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. Istrt

    Funny how people bash there is no God, what's your purpose in life is it then? Troll on internet?

    May 3, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      My thoughts resemble Richard Dawkins on the matter:
      “The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”

      “If you're an atheist, you know, you believe, this is the only life you're going to get. It's a precious life. It's a beautiful life. Its something we should live to the full, to the end of our days. Where if you're religious and you believe in another life somehow, that means you don't live this life to the full because you think you're going to get another one. That's an awfully negative way to live a life. Being a atheist frees you up to live this life properly, happily and fully”

      May 3, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • I'm The Best!

      I'll answer with my own question, what's your purpose? To honor god?
      Oh, so what about you family? Scre.w them, right? Your here for god. What about friends? Still no, just god? What about experiencing things? No, too much work? Just god then?

      Wow, to me your life seems pretty lonely and void of purpose save one thing whereas I see my purpose for living everyday in my experiences and people I make an impact on. Have fun on your knees while I go out and experience life.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Istrt

      Jacques, I respectfully beg to differ.

      If you believe in afterlife, you live this life accordingly. To achieve a better afterlife, you do good in this world. Be kind, compassionate, honest, loving, respectful towards other human beings or any living creature for that matter. If you don't believe in afterlife, you may still do good but you will never find that inner peace.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • capnmike

      What makes you think life has any "purpose"? Sorry to tell you, but it really doesn't. "Purposes" are human inventions.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      So that's the only reason you are a Christian? To get the happy little feeling inside? I treat others the way I want to be treated. I go out of my way to be nice to others. I do that without expecting a reward. Trust me, that brings a peace like you woulnd't believe. You say you have inner peace but I know that's not true. As long as you are worried you are displeasing your god, you will never be at peace.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • George

      Jaques Strapp- and what if this was the design of God? How would a scientist know if they were discovering the noun or the verb through which the noun operates? How is Richard Dawkins your GOD that you would allow your life to be positioned by what he THINKS. I like the eastern idea that one keeps returning to this world until they get it right. Could you imagine having to live life after life coming here and living with people who treat one another as they do here. If Dawkins is correct and ther eis but one shot...I could see the suicide rate chart now- priobably look like Apples Stock chart. And anyway...why such a small view of life- we are so locked into the human form we fail to see the broader picture. Life does not end with our death- maybe our perception of life ends but life, for us, is simply altered.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Istrt

      I'm The Best!, that has to be the most idiotic reply ever. According to your theory, only a cleric can pray to God?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Istrt

      Jacques, first off I'm not a Christian... secondly, Science and Religion both compliment and support each other.

      capnmike, so is everything else... what exactly is your point?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Andrew

      It took several centuries for religion to begin accepting science as anything other than heresy.

      Lets not forget when it was discovered that the Earth revolved around the Sun along with the other planets instead of everything revolving around the Earth.

      Science and Religion contradict each other more so.

      Religion is merely making a assumption under a belief out of faith while Science is a method to discover things so we can understand it fully and it's process.

      That is not to say Religion hasn't evolved itself. Many religious people have more refined version of their beliefs because of their moral value they may have. For example I'm sure you don't run around stoning particular people for committing some pretty trivial crimes while in the past they would do just that cause the bible said so. You have selectively chosen particular beliefs to follow because you either were taught that or formed it yourself.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  2. MM

    This is not that difficult. Each person will pray to their own God... Then, the one, true God will respond and all false God worshipers will be killed (1 Kings 18:39).

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

      Actually, know one really knows what there is, what there is not and what will happen. That is why we have the word and action of faith. Why we fight over this is beyond me. Each night as we close our eyes we each do what we do before we fall to sleep. Some pray, some worry aboput tomorrow, some look forward to the next day, some just lay their head down and fall to sleep and it probably is at this moment when we are in harmony with one another not caring what others think or believe and feeling free to think and believe as we do. Such a small moment we allow ourselves to be kind to the world as it is.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  3. Acustatic

    Why do you care, Prothero? Let people pray, or not, however they see fit.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  4. Roy

    As you pointed out most of us are "Christian" so on a National Day of Prayer we pray to the Christian God. You can't please all the people all the time. Other days we have differnt religious ceremonies to celebrate someone else's belief or non-belief. Quit trying to take a Christian founded day and turn it into something divisive!

    May 3, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  5. jj

    Affirming fewer than one God is a nonsensical statement. If you are an atheist, generally you believe in no god, not fewer than one. Are we talking about 1/2, 1/4, 2/16 of a god?

    May 3, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Darw1n

      There's exactly as much evidence for those conclusions as there is for zero, one, or more gods.

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

      That's what we refer to as a 'joke'.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  6. Voice of Reason

    Religious types are incredulously uninformed. Basically they are retarded.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • james

      Thanks for your uninformed opinion.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • monsieurdl

      At least I don't have to insult the mentally challenged by calling people "retarded". You just proved your ignorance, and it is hardly a voice of reason.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • God

      I am not real stop praying to me. That voice you hear in your head means you have a brain tumor and you need to go to the hospital. Praying will not help you need people that have a brain to check the one you claim to have.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Daniel Watkins

      Yep, Pascal, Descartes, Bacon, Lewis, Bell, Newton, Tolkien, Einstein...all believed in some sort of intelligent "being" that was beyond nature, so by your reasoning they must all be "retarded." Good job.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • Krep1

      1Co 2:14 But people who aren't spiritual can't receive these truths from God's Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can't understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means.

