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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. Sy2502

    People have prayed for world peace for how long? 2,000 years? Prayers rate of success is pretty dismal if you ask me.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  2. Duvalier

    After this manner therefore pray: Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be your name... Matthew 6:9

    May 3, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • GOD

      That's right. Hallowed is my middle name, hence the H. in Jesus H. Christ on a Popsicle Stick.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  3. bill f

    Christ taught us to pray in private:

    The author of the Gospel of Matthew contrasted public and private prayer. He recorded Jesus as saying:

    Matthew 6:5-6: "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men....when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret...."

    The reference to go into thy closet has been translated in other versions of the Bible as "go into your inner room." "go away by yourself," "all alone," "your [most] private room," "enter into thy chamber," and "go into your room."

    Two of the largest Jewish religious movements in 1st century Judea were the Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus is recorded as having repeatedly criticized both – often with rather hateful and vicious language. Much of Jesus' anger may have been motivated by their prayer methods which were very public.

    Matthew 6:6 literally. Jesus believed that prayers are to be an intensely personal event between a person and God; no one else should be present. Prayer to him was a private matter. Jesus condemns prayers in situations where other people are present. For example, in terms of today's culture, this would include:

    In religious settings like churches or synagogues,

    In a private or public school,

    In a legislature or municipal government meeting, or

    In the street or other public place.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Chrissy333

      Well said!

      May 3, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • JT

      Just another verse that cherry picking Christians like to ignore as they push the ones that seem to support their agendas.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  4. Steve

    Just because I pray to God doesn't meen I'm religious. Or by believing in Jesus doesn't make me a christian. Christ wasn't christian so why do I have to be labelled christian. I just believe there is someone in charge and it's not me.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • TLC

      Do you believe this or do you really just hope this?

      May 3, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  5. GOD

    Seriously, just leave me alone. I don't care if it's Sunday, Saturday, Or Monday. Just act like I don't exist. You'll be better off, trust me.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  6. Nasir Hussain

    Isn't God one? Christian brothers, isn't He one? So can there be such a thing as Christian God, Muslim God? Can't we just say God? And let God decide who He is? We agree that there is a God. Only one. Those are the agreements. Whether Jesus is or is not God is a disagreement. If Jesus is in fact God the prayer will automatically land with him. That is why muslims say Allah (Al=the lah=God). Did we ever say Mohammad is God? Mohammad is NOT God. Jesus is Godly, Mohammad is Godly.
    We also agree that, that one God is the sole creator of this universe, so alternatively we can say O Creator in our prayers.
    Let us come together on agreements and debate out these disagreements and not create conflicts and wars.
    We are the only two truly all-inclusive clubs in the world and our numbers show it. Let us serve the God Almighty while we search the truth.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • plucky

      Isn't god one what?

      May 3, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • joe schmo

      @plucky–All the same God.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • plucky

      what is god?

      May 3, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • GOD

      Can't we just go for the obvious and point out my existence is based completely on your inability to handle your own insignificance?

      May 3, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • SkepticOne

      All the same xenophobic desert tribe myths? You bet!

      May 3, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Nasir Hussain

      Hey Plucky,
      God=Worthy of worship.
      Worship?
      Worship = To call somebody God.
      Circular? Yup I'm sorry. Will try to do better than that.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • Nasir Hussain

      Hey fake GOD,
      How come you are aware of your insignificance?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  7. Rockey

    Fred and robertholt
    Taliban and Osama says same thing about Sharia law.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  8. toll free

    As long as population think there is only one religion, christianity, we would never be united as one.
    Prayers should be advocated to all irrespective of what is their religion.

    Leaders and media should advocate to pray no matter what religion individuals belong to.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • bob

      How about me? I don't believe in any deity.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • itsme

      there are many religions, but there is only one true god, the God of Israel

      May 3, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • GOD

      Who farted?

      May 3, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      itsme wrote: " there is only one true god, the God of Israel "

      Prove it !!!

      May 3, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Omar

      you will Bob, you will

      May 3, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • GOD

      I doth just broke thy wind. Dost thou doubt my flatulence?

      May 3, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • GOD

      Take it from me, Omar, He won't. It's all part of my plan. Yes, even atheists.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • joe schmo

      @bob–Then it doesn't apply to you.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • SkepticOne

      It's a law in congress stating everyone should pray, it sure as hell then applies to me, especially when it's my government promoting a specific belief system.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • JT

      Hi God....I thought that was only thunder. All hail your might winds.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  9. Zenichi-Maro

    I'm a buddhist and none of this really matters as far as I'm concerned.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Omar

      it will matter to you soon. The Kingdom of God is at hand. it is even at the door.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • GOD

      Don't answer that door. It's likely they'll ask for money. Religions ALWAYS need money. Take it from me, the most exploited idea in history.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  10. Kevin P.

