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. Emily B.

    Trite! A little humility is in order, since, after all, you did not make this spectacular universe with great beauty and complexity. Instead, you preach to the agnostic choir rather than showing scholarship and an open mind. You poke fun at those who show reverence. This country's founders new the God to whom they prayed and dedicated this country. They were not perfect people, but who is? We are endowed by our creator and my redeemer who makes all things new. I know my redeemer LIVES.

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

      The founding fathers knew God? Did he hang out in Jamestown or something?

      May 3, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Fritz Murmeltiertag

      Of course the Founding Fathers knew God. That's why they came up with laws blocking him.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Emily B.

      Don't know where you got that from....the founders (men and women please) did not block religion but blocked the government from passing laws to restrict religion. They knew too well the persecution governments can unleash on religion. Government corrupts religions. They also made laws to ensure balance of power since too much power in anyone one man's hands corrupts. It's the human condition.

      After George Washington was inaugurated as our first president, he worshiped at Trinity church in New York. Not the actions of man who fought for this country only to block religion...

      But, I'm inclined to agree with some posts here. Just because someone is claims a religion it doesn't make them a believer.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  2. Truthbetold

    If you're religious, enjoy the day and do what you will. That sounds great to me. If you're not then go about your business, that sounds great to me as well. Does it matter that we have a National Day of Prayer? A large majority of us ignore it anyway....even Christians.

    On a second note, just so you're aware.....you atheists on here who are so demeaning and self-serving are just as disgusting to the rest of us as the holier than thou self-righteous religious types. At least most religious folks call it "faith" while you so arrogantly claim your beliefs to be facts. Anyone in science should be able to admit that we all actually know so very little.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  3. Religion

    If people really believed in religion then they would become priests/rabbis/etc and attend church/temple EVERY DAY. I know I would, after all I wouldn't want to spend eternity in Hell. The fact is most people don't really believe in it, but claim to because it is the easiest thing to do and is perceived as a social outlet.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  4. JMK

    Either you believe or you don't, and the same goes for political figures. In a representative government, an elected leader's beliefs were part of the package we bid on when we voted for them. So if elected leaders believe, and they pray on the National Day of Prayer, even in a very public way, that should not be controversial.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  5. JesusisLord

    Just mention God and atheists blow there Lids.

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

      Really? Well, as an agnostic I wouldn't know.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • just sayin

      Interesting ...you mention freedom from religion and rights of others and the Christians blow their lids. As an Agnostic I don't blow my lid..I just don't believe your preacher man's version of what he thinks is the truth.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  6. Converted

    I believe in God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost. I find it interesting that Athiests are less than 2% of the population but have greater than 90% of the posts... the devil must have you all working overtime. Come Unto Christ and find the peace He offers.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      You have your numbers wrong. Atheists are closer to 20% of the population and quickly (thanks to mas.s media) becoming more relevant.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • n8263

      I am not atheist or agnostic but fall into the close to 20% of Americans who are non-religious, that this article unfortunately does not mention.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      It's because atheists make up far more than 2% of the population, they just keep quiet about it most of the time because you religious whackadoos can be dangerous. The anonymity of the internet allows us to drop the facade.

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

      I believe I stated Athiest and the statistic is "1.6% of Americans who call themselves atheists " according to the article.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Elliot

      Converted can't critically think and evaluate the situation with the statistics, a typical problem with religious types.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • ed galbraith

      So..."atheists hold 90% of the posts"...what is a "post" and where in hell did you come up with that.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • just sayin

      I still you are relying on old stats to bolster your position. Hint...the number is much bigger and growing...around 25%, last I read. If anything the stats point to Christians being very bad when you figure at least 80% of crime and all that is bad can be attributed to Christians. If anything having God/Jesus as the majority is bad for our society.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • just sayin

      bad bad Christian...no treat for you!

      May 3, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Peter

      Good point! What's up with all the unbelievers in a

      May 3, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Peter

      B E L I E F B L O G ! ! !

      May 3, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  7. Blessed!

