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. Matthew Menadier

    Most of you are missing the point. It is not about us and what WE WANT: It is all about serving Him and glorifying who He is!
    Plus, do you actually believe that the complexity of this universe came about by random chance? Really?

    May 3, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      I would suggest some in-depth study of the origin of life and you'll realize there's nothing really that random about it.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • Matthew Menadier

      Well, where did life come from then?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • closet atheist

      Ok... playing the chicken or egg game, Mr Menadier? Who created "god"...?? Who/what is this "god"?? Is it the christian god? Muslim? One of ancient greek or norse mythology?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Jim Stanek

      Mr. Menadier, life came from ANYwhere but the God of the Bible. Have you read the old testament lately, and read about how many genocides, massacres, and slaughters of innocent victims "God" not only condoned but ordered or committed himself?

      The only "evidence" you can muster to support your view consists of a. the Bible (which is self-refuting, and claiming it as evidence for itself is to use circular logic), and/or b. your own subjective faith experience (which I would seriously call into question, since you base it on a book that is only proven to be valid by circular logic).

      If anything, you should argue that there is reason to suspect a divine creative force is responsible for the world we live in, and THEN beg and plead people to consider the God of the Old and/or the New Testaments. But try no to sound stup id by claiming that it is obvious that one of those gods created the heavens and the earth.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • Matthew Menadier

      First of all, I am not trying to argue with y'all. Just trying to challenge you. I am not trying to play that game...you know as well as I do (at least I think you do) that us Christians do not believe that God was created! He is and always has been. That is what we believe on faith. I am simply wondering how you can believe that the complexity of the world we live in was not created by someone who had a master plan. I know, you may say that you believe that there is no creator and thta the world evolved...you may believe that on FAITH as well. But I am asking you: is it really that hard to believe that this complex world was not created by a master designer?
      Now your last few questions regarding who this God is. Have you ever read the Quran (or part of it)? Have you eveyr studied ancient greek mythology? Our God is NOT the same god (or gods) they believe in.
      In some ways my argument does bowl down to a matter of faith: but their are plenty of other areas that point to the existance of God that you can believe without having faith in something you CANNOT see.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Wayne

      "Well, where did life come from then?"

      Translation: I don't know therefore magic.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Jim Stanek

      You are right, Mr Menadier, your "god" is not the same as these other "gods." But you have not answered the allegations of atrocities leveled against your "god" which are littered throughout the Old AND New Testaments. No, it is not too hard to believe that there is a "master designer" as you call it, responsible for this world. But it is pretty DAMN hard to believe that he/she/it is in ANY way, shape or form related to the bronze-aged tyrant you claim to worship.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Jim Stanek

      the reason you are not trying to play "that game" is because it is obvious that you will lose. However, if you will lose on a rational-based argument FOR your faith, then what good is your faith to begin with? Why hold to a focus, codified, and very clear faith when there are STRONG rational arguments to be made against it, AND for adopting a much looser, less structured version of "faith" in whatever is truly out there beyond this world? Answer that, if you can.

      You started "playing the game" when you attempted to "challenge" people on this board.

      Either be up front about your intentions, or go home.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Jim Stanek

      to answer your question: YES. It really IS that hard to believe that the present world is 6,000 years old and some change, and existed the same as it is today, on the day it was created all those years ago.

      The fossil record clearly speaks to the contrary, in that there are fossils of dinosaurs but NO fossils of modern cows, pigs, horses, or lambs for that matter. The same with the ice age animals that have been discovered.

      The question you should be asking youself is: is it really so EASY for you to believe that the world was created in six days, and that 99.9% of its inhabitants have subsequently gone to hell in a handbasket because one naked chick ate an apple at the advice of a talking snake with hands?

      Give us all a f **ng break.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Wayne

      "I am simply wondering how you can believe that the complexity of the world we live in was not created by someone who had a master plan."

      Because that is not evident anywhere.

      " I know, you may say that you believe that there is no creator and thta the world evolved..."

      There is evidently no creator invovled.