    To JesusisGod, Yes Jesus was good but when he died and the lesser men took over they perverted all of his teachings and now most organized religous groups should be prosecuted under the RICO act.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • bizziel

      Pray harder, I don't think your non existent"god" is hearing you....he doesn't seem to care about any of you. Lol.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • dollydocker

      there is no god ,and the act of prayer has been scientifically proven not to work .it cracks me up that people would be respectful to any god that would offer up their own son in blood scarifice ,not a kind and benevolent ,all knowing god ,an evil and hateful god ,we would be better off overing respects to santa clause ,to my knowledge all he does is disappoint from time to time ive never known him to kill and destroy mankind by divers and sundry forms of cruel punishment . prayer is a vestage of a primitive culture that unfortunately continues to haunt our present existence .the only important thing in life is how we treat one an other ,how we live our lives,dipping into religous orthodoxy and entering a discussion about what god to pray to is nothing more then selfindulgent hokus pocus guesswork .and as karen anderson opined makes people act stupid and argumentative

      May 3, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • SkepticOne

      You want to see the result of prayers? Here's a study done, scientifically to show there is no "power of prayer" and it in fact can cause harm in some cases: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html?pagewanted=all

      May 3, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  11. tenormls

    So, I'm an atheist, but I rigorously defend everyone's right to their own views. Just don't expect everyone else to accept them. I do not try to convert others to atheism, please show me the same favor. BUT I don't get prayer. If "god" is all powerful and all knowing, why do you need to pray to him/her/it? God knows already and in the Christian faith (at least) Jesus instructed you to how to pray one of the tenets is "your will be done" (not mine), so if all you are saying do what you want to, but here's my list of priorities (but god knows these already) why pray? It seems to me that prayer is a form of sermonizing...of stating publicly or privately your own morality and concerns. If god does exist, he/she/it surely already knows what you want and in any case, knows best, so praying is useless in that sense. What am I not seeing here?

    May 3, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  12. Unitarian

    For all you stressed and tired Agnostics, Atheists, UUists, Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, etc. A fun little activity that will make you smile after your next encounter with a fanatical Christian. When they walk up to you and start pouring their personal beliefs all over you tilt your head to the side and say "That doesn't sound quite right to me". When they jump in to start saving your soul they will ask why wouldn't it make sense since Christianity is "the one and only truth and pathway to salvation". Then with as serious a face as you can muster, say you KNOW because God came to you in a vision, surrounded by sparkly lights, and declared (insert your personal belief here, unless you're Atheist in which case just play along for fun) the only true way. If they call out your bluff and tell you that you need to be on medication then ask if they want to go in halvzies.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Fritz Murmeltiertag

      Close, but it's more fun to have them start talking and you say the "Yes God came wrapped in flames and surrounded by singing angels and told me that exact thing! No, it wasn't a dream, it really happened just last week! The clouds parted, in he came, thunder and lightning, and when he left, a cool soothing rain filled the land."

      And even the Christians will think it's crazy, even though you said the same thing they did.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      if you are talking to a conservative evangelical you just point out how each christian hopes to become a communist when they die (or socialist if you dont want to be too damning).
      When they start spluttering, just point out they expect to go to heaven where there is no money or property, everyone is equal, nobody is better or worse or more important than anyone else, they never want for anything, its all given to them, and its all ruled over by one central figure. The ultimate communist utopia.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  13. christy elmasri

    Born and raised a Christian, I attended Catholic School but saw too much hypocrisy at a very young age, questioning a lot of things and this continued for years until I found my own peace within Islam. I was raised with love, respect, kindness, compassion.....much of which is not seen or known nowadays by many. I was taught as a child to pray to God and nothing/no one else and that I need not be in a Church or any building and that God hears all of our prayers, to have faith in following The Ten Commandments, to incorporate The Golden Rule, to be honest and true to myself and most importantly, to not judge others. I will never be told "how to pray or to whom" because then it is not real or my own.
    Religion and faith are a personal choice and journey as is the lack of either; I raised my son and daughter much in the same ways I was raised and I am proud of their understanding and acceptance of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, that they do not look down on or speak ill of others who believe differently than they. The world population must come to learn and understand that religion and faith is not the problem; The Word/s of God are quite often misinterpreted or taken out of context as well as just plainly ignored. God created us to be "above" all other life forms, giving us a brain to use, to make choices and to learn right from wrong and so on. I pray for everyone to live a fulfilled life of happiness, health and wealth to live this life as we can to the best of what we can and that God gives us nothing more or nothing less than what we can handle.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • Unitarian

