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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. Me

    Dear, Stephen.

    Asked and Anwered. Look up Matthew 6:5-13. And while you are Earnestly and Sincerely seeking, look up John 14:13.

    By the way, G-D is not for Dems nor Reps, but for those who are his. (John 1:12, and John 10:27). Actually, why not read the whole book of John.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • BRC

      Have you considered teh fact that your answer only applies to people who believe in Christianity, and ignores all the other religions in this nation (and basically perfectly illustrates the point the article is making).

      May 3, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  2. sortakinda

    "But if ..you follow the Roman Catholic Church... 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?" What has that got to do with the issue of prayer? If you don't like the rules of the club, get out. Why not ask, "Why are some American nuns incapable of following papal authority?"

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

      You might also ask, If the Vatican wants to weigh in on National Healthcare at a politcal level, why should we keep extending them tax-exempt status.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  3. Bill

    Steve, it's unfortunate that you relied on a cheap literary trick like the 'letter to God' in your article. I suppose that it does characterize one of our cultural traits of sarcasm and disrespect – even for God. I wonder if you would address Him so flippantly if he were standing in front of you? It's a shame, you made some really good points and recalled a lot of interesting statistics. Too bad it got lost in your attempt to be entertaining.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  4. Answer Honest

    Atheists,

    What would this world be like with no religion? How much better/worse do you think it would be? Would humans be more selfish or selfless? Would there be more or less charity? Who provides more to charity, an atheist or Christian?

    May 3, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Humanity begets humanity, no god needed.

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

      @VOR

      You seem to be great at never actually answering any question that requires thought. Very telling indeed.

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

      Who knows – but Bill Gates gives a ton to charity and he's considered an agnostic. I think a more relevant question is do aethists do anymore harm than those have done in the name of religion. Did the godless communists like Stalin an Mao kill a larger percentage of the human population than the Christian crusaders? Did they even kill people in the name or in the absence of faith?

      May 3, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • ThaGerm

      You are correct, this world is better off with Religeon because God knows that the average human is not capable of standing on it's own two feet and needs a bit of a cruch in order to act even halfway civilized. Without the fear of God, most would just revert to pillaging and raping. But does that make me a believer? NO because I am of the few that is capable of deep introspection and have an ability to govern myself without the need for a cruch. I didn't say God wasn't real, but your religeon is a fantasy.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • kreateur

      Just as much war due to religion as there is charity. Arguably more. Indeed, if Charity is your justification for worshipping a lord then you are truly blind to the full picture. Let's take responsibility for our own actions and stop looking for answer from an invisible, impossibly omniscient being that allows death and destruction to happen daily basis. And no, you cannot conveniently call that destruction the devil's work, because that immediately annulls God's omniscience and omnipotence. Humanity must evolve.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  5. sortakinda

    Does anyone wonder if 1.6 % of Americans are atheists and 2.4% are agnostics, why the comments on religion or belief seem to come in much higher percentages on this board? Maybe they have multiple presonalities.

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

      They are the most persecuted group of any in the U.S.; this forum allows them the opportunity to vent thier frustration. Taunting them does not help and it only makes anyone of any religious affiliation look worse.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Mr. Noble

      Perhaps it is because the numbers are under-representative of the true amount.

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

      Nope. Much of the atheist footprint you see here are the loudest minority. Like Westboro Baptist to Christians, the majority of atheists disown them and their need to lash out (which has little to do with religion).

      May 3, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • GodPot

      If you as a Christian had to live and work in Iran, how often do you think you would go out and proclaim your faith, wear the cross around your neck to work? Now how often would you vent your frustration on anonymous blogs where you felt your life and job were not being threatened for your beliefs? The fact that most of us still feel the need to hide our identlties and not bring it up when we are around friends and workmates who may be believers is evidence of the persecution we still endure. It seems as if since the religious zealots God is unable to call down lightning as they think he should when they feel we have blasphemed him, the zealots enjoy taking matters into their own hands and attempt to bully and persecute and even murder atheists on their God's behalf.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  6. BobbyGB

    Dear Steve, it is called 'faith' for a reason.

    Respectfully,

    Wherever your faith guides you.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Faith – steadfast assurance despite a total lack of evidence.
      Faith is intellectual apathy.
      It is the willing cessation of rational inquiry so that one can be comforted by rote answers to difficult questiosn.
      Faith is not a virtue, it is a hinderance to your development as a thinking being.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • ThaGerm

      You go Doc, you go!

      May 3, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • BobbyGB

      My point is, why seek empirical answers from something that is considered to be a faith? Anyone who believes in something that cannot be proven has faith. Faith can be defined as a set of firmly held principles or beliefs. In my mind (I understand not everybody's), I think faith is required to either believe in something or believe in nothing.

