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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. TexDoc

    God knows many names, call on him, he'll hear. It doesn't matter what name you give him.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • JOE in LOS ANGELES

      You mean Lucifer

      May 3, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • jimtanker

      Can I call him azzhole?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • n8263

      How about Santa Claus?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • It comes down to this...

      To all who responded with foolish answers, whether you believe it or not, you will stand before Him some day and regret what you just posted.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Get Real

      "you will stand before Him some day and regret what you just posted."

      And your verified evidence for this is ...?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  2. Got Anger?

    Atheists seem so angry 🙁

    May 3, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Religion seems so ridiculous!

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

      Your God seems very angry too. Which is funny because he knows in advance the outcome of events and gets mad when they happen anyway.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • sortakinda

      1.6% of the population, with 2.4% half-agreeing with them will never be happy.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  3. christ jones

    Steve,
    "And do get back to me on that how to pray thing. We’re all supposed to do it on Thursday, together.", "Is our god You?", "If you are going to pray, you need to choose a religion ". Since you are a religious scholar I am sure you realize the inefficacy of you argument. Religion is PRIMARILY and at its basest a Personal CHOICE! Hence prayer is a personal choice too. Hence you slam on evangelicals is "low hanging fruit" for a religion scholar which you show in this quote "Twenty four percent of Americans are Catholics, and God knows they don’t pray the way evangelicals do." Seems like your just trying to be divisive. Most Catholics I know are incessant prayer but its not the Our father or Hail Mary but rather a constant conversation with a dear respected friend and hero. God after all (wether you believe or not) is not OURS we are HIS.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  4. stan

    Judeo-Christian is an oxymoron

    May 3, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  5. Ryan

    Pray? ... naw, I'll go do something that's productive ...

    May 3, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  6. Morgan

    Steve, you forgot about us Neo-Pagans in your list. There are quite a few of us in this country and our numbers are growing. However, we don't simply worship one god. Many of us worship the Goddess or even a number of gods and goddesses. We feel rather left out of obviously Christian events like this too.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • JOE in LOS ANGELES

      That's because Christians are not to mingle with Pagans...

      May 3, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Morgan

      LOL! If only Christians knew exactly how often they "mingle" with us Pagans! 😀

      May 3, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • sortakinda

      Christians generally mingle with 1.6% of the population 1.6% of the time, generally speaking.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  7. concerned

    1Co 1:19 As it says in the holy Writings, I will put an end to the wisdom of the wise, and will put on one side the designs of those who have knowledge.

    Deu 32:28 For they are a nation without wisdom; there is no sense in them.

    Psm 94:8 Give your mind to my words, you who are without wisdom among the people; you foolish men, when will you be wise?

    Psm 111:10 The fear of the Lord is the best part of wisdom: all those who keep his laws are wise: his praise is eternal.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Googling Goose

      Let's see now, Google "Bible" and "wisdom". Copy/Paste. Stellar.

      Any book which says that you are without wisdom (a fool) for not believing it, with no other verified evidence, is bunk.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  8. JOE in LOS ANGELES

    Potus is just looking for CHRISTIAN VOTES. He really is a Musllim and fakes his CHRISTIAN FAITH..Ask Stephonopolis.

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

      Aren't Fakirs Hindu?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  9. killallthewhiteman

    “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (1 Timothy 2:12)

    May 3, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  10. God

    @marcus, why don't you go out and punch some nancy boys?
    http://m.ctv.ca/topstories/20120503/pastor-sean-harris-says-controversial-remarks-were-joke-120503.html

    May 3, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  11. 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 2:05 pm |
    • Truth

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

      This is the 4th time I've asked for your response yet you keep not providing one.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      @Truth

      Read the definition:
      delusion |dɪˈl(j)uːʒ(ə)n|
      noun
      an idiosyncratic belief or impression maintained despite being contradicted by reality or rational argument, typically as a symptom of mental disorder: the delusion of being watched.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • n8263

      @Truth, please read my response I provided back on the 14th page.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • sortakinda

      It's just amazing. As result of the insulting comments of the author, n8263 Voice of Reason and other 1.6%ers, a total of ZERO practicing Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and other believers for one second reconsidered their beliefs. Thanks to to the author, n8263, Voice of Reason et al. Great use of your time.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  12. bigmart

    IF there are any gods then they have shown them selves to be curel and with out mercy or pity, Best not to call attention to your self by praying to them

    May 3, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  13. K from AZ

    "I am the Lord your God. Thou shall have no other gods before me"! The 1st Commandment (not suggestion): disregard it at your peril!

    May 3, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      so there are other gods? just to clarify here.

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

      II will take the Goddess over your bloodthirsty, jealous petty god any day!

      May 3, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • HB

      Cedar,

      Yes there are – the god of power, money, ego, s3.x, material things, etc......... He is speaking of all the things that humans put before God. We worship those things first and that is what He is talking about.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      he is is he? and you got that information from where exactly? or is it just an interpretation of what was meant? kind of like how shalt not kill has slowly changed recently to become shalt not murder, as a way to justify the death penalty?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  14. Anomic Office Drone

    Religion is taking an ugly turn in America. Faith and belief can be great, but when people start mistaking faith and belief for actual knowledge, it bleeds in to other parts of their lives in a detrimental way.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  15. jimtanker

    I’m staging a National Day of Irreverence. My goal today is to break every one of the ten commandments in Exodus 20. For those of you who don’t know what the ten commandments are (xtians mostly) go look them up. I AM NOT suggesting that anyone go out and break the law but using the infamous “Way of the Master” version. Lust after a woman to commit adultery in your heart, covet things instead of stealing, and hate (someone who cuts you off in traffic or a minister who says that you should beat your kids if they are gay) instead of murder.

    Enjoy your National Day of Irreverence and pass this on to as many people as you can.
    ...

    May 3, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Got Anger?

      Good for you, want a cookie? Was your father not around when you were a child?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  16. Pirate Pete

    I for one will be praying to the almighty Flying Spaghetti Monster. For he is the light, the way, the tastiest deity that ever was. May all of you be touched by his noodly appendage. Ramen.

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

      R'amen!

      May 3, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  17. John

    Why a national day of prayer. Do not the religious pray to their god or gods everyday ? If they do not, why ? If they pray everyday then everyday would be a national day of prayer. How special is that ?

    May 3, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • HB

      I love my spouse every day....why do we have Valentine's Day?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  18. Mike in SA

    Here's a thought...Christians pray to the Christian God, others pray to their God(s). Fair enough?

    May 3, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  19. tkogrady

    huh – an article questioning the role of religion in politics . . . and the author politicizes it by taking a shot at the Catholic Church (by the way, I'm a former Catholic and not a fan, so not being defensive. I just thought it was a strange way to end the post).

    May 3, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  20. airforce1990

    2 Chronicles 7:14

    If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.

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

      AMEN!

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

      Murderer: "Dear god, please forgive me for raping those 2 little girls and killing the mother".
      God: "It's cool dude, I forgive you."

      Silly catholics...

      May 3, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • HB

      beheaded,

      Clearly you do not understand repentance. It is not "Sorry God, my bad." Please do not embarrass yourself with trite comments.

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

      then why do you not use that name and praise him as he deserves. only Jehovah's Witnesses are doing that and since Jesus made it the primary focus of the Lord's prayer ( "hallowed be thy name" or" let your name be sanctified") why is no one else doing that? go to http://www.watchtower.org if you really want to learn to pray and bring proper praise to our heavenly father.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
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