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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.

Sincerely,

Steve

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. Shadowcandy

    Religion is poison. We need God without all the hypocrisy of religion.
    Sadly, I don't think it's possible to separate one from the other..

    May 3, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Why do we need a god?

      May 3, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Shadowcandy

      Well, I* need a God, without all the religious stuff. I need him because It gives me peace with the things I don't understand. Is that a good enough answer?

      May 3, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Frankly it's a pretty sh*itty answer. What don't you understand?

      May 3, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • SoM

      @Voice of Reason
      What do you care why anyone needs God?

      May 3, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • iheartyou

      Shadowcandy – I absolutely respect your answer. I, personally, don't need a god to find peace in my life but that's just me and my life. I don't require anyone believe what I believe... that's my main dislike about religion. I think if everyone just went about their lives believing in whatever makes them happy or gives them peace and not try to force that belief on anyone else or make anyone else live the way they think is "right" (through churches or gov't or any other means) then the world would be a much better place. And if believing in a god gives you peace and makes you a better person as you move throughout this world, then that's wonderful! 🙂

      May 3, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  2. Haha

    Atheists ever heard of Francis Collins and biologos? I'm guessing you guys still think you have the hold on intelligence, soooo dumb and hypocritical you all are.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Really? How so?

      May 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Compartmentalization, google it.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Truth

      @VOR

      what is your view of Francis Collins and how he reconciles science with his belief? Please answer the question at hand.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Pete

      Yes, we have heard of Francis Collins. He is a good scientist that played more of an administrative role in the human genome project. Just because a scientist is Christian doesn't prove that there is a god. Nice reasoning.
      PS I read his book and it's hogwash- search for the Dawkins/Collins interview.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      He's a smart guy that is deluded, period.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • iheartyou

      Yes, I do know about Francis Collins. Read a great deal about him and talk to a lot of my atheist and agnostic friends on the subject. But his work on the HGP and his genetic discoveries are not exactly coffee table conversation so I don't feel that if a person does not know about it that they are dumb or hypocritical. But I see that that is just your loving and tolerant christian morals at work here.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Collins stands on the shoulders of giants – Watson and Crick – both of whom were vocal atheists.
      Dr. Greg Graffin's PHD thesis found that the overwhelming majority of the world's eminent evolutionary biologists find no conflict between religion and science – so long as religion is recognized solely as a sociological adaptation.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  3. Ron from Jersey

    Only a "religious" scholar would write such blashemy, unlike a true theologian. One that truly has no respect or understanding of the personal and loving God of Judeo-Christian belief. Why does CNN keep putting Univeralists on top of their belief blog, when they comprimise there ability to define Christian belief?

    May 3, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • SoM

      What do you have against Universalists?

      May 3, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • j

      Hilarious. Textbook definition of irony. When I read the first few words of your post, I assumed you were a Poe about to go off about the FSM. But no! You're serious!

      I gave up childish things long ago. Believing in imaginary, magical things is on that list. People believing that *their* interpretation, out of the thousands of different interpretations out there, is the one *true* meaning of some magical being is about the funniest thing in the world to me.

      Well, it would be, if those people didn't vote.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  4. James PDX

    Calling yourself a Christian and being a Christian are not the same thing. I do not know a single Christian who follows all of the laws set forth in the Bible(s). Can I call myself a law-abiding citizen if I choose to break the laws I don't find convenient? Sure I can. But it would be a lie.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Jim

      That is reason for Jesus. We all fall short in God's eyes. Jesus made up the difference.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • James PDX

      So you're saying that it took God 4000 years to realize he made a mistake when creating man and, to make things easier, he threw us a mulligan named Jesus?

