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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. Hmmm

    atheists are no fun to hang around. All they do is bltch and moan about everything. When it comes down to it, not many can be trusted either.

    Not a cold hard fact, just my experience with the ones I know in real life.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • saopaco

      theists are no fun to hang around. All they do is bltch and moan about everything. When it comes down to it, not many can be trusted either.

      Not a cold hard fact, just my experience with the ones I know in real life.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • GodPot

      a lot of people are no fun to hang around. All they do is bltch and moan about everything. When it comes down to it, not many can be trusted either.

      Not a cold hard fact, just my experience with the ones I know in real life.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • BRC

      stop hanging out with boring d*cks

      May 3, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Night Of The Living Dead Christians

      Gotta love a guy who bitches and moans about people who bitch and moan.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      What I REALLY can't stand are people that complain about what they REALLY can't stand. I really can't stand it. And if you don't agree, I can't stand you either. And I can't stand people that can't stand people that disagree with them.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  2. spentecost

    Well said. As a former steelworker I attended numerous regional and national meetings. These gatherings began and ended with prayer. Those called upon to lead the prayer consistently used "Oh, God" with no reference to what deity. We recognized differences in religion present and had no intention of insulting anyone. That approach served us well, as we understood we were brothers and sisters in the flesh and in spirit.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • SkepticOne

      What if the believed in more than one or no deity? You've just then ostracized them and called them out of, what should be, a secular gathering. Instead call for a time of individual prayer and reflection and let everyone do what they want.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  3. saopaco

    Why do we have a National Day of Prayer? What purpose does it serve?

    May 3, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Stroking Christians for votes.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Night Of The Living Dead Christians

      Well, I admit it 's not as much fun as National Catapult Your Bosses Car A Quarter Mile Day or Teach A Badger To Tap-Dance Day, but these are all very important things that must be commemmorated with a day.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Darw1n

      Protecting xtians delicate egos. You know there's a war on them be the other 10% of the country, right? Gimme a break.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  4. 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

    Next time you pray for a loved one in the hospital, don't tell them, god might get mad and smite them!

    May 3, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • TownC

      I have total faith in scientific studies and I have faith in everything the NT Times reports. This is the definitive word on the subject!

      May 3, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Hmmm

      Do you realize you just contradicted yourself multiple times in that statement? Haha I wish I could make this stuff up, stupidity at it's finest.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • LauraJT

      I think the only true "power of prayer" is that it gives people the sense they are doing something, anything, in situations where they are completely powerless to change the outcome. That is why so many people say "I'm praying for you" when they meet someone with an incurable disease. What else can they do?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  5. concerned

    Oh GOD please forgive them for they know not what they do!!!

    May 3, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • sybaris

      which god?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  6. Topdecker

    This moron might as well be writing a letter to Mickey Mouse or Santa Claus.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • greg1466

      Mickey Mouse, Santa Clause, Tooth Fairy, God...same difference.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • claus

      Isn't that what is doing?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  7. Scott

    Since you are obviously not a godly man, why the article. Do you enjoy being mean? You accuse the church of being hate mongers, yet you ridicule it with abandon. How do you think this is going to promote the unity that shout that world needs. You are being your own worst enemy.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  8. martog

    Top Ten Signs You're a Christian
    10 – You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.
    9 – You feel insulted and "dehumanized" when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.
    8 – You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.
    7 – Your face turns purple when you hear of the "atrocities" attributed to Allah, but you don't even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in "Exodus" and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in "Joshua" including women, children, and trees!
    6 – You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.
    5 – You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.
    4 – You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs – though excluding those in all rival sects – will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet consider your religion the most "tolerant" and "loving."
    3 – While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor speaking in "tongues" may be all the evidence you need to "prove" Christianity.
    2 – You define 0.01% as a "high success rate" when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.
    1 – You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history – but still call yourself a Christian.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Too Funny

      Glad that you've determined you're the smartest and anyone who disagrees with you is dumb. Gotta love idiots like you.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • World Without Religion

      Martog, I don't know who you are or where you're from, but if I met you right now, I'd give you one big sloppy kiss, irrespective if you were man or woman!! 🙂 No seriously, it's like you took the word right out of my mouth! Actually, you did one better... I couldn't have said it so well. But I do try to in my blog:

      http://commonsenseinlife.blogspot.com/

      May 3, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Darw1n

      Nice..... I'm stealing it, lol

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

      I'm the idiot eh? Please refute WITH FACTS one thing I posted. Until then you are just a name calling idiot. Can't wait for your scholarly reply.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • greg1466

      Bravo!