      "you may believe that on FAITH as well."

      There has never been one instance of observed supernatural creation ever. It does not take any faith to accept that.

      "But I am asking you: is it really that hard to believe that this complex world was not created by a master designer?"

      Yes it is, especially the way you think it was created. By magic in less than a week.

      You need to look up God of the gap logical fallacy, and the argument from personal incredulity logical fallacy.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • B

      I'm sorry, Matt, but I've decided to believe in Zubulu, the cannibalistic god of er otic love who created the world in four days and encourages us to eat our ugly and stupid young rather than pass on their sins of stupidity and ugliness to the rest of humanity.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Sharon Chang

      Matt- what Jim said: you ARE playing the game. Just state up front that you want to convert us to Christianity and then set back. But quit arguing for something which, by its nature defies logic.

      We're not telling you to "get in the ring." You're already in it. Best get your gloves on.


      May 3, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  2. nolimits3333

    Science flies you to the moon.

    Religion flies you into buildings.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • It comes down to this...

      Islamist fanatics fly you into buildings, Christ flies you into heaven when your time on earth has ended.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • GAW

      And science made the atomic bomb. Hey no bodies perfect.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  3. If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

    I crossed my fingers ... nothing happened
    I blew out candles ... nothing happened
    I wished upon a star ... nothing happened
    I prayed to a God ... nothing happened
    ... see a pattern there?

    May 3, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Joshua

      Which brings me to an old refrain: G-d does hear everything. Sometimes the answer is "no".

      May 3, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Donk

      Maybe he doesn't like you.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • It comes down to this...

      God knows the intent of you heart. If you sincerely want to know the truth about Him He will reveal it.
      I asked a stranger for a dollar and he ignored me
      I asked a stranger for a diamond ring and he ignored me
      I asked a stranger for a ticket to Hawaii and he ignored me
      See a pattern here?
      I asked God if He would show me the truth and He opened up my understanding to a whole new realm that only He can give access to. Pray with a sincere heart to honestly know the truth.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  4. Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

    Dear Lord,

    I've been a faithful follower of you as well as the Pittsburgh Pirates all my life. So far, with both, I've only dealt with loss. Can you please make the Pirates win? If you could get them to hit the over on runs tomorrow, that would also be appreciated since I've got my paycheck riding on it.

    Thanks in advance (I'll throw a few bucks your way on Sunday),

    Your pal,
    Jacques Strappe

    May 3, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  5. MJ Shaw

    How about nobody suggest what god to pray to or how to pray.

    Pray to whomever or whatever you believe in.

    I am highly spiritual, but the basis of my belief is extremely personal – as it is MY relationship with I believe to be God.

    Please don't try to pray to my God. It might not be the same as yours.

    Please don't ask me to pray to your God – I don't know them.

    This year, I'll pray that people will stop caring about others beliefs and faith systems and just embrace their own and be a person who cares for the peace and acceptance of others...

    May 3, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      I don't believe in God but I can sure get behind this prayer.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Too Funny


      Everyone run because his post makes sense.


      May 3, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Guest

      Just what I was thinking. Let each person pray the way they were taught to whom they wish. We are not all alike nor should try to mske everyone pray to the same God.

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

      There is but one God and she does not favor or condemn any faith or religion. He does want us to be considerate to each other or else, in time, we remain hollow as ever.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • MJ Shaw

      Actually, Kurious, by what you just said about there being only one god, I think you might have missed the unspoken point about not forcing your beliefs upon others, and simply respecting their beliefs... 🙂

      May 3, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Mohammed_Islam

      God given 'Free Will' gives us the ability to pray what we want to pray... and there is no one to force anyone what to pray and how to pray... we decide by ourselves by using our intelectuals/brain what to pray and whom to pray.... as we have the ability to chose the right from wrong...

      And this is what Al-Quran teaches that 'There is no compulsion in the religion' in Chapter 2: Verse 257


      May 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  6. lefty avenger

    They Pray, We Pay, so what?

