Talk about grace under pressure. As families and loved ones gather around the table on Thursday for one of the most beloved rituals of the national religion -- that would be Thanksgiving, the Norman Rockwell version -- all eyes will be on the person designated to lead the diners in giving thanks, with God being the traditional object of the praise.
If you are a Republican, chances are good that you will take up the task with a glad heart and a practiced tongue. If you are a Democrat, you may want to pray -- for perhaps the first time in your life -- that there's a Republican at the table.
That's because there are few other behaviors that so neatly cleave the body politic in half than the habit of saying grace before meals -- and there are few other behaviors that so clearly telegraph your partisan preference.
According to David Campbell and Robert Putnam, authors of "American Grace: How Religion Divides And Unites Us,"
a sweeping new survey of faith in the United States, 44 percent of Americans report saying grace or a similar blessing almost every day before eating while 46 percent almost never say it. There is hardly any middle ground on this issue, and, they write, "few things about a person correspond as tightly to partisanship as saying grace."
"The more often you say grace, the more likely you are to find a home in the Republican Party, and the less likely you are to identify with the Democrats," Campbell and Putnam write.
So why is that the case?
The short answer, not surprisingly, is abortion and homosexuality, the hot-button issues that drive so much political coverage and religious behavior, and the issues that have driven Americans into two separate camps on personal devotions like saying grace before meals.
As Campbell explained in an interview as he prepared for Thanksgiving with his family (where he or someone will be saying grace) people with a conservative view of abortion and homosexuality tend to be more traditionally religious, and their beliefs often guide their choices at the polls.
As a result, there is nothing else today that unites religious voters -- and identifies them as Republicans -- more than their opposition to abortion and homosexuality, whereas a few decades ago religious behaviors between Democrats and Republicans were more or less identical. In the research conducted by Campbell and Putnam, issues like the death penalty, immigration, foreign policy and protecting civil liberties were not even close to indicating how someone would vote the way abortion and homosexuality are.
Campbell cautions that saying grace does not necessarily correlate to churchgoing, as many people who attend church do not regularly give thanks before meals.
The authors speculate that this is because churchgoing has a "social desirability" factor -- that folks like to be seen going to services -- that does not necessarily carry over into their private devotions. Saying grace, however, is a strong a marker of your personal religiosity, and of your political affiliation. It's about a "Grace Gap" more than a "God Gap."
Campbell also warns that he and Putnam are not claiming a "causal relationship" between saying grace and voting Republican. "It's not saying grace that makes you a Republican," he said.
And there are exceptions to the rule, notably African-Americans, 85 percent of whom say grace daily -- about the same rate that votes Democratic. Their percentage of saying grace is far higher than even that of Mormons and evangelicals; the latter clock in at 58 percent
Lawrence A. Mamiya, a professor of religion and Africana studies at Vassar College and co-author of "The Black Church in the African American Experience," told Religion News Service that offering thanks before meals is consistent with a community bound by a history of faith and hope.
"The whole point is to acknowledge something greater than themselves," Mamiya told RNS. "Even during slavery it was the belief in God that saved blacks from being utterly dehumanized."
Bottom line: don't try to enlist your unrepentant Democratic uncle into saying grace over the Thanksgiving turkey -- it's not likely to convert him to deeper religious practice or more conservative voting habits.
Besides, odds are he's out of practice and could well make a hash of things even before carving the bird.