      May 3, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • cora

      the only law the christian has to keep now is THE LAW OF LOVE " Love the Lord thy god with all thy heart, with your soul and mind, Love your neighbor as you love yourself." There is no greater commandment greater than these Read it for yourself Mark 12:30

      May 3, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  5. sarina

    I am blown away by how many people do not believe in the Lord. Just really can't wrap my mind around it, so sad. Someday, EVERY SINGLE person will stand before the Lord and give an account for their life, for what they believed and did not believe. I don't stand for religion, I don't believe in rules and regulations. But I DO believe that Jesus Christ did come to this earth, that He DID speak truth. There is only ONE WAY, ONE TRUTH, and ONE LIFE: Jesus Christ. Our world has become so sad and dark. Everyone wants God outta the picture huh? Your choice. I would never in a lifetime want to live my life without God. I'm not Jehovah Witness, I'm not Mormon, I'm not Lutheran, Catholic, Buddhist, etc etc etc. I am just a straight up believer and follower of Christ. You can argue all you want that I have not touched or seen him, but the disciples did. And I believe by FAITH. You want answers? How to pray? Who the Lord is? READ YOUR BIBLES> Pray and ask the Lord to speak to you and He will. Wow...what a sad sad day for me to read all these comments. I could only imagine how God feels...

    May 3, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Peter Metz

      You are wasting your life believing in Jesus Christ and wasting your time preaching in these comments. Just thought you might want to know.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • plucky

      Wait and see how blown away you will be after you die and find out there is no god!
      Luck for you that you won't be around for it.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      I would bet that you never read any scientific publications. You rant is childish and uneducated. Do you have an education?

      May 3, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • fleecemarket

      Please don't play the fear card. Some of us aren't afraid.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • AMANDA

      i love and totally agree with your comment. Amen twice to that!

      May 3, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      You = Your

      May 3, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • ed galbraith

      Poor Sarina.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • sarina

      The wisdom of the world is foolishness to God. My heart is broken at the lack of faith and belief before me. My prayer is this: "Lord, that you would give these people eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart that awakens. That many would be saved, given the opportunity to know you if they only ask. Lord that you would forgive them for they know not better. Lord that your name, when revealed before the nations, will cause all to bow before you. My Lord, my saviour, my God." And on that note I wish you all the best, I love you though you probably despise me. But if the Lord is for me, who can be against me??? ;o)

      May 3, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      I have yet to hear even one actual reason to believe your god exists any more than Santa Clause exists. Really, give me something, anything at all that makes your god more likely or more real than any other god or especially none at all which is what the current evidence points to.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Peter

      All right, Sarina! You are a cup of cool water in this desert of an "Unbelief Bolg". Thanks. I too cannot fathom the mind like Peter Metz, who tells you your wasting your life telling people about Jesus. These unbelievers do protest too much. Praise the Lord!

      May 3, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • JimBob

      Sarina, if you are familiar with Bible prophecy, you should not be surprised about the state of the world at all. Why do you think there will be a second coming of Christ? It's already planned, our fate is predetermined by God.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  6. fleecemarket

    We'll be celebrating Beltane on Saturday!

    May 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  7. Jim

    In order to find the truth, you must first seek the truth.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • fleecemarket

      and always distrust the people who say they've found it. Because one truth only fits one person.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Shadowcandy

      I do agree with your comment but I can't agree with anyone who has claimed to find the *truth*. I believe, like socrates, in an afterlife where God will reveal his true unending wisdom to us. True knowledge leads to death, because in death is when everything will be revealed. My two cents..

      May 3, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Honest question. What makes you believe as you do?

