Pray, read the Bible, maybe get married?

So, raise your hands if you are, from time to time, frustrated by news reports that are based on survey data? I know this is a regular subject for posts by the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway, but I would like to step in here and shout an "Amen" anyway. For starters, when I am covering a survey (something I have to do on a regular basis as a religion columnist), I am always left wondering about the wording of the questions that produced the numbers in the press kit. Whenever possible, I think it's crucial to tell let readers have that kind of information. Here is an example of what I am talking about, based on a headline-producing Pew Forum survey that raised questions about Universalism.

But what if your editor has not given you enough room to include that kind of information? What if there are questions and answers that needed to be provided to give context for the killer statistic that is supposed to be in the lede and you do not have room for the background material? What if the supposedly simple, cut-and-tried number that is at the heart of your story actually raises more questions than it answers (and you have been given, oh, 600 words to cover all of that)?

This is what ran through my mind as I read a Washington Post news story about the latest blast of data from a major think tank on issues linked to marriage. Let's start with at the top, which includes language that will inspire legions of preachers to step into their pulpits and a remind their listeners that -- chant this, if you will -- couples "that pray together, stay together."

African American couples are more likely than other groups to share core religious beliefs and pray together in the home -- factors that have been linked to greater happiness in marriages and relationships. ...

In what was described as the first major look at relationship quality and religion across racial and ethnic lines, researchers reported a significant link overall between relationship satisfaction and religious factors for whites, Hispanics and African Americans. The study appears in the August issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

True to the old aphorism, couples that pray together stay together, said study co-author W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, based at University of Virginia, and "African American couples are more likely to have a shared spiritual identity as a couple."

So far so good and, yes, there is absolutely nothing all that surprising about this information.

It's the very next paragraph that caused me to raise an eyebrow -- way up. I imagine many African-American pastors did the same, although maybe not. Read this carefully.

The study found that 40 percent of blacks in marriages and live-in relationships attended religious services regularly and had a partner who did the same, compared with 29 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 29 percent of Hispanics. ...

The strongest difference-maker for couples was spiritual activities such as praying or reading the Bible. "Praying together as a couple is something that is very intimate for people who are religious," said Wilcox. "It adds another level of closeness to a relationship."

Did you catch the odd note in that?

Now, anyone who has covered the African-American church for the past several decades knows that one of the biggest issues faced by these congregations -- along with declining attendance by men -- is a crisis in what is usually called "marriage formation," or words to that effect. This is one of the causes of the high numbers of single-mothers in African-American communities, especially in urban areas, from coast to coast.

Relationships have been forming, but then they have not been turning into marriages. The result is, at best, a kind of serial monogamy in which the women are expected to somehow evangelize the men who are in their beds.

But maybe that is not what has been happening after all. So prayer and Bible study improve the quality of life for those who are, to put this into pulpit language, "shacking up"? Gosh, that is a comfort for those who are worried about the future of the black family.

I don't know about you, but when I read that I was immediately curious about the wording of the questions that produced those numbers. While we are at it, I confess that I am dying to know more about the survey's statistics describing the size of this slice of the larger whole, this "pray together, maybe stay together, but, hey, we're not married so what the heck" slice of the African-American church. That sounds like a news story.

Can I get an"Amen"?

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