Politicians come and go, fashions evolve and the culture shifts with alarming frequency. One thing remains constant, though.
Americans pray. A lot.
Ninety percent have a spiritual interlude with God every day, according to a study released Thursday by Brandeis University. Half pray several times a day, in fact.
"Most prayer writers imagine a God who is accessible, listening, and a source of emotional and psychological support, who at least sometimes answers back," said Wendy Cadge, a sociologist who directed the research.
The experience is intensely personal, with eight out of 10 beginning their prayers with a familiar greeting, like "Dear Lord" or "Hello Jesus."
Three quarters pray for themselves , families and friends - with about a quarter praying for themselves alone. We pray for the big stuff, like health and employment. And we pray for the small stuff, too, like a good parking spot, or finding lost car keys. We ask God to guard loved ones who are airborne, or watch over children left alone for a spell.
Ms. Cadge and her colleagues based their findings on a very direct source - 683 prayers gleaned from four journals handwritten by hundreds of hopeful, grateful or worried patients and visitors at Baltimore. The volumes had been placed near the main lobby over the years and are part of a collection of 40 books; hospital chaplains routinely have set out a blank book every two months since the 1990s.
The pages are filled with the often straightforward thanksgivings and petitions of the passing public:
"Dear Jesus, thanks for staying by my side. I love you," one person wrote.
"Dear Lord: I leave it in your hands," noted another.
A third simply declared, "Love U."
Most of the prayers were improvised and followed similar patterns, the researchers found. Twenty-eight percent were requests of God, 28 percent were prayers to both thank God and ask for help, while another 22 percent were thank yous.
"Prayer writers also tend to frame their prayers broadly," Ms. Cadge said, adding that the prayers helped people reflect on and "reframe" difficult events in the context of their own beliefs.
Two-thirds of hospitals associated with academic institutions offer similar "prayer books" for their visitors, she said, though most hospital administrators caution the public to use only first names or initials to protect patient privacy.
"If researchers studying religion and health take seriously even the possibility that prayer may influence health, they need to learn more about what people pray for, how they pray, and what they hope will result from their prayers," Ms. Cadge said.
Indeed, other research has revealed a link between better health and the spiritual life.
A 2006 University of Pittsburgh Medical Center study that analyzed actuarial death rates found that weekly worship service attendance could add up to three years to a person´s life.
Prayer is the most commonly used "alternative medicine," according to a survey of more than 31,000 adults released by the National Institutes of Health in 2004 - more popular than acupuncture, chiropractic, yoga and vitamins.
According to the agency, prayer is considered a "mind-body therapy."