We often think of prayer as a practice that is private, insular, and personal. But new research demonstrates that prayer can also help to break down cultural barriers and create political synergy. In a recent article in the American Sociological Review, Ruth Braunstein, Richard Wood, and Brad Fulton show how racially and socioeconomically diverse interfaith groups—groups that focus on developing members’ abilities to identify community problems and hold leaders accountable through public actions—use prayer to build the kinds of collective identities that transcend differences.

When social justice organizations mobilize in political debates, they need to build bridges  across diverse constituencies and interests. The authors show that people from diverse racial, cultural, and religious backgrounds can channel group differences into energy for social justice through their common commitment to prayer. The authors recount, for instance, how “an Italian American priest called everyone to prayer: ‘if you are Jewish, stand for Adonai. If you are Muslim, stand for Allah. If you are Christian, like me, stand for Jesus.” In another setting, a Muslim leader said a prayer in which he alternated references to Allah and to God, in order to make the prayer accessible to all in attendance while also remaining true to his own faith. Such practices, the authors argue, become “opportunities for everyone to enact their shared commitment to being open-minded people,” cementing a collective sense of purpose.

The authors also find that the more diverse an interfaith group is, the more important prayer becomes for developing collective identities. Interfaith organizations that talk about race frequently, for instance, are twice as likely to use prayer as a bridging practice than groups for which race is not an issue. The effect is even stronger when for class and economics. Groups who talk a lot about economic inequality are three times more likely to build bridges with prayer than organizations that don’t focus on class. The more difficult and controversial the issues a group wants to address, the more important collective identities become, and the more useful prayer is in creating them.

The experiences of faith-based community organizations across the country suggests that diversity can be a benefit, but only if the cultural challenges of difference can be collectively embraced and directed. This study shows how prayer, when used to emphasize the social justice values that different faiths share, can create synergy between people of very different race, class, and faith backgrounds. One wonders what other cultural practices—religious or otherwise—might have similar effects.