    May 3, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  7. Michael

    Well the Christian God is the ONLY God that the GOP has said the president can pray to. In fact they spent a lot of time trying to tell Americans Obama was not Christian. He is. And, now they're front runner ironically definitely does not pray to a Christian God. Talk about the ultimate two-faced mentality.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • Jim

      Frankly, I'd rather have a president who doesn't waste his time mumbling at the sky and expecting answers. That's insane!

      May 3, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  8. Timsdad

    Umm. And your point is?

    You had a lot to say about saying nothing except getting in a few shots. Might I suggest that YOU do not pray today. You might pray and "God" might take notice of you. I don't think that would make you happy

    May 3, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  9. Woodrow

    Today I am praying that all you religious whack jobs finally wake up and realize you are praying to a story made up by people long ago. There is no god, and he does nothing for you.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • MJ Shaw

      You really should have stopped at "There is no god," and left out the "he does nothing for you." By using the pronoun yourself you are indicating (even if subconsciously) that you are angry at a "he" god for doing nothing for YOU.

      If you truly don't believe in a god, and you truly believe you are correct in your belief, then how about allowing others their own beliefs? Don't you think that would be the decent, humanist thing to do? Regardless of the existence or nonexistence of a god?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  10. It comes down to this...

    Your argument is with GOD not me.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Well, tell your imaginary friend he's got issues the next time you see them then.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • It comes down to this...

      @LOL Religion
      Are you calling GOD an imaginary friend? Well then, it's you who has issues but nothing too big for Him to handle.
      Friend He is, but certainly not imaginary! Don't mock what you don't understand.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  11. saopaco

    I am pretty sick of religion. I am not religious, yet the faithful see it as their duty to attempt to indoctrinate me. Everything from nativity scenes on the courthouse lawn, in god we trust on money, and piles of religious drek like the day of prayer. Get over yourselves, theists!

    May 3, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • MJ Shaw

      Oh boy, just another angry, anti-religion, anti-god person. You do realize that it is psychologically natural to the base of our human core to want to believe in something greater than ourselves, right? That this "search" has been happening since the dawn of our existence (regardless of whether that dawn was in a garden or on the banks of a mucky pond)?

      You don't have to be "religious" to be a spiritually aware person. You don't have to subscribe to a spiritual doctrine written by someone else in order to achieve a deeper level of awareness.

      Turn that critical, cynical eye inward and you might just discover what is in fact greater than yourself... Trust me, it's okay to let go of the modern ego and self-involvement and just embrace that you are only a speck within the realm of all that is... We all are...

      May 3, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • Mohammed_Islam

      The only creature is given 'THE FREE WILL' is to Human... which is why we all chose to do what we want to do... and nothing happens to us when we say what we say... if this 'Free will' has not been given to the human then there will be only one belief system as the first human (Adam) believed and so rest of the prophets and messangers and followers fo them... and this is what human will be judged for in hereafter... and this is what is the test in this life... otherwise if God wanted to make every single human with one faith, HE could have... then there will not be any tests/exams to go thru...

      I wouldn't point to any human in order for me to chose my faith as every faith has good and evil person and not every human represents the true they believe... I would go and spend time to read the scriptures and then decide what to follow and whom to follow and why to follow what i follow... etc... it may take rest of my life... who knows...

      Peace be upon all of us...

      May 3, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • MJ Shaw

      The point is to believe how you believe and allow others the same courtesy. Don't fight over it. Don't criticize differences. Don't hate me for what I believe, as I promise I do not hate you for what you believe. Just be good to yourself and all your fellow human beings – be they Jew, Muslim, Buddist, Christian, etc, blah, blah, blah.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  12. Mohammed_Islam

    Hello Friends,
    I find that the mankind is in lost as there are currently three thousands plus official faiths are out there on the face of earth... and if we invite one leader from each faith and let them talk, the only thing everyone will say is 'my way is the only/correct way'... even within the Christianity, Catholic says Catholic is the only way.... so if every ones' way is the only way then what about the rest of the ways... can all these ways could be The Truth? The Truth should be only one....

