My Take: Dear God: How to pray on National Day of Prayer?
President Barack Obama praying at a White House Easter event in April.
May 3rd, 2012
09:51 AM ET

My Take: Dear God: How to pray 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

Dear Deity,

In the Milky Way, on planet Earth, in the United States of America, Thursday is our National Day of Prayer, so I am writing to ask You how to pray.

Seventy eight percent or so of U.S. citizens are Christians, so should we pray today to the Christian God? This seems to be the conviction of the folks at the National Day of Prayer Task Force, which pops up first if you Google “National Day of Prayer.” (By the way, do You Google, God? And if so do you ever Google "God"?)

The NDP Task Force refers to itself as “Judeo-Christian,” but it sure looks evangelical to me. It has been chaired since 1991 by Shirley Dobson, the wife of Focus on the Family founder (and evangelical stalwart) James Dobson. Its site quotes liberally from the New Testament, and one of its goals is to “foster unity within the Christian Church.”

A NDP Task Force press release begins: “Americans to Unite and Pray on Thursday, May 3rd, for the 61st Annual Observance of the National Day of Prayer." But will their sort of prayer really unite our nation?

Twenty four percent of Americans are Catholics, and God knows they don’t pray the way evangelicals do. Nearly 2% are Mormons and another 2% are Jews. And neither of those groups talks to You with the easy familiarity of born-again Christians.

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And what about American Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists?  Muslims agree with their Jewish and Christian neighbors that there is one God. But how to pray as a nation when some believers affirm more than one God and some affirm fewer?

As You obviously know, the 1.6% of Americans who call themselves atheists and the 2.4% who call themselves agnostics refer to today as the National Day of Reason. On their web site, they argue that our National Day of Prayer represents an unwanted and unconstitutional intrusion of religion into the workings of the U.S. government.

In his various proclamations of the National Day of Prayer, including this year's, President Obama has referred to prayer as an important part of U.S. history. He speaks of the Continental Congress and Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. being driven to their knees by the force of the tasks set before them.

But when our national icons have prayed on our behalf, they have done so in generic terms. Washington addressed “the Almighty”; Jefferson called on “that Infinite Power.” They did so because they wanted prayer to unite us, not to divide us, and they knew from the start that different Americans call You by different names.

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But addressing “Providence” in vague pieties will not satisfy everyone either. The evangelicals at the NPD Task Force reject efforts to “homogenize” America’s many different ways of praying into one common prayer.

I see their point. Like language, religion is a specific sort of thing. If you are going to speak, you need to choose a language. If you are going to pray, you need to choose a religion (and a god). So if they want to pray to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, more power to them.

But what happens when that particular prayer language is put forth as our collective national language? What happens when we pray, as Rick Warren did at President Obama’s inaugural, “in the name of the one who changed my life, Yeshua, Isa, Jesus”? Then prayer turns into a wedge, dividing those who call you Christ from those who call You Krishna (or do not call on You at all).

So I return to my original question: How should we pray on this National Day of Prayer?

But while I have Your attention (do I?) I have one more.

This year the NDP Task Force has chosen for its theme “One Nation Under God” and its Bible quote is: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalms 33:12). Is our god You? Since 1954 we have bragged in our Pledge of Allegiance that we are "one nation under God." Are we?

All too often, it seems to me, we use You rather than following You. Democrats ask You to shill for them on tax policy and immigration. Republicans claim to speak in Your name on abortion and gay marriage. Does this annoy You — playing the pawn in our political chess games? Don't You sometimes just want to smite us?

Finally, before I let you go, I must ask You about the marginal tax rate for the wealthiest Americans. Perhaps You have more important things on your plate, but while I have Your attention (do I?) I must ask: What portion of their income should millionaires pay to the U.S. government? When President Kennedy came into office the highest income tax rate was 91%. Was that too high? Today it is 35%. Is that too low? (Just curious.)

This prayer is already too long, so I should stop. But if You are still there (are You?) maybe you could just tell me whether You follow the Roman Catholic Church. If so, could you comment on the recent fight the Vatican has been picking with American nuns? Do you think our nuns should be spending more time fighting contraception and less time caring for the poor and the sick?

And do get back to me on that how to pray thing. We’re all supposed to do it on Thursday, together.



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

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Barack Obama • Catholic Church • Christianity • Politics • Prayer • Uncategorized • United States

soundoff (4,673 Responses)
  1. Bob

    Jesus is God. He is coming again for his own. Every knee shall bow. The sheep will be separated from the goats. Hell, a place created for the devil and his angels is real. Your opinion about these facts does not alter them one iota. When I die I will be instantly in heaven. What is there to fear?