      But I reiterate my first point, why seek empirical answers from something that is called faith? Doesn't make sense.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  7. Voice of Reason

    Religion and god is utter nonsense, a waste of precious time and evil. Just one of you provide some reasonable proof and I'll cut out my tongue.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • KC

      I will as soon as you provide proof that God does NOT exist.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      You, my friend, have the burden of proof.

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

      I'd argue that you taking time out to comment on this so called utter nonsense actually proves that A) You're lying and these lies help provide comfort in your lack of belief, or B) your dumber than those you're ragging against.

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

      Believers have faith, hope and charity, but It has been said that meekness and charity embody all virtue. This is a foreign language to you, but you have 1.6% of the population who do speak your tongue.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • your god is irreducibly complex

      KC, that is one of the convenient things about the idea of god. You cannot completely disprove it, just like you cannot disprove the flying spaghetti monster or the invisible pink unicorn.
      The hypothesis that god exists should not be treated as the null hypothesis.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Bill

      You provided the proof yourself when you referred to 'evil'. This is a supernatural concept that presupposes that there actually is good and evil. Do you think that is just some unguided cosmic force? How do you decide what is good and what is evil without the framework of a faith in at least some kind of God? PS please don't cut your tongue out.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      "Truth", your argument is horse hockey.

      Religion is the problem not gods. Religion is a real and present danger to all free people. So yes, rational people will spend time discussing real issues. If religious people just stopped try to force their belief system on to the rest of us and left it up to their gods then you would suddenly find a huge drop in the negative comments.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • your god is irreducibly complex

      Bill, we don't need religion to tell us what is right and what is wrong. "Morality" comes from the advancement of society, not some 2,000 year old collection of stories. If we just went by the bible, our laws would be quite different. Try again.

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

      He did not use the term "evil" as an independent force. He used it to describe a human condition.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • It comes down to this...

      It doesn't sound very reasonable to cut your tongue out so would someone else's "reasonable" proof make sense to you? Seems doubtful so I would rather not waste my time trying to convince you that God, Christ, and Christianity are all far, far, far more reasonable than you or anyone else who is blinded by the old Devil (AKA "the father of lies")

      May 3, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • BobbyGB

      The burden of proof argument is invalid. The burden of proof is upon anyone trying to argue their perspective. Besides, why seek proof when it is called faith?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  8. GodPot

    It should be renamed "Personal Pep Talk Day".

    May 3, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  9. Yup

    I feel bad for atheists. The comments on here prove how angry they really are. The one in real life that I know are the same way also. An arrogant conceited bunch they are.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Yup

      ones*

      May 3, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Rhonda

      Yes full of anger and even hatred...

      May 3, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Don't feel bad for us you are the mentally deficient bunch.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Anomic Office Drone

      I'm agnostic because both sides are crazy, but "arrogant"? More arrogant that believing an infinite, omniscient being cars about your prayers? More arrogant than thinking you have a personal relationship with said deity? More arrogant than believing that you're going to heaven for your beliefs and everyone who doesn't agree isn't?

      May 3, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • rasko41

      I'm an athiest and I don't hate anybody. Hope this doesn't hurt your frrlings 🙂

      May 3, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      here's the thing....
      claiming how one side is angry because of the comments is fine except where you then end up saying..
      "An arrogant conceited bunch they are."
      which by its very nature is an angry comment, therefore surely making you a hypocrit and just as bad as the what you are accusing the other side of doing?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • GodPot

      Atheist here, and the only thing I hate is willful ignorance when faced with facts, but I do not hate the ignorant. Just like the religious folk like to claim hate the sin but love the sinner, I try to hate the ignorance but love the ignorant.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  10. Rhonda

    There is only one God. Period.

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

      Your Period is god? And I thought I had heard it all. Just goes to show.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • your god is irreducibly complex

      You still have no proof. Period.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Come on Rhonda, step up to the plate and prove it!

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

      You cant prove it the other way either...genius.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Anomic Office Drone

      You believe in one god. That doesn't mean there is one at all, and that doesn't mean there isn't more than one.

      Religious people and atheists drive me nuts for the same reason: they're certain about the unknowable.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      dont leave us hanging Rhonda, which one is it?
      I bet its the one you follow, it is isnt it?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  11. Marquice

    CNN time is coming to an end, you all write articles like there is no God of the Universe, he's getting ready to show you who he is and who his children are. Christian is a name they gave God's children, but I guarantee you we are more than "Christians" we are Gods.

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

      OK

      May 3, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Rhonda

      Good comment.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • your god is irreducibly complex

      We have been hearing that for years. Bring it on, I say.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      wait, you are a god? really?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  12. Bob

    The parting shot at the Catholic Church wasn't necessary. The nuns are being disciplined for a number of reasons including a belief that they can move "beyond God". It's a private doctrinal issue.

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

      beyond god or beyond the pope.