      May 3, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • swaf

      If you knew a real christain you wouldnt say those things, not all christains are christians, the first thing a real christian understands is that he is no better than you.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Just a note part

      Scientists and evolutionists have drastically opposing views. In the name of Science, please keep the two apart. Look up Carbon dating. Can't prove anything reliably past 6,000 years. Respect Scientist. Question the evolutionist.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Well, if you are going to bring the concept of a "Real" Christian into this then you are out of luck. The last one died on a cross 2000 years ago.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • YoJimbo

      Well said–I particularly agree with signs 10, 5, and 2.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Just a note. You are blathering again. Just thought you should know.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Too Funny

      Here you go; btw all your posts are complete bogus and pose absolutely no intellectual honesty whatsoever.

      10 – I don't get outraged when someone doesn't believe in God, I don't really care. I get angry when people pose intellectual fallacies acting like they're some sort of authority. I do deny the existence of many other things such as Greek Gods or the spaghetti monster. There's much historical evidence for the Bible that's not supported by other religions.
      9- I don't feel insulted, many Christians accept evolution. You conveniently gloss over these facts however and choose to lump all Christians into the smallest bucket of people who fit your predisposed ideas that you can easily mock.
      8- I don't laugh at polytheists. Here's an analogy, you have multiple body parts yet only one body. For example you have an arm, a leg, and a head. Those are 3 things yet they are all part of one body. By your own logic, an arm/leg/head cannot be part of one body since they're 3 separate things, this isn't true however.
      7- Atrocities have been committed by every group of people on this planet. To attribute certain atrocities to a group of people and then claim they're beliefs are false because of that is proposterous.
      6 – Again you post things that are very intellectually dishonest. How to state that is equivalent to me stating the atheists believe that something came from nothing, do you believe something comes from nothing? Or perhaps maybe these kinds of statements aren't honest and they are only said to further prove your own point in your own head.
      5- You're obviously not very familiar with Christianity, you do however like to tell others what they believe. The majority (>90%) of Christians believe the earth to be billions of years old. Your statement is flat out false.
      4 – Again you don't know what you're talking about. The Bible actually says that satan and those who perish will eventually cease to exist, not be tortured forever. There is a hell and that it ceasing to exist. Btw, the point of the Bible isn't to judge or even state who is/isn't going to hell. We are told to be kind and help all people without judging.
      3 – Completely false and not true, just as most of your statements have been.
      2 – not true, I consider that to be an extremely low success rate no matter what you're judging. How did you get that statistic? Let me guess, you made it up to suite your argument, how convenient.
      1 – Again not true, there are both intelligent and ignorant people on both sides. Through your false assertions and easily refuted points you've proved yourself to be one of the willfully ignorant ones on the atheist side.

      Congrats for proving that you're only interested in your preconceived notions and pointing out ridiculous points that have no factual bearing on truth.....the exact thing you claim so many Christians do.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • Just a note part

      Bless your heart MarkinUnderwear. Just saying.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • sybaris

      swaf just played the "true christian" card, lol

      that's like saying a lawyer who quits lawyering was never a lawyer.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • SkepticOne

      http://archaeology.about.com/cs/datingtechniques/a/timing.htm

      Carbon dating isn't the only method "note"; and it's not "evolutionists" it's biologists that assert evolution is true (notice I didn't use the word belief, that implies answering of a question; whereas evolution is based on evidence)

      Oh and a little field called genetics also proves evolution too.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • Too Funny

      @martog

      How convenient, how say you can't wait for a response (bc you think I won't provide one and then you can claim to be right again) and then once I provide one you disappear. Is it because I proved you for the fraud that you really are?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • Just a note

      SkepticOne – not all biologists assert evolution.

      Genetic research proves genetic adaptation, not the one-size-fits-all "Evolution" term that everyone throws around.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  9. Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

    Dear Lord,
    Could you please answer a question that has plagued for many thousands of years? In your holy wisdow, I know you can provide an answer. Could you cook a burrito so hot even you couldn't eat it?