      I would like to say well done, I believe that you have discovered what really matters in religion and in life, to live with humanity.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • sortakinda

      "Hypocrisy" is what you think that OTHER people are doing. That makes YOU judgmental. You really can know only what YOU are doing. What other people are doing should not dictate what you do. You became a Muslim because YOU wanted to, not because you thought others were hypcrites. I would be amzed if there wasn't one Muslim that you thought was a hypocrite.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  14. Justin McNally

    Funny, this article points out that prayer, according to Obama, is a part of american history, thus we are to assume that we should continue doing it becase we've done it in the past...We also used to own slaves, ride horses and use candles to light our houses. Let me propose something interesting, since I am part of that supposed three percent of non-believers, how about we put all of our energies into thinking for ourselves???? Wild idea, I know. But we are a nation with excellent colleges and universities, we have some of the most inspiring scientific minds of the 21st century, yet we still subscribe to mysticism and fairy tales. I get it, people want to believe in something larger than themselves, they take comfort in something that never actually provides solutions to their problems. When we as a society wake up and finally realize that we've been living in never never land, THEN we may start to actually make this a better world to live in. Untill then we will be blinded by willfull ignorance.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • John

      It's always funny to me how the 2%ers like to think that they're the only ones that are capable of thinking for themselves. I know it's a shocking revelation, but everyone thinks for themselves. And after careful thought, 98% of the population decided they disagree with you.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      John wrote: "after careful thought, 98% of the population decided they disagree with you." You mean: "After years of brainwashing, 90% of the population..."

      May 3, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • GOD

      More like 92% and when it comes to Christianity it's under half. Majority practiced religion on the planet? Muslim. Turns out they took a poll too, and they all disagree with you.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  15. Mitt Romney

    How about pray to no god? Because america wasn't brought up with god in mind. It was made free by atheists. Why we should have any prayer in politics is beyond me.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • bob

      Well said. And take that "In god we trust" nonsense off our money and "under god" out of our pledge.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • joe schmo

      America's founding was based on God. Read your history books for the first time in your life.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • GOD

      America's founding was based on political asylum which included religious freedom. At no point did our founders officially mention God as a governing body, so I believe your point is moot. Trust me, I'm God, and I don't exist. Eve if I did, I wouldn't like you and would make all the bad things in life happen to you. Sorry, got off on a tangent. I just despise the righteous.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  16. Robert Edward

    "And do get back to me on that how to pray thing. We’re all supposed to do it on Thursday, together."
    What's wrong with praying to our own God or just not praying at all.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  17. 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 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.

    Deluding yourself in religion does not change reality.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Truth

      care to address the statement you made earlier where you said "most atheists don't call believers delusional" and here you are saying exactly that.

      This is the 3rd time I've asked for your response yet you keep not providing one.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • n8263

      I wrote most non-religious people do not consider religious people dumb. Religious people are however delusional, which is very different from a matter of intelligence. People believe in religion because they want to, they are afraid of death, they are afraid of the unknown. They are not dumb, they are simply engaging in self delusion out of fear.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • GOD

      I love how believers have taken ownership of the word "Truth." Obviously "Fact" didn't fit their criteria.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • joe schmo

      @truth
      What he/she doesn't understand he/she mocks.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      joe schmo,

      Your and @truth's fantasies mock reality.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  18. hippypoet

    those of whom can not prove the existence of god or any god type creature believes purely on the idea of its existence...the notion of what the idea stands for is great – a supreme being with infinite knowledge and power who is behind it (life) all....truly a fantastic idea indeed.... a grand idea based on superst.ition from an age of ignorance....why is such an improvable idea held with such belief as if it is true?

    May 3, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • joe schmo

      Do you really think humans are the center of intelligent life? That there is no way possible that a higher existence lives even though we don't see it? Maybe that being is all around us and we don't even know it? Just because we humans don't see it doesn't mean it's not there. We have to be extremely arrogant to believe that we are the center of life.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  19. FastestGrowingReligion

    I see it as, Allah says in Quraan – (1) If I wanted you all to be Muslims I would have done so. And yet at another place – (2) I have divided you into nations so you may recognize and identify each other. And then Quraan encourages us to establish the just rule of law – (3) Be just in your rulings even if it be against one of your kin or a community member.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  20. sonofgadfly

    "Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration – that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There's no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we're the imagination of ourselves. Here's Tom with the weather."

    - Bill Hicks

    May 3, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Mitt Romney

      I have a feeling you listen to tool

      May 3, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Also, people aren't wearing enough hats.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:45 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.