My Take: Dear God: How to pray on National Day of Prayer?
President Barack Obama praying at a White House Easter event in April.
May 3rd, 2012
09:51 AM ET

My Take: Dear God: How to pray on National Day of Prayer?

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Dear Deity,

In the Milky Way, on planet Earth, in the United States of America, Thursday is our National Day of Prayer, so I am writing to ask You how to pray.

Seventy eight percent or so of U.S. citizens are Christians, so should we pray today to the Christian God? This seems to be the conviction of the folks at the National Day of Prayer Task Force, which pops up first if you Google “National Day of Prayer.” (By the way, do You Google, God? And if so do you ever Google "God"?)

The NDP Task Force refers to itself as “Judeo-Christian,” but it sure looks evangelical to me. It has been chaired since 1991 by Shirley Dobson, the wife of Focus on the Family founder (and evangelical stalwart) James Dobson. Its site quotes liberally from the New Testament, and one of its goals is to “foster unity within the Christian Church.”

A NDP Task Force press release begins: “Americans to Unite and Pray on Thursday, May 3rd, for the 61st Annual Observance of the National Day of Prayer." But will their sort of prayer really unite our nation?

Twenty four percent of Americans are Catholics, and God knows they don’t pray the way evangelicals do. Nearly 2% are Mormons and another 2% are Jews. And neither of those groups talks to You with the easy familiarity of born-again Christians.

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And what about American Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists?  Muslims agree with their Jewish and Christian neighbors that there is one God. But how to pray as a nation when some believers affirm more than one God and some affirm fewer?

As You obviously know, the 1.6% of Americans who call themselves atheists and the 2.4% who call themselves agnostics refer to today as the National Day of Reason. On their web site, they argue that our National Day of Prayer represents an unwanted and unconstitutional intrusion of religion into the workings of the U.S. government.

In his various proclamations of the National Day of Prayer, including this year's, President Obama has referred to prayer as an important part of U.S. history. He speaks of the Continental Congress and Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. being driven to their knees by the force of the tasks set before them.

But when our national icons have prayed on our behalf, they have done so in generic terms. Washington addressed “the Almighty”; Jefferson called on “that Infinite Power.” They did so because they wanted prayer to unite us, not to divide us, and they knew from the start that different Americans call You by different names.

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But addressing “Providence” in vague pieties will not satisfy everyone either. The evangelicals at the NPD Task Force reject efforts to “homogenize” America’s many different ways of praying into one common prayer.

I see their point. Like language, religion is a specific sort of thing. If you are going to speak, you need to choose a language. If you are going to pray, you need to choose a religion (and a god). So if they want to pray to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, more power to them.

But what happens when that particular prayer language is put forth as our collective national language? What happens when we pray, as Rick Warren did at President Obama’s inaugural, “in the name of the one who changed my life, Yeshua, Isa, Jesus”? Then prayer turns into a wedge, dividing those who call you Christ from those who call You Krishna (or do not call on You at all).

So I return to my original question: How should we pray on this National Day of Prayer?

But while I have Your attention (do I?) I have one more.

This year the NDP Task Force has chosen for its theme “One Nation Under God” and its Bible quote is: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalms 33:12). Is our god You? Since 1954 we have bragged in our Pledge of Allegiance that we are "one nation under God." Are we?

All too often, it seems to me, we use You rather than following You. Democrats ask You to shill for them on tax policy and immigration. Republicans claim to speak in Your name on abortion and gay marriage. Does this annoy You — playing the pawn in our political chess games? Don't You sometimes just want to smite us?

Finally, before I let you go, I must ask You about the marginal tax rate for the wealthiest Americans. Perhaps You have more important things on your plate, but while I have Your attention (do I?) I must ask: What portion of their income should millionaires pay to the U.S. government? When President Kennedy came into office the highest income tax rate was 91%. Was that too high? Today it is 35%. Is that too low? (Just curious.)

This prayer is already too long, so I should stop. But if You are still there (are You?) maybe you could just tell me whether You follow the Roman Catholic Church. If so, could you comment on the recent fight the Vatican has been picking with American nuns? Do you think our nuns should be spending more time fighting contraception and less time caring for the poor and the sick?

And do get back to me on that how to pray thing. We’re all supposed to do it on Thursday, together.