      This is the answer to your spiritual ignorance....

      May 3, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • George

      I know the voice of reason. You are certainly not the voice of reason.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  7. jimmy

    we are not praying collectively as a nation. people pray as individuals. if you are against the national day of prayer, don't pray. nobody is forcing you. i think the people behind the national day of prayer are probably a bunch of nutjobs, but never once in the history of this event have i felt threatened, annoyed or insulted by it. why don't you loud-mouthed opinion-makers on both sides stop setting up straw men to rail against and get a life?

    May 3, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  8. RexCraigo

    Thanks but no thanks. I'll keep myself in the highly educated, more intelligent group known as atheists.

    Religious people are less intelligent than me.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • Michael

      Cool. One need more faith and less intelligent to be an atheist.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Bookee

      This statement makes you sound like someone with a big hole in the area commonly referred to as brain. Atheist is nothing but another form of religion.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • Mike

      haha – intelligent atheist – now that's a good one.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • baj4q

      You know, you sound just like one of the 'closed minded' variety of Christians. They take a 'my way or the highway' approach to all their beliefs, just like you. And they feel that if someone doesn't believe exactly what they believe that person is ignorant or stupid, just like you. And they refuse even attempt to see the world from anyone's perspective than their own, just like you. So before you go pointing you holier than thou finger at anyone else, maybe you should look in the mirror and realize that you are very similar than those you insult.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • vancouverron

      amen, brother!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      @Bookee – No, atheism is absolutely NOT another form of religion. It is the absence of one. Hence, the name.
      @Mike – considering that 93% of scientists in the American National Academy of Science are atheist or agnostic, implying that an athiests are not as (or more) intelligent shows that you do not understand what that word means.
      @Michael – What? One need more ... Never mind. I am not going to try to translate your English.
      @baj – I laugh at all adults who still believe in fairy tales. I let children who believe in Santa Claus slide, but if you are a grown person, then it's time to let it go.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • mon

      You can believe you're more intelligent, but you're certainly not more tolerant. There is a fine line between respectfully disagreeing and being condescending. I believe in God but I also believe in celebrating diversity, including differing religious beliefs or non-religious beliefs, as it were. I think that it's not about what one believes, but that one is a good person. And I think part of being a good person is having compassion, respect, and understanding towards all walks of life.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  9. marisombra

    Obama prays to Allah.

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


      May 3, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • saopaco

      Allah prays to Ellen DeGeneres.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Lenny Pincus

      Republicans pray to Ayn Rand.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      You should probably be aware that Allah and the Christian god are one and the same. ... (Psst! Same as the Jewish diety, but don't tell anyone. It might make their little head burst.)

      May 3, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Michael

      I think Obama does not pray to anyone.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • baj4q

      You just said that Obama prays to God. 'Allah' is simply the word 'God' in Arabic. Arabic speaking Christians also call God 'Allah'.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • JD Deatherage

      Allah & God. Different names for the same deity.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  10. Ethics Board

    Believe whatever you want to believe. But if someone thinks that we all have the same beliefs in this nation, you'd better believe that to be unbelievable.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  11. HoHum

    Everybody is praying to the same God assuming there is such a thing. It's just nobody wants to admit it.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  12. nibiro

    and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.

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

      You do speak 21st century english? So what's with the bible speak?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Darw1n

      ... and in his other hand an ounce of cheeba, and sayith this black horsed man, so you just want a quarter?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  13. saopaco

    Keep your god off of my lawn.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  14. Kevin

    Do whatever you want to do. I don't care. If it makes you happy more power to you. Just please don't worry about me, how I pray, if I pray, what I pray about, or anything else. It doesn't concern you.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  15. Tyler

    I prayed but nothing has happened. I have been praying for a long time. Yet still nothing. Hmm.

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

      How do you know? It's sort of like science- if you do not look for it, it will not be found. Lookign for it, you may find it even if it does not really exist as one thinks. As far as praying...I doubt you were praying – you were probably testing and you were not properly prepared.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  16. newshead12

    If you want to pray then you do. If you don't, then you don't. Period.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  17. nibiro

    Revelation 6:5
    5 And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse;
    and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.

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

      bla bla bla....what nonsense

      May 3, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • sdf

      But balance in nature is a GOOD thing. Cheers!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • PSS

      So apt but few realise or understand

      May 4, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  18. Bleah


    May 3, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  19. Daniel B

    "God" throughout history is nothing more but another name for Saturn. Amen-Ra is the name for Saturn in Ancient Egypt....the creators of religion...Amen Ra is the heavenly father (Saturn). Saturn throughout history has been represented as a black cube here on Earth.....every notice how the 9/11 memorial is one big black cube seen from the sky? Jesus is nothing more but an updated version of the myth of Horus, the Egyptian Sun God. Ever notice how Jesus and Horus are usually shown with a gold disk over their heads.....Jesus is a metaphor for the sun....nothing more.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • George

      Well, we know what God means to you but that has nothing to do with my belief and faith. Great thing about communication- and symbolism- it fails more often than it succeeds.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Andrew

      The interesting thing is the sun is what gives us life and at any moment take it away if it "wants" to. It provides warmth, energy, