Prayer: The Impact on Blacks, Hispanics, and the Irish

August Comte must be rolling in his grave – he invented sociology to give the French an alternate way of conceiving the world other than the one the Church had presented to mankind. In research results released last month, Brad Wilcox, a leading sociologist from the University of Virginia and his colleagues illustrate not only the power of Sunday worship in helping couples have happy and satisfying marriages. They also found that those who pray together at home are helped even more. These findings are even more important for Blacks and Hispanics who tend to worship and pray more.

The findings:

  • The more individuals worship the more satisfying their marriages;
  • The more couples worship together the more satisfying their marriages;
  • The more religiously homogenous couples are (having the same denominational beliefs) the more satisfying their marriages;
  • The more couples share core beliefs (important in these days when denominational membership does not denote what one believes as much as it used to) the more satisfying their marriages;
  • The more couples pray at home or use scripture together the more satisfying their marriages.
  • These findings hold as much for men as for women.

Their research also confirmed what is well known about happy marriages: those who are employed, more educated, and earning more tend to have happier marriages. These conditions apply less, however, to Blacks and Hispanics. Were it not for their more intense practice of religion, they would show an even greater gap compared to whites in their levels of marital stability and satisfaction.

Not only are worship and prayer helpful but they are especially so for the poor and those discriminated against. It seems that God – and not only certain Catholic bishops – has a preferential option for the poor and, in this country, in particular for Black and Hispanic minorities. They are helped most because they turn more frequently to Him. It is a satisfying phenomenon to see the hand of God made a wee bit clearer in the dry numbers of sociology. Not bad for a bunch of bean-counters (as the erudite philosopher-psychologist Dan Robinson calls sociologists).

Couples who share the same denominational and core beliefs tend to have the same beliefs about marriage, sexuality, gender roles, household organization, child rearing, and a host of other issues. Thus they are less likely to clash as they negotiate the myriad choices that married life entails. Conflict is less frequent. Abuse is much, much less.

In a now famous TV appearance, the Rev. Jesse Jackson once said that his fear of being mugged by three husky teenagers coming out of a building on a dark street suddenly dropped when he saw they had Bibles under their arms. He knew they were not part of the street culture but the decent culture. Today, despite decades of the Great Society programs the street culture is stronger than ever. That solution did not work.

Last Sunday in the Washington Post, George Will lamented the breakup of the Black family (70 percent out-of-wedlock births) and virtually threw his hands up in the air in frustration as to what can be done. But the Black family is not the first one to be in such trouble. The Irish family was in similar bad shape back in the mid 1800s in New York. Then along came Dagger John (so named because of the cross before his signature), Archbishop John Joseph Hughes, an immigrant gardener from Donegal, Ireland, who rose to lead the Church in New York (after being talent-spotted in an Emmitsburg, Maryland garden by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton).

As William Stern recounted in a great article in City Journal:

When [Hughes] arrived in office Manhattan’s tens of thousands of Irish seemed a lost community, mired in poverty and ignorance, destroying themselves through drink, idleness, violence, criminality, and illegitimacy. What made the Irish such miscreants? Their neighbors weren’t sure: perhaps because they were an inferior race, many suggested; you could see it in the shape of their heads, writers and cartoonists often emphasized. In any event, they were surely incorrigible.

But within a generation, New York’s Irish flooded into the American mainstream. The sons of criminals were now the policemen; the daughters of illiterates had become the city’s schoolteachers; those who’d been the outcasts of society now ran its political machinery. No job training program or welfare system brought about so sweeping a change. What accomplished it, instead, was a moral transformation, a revolution in values.

Hughes wrought this change by promoting confessions, Mass, devotion to the Sacred Heart and Blessed Mother; by  preaching purity, abstinence, hard work, and thrift; and by building lots of new institutions. From being the criminal class the Irish became – within a generation – the judges, police, and jailers. Though an “estimated 50,000 Irish prostitutes, known in flash talk as ‘nymphs of the pave’, worked the city in 1850,” by the 1880s the Irish were being chided by the New York press for being “puritanical” and were known for their close-knit family life. It is amazing what God can do when He has a courageous willing instrument.

It is time to pray for an African-American Dagger John. Imagine the blessings to America that will come should that prayer be answered.  Wilcox and his colleagues will have a sociological field day, and Auguste Comte – well, the great founder of sociology will spin in his grave even faster.

Patrick Fagan, Ph.D. is a Washington policy analyst and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Social Services Policy at the Department of Health and Human Services.