    What did you think life is about?

    May 10, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  2. MP in VA

    NDP is to Christians what 4/20 is to stoners.

    May 9, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
  3. paul throton

    what the hell is wrong with america? when did a national day of prayer ever help? get with it god is dead

    May 9, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • paul throton

      what the hell are you people doing? what you put on your site is not what i said. are you just being an ass?

      May 9, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  4. SRV

    I pray to my God, you pray to yours. End of logical discussion.

    May 9, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • Thomas

      Discussion? Yes. Logical? No.

      May 9, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  5. kindness

    A thought to consider without ego
    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Trancend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ will result in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Currently.... your constructing your own path that suits your sin lifestyle.

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find a truth you can take with you in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life. You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf, the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed, your good deeds are forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated, your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over .
    Trancend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Relise your a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent....

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth.

    Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment. You don't get what you want you get what you are in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Down is up. Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.

    Your all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.

    May 8, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • old golfer

      Quite a sermon. You have no assurance that your book is any more correct than the other religious books. Quit preaching. All find their own path regardless. Quit judging, you probably have things to work on in your own life. Peace.

      May 8, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • Have Brain, Will Travel

      Maybe you can pray to Jesus to help you with your awful spelling. Or you could put your faith in science and believe in 'spell check!'

      May 8, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      1) Check your grammar. There is a big difference between "your" and "you're". I know they sound the same, but they have different meanings. 2) Read the Koran. 3) Study the teachings of Buddha. 4) Apply half of your passion to a science or math book. Anything that actually makes you smarter. How do you propose we "transcend the temporal world"? Those words may sound nice together, but put together in that pattern they are meaningless. Sorry. And finally, you have seen a new color? You have some secret knowledge, but you can't share it with anyone else? That's called being crazy.

      May 8, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • Regis990

      I'll believe in your fairy tales when you believe in proper spelling and grammar.

      May 8, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • chaz8181

      This is why we have and need to keep "separation of church and state"

      May 8, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
    • A non-religious Guy

      It might interest you to know that the Catholic church (I'm not sure if you are a member) is probably the world's largest Ponzi scheme. The pope sits at the top, in the Vatican, getting his cut from all those small donations people give in church every Sunday. No world economy operates quite as efficiently or effectively as the Catholic church. They've had centuries to perfect their methods too. In addition, if you look at the history of the Catholic church, it is replete with stories of lust, greed, envy, and wrath.

      May 9, 2012 at 5:20 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      Quoting the ramblings of bronze age tribal culture is sooooooo, ummmm, NOT effective.

      May 9, 2012 at 6:54 am |
    • spacegravity4me

      I believe.

      May 9, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      This is the religion equivalent of technobabble, ie mixing a lot of impressive sounding words in a disjointed and meaningless way for the purpose of sounding impressive and selling snake oil.

      May 9, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • BADGUY

      OMG....are you SURE?

      May 10, 2012 at 12:26 am |
  6. nadine


    May 8, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • LinCA


      You said, "Sorry HIGHER POWER"
      So you're sorry for fucking up the spelling, but have no problem hurtling insults? Let me guess, you call yourself a christian, correct?

      May 8, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  7. nadine

    damn atheists r such idiots,how can you not believe in a HIGER POWER???

    May 8, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • Anonymous Atheist

      If by "idiots" you mean the correct definition (derived from Idiota "Commoner") "commoners", then no.
      If by "Idiots" you mean "unintelligent/non-sensical beings", then still no.

      May 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Patty

      Nadine..derrr how can you with no proof? And which higher power are you talking about by the way? Zeus? Isis? FSM?

      May 8, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      Because of the lack of quantatative evidence to support that fairy tale. ... Basically the same reason I stopped believing in Santa Claus. ... Why do you still believe in magic? ... By the way, the word "forever" is only used by children. So after you die, your "soul" is going to go to heaven or hell for HOW long?

      May 8, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • Regis990

      Ah, there it is...that wonderful compassion that all Christians are supposed to show to the non-believers. You know, turn the other cheek...love they enemies...all that noise. Well done, nadine, you represent your cult well.