    Anyways, I just thought to mention here what is in the New Testament, Luke 11: 2-4

    2 He said to them, "when you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us, and lead us not into temptation

    As Jesus (PBUH) said in Al-Quran (Chapter 3 Aal-E-Imran)
    3:50 And I have come to confirming what was before me of the Torah and to make lawful for you some of what was forbidden to you. And I have come to you with a sign from your Lord, so fear Allah (Al Ilah) and obey me.
    3:51 Indeed, Allah is my Lord and your Lord, so worship HIM. That is the straight path.

    We have use our God gifted brain to chose The Truth from these ways... may The Almighty help us, make us happy in this earthly life, hereafter and save us from the punishment of hell... amin

    Peace to All...

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

      Islam is just as misguided as the rest of the religions of abraham.

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

      Jesus Christ-Son of God-said I am the Way,the Truth,and the Life-John 14 v 6-The Bible

      May 3, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  13. It comes down to this...

    For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1Corinthians 1:18

    May 3, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  14. RichardSRussell

    Prayer is demonstrably an utter waste of time. But hey, knock yourselves out if that's what jingles your chimes. In fact, I'd much rather have you praying than meddling in politics.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  15. nika

    So could you tell us in what way are Mormons unfamiliar with their Heavenly Father? You appear to be, or atleast believe yourself to be an expert... Just how does a Mormon pray and how is it "unfamiliar"?

    May 3, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  16. Broken Window

    The smug self-satisfaction of CNN opinion writers could power Earth for the next hundred years. This op-ed isn't clever, lacks focus, and is a whole lot more "divisive" than the National Day of Prayer. On the other hand, feel free to write and post your inane babble any time. Unlike you, I'm not threatened by people who disagree with me.

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


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

      Thanks Broken Window – I agree with you. It seems that Mr. Prothero is saying we should just throw up our hands, not pray at all because we have different ideas about God and prayer. I know there is disagreement in this country, nearly everything is politicized, but wouldn't it be lovely if we could set that stuff aside on one day and pray together, those of us that want to? And those that don't want to are free to refrain.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • sigh

      I think you're missing the point of the article. He's not claiming that everyone throw up their hands and abandon prayer or God(s). I think he's saying maybe government shouldn't declare something like a national day of prayer when it's unclear in both what that means and whether or not it's appropriate considering a small but not insignificant collection of Americans don't believe in prayer and what prayer represents.

      Feel free to pray together in unity all you want, but government shouldn't be in the business of creating days that honor non-secular concepts.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • closet atheist

      That's all fine and dandy, folks. Pray away. I certainly hope that the 1.6 million federal employees (nevermind state and local) aren't engaging in this unproductive activity during work hours. We all know their productivity is low enough already.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  17. Duh


    May 3, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  18. Freethinker

    "The number you have dialed is not in service."

    *dial tone*

    May 3, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  19. TownC

    There is a national day of prayer because prayer changes things. Our forefathers recognized this and prospered. If we neglect it let it be at our peril. Our basic human rights as enumerated in the Declaration of Independence come from God. If we don't believe in God then our rights come from government. What government gives it can take away. It is very appropriate that we have a day to recognize the higher power that gives us our rights.

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

      You know what prayer changes? Pray for 60 minutes, and the hour hand will be pointing at a different number. Big whoop!

      May 3, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Can't tell if trolling or actually that stupid...

      May 3, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Birch please

      Scientifically proven that it does not. And if you dont believe in science get off the computer.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • pat carr

      Prayer changes things. it changes what was a good usage of time to a complete waste of time

      May 3, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  20. It comes down to this...

    The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.
    1 Corinthians 2:14

    May 3, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Steve the Goat

      I love you, you love me

      Quoting fiction is fun, isn't it?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • It comes down to this...

      You wish it was fiction.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Birch please

      Your same spirit can be obtained using psychotropic chemicals. This does show that it is real but also that there is no magic involved.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • Wayne

      It's fiction everyday you wake up and your dead savior isn't back here yet.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
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About this blog

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.