      May 3, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Shadowcandy

      I'm assuming you're posing your question to me Mark, So I guess I'll answer.
      I believe in what I do because it brings me peace. It's as simple as that. When I can't find the answer to something by my own capacity or by the means of professionals I have my faith to lean on. In the end, if I can't get an answer, I believe God made it that way for a reason. One that we don't understand. If that's the case, I just chill and say "it is what it is"

      May 3, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  8. Peter Metz

    Prayer is an activity which among other things creates a subservient and even demeaning relationship between the person praying and God. By providing an illusion of personal communication between the person praying and God, this activity seeming empowers the person praying and in effect is lowest rung of the priest caste. This psychological relationship is then exploited by the priest class as one means of maintaining the status quo. Prayer is also a form of meditation and self-contemplation and thus cannot be dismissed outright but it's true nature should be discussed on this National Day of Prayer.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Ron from Jersey

      When a true believer prays from the heart, they know they are heard. When someone who believes in nothing but themselves, no one answers because it's too difficult for God to hear over the loud level of self pride in the room.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Peter Metz

      We don't pray. We either accept or if we think it's in our power, change the situation. It's not a question of belief for what is is and not amount of prayer will change that.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Ron, where in the scripture does it say that?

      Or were you just making that up?

      May 3, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  9. Sean

    Why the cheap shot against Catholics regarding how much they pray compared to evangelicals (or anybody else for that matter)? That's not constructive at all, and it's also uninformed.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  10. jas

    "Religion" has historically driven War. Each brand of Faith takes the position only it is correct while all others are wrong. People like me argue we're "naturalists" and believe in what is proven. Religious people are supernaturalists believing in miracles over scientific fact. And they hate us.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Peter

      Don't you ever get tired of spewing the party line against religion, and how it causes wars? Tell us, what religion was Hitler warring for? Wrong! Strickly political. National Socialism is hardly a religion. Try again. What religion was Vietnam fought over? Wrong! Strickly politics. Communism is hardlly classified as a religion. Try again. In the name of what religion did Stalin war against his own people, murdering multiplied millions? Wrong! See what I mean? Don't you get bored, repeating what your commie proffessors taught you? We are. Find a new religion.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  11. Lawrence

    To answer your question, in this country you can pray to any God you choose, or choose not to pray at all. Even on the National Day of Prayer.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      But it's the government endorsing it, and let's be honest the NDP promotes evangelical Christianity, that is a violation of the establishment clause. Pray whenever or however you wish, the government just cannot be involved at all.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      The fact that you felt it necessary to say: "EVEN on the National Day of Prayer. " shows how coercive having such a day is. It is fine for an individual member of the government to ask for a prayer. It is a totally different thing for the government to do so.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  12. halfbakedlunatic

    'god' is an idiotic idea promoted by immoral people to control and pacify the weak minded.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Agreed!

      May 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • JP

      Atheism - the counter-intuitive thought process created by Jews and swallowed by weak-minded jerk-offs like you.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Mr. Right

      Don't be a fool, fool. You have allowed your mind to be false messages that you believe are true. Your creator God, Father of Jesus COULD mash you like a bug but his mercy is everlasting, Wake up.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • ed galbraith

      JP blames atheism on...guess who...JEWS. Tell me JP, did Jews plan the attack on the World Trade Center? And what about chicken pox?

      May 3, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  13. Guess What

    what a fake photo of obama, we all no he is not a devote christian, he is part of the radical jihad that is hell bent on the destruction of America.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Religion

      Christians are jihadists as well. They just use a different name. Anyone who prays to invisible men in the sky should be avoided.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • George

      How do you spell 'know'?

      May 3, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Danno

      Nah, we voted them out in '08. Remember how that administration sent thousands of American troops to their death for no reason? I'm sorry, I forgot that you have no reasoning capabilities.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • ed galbraith

      And, I hope, nitwits like you.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  14. Truth

    atheists,

    Ever look around and realize that everyday 90% of the comments are from you guys responding to your own posts about how great and smart you are and how dumb everyone else is who believes in a higher being? It's quite comical really.

    Arrogance at its finest, how silly!

    May 3, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • momoya

      Ever look around and realize that what you just said was a big fat lie told from a place of contempt?

      May 3, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • plucky

      Troll

      May 3, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Do you have anything intelligent to add?

      May 3, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • n8263

      Religious people are not dumb, they are just lying to themselves out of fear of the unknown. It is self delusion.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      You idiots are the 80% majority in the real world, let us have the internet.