The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Barack Obama • Catholic Church • Christianity • Politics • Prayer • Uncategorized • United States

soundoff (4,673 Responses)
  1. Paul Joseph

    Oh yeah, I am sure you love the word free... There is such a thing as Free Energy.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Free Radical

      Yeah, thats right, i'm free beeeatch!!!

      May 3, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  2. Chad

    Steve: you should be praying to the God of Abraham, and His Son Jesus Christ.

    It's not clear to me where your confusion is, unless this column is simply a very transparent attempt to create the perception that "god" is only a concept created by superstitious man simply to allay a fear of the unknown 🙂

    How exactly does an atheist become a BU "religion scholar" anyway??

    May 3, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • GodPot

      It usually happens in reverse. They start out Christians who study religion, then eventually become disgusted with organized religion and the frequent lies spouted by believers and zealots who don't care about truth, they only care about their ideology and making everyone else think they are right. Thats when they admit to themselves that if the loving God described in the latter half of the bible really did exist he certainly would not be bringing such lunatics into his organization, so either he doesn't exist or he isn't a God I'd want as a friend...

      May 3, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • Chad

      @GodPot "They start out Christians who study religion, then eventually become disgusted with organized religion and the frequent lies spouted by believers and zealots who don't care about truth, they only care about their ideology and making everyone else think they are right. Thats when they admit to themselves that if the loving God described in the latter half of the bible really did exist he certainly would not be bringing such lunatics into his organization, so either he doesn't exist or he isn't a God I'd want as a friend..."

      =>tragic to think that might actually be a true statement.. that a person would stop "believing" in God due to the behavior of man in some respect..
      I put that in quotes because if they really believed (understood the bible and the situation man is in), they would understand that man's lousy "performance" is PRECISELY the reason the bible was written, why the relationship with God is fractured currently, and why we need the sacrifice of Jesus.

      IOW, if that person had only done a little investigation, and gotten a basic understanding of what humanities history is with respect to God, they would never have made such a tragic error.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  3. jingorun

    I read the comments posted on these news blogs and I wonder if people are so ignorant that they have to distinguish one God of a religion to another God of another religion.

    Are people so biased and prejudice that they forget that after all is said and done, "There is only One God" Regardless of what you call Him. Wake up people, ignorance has become the norm.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Well, that is what YOU believe. Clearly, it is not universal.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Atheist Hunter

      There is only one TRUE God, but many people have their own gods. Not that same at all. Allah is not Jehovah. Buddha is not Jehovah. etc......SO WRONG YOU ARE!

      May 3, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      jingorun wrote: after all is said and done, "There is only One God"

      And the proof for this is... what??

      He also wrote: " ignorance has become the norm."

      Seeing all these people talking to themselves while thinking they're communing with some supernatural being, I must agree with you here...

      May 3, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • sadartha

      Hunter, FYI Buddha is not a God.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • GodPot

      So far the lack of evidence suggests... that there could be millions of Gods or just one God or maybe even a half a God or absolutely no God at all, since that is the nature of "lack of evidence". You can get a lack of evidence to support just about any position you want to take. It's just sad that so many Christians seem to prefer doggy style when it comes to forcing their beliefs on others.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  4. Birch please

    We should have a national prayer FREE day.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  5. grist

    The answer is to not have a national day of prayer at all. Instead, have a day where people commit to some volunteer effort. Reminds me of the joke about the religious Jew who prayed at the "Wailing Wall" in Jerusalem every day for 40 years. A journalists sees him praying there for a week and asks him what he is praying for. He replies "world peace". The journalists asks him how it makes him feel with all the war going on. He replies, "like I've been talking to a wall."

    May 3, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Darw1n

      hee hee

      May 3, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  6. sean

    STop hyphanating everything, there is God, not a christian God. There is one God for all of us.

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


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

      And you know this... how?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • sean

      I know it becuase I have faith. Just like non-believers no there is no God. God and spirituallity is up to the individual.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Birch please

      Yes, there is one evolutionarily acquired, egocentric state of mind that has, and continues to allow the vast majority of our species to deal with advanced consciousness.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • GodPot

      "non-believers no there is no God." Yes, we know that no, there is no God.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      sean .. faith is NOT "knowing" and no I do not KNOW there is no God. It is just infinitely unlikely that one or more exist and I do not "believe" in any of them.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • sean

      "if horses" You seem to be under the impression that Christains are concerned with what you might think about how one chooses to have faith. Faith is what gets us all through the day. As long as you are happy with yourself believe what you wish. This is the sort of debate that no one argue and win. Either you have faith in God or you have faith in yourself, it does not matter. WE should all try to improve mankind in the ways that we can.

