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Your Take: Comments and responses on National Day of Prayer
Stephen Prothero argues that the National Day of Prayer isn't just for Christians.
May 4th, 2012
01:03 PM ET

Your Take: Comments and responses on National Day of Prayer

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

My public letter to God on how we should pray on America’s National Day of Prayer drew over 4000 comments on Thursday. Many were the online equivalent of the courtship displays the wild turkeys are doing in my yard this week — gobbling on behalf of Christianity or atheism. But some were less driven by impulse and instinct.

Many commenters accused me of irreverence. “Bill” called my letter “a cheap literary trick” full of “sarcasm and disrespect.” “I wonder if you would address Him so flippantly if he were standing in front of you?” “Ron from Jersey” said I showed “no respect or understanding of the personal and loving god of Judeo-Christian belief.”

It seems to me, however, that those who are showing disrespect for God are those who claim to divine precisely what God believes about politics or prayer.

I cut my teeth as a graduate student studying New England’s Puritans, and when they approached God (in prayer or otherwise) they did so with a healthy measure of fear. Yes, they believed God loved them. But they also believed there was a huge gap — an "infinite qualitative distinction" in the words of theologian Karl Barth — between sinful humans and the omniscient God. So out of respect for God's sovereignty they would never presume to know exactly what God was thinking about anything.

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“JC in Western U.S.” channeled the spirit of these Puritans (and of Barth) when he wrote, “If there is a God, and if He is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, it would be the height of arrogance for any mere human to claim to know His will.”

Channeling a very different spirit, many commenters claimed that my question had an easy answer. “Me” wrote: “Dear Stephen, Asked and Answered. Look up Matthew 6:5-13.”

For those who do not have a Bible close at hand, “Me” was pointing to the Lord’s Prayer. And many other comments said that the "Our Father" is the prayer we Americans should pray on our National Day of Prayer.

But this very passage from the Sermon on the Mount begins with these words from Jesus:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father.”

Picking up on this theme, “Maine Liberal” wrote, “Christ taught us to pray in private,” so we should keep our prayer out of schools and legislatures and off of the streets.

One of the most common comments was that Jesus is God so we should pray to Him. Or, as a different “Matthew” put it: “USA is a Christian country and we should pray to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Period."

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But this response begs the question, side-stepping the challenge my piece was written to present. I know how Christians pray. My question was: How should we, as citizens, pray in a country in which some are Christian and many are not?

Assume for a minute that conservative Christians are right. Assume there is one God and that this God is best described in Trinitarian terms as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Even if true, this theological reality does not change the demographic fact that millions upon millions of Americans are Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and non-believers. It does not tell us how U.S. citizens should pray on our National Day of Prayer.

From its creation, the United States has wrestled with this problem of how to engage in God talk without dividing the nation. And it seems to me that the great generations that preceded us came up with a fairly good solution to this difficult problem.

In other words, while many comments accused me of being a liberal, on this question I am a conservative. I want to conserve what I see as a grand compromise in U.S. history — a wise tradition in which God is invoked yet not explicitly described. Simultaneously, I want to resist two relatively recent innovations: efforts to banish God from the public square, and efforts to turn public talk of God into public talk of Christ.

I understand the frustrations of the atheists who flood the comment boards of CNN’s Belief Blog every day. I sympathize with “Voice of Reason” who called for a “National Do Not Pray Day” and with “William Demuth” who said we should “forget prayer” and do good instead: “Pick up some trash . . . Feed someone who is hungry.”

But a public square stripped of all references to religion has never been the American way. Traditionally, our response to the religious (and non-religious) diversity in our midst has been to allow for God talk in American politics, but to keep that talk generic and to keep it to a minimum.

This grand compromise strikes me as wise. The atheist furor in the United States today is not responding for the most part to this tradition. It is responding to a quite recent anti-traditional innovation—an effort to make our God talk explicitly Christian (or Judeo-Christian) and to place that particular form of faith front and center in American public life.

This innovation strikes me as disrespectful to those in our midst who do not believe in God or who call God by some other name than Jesus Christ. It also strikes me as unwise and impolitic.

Striking a theme of many commenters yesterday, "ambersue" wrote, "Today is National Day of Prayer and it is for those who believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior. This day is for Him, and Him alone." To which "NC" responded: "yep, I guess the rest of us don't exist anymore."

See the problem? If you do, you understand what I was trying to say yesterday in my open letter to God.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Christianity • Church and state • Culture wars • Opinion • Politics • Prayer • United States

soundoff (266 Responses)
  1. Name*Grandma Pat

    WELL ALRIGHT TO THE NRA/ HOMELAND SECURITY!!! Love the plan!! I don't like guns and children being used in the same breath, however, in today's world there really is NO other choice. I would rather have 2 armed people at the doors of ALL schools than NO ONE at all! My grandchildren ARE WORTH IT! The NRA has a terrific plan to protect our children. So all of you against this plan need to ask yourselves " is YOUR CHILD'S LIVE VALUABLE ENOUGH TO PROTECT? If this plan was in place earlier those precious lives lost on Friday would still be here with their families, disagree and maybe YOU should be the next victim!!!! I TRULEY hate guns, but if I ( grandma) can change with the times so can you!!!

    December 21, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  2. Ntombi

    What a great message David! Jesus the Son of God, our all. Thought your conemmts on Sin being abnormal as we see life through God's story was amazing. I have to say I've never really see it in this way.Thank you mate.

    July 31, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
  3. Peteyroo

    If souls are eternal and the only choice available is either heaven or hell at the end of this brief respite called life, where were these immortal souls of ours before conception/birth?

    May 23, 2012 at 5:14 am |
  4. Lue forte

    Sir, u are doing no more than what The three friends of Job done. Offering no real answers to the truth of God. Nobody can come to God except thru Jesus Christ. When u truly love God, a person will forfeit and forsake all to follow his Lord, Jesus Christ.

    May 14, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      Jesus is in the backyard playing with the unicorns.

      May 23, 2012 at 5:08 am |
  5. Mark

    This is a fine picture for this article. All the pious family WITH THEIR EYES CLOSED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    This is a picture of CHILD ABUSE.!!!!!!!!! Dragging kids to church for this kind of mindless activity goes against "education" and is more like brainwashing. Forcing a child into a RELIGION IS CHILD ABUSE. I'm so happy that FFRF won their court case against National Day of Prayer. Maybe atheists can now address these CHILD ABUSE issues in the courts.

    May 14, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • Papasan

      I was going to leave a similiar reply. The mental abuse of children must stop.

      May 19, 2012 at 8:36 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.