    This country was founded by Christians and the laws were written based on Christian beliefs. That's why our pledge says 'one nation under God'. Stop and look at the tragedies that take place in other countries. Yes, we have had tragedies here as well but not as many as other countries. And most Americans have enough food to be morbidly obese while other countries are starving and can't even find clean water to drink. This country is blessed because it is 'one nation under God'. However, this country is starting to go down the toilet because everyone wants to kick God out. Go ahead, see what happens. I'm not scared because I know my Jesus loves me and he died for me. (I'm sure you will all make fun of my comments so I'm not even going to stay on here to read them. Your judgements don't matter to me anyway. But I will be praying for you!) You should give God a try. If you don't like Him the devil will gladly take you back. Have a blessed day and PRAY WITHOUT CEASING! 🙂

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

      One nation under god was added to the pledge during the cold war as propaganda against the USSR. Our laws are based on European laws and cultural standards.

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

      People who believe that invisible men in the sky control the direction of our country are truly scary people.

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

      It was added in 1954. Boy you guys sure do a good job of making yourselves look educated, lol.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Can't tell if satire or actually that stupid....

      May 3, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • ed galbraith

      A lie all religious cowards pass on as they go out the door..."I will be praying for you"

      May 3, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • just sayin

      Blessed – thank you for your post. You are the ignorance I talk about. Attempt to actually read and learn your history. *rolling eyes*

      May 3, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      People are starving here in this country too.

      People are dying of exposure here in this country too.

      People of many faiths and no faiths are a part of this country too, and have been since its inception.

      The words "under god" were added to the pledge in the 1950s to fight communism. The laws of this land are not based on "Christian" principles or laws, but on the laws of other nations, minus a few and plus a few freedoms. Like the Freedom of Religion.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  8. Prayer

    Mormons are Christians. (yes, I know 'hateful people' will disagree, but the truth is, the definition of Christian is one who believes Jesus Christ died and rose again, and through that death and resurrection we are saved. That's what we believe. We are Christians).

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

      I disagree that Mormons are Christians. And I am not hateful.

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

      Prayer, I respectfully disagree. Depending on what faith tradition a person comes from, their definition of what is required for a person to be "Christian" may be narrower, or broader, than what you've mentioned. For example, my own faith tradition classifies Christians as people who believe in a triune (3-in-1) God, comprised of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three persons in the same God. I understand and respect the fact that Mormons consider themselves to be Christians, but as they do not believe in the same triune definition of God that has been traditionally held by the older Churches (The Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches, Protestant Churches, etc.) then they are not Christians by my faith tradition's view. No disrespect in that, it's just that the issue is more complex than your comment makes it appear.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • ed galbraith

      Wrong. Mormons are vegetarians.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • ed galbraith

      Go Jesus...rah, rah

      May 3, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • just sayin

      Mormons are just as ignorant as Christians. Joseph Smith is a proven fraud and yet you still buy his line of crap. And no you are a present day cult, not Christians. Christians a different delusinal breed.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  9. Frink

    Prayer: How to do nothing and still pat yourself on the back for 'helping'.

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

      You are so wrong! i hope that you do not find out too late

      May 3, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • just sayin

      John, prove he is so wrong.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  10. Mortalc01l

    God does not exist. Here's a test of whether you can think rationally about whether God exists:

    If the way we talk to God is through prayer and we believe that God answers prayers, then answer this. If God answers prayers and supposedly cures Jimmy Bob of his afflictions and "heals" Mary-Sue of her cancer and listens to and answers prayers when you wish to be cured of your kidney stones, the tell me wht God hates amputees so much... I mean he must REALLY hate them !

    If God supposedly cures cancer and restores the health of the sick, through the power of prayer, then why has there never been a single instance of a Human Being EVER having an amputated limb restored by God through prayer???

    Throughout the last 2000 years of Christianity, how many people have lost a limb and have prayed with all humility and fervency to God to restore that missing limb? What about the child that is attacked by soldiers in Africa and has a limb chopped off? Is that child not deserving of God's compassion? If that child and it's parents and their church and their Pastor and their entire community pray to God for that child's limb to regrow, why does God NEVER, EVER grow a limb back?