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

      "Faith is what gets us all through the day." BS. Hard work, some food, some water, shelter and clothing get us all through the day, if we don't have those things thats when we don't know if tomorrow will come for us or not. Faith has nothing to do with it.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Birch please

      God pot, for many faith is as important as breathing. Consciousness can be very difficult to deal with. As long as they keep their faith mostly to themselves AND OUT OR THE GOVERNMENT then let them be. "Militant atheist" would not exist if the faithful kept it to themselves.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  7. Paul Joseph

    The bottom line is that you should always pray. It's not about who you pray too. Like the artical says...Praying is the IInfinite Power. And you must believe that there is a Higher Power than yourself working in this world.
    God bless America.

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

      " you must believe that there is a Higher Power than yourself working in this world." Why?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • YoJimbo

      According to what I've been told, Christians, at least, believe everything that happens is according to God's plan. So if you pray for something to happen and it happens, either it was going to happen anyway according to God's plan, or your prayer somehow altered God's plan, which means it wasn't much of a plan to begin with if anyone's prayer can alter it. Do you see how prayer wouldn't make sense to some people?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • NickZadick

      Jimbo quoting Carlin !! 😀 Paul...please learn to spell and stop believing fairy tales!

      May 3, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • YoJimbo

      NickZadick–Do you mean George Carlin? Wasn't aware of that routine. Will have to look for it–probably a riot!

      May 3, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  8. ghostmule

    Muslims believe that if you pray to more than one God, you will recieve the worst punishment hell has to offer. They believe that since Christians pray to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that they are worshiping more than one God.

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

      I am a Muslim and I pray to the God that Jesus, peace be unto him, prayed to when he was on the cross.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  9. Observant Historian

    In any culture, the vast majority who believe in a religion are going to believe in the religion they were raised with. Few of them will ever REALLY know much about the tenets of any other religion, so very few of them actually "believe" in their religion in the sense that they have carefully considered it and come to a reasoned and informed decison that their religion a) makes sense and b) makes more sense than every other religion. They "believe" it in the sense that they were indoctrinated into it as a child and have never really questioned it. Whether there is a higher power or greater purpose to the universe is open to question and interpretation, but religions, religious texts, religious rules and religious authority are the creations of humankind. Christianity is a case in point, whose adherents cannot separate their belief in a higher power from the dogma contained in a Bronze Age religious text, so it's the dogma that consumes them, no matter how ridiculous, contradictory, or demonstrably false, and the "god" they believe in is depicted as little more than a petulant child-king. Are all religious people delusional? All I know is, every believer in a religion figures that believers in other religions ARE delusional. From the outside looking in, it's a little hard to see where one is any more coherent than another.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Darw1n

      "Indoctrinated as a child" = brainwashed. This is child abuse and should not be tolerated.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  10. David

    Psalm 14
    New King James Version (NKJV)

    14 The fool has said in his heart,
    “There is no God.”
    They are corrupt,
    They have done abominable works,
    There is none who does good.

    2 The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men,
    To see if there are any who understand, who seek God.

    3 They have all turned aside,
    They have together become corrupt;
    There is none who does good,
    No, not one.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Can you also quote from other works of fiction?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • John Frum

      Now that's just embarasing in it's foolishness.
      Don't believe in this particular God (of so many) and you are corrupt, can do no good and have done abominable works.
      Wow, read that again & just try to see how incredibly wrong that is.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      "Just look, Your Majesty, what colors! What a design!" They pointed to the empty looms, each supposing that the others could see the stuff.

      "What's this?" thought the Emperor. "I can't see anything. This is terrible!