    Your faither servant,
    Jacques Strappe

    May 3, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • BRC

      More importantly, can "God" eat a pizza roll, straight out of the microwave, without burning his mouth?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • swaf

      Im sure as Jesus he could burn his mouth

      May 3, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      Crap, should read "Faithful" not "Faither". God surely won't grant my request now.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      Crap... and wisdom. I should stop drinking vodka before asking God questions.

      It's okay, he can read my thoughts so he knows what I meant to say.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  10. Tony

    FYI, the Buddha was/is not God or a god.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  11. Darw1n

    I just read a comment on an article about the extinction of the dinosaurs. This person floated the theory that god tossing lucifer out of heaven probably caused their extinction. That's a new one on me. These beliefs are evidence of mental illness, folks. I hope humanity can get beyond this bs someday.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      But it certainly makes for great imagery!

      May 3, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Darw1n

      @MarkinFL – Heheheh, certainly. Incidentally, Avengers comes out tomorrow!

      May 3, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  12. Pheadrus

    Matthew 6:1 to 6:5 –

    "Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

    So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

    And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."

    Matthew may have been the only smart Christian *ever* -

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

      "There is no such thing as a smart Christian" Matthew 4:22

      May 3, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  13. Just a note

    Washington addressed “the Almighty”; Jefferson called on “that Infinite Power.” These are among the names used in the Bible for God. Check it out. The Almighty – Genesis 17:1 Infinite Power- Revelation 19:10

    "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."
    This obviously is not obvious even to atheists and agnostics, obviously. Way to spread your humanist religion views.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      'These are among the names used in the Bible for God.'

      Only if you are daft enough to think the Bible was written in English.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Just a note.

      Bible was written in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek – The English translation still stands.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Just a note part two

      Bible was written in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek – The English translation still stands.

      Washington addressed “the Almighty”; Jefferson called on “that Infinite Power.” These are among the names used in the Bible for God. Check it out. The Almighty – Genesis 17:1 Infinite Power- Revelation 19:10

      "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."
      This obviously is not obvious even to atheists and agnostics, obviously. Way to spread your humanist religion views.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Cnels

      He wasn't saying that YOU obviously know. He was saying that God already knows, which, if you buy into the idea that God is omniscient, or even a being with access to the internet, he easily could.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • The Voice of Reason

      Way to be way too ready to critique someone. Did you forget that this "prayer" is being given to God, so when he said "As you obviously know," he was talking about God (you know, the all-knowing one) obviously knows?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  14. Scott

    http://religions.pewforum.org/reports

    This article, indeed, confirms the claim that 78% of Americans are christians. However, the data upon which it is based does not distinguish between those who truly embrace christian dogma and those who might best be described as deists with only a cultural affiliation to christianity. In fact, more recent reports suggest 18-25%, IIRC, of those who affiliate as christian are, in fact, atheists.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  15. n8263

    Religion is delusional and 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.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • MidwestBoy72

      Amen!!! (no pun intended)

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

      How do you know what I think and why I believe? Did some higher power reveal this to you?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Cnels

      I think that pun may actually HAVE been intended. Maybe not, though. Maybe just some predestination.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • SkepticOne

      TownC- that fact that you "believe" instead of look at evidence, shows that we have every right to critique you.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  16. REALLY CNN?

    never fails to amaze me how the must ungoldy haven for atheist and filth writes articles on failth and god..........CNN YOU ARE A JOKE!

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

      and churches are havens for ignorance.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  17. Mike

    Why is CNN always posting things like this? All is does is make people go at each other this is why I'm going to fox news for things now. As for me I do belive in god and cnn needs to stop with this stuff.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • greg1466

      Of course, because we all know that FauxNews never discusses god or religion...

      May 3, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  18. Al, Wisconsin

    If you believe in God, Creator; then there is only one.
    Now, what you call Him, how you worship Him, or how you communicate with Him, is purely your choice.
    Other than that is all cheap politics and no more.

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

      Excellent point. I agree.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Why only one? Most big projects involve teamwork.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  19. Voice of Reason

    Intolerance breeds intolerance

    May 3, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  20. There never was a god

    prayer, i consider it to be the truest form of masturrbation lol.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Howard

      How could you insult masturbation like that?

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

      If you keep both hands on the key board, your spelling might improve.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.