      May 8, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
    • Olga Levin

      @nadine Atheists do not say that they "don't believe in God". The real meaning of being an Atheist (by the definition that we know today) is that they DON'T KNOW if there is a God or not. This is also why evolution is only a THEORY and not their doctrine. These are the real Atheist people that I'm talking about who actually, seriously, study to find their quest of God's existence by studying science. Not the types that only use the name and claim to know something but can't back it up with research. Atheists are like this because they are analytical thinkers and not so much intuitive where as we Christians and people of other religions are more intuitive but less analytical in our thinking. I mean that a lot of Christians (primarily Christians) feel that they don't need to study something and the fundamental types will probably refuse to go to a public school because of this too, because they strongly believe in miracles, and in God that provides all answer's. Atheists have to have their "why's" answered through studied research.

      May 9, 2012 at 5:00 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      @Olga Levin,

      Good post. One thing needs correction.
      You stated that evolution is "only a theory and not their [atheists] doctrine."

      About the doctrine part, absolutely correct.
      About the "only a theory" part, this is misleading. You are using theory in the vernacular. Theory in the vernacular means nothing more than a hunch. Therefore you are saying that evolution is only someone's hunch. That is completely wrong. It is much more than a hunch.
      In scientific terms a theory is much much more. It is a hypothesis that has been tested and supported by the results of many different scientific lines of research. It is the convergence of the results from many different lines of research.

      The phrase "it's only a theory" is used by the fündies to disparage and berate evolution buy using the vernacular usage of theory.

      Evolution is NOT just a theory (vernacular), it is much much more.

      So, please do not propagate that usage. Doing so makes he fündies smug.

      May 9, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      Name calling and insults are such an effective method of converting people, Betcha.


      May 9, 2012 at 7:22 am |
    • Olga Levin

      @ElmerGantry, Thank you for pointing out my mistake, you are very right that I should have used my words wisely. I wanted to convey the message the evolution theory is an on-going argument with in the science community because we all know that every single day there is something new that comes up to alter that theory. Religion is sort of like this as well but I think that the author of the article described it well that religion is like learning a new language and a religious person is putting out the message of whose language is more right. Whereas in science it's a bit different. The evolution theory is a quest to find the answer to the ages old question of God's existence. Is it an important theory? Yes it is, because like you stated this theory is supported by various hypothesis streaming out from scientific research. But while evolution is a quest to find the existence of God, religion basically teaches that God exists without any proof. I did not mean to upset when I said, "it's only a theory" I just tried to say that the theory is an open, on going, unbiased argument that is completely different from religious doctrines out there.

      May 9, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • ElmerGantry

      @ Olga Levin,

      Thanks for the reply. I wasn't trying to imply you were consciously using the vernacular form of the word theory. I hope you didn't take it that way. It's easy to do. If I came off too strong it's because I have seen the fündies pull tricks like that in their zeal to sell their mind virus in the form of snake oil.

      Your post and reply was good and well thought out.

      Signing off for the night.

      May you have a good night!

      May 10, 2012 at 12:15 am |
  8. Worship Poseidon

    Jesus was so gay. He made Liberace look like He-Man.

    May 7, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  9. carrs_nhs

    Re: "fight the Vatican has been picking with American nuns?". As a religion scholar and author, the question you wrote appears to be biased against the Vatican, but here is an answer from a Roman Catholic. The pope is the head of the Church, and if he thinks Catholic nuns, in America or anywhere else, are advocating positions that are against the teachings of the Church, he has the authority and the responsibility to investigate and as needed to terminate anti-Catholic activities in the Catholic Church.

    May 7, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  10. retkirnov

    What is Religion? I suppose it is up to the individual; however:

    In the end You Decide.

    May 7, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • T.J.Fod

      Your message , as diabolical as it is, is precisely that of the administration...there is none. However the individual freedom to choose and to create individually eminates from only one culture – and it is firmly rooted in Judeo-Christianity. Look it up while you still can.

      May 8, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  11. sortakinda

    " I am delusional. Religion is delusional, prayer is delusional. You do not believe in religion because you honestly think it is true, you believe in it because you are afraid of death. It does not take a genius to figure out all religion is man made, so for humanity's sake, please stop lying to yourself.Deluding yourself in religion does not change reality. Lying to yourself is probably the worst possible way to try to find meaning in your life. My name is n8263, and yes, I am delusional. I think I am the anti-god."

    May 7, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  12. Reality


    Joe Smith had his Moroni. (As does M. Romney)

    "Latter-day Saints also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah." (As does M. Romney)

    Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being created by God;

    Mohammed had his Gabriel (this "tin-kerbell" got around).

    Jesus and his family (As does B. Obama and his family) had Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day dem-on of the de-mented.

