nothing in particular” say they seldom or never pray, about a quarter claim to pray once a day or more, according to Pew’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study.
So while prayer is something religious Americans do often, in community and in private, there’s also something about this practice that appears to transcend traditional religion.
Prayer has practical benefits, according to Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital who studies the effects of prayer on the brain.
“When people do these practices, it helps them to regulate their emotional responses. It helps them to reduce their levels of stress and anxiety and depression, which can all be very valuable and very helpful for people,” Newberg said. “And it also helps to improve the way people think cognitively.”
The expression “thoughts and prayers” has developed a bad reputation in recent years, as it has come to be associated with politicians who offer it up after national tragedies as a poor substitute for concrete action. But there’s also a long history of Americans “praying with their feet” ― that is, pairing prayer with activism and community organizing.
During the pandemic, some progressive religious leaders are approaching prayer as a starting point, a practice that bolsters their call for systemic changes to address the social inequalities highlighted by the virus.
The Rev. Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, has spent years protesting laws and policies that harm low-income communities and communities of color. He is calling on people to oppose politicians’ efforts to reopen the economy without safeguards in place for the most vulnerable.
In an op-ed for The Nation in March, Barber and fellow activist Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove encouraged Americans to pair prayer with repentance.
“We do not need prayer for protection. We need repentance and prayer for political courage and will to do justice,” they wrote. “Then we need action because, as the Bible says, ‘Faith without works is dead.’”