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

      @ MarkinFL beyond the pope

      May 4, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  13. Mike

    Its pretty easy to celebrate National Day of Prayer (if you want, it is a choice), you PRAY! It's not National Day of Prayer to "God"... stop trying to make a big deal out of nothing, dumb article.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  14. Those darn typos

    ..and I thought it was National Player Day", silly me.
    Can we have both peeelease. I prey for national player day so we can all become better players.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  15. marcus

    @oldpatriot : Afraid of the unknown? That's the same, pointless argument that is always made. The fear is not of the unknown. On the contrary, we as Believers of Christ are well aware of what a life without faith in Him amounts to. Read Revelation 6-12. This is not just some fantasy, fairy-tale epic written to appease children. It is real. Hundreds of prophecies fulfilled. Biblical and secular historians affirm much of what was written. So tell me, what exactly is unknown?

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

      Oh Marcus. Poor, Marcus.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  16. brucerip

    Christians: If there was no guarantee of salvation, would you still desire a relationship with Christ? If the only card you ever play is, "...or you'll go to hell," you will see your numbers dwindle.

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

      I'd actually prefer this. I'm tired of the hypocrits, the lay-abouts and holier than though self righteous imbeciles. I'm tired of the millions claiming to be Christians trying to force political action on people who have no requirement or need to follow those laws and giving the few that are actually doing what they're supposed to a bad name.

      I know, it sounds very "unChristian" to speak this way, but remember when Christ turned over tables and threw out the preisthood for making a market out of a temple? Yeah, it's kind of like that.

      Hello, I'm a Christian, you are free to believe whatever you want and if I pray, you will not notice and I will not ask you to pray with me.

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

      Well said Matthew!! Couldn't agree more 🙂

      May 3, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • peggy

      At 62, I have already lived most of my life and I don't quite care about heaven or Hell but I do care about the people with whom I share the earth, my fellow pilgrims, so yes, I would still stick with the Jesus thing as it helps me to remember to be humble, charitable and mindful in my daily walk so that I can contribute positively to the existence of others.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • wanda

      OMG not another Chrsitain bashing thread.Why does the belief of so many –make so many of you so MAD? You don't believe in anything.Good who cares?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • brucerip

      I do believe. I believe very much... and that question I asked was asked of me ten years ago, and it changed everything about my walk with God.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  17. MCR

    I will not reveal my religion as it isn't important. It's more important to pray with sincerity than who you are praying to. I say prayers every day so today is no different from any other. But how often do we pray like we mean it? Alone in a car skidding out of control at 50 miles an hour? When else do we really focus on understanding our prayers?

    There's a thought for today 🙂

    Peace!

    May 3, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  18. Freethinker Seeking Reason

    It is so very sad that in the 21st century the majority of Americans still follow such a ludicrous patchwork of bronze age mythology. On this National Day of Reason, let us be reminded as loudly as ever that nothing fails like prayer. For all those who are talking to themselves today, thinking that some supernatural deity is listening to them, please seek professional psychiatric help before you hurt someone or yourself in the name of your sky fairy, vote against others' rights, or promote your chosen flavor of insanity over the scientific method. The National Day of Prayer is an embarrassment to America and makes us look as intellectually barbaric as fervent middle eastern theocracies that in many ways haven't progressed much past the last millennium. We will once again remember this NDP for its utter divisiveness and dangerous encroachment of religiosity into our secularly founded government. Where religious addiction could not further damage us from outside our borders, it is surely destroying our great nation from within.

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

      The great thing about prophecies is if you wait long enough something will occur that will be close enough that it counts as fulfillment. It is the 1000 monkeys, 1000 typewriters (perhaps this should be laptops now), and works of Shakespeare argument.

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

      Easily the best comment on this article.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Unclechunknfunk

      Being born Catholic and having to go to a private school makes me love finding comments knocking the absurd beliefs of the people we call Christians. Government and religion should never be mixed. I believe that was a reason behind America being colonized??? HAIL SATAN! (if he were actually real)

      May 3, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • It comes down to this...

      @ Freethinker Seeking Reason, If you really want to be a "free thinker" take the advice of the Son of God – Jesus Christ- who said, "If you continue in my teaching you will know the truth and the truth will set you free."
      @ everyone else who really wants to know the truth and meaning if life: read the Gospel of John but first ask God the Father to help you understand what it means. Don't listen to the Athiests, you certainly won't find God in their circles!

      May 3, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  19. marcus

    Afraid of the unknown? That's the same, pointless argument that is always made. The fear is not of the unknown. On the contrary, we as Believers of Christ are well aware of what a life without faith in Him amounts to. Read Revelation 6-12. This is not just some fantasy, fairy-tale epic written to appease children. It is real. Hundreds of prophecies fulfilled. Biblical and secular historians affirm much of what was written. So tell me, what exactly is unknown?

    May 3, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • your god is irreducibly complex

      Quoting a passage from the bible doesn't prove anything. Also, what kinds of prophecies have been fulfilled exactly?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  20. Aradan

    Thank Zues for this article!

    May 3, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
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