    The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other "no-namers" to do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

    Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these "pretty wingie thingies" to the myth pile. We should do the same to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals. Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

    Some added references to "tink-erbells".


    "The belief in guardian angels can be traced throughout all antiquity; pagans, like Menander and Plutarch (cf. Euseb., "Praep. Evang.", xii), and Neo-Platonists, like Plotinus, held it. It was also the belief of the Babylonians and As-syrians, as their monuments testify, for a figure of a guardian angel now in the British Museum once decorated an As-syrian palace, and might well serve for a modern representation; while Nabopolassar, father of Nebuchadnezzar the Great, says: "He (Marduk) sent a tutelary deity (cherub) of grace to go at my side; in everything that I did, he made my work to succeed."
    Catholic monks and Dark Age theologians also did their share of hallu-cinating:

    "TUBUAS-A member of the group of angels who were removed from the ranks of officially recognized celestial hierarchy in 745 by a council in Rome under Pope Zachary. He was joined by Uriel, Adimus, Sabaoth, Simiel, and Raguel."

    And tin-ker- bells go way, way back:

    "In Zoroastrianism there are different angel like creatures. For example each person has a guardian angel called Fravashi. They patronize human being and other creatures and also manifest god’s energy. Also, the Amesha Spentas have often been regarded as angels, but they don't convey messages, but are rather emanations of Ahura Mazda ("Wise Lord", God); they appear in an abstract fashion in the religious thought of Zarathustra and then later (during the Achaemenid period of Zoroastrianism) became personalized, associated with an aspect of the divine creation (fire, plants, water...)."

    "The beginnings of the biblical belief in angels must be sought in very early folklore. The gods of the Hitti-tes and Canaanites had their supernatural messengers, and parallels to the Old Testament stories of angels are found in Near Eastern literature. "

    "The 'Magic Papyri' contain many spells to secure just such help and protection of angels. From magic traditions arose the concept of the guardian angel. "

    For added information see the review at:


    May 7, 2012 at 12:23 am |
  13. Martin

    Hey bubba, nobody is listening. Prayer is a deluded egotistical human doing nothing thinking they're helping.

    May 6, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
  14. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    prayer changes things-

    May 6, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • Jesus

      ~Prayer doesn’t not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!.~!

      May 7, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Mister Jones

      You are absolutely right, it DOES change things!!!! It makes the clock move forward without anything else happening. ... But that's really about it. ... If your god can hear all languages, then why do you even have to vocalize your prayers? Doesn't he already know what is in your heart and your head?

      May 8, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
    • Big Art

      As it is written: "Argue with a fool, you make two!"

      "Peace 2 U!"

      May 9, 2012 at 1:38 am |
    • Keegan

      Prayer does nothing outside of the mind of the person praying. For all of those that seek logic over faith and evidence over ignorance, see the address below for the study on prayer following coronary bypass surgery.


      May 9, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
  15. n8263

    Religion is delusional, prayer is delusional.

    You do not believe in religion because you honestly think it is true, you believe in it because you are afraid of death. It does not take a genius to figure out all religion is man made, so for humanity's sake, please stop lying to yourself.

    Deluding yourself in religion does not change reality. Lying to yourself is probably the worst possible way to try to find meaning in your life.

    May 6, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • sortakinda

      Whoa! I count ten times n8263 said the same thing! Am I right? Do I win the prize for guessing the number of times this blurb is repeated?

      May 7, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  16. gary

    stupid delusional people "praying" ... psst .. god is just pretend, just myth. Prayer is waste of time. Wanna fix things? Do something. Prayer is mental masturbation.

    May 6, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  17. Blake

    Atheists will never know if they are right...... until they die.

    May 6, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Fred Dekker

      And fundamentalist, evangelical Christians will always think they are right, no matter what anyone else says, proves, argues, reasons, demonstrates, pleads, begs, or publishes, and will only truly find out if they ARE right...when they die.

      May 6, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      We actually already know that we are right. ... It is you that we are concerned about. The "you'll find out when you die" argument has got to be the BEST cop-out argument ever conceived. But, if you truly believed it, then you would celebrate if someone walked into a Sunday School and executed children, because they were on their way to paradise. But you know this isn't the case, and that is why that would be called a horrible tragedy. Stop investing in a make believe world at the expense of the actual world that you live in.

      May 8, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • Timmuh

      No, atheists are not claiming to be right, but are instead withholding belief until you, or someone from another faith, offer some evidence for your assertion that a particular god does exist. So far nothing has been offered.

      May 10, 2012 at 2:54 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.