    Now; given that Christians claim that God is omnipotent, God SHOULD be entirely capable of giving a deserving, humble, good Christian a limb back, correct? What about some poor Christian peasant that has been tortured by an opposing faith? They chop off his legs because he won't recant his Christian faith and convert to THEIR faith? You would think that God would absolutely give this Man back his legs, correct? Why not?

    Either God really hates amputees, OR..... There is no God.

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

      "God does not exist."

      Prove it.

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

      Add to this the idea that no other faith has ever had their god successfully restore a limb or an eye and you have quite a conundrum – not only is the christian god uncaring and does not address the needs of believers – neither does any other god of any other religion – this would seem to be an indictment of all religion!

      May 3, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Religion

      Mortalc01, God tests us in many ways. His wisdom is infinite and we cannot understand everything He does, but we must have Faith....

      Ah screw it, I can't even keep a straight face typing that drivel.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • JJ

      You and your reason and logic. Jesus cured blindness in the Bible, you can certainly not die of blindness, why amputee never has been cured. Many healing churches claim to cure people with walking problems, why no amputee?

      There's only one logical conclusion.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • middle ground

      It's not about the years you spend on earth as much as it about the rest of eternity. Basically, as a Christian you believe that your afterlife will be wonderful and living in a place free of all the horrors and oppression of the world. As an Atheist, do you die and then its just game over? I think even without hard evidence of a God I will take my belief in the hope that there is something bigger that what we see in this cruel world.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @Middle Ground
      If you're going to take Pascal's Wager, you'd better cover all your bases.
      Perhaps you'll need to die gloriously in battle to get to Valhalla...

      May 3, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Emily B.

      God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, who was bullied, and bruised, and crucified in order to save all who would believe. We live in a fallen world. If you seriously want to explore your questions, read The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel. He addresses these really hard questions about tragedy. No one can be neutral about God. You either believe in Him or you do not. We brought ugliness into the world by choosing against Him, yet He loves us so thoroughly that we have a pathway back to all beauty and peace through Jesus.

      I once was very angry at God for allowing me to be severely bullied as a timid child. Put down, punched, kicked, ridiculed for years by lost people. I now know He can turn all things to the good, that I can forgive and therefore be set free, and I can empathize with others because of my own personal experiences. I have personally seen God answer prayers in very unexpected ways. He promised that if His people who are called by His name, humble themselves and pray, He will heal our land. I am grateful for those who care enough about this country to humble themselves and pray. A prayer made in faith effects much, but you must know to whom you pray.

      And, for those of you who will question my faith as blind, please know that my faith GREW as I learned to reason and to theorize. My struggles with faith have wrought strength of conviction and surety.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • just sayin


      "God does not exist."

      Prove it.
      The absence of has already been established. This goes for the toothfairy and other mythical creatures. The burden is on the believers in Santa, God, Toothfairy, Bridge Trolls, Dragons, Elves, Flying Witches, Unicorns, RA etc.

      Keep playing

      May 3, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • Emily B.

      BTW – Jesus did heal withered limbs, awoke the dead, and He even restored the cut off ear of an enemy in the garden of Gethsemane...and He was still crucified. Why should He restore amputations now? Would you really believe if He did? But He is less concerned about physical limitations (temporal) and more concerned about the state of your soul (eternity). You demand evidence, and then you might believe, at least until it crimps your style. He demands belief and then He provides ample evidence. He promises to restore, but not always in this lifetime.

      C.S. Lewis once said he believed in Christianity because it is the most unexpected religion. It's good to be cautious of religions that simply replicate the temporal status quo. What is so unexpected about Jesus is that He calls us to love our enemies. How unexpected and difficult is that?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • just sayin

      "BTW – Jesus did heal withered limbs, awoke the dead, and He even restored the cut off ear of an enemy in the garden of Gethsemane..."
      While you don't hold your God and gay delusional savior accountable....some people do. What is the origin of your evidence?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Emily B.

      just sayin..what's the origin of your evidence that Jesus did not? I'm totally fine with you saying you just don't believe it...tell me something I don't know!