      BTW – it should also tell you something about the demographics of the younger generations. Religion's days are numbered.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • George

      That is an ironic post.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  15. AMANDA

    Why when this article is about prayer, do people start diising on the Lord. This is about prayer not rather God talks to you or people have ever seen him ornot. Every time religion is brought up regardless of what it is about people start dissing on God & Jesus and whatever else they beleive to be untrue. Stick with the subject this is about prayer!

    May 3, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      I see, and since prayer has nothing to do with gods or jesus, there is no connection with any such discussion. Got it.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Tony

      ..... so...making a connection between prayer and god in a conversation is a stretch??.......

      May 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  16. RR

    Dear Steve, No need to be concerned. You will always have God's attention.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  17. Anon

    Christianity: The belief that an invisible cosmic Jewish zombie can make you live forever if you eat his flesh, drink his blood, and telepathically tell him you accept him as your Master, so that he will remove an evil force from your soul that was put there because a woman made from a rib was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree. What's the problem?

    May 3, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Syd

      Sounds rational to me. 🙂

      May 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • JP

      The problem is you have been brainwashed by the Jew media into hating the ONLY true religion. You just another loud-mouth kosher clown.
      Fairy tales? There's no bigger fairy tale than the Holohoax, which you undoubtedly swallow hook, line, and sinker. Go to church, bud - drive those demons out 🙂

      May 3, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • joe

      You are clearly muslim.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Tom

      wow they must have had some wicked Heroin back in the day

      May 3, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  18. Voice of Reason

    You religious people, all you have to do is correspond, deliberate and post some semblance of reality and we may find some common ground. But it is your intolerance that defeats your intelligence. Most atheists have read the bible in order to weigh reasonable arguments and we probably know more about religion than most of you.
    When asked if you know about the theory of evolution you refuse to consider the thought. Can't you see how we view your response to a reasonable request? Educate yourselves and then we might enter into a productive debate.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • ed galbraith

      Well put.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • sarina

      I actually have studied evolution, science, etc. I have studied other religions, I have done my homework, and DO know what's out there and what I believe. And after all of this, I have come to one conclusion while you have come to another. I don't understand why everyone has to put each other down??? Call each other names? For what? Where are we getting? I've spoken my peace and you've spoken yours. There's really no need for anyone to argue or fight. Especially those of us who are Christians, please remember that you do represent our faith, and there is no need to backlash at the comments posted here. The Lord can defend himself. Do all things in love, and have patience and compassion for those who do not believe. Praying and hoping that they will someday come to know the Lord. Take care everyone....

      May 3, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  19. Tony

    You can get the same physiological, and psychological benefits of prayer by meditating, exercising, singing, humming, or making human connections, without the side effects of irrationality.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Thank you! Exactly, it's called a chemical reaction!

      May 3, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Danno

      You forgot masturbation. WAY better than church.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • fleecemarket

      Some of us (pagans) consider meditation and prayer to be the same thing.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Tony

      No. Masturbation has side effects; hairy palms and carpal tunnel.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  20. jj3773

    "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."

    Don't wrap Mormons in with Christians and Jews; they definitely do not pray to the same god.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Oh please! Stop with your nonsense already!

      May 3, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Jeff

      I'm sorry, but that statement is incorrect. Based on their scriptures and traditions Jews, Christians (of ALL types, including Mormons) and Muslims all worship the one god of Abraham. They may disagree on how best to interpret scriptures and the world around them, but not about what god they worship.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • John

      "Based on their scriptures and traditions Jews, Christians (of ALL types, including Mormons) and Muslims all worship the one god of Abraham."

      You heard of Allah? The god of Mohammad? That's the Muslim's god.
      Mormons, they believe that they can ascend to godhood and have their own planet, their wife/wives will forever be giving birth to spirit babies to populate said planet.

      Not...the...same...god.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
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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.