      Am I a fool? Am I unfit to be the Emperor? What a thing to happen to me of all people! – Oh! It's very pretty," he said. "It has my highest approval." And he nodded approbation at the empty loom. Nothing could make him say that he couldn't see anything." - The Emperor's New Clothes

      May 3, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Chewbacca

      Thanks for the copy/paste

      May 3, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      Frayed not .. that's accurate on sooo many levels.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  11. swaf

    There is a reason why Jesus hung out with undesireables, "sinners" as condemned by the religeous community, becaues the religeous became self righteous and delutional, be a christian like Jesus was, that is our commandment under the law of liberty.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  12. HenryMiller

    Religion is always divisive. It's always "We're the good guys. Them, not so good..." Even within a given religion, it's divisive–for a couple of centuries between four and five hundred years ago, Protestants and Catholics slaughtered each other in the thousands. The Sunni and Shia branches of Islam have little tolerance for each other.

    Religion ought to be a personal thing–the "National Day of Prayer" is a truly bad idea.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  13. hex2323

    National Prayer Day, huh?

    How could it be divisive if no one even knows about it? If tweety bird here hadn't brought it up, none of us would have known.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  14. Gamer Geek

    Lack of belief in a deity based on empirical evidence, is not the same as as rationally presenting that evidence in proposition. There is a divide among many people who have reasoned that blind faith in a deity, as presented by man made organizations is simply invalid as it accepts an infinite. It is as diverse as Muslim and Christian. An Atheist is reliant on the empirical evidence and so reasons and presents a case for others to review, consider and decide for themselves. The new breed of "anti-theist' that I read so often simply appears to be relying on others not being able to disprove their stance as lack of evidence is readily available. Its childish, and frightening. A reality based in facts, requires no foot stomping to influence the perception of others. As in all things, some will understand, some will simply accept and some will be incapable of grasping concepts beyond their own experience. That does not give anyone provocation to strike forward in anger or frustration. You cannot teach or learn in anger.

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

      Say what????

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

      Well stated. My sense is the argument of whether or not there is a God is crazy since no one has any proof either way. It's like arguing what came first, the chicken or the egg. I believe the person who follows the golden rule, empowers himself and others along the way, who is kind and who embraces all humans as kindred spirits trying to survive in this world is more likely to "go to Heaven", if there is one, than the person who reads the bible and uses his knowledge of it to condemn everyone who doesn't believe as he does.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  15. Shawn

    I am not a Christian or part of any other religion for that matter, but this has my support. Its party of equality and religious freedom, more power to them!

    May 3, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  16. Bruce

    Having a National Day of Prayer in this day and age seems so ludicrous, it's as silly as the White House Easter Egg Roll. Well actually the Easter Egg Roll is for kids, so at least the kids are having some fun, and at their age what harm can it do, but a National Prayer Day is just a large group (Too Large) of adults talking to themselves, and often times believing someone is talking back to them, and that seems like extremely harmful behavior.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  17. Using God

    Oh yes...and let's not forget the dating site that proclaims of God's choice for you....now that is really something....and why do we have to pray together as a group? I have a great time talking to God every day....I do it everywhere....seems to me that it works...works for me...I don't need anyone telling me how to pray, who to pray to, what to pray for....and I certainly don't want to pray in a church that advocates "breaking the limp wrist of a gay child". I pray that people stop trying to make everyone else in their own image.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  18. Voice of Reason

    You religious types really do not get it. Here we are watching you in a cesspool of waste and we want to help and pull you out but you are so darn happy in the crapper you refuse to think that there is any other way than the cesspool you live in.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • GodPot

      It's because they are all so optomistic! They think there must be a magic brown mud dolphin swimming around in there somewhere!!

      May 3, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  19. Mbane18

    Since Republican views are the exact oposite of everything Christianity stands for, who answeres their prayers?

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

      Hopefully, not a god that takes the opinions of morons such as yourself into consideration.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Mbane18

      You have anger issues. You should seak therapy. I did not state any opinion – just a fact. Republican views are the opposite of Christianity. In case you don't know Christianity is about helping the poor and sharing what you have with others, accepting people for who they are, forgiving and coming together as a comunity – what you would call socialism and liberalism!

      May 3, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  20. Reagan80

    Oh! I see the light! There are many ! What an enlightning article! Please pass the bong back.

    Another sucking CNN "opinion".

    May 3, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Birch please

      Mind altering substances have, and will continue to provide an easy source enlightenment for our naturally closed minds. This is why hallucinogens are schedule I substances; the last thing our (or any) government wants is for people to think freely.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:40 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.