      I have far more evidence than you, both from historical texts and from personal experience. Jesus has more historical proof than many other uncontested historical figures. The very enduring nature of Christianity is proof. It survived despite severe persecution. For example, Christians were fed to lions and slaughtered by gladiators to tickle the delight of Romans of Nero's time. And prophecy is still being fulfilled today, which I find more amazing than growing back one person's appendage. For example, the re-establishment of Israel as a nation was written into scriptures before Christ. See Ezekiel 37, Jeremiah 16 and others.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • Emily B.

      Allow me to provide some proof based on Jeremiah 16 14-15, which was written in either the late 7th or the 6th century BC. It states:

      "the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when it will no longer be said, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,’ 15 but it will be said, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’ For I will restore them to the land I gave their ancestors."

      The north is pretty specific, don't you think?, and it is not the direction to which Israelites were scattered to Babylon in the east. According to the Jewish virtual library over 1.2 million Jews from the former Soviet Union settled in the new Israel from 1948 to 2010, which is a little under half the total population immigrating from other countries and far more than any other country. The former Soviet Union is due north of Israel.

      God was accountable to his word over a 2000+ year span.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  11. JesusisLord

    @Anon, why are you so angry?

    May 3, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  12. n8263

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

    Religion is delusional, prayer is delusional.

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

      I am so amazed when I see claims like yours. Exactly how did you aquire such amazing mystical powers which granted you the ability to read and judge the deepest thoughts and beliefs of billions of people?

      May 3, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  13. G

    I think the Christians posting on this thread should take some time right now to pray for those who are lost.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • n8263

      Most people who are lost need a GPS more than prayer.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  14. n8263

    This article should point out that all non-religious people make up close to 20% of the American population, far exceeding all Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists combined.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  15. Religion

    I believe in praying to invisible men who live in the sky. It really changes things in my life. It could change yours too. To learn more, just send $49.95 to the following address...

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

      you forgot the address, my check book is ready to go – this is tax deductible right ?

      May 3, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Religion

      Well of course. The money goes to God, and God lives in the sky which is outside of the US and is therefore nontaxable.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  16. kenny

    i always wonder how things would be if we all accepted that this LIFE IS all we get ... no heaven, no hell, no eternal life to speak of... would we be better or worse to each other??? I'd like to think better.... but i'm not too sure when sooooo many people base their MORALs on imaginary fairy tales... so if they were proved false the ignorant masses would turn on each other and claw and bite their way to the top.... survival of the fittest bar none... hmmmm... and the religious say us atheists are without a moral compass...

    May 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  17. Patrick Lewis

    The NDP is yet another way evangelicals are trying to have an outsized influence on politics in order to push their agenda. I'd love to see it as something separate from politics. If the NDP truly want to do the work of the church in this way, they should exclude politicians from the public events. Dragging politicians in, or worse, damning them by their absence, erodes the separation of church and state. It makes them a part of the state, which is a course of events that has historically not done well by the CHURCH. People forget that the reason we have a separation is to protect the church from worldly politics. Keep pushing, church, and you will see why those protections are in place.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  18. Michael Mannes

    Well said Mr Prothero – if prayers got grades yours should be an A+

    May 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  19. wow

    Wow, an american flag button on his suit- should I salute? A regular George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln all rolled into one! A true american hero- Obama!

    May 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  20. Elliot

    "...1.6% of Americans who call themselves atheists and the 2.4% who call themselves agnostics..."

    It would be more realistic to state that it's most likely that 80% of the population is agnostic or athiest and just to afraid to admit it in fear that their family and friends would not talk to them anymore. The other 20% who are 100% sure that there is a god are completely dilusional.

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

      Hahahaha. Do you have a source for this 80% number?

      May 3, 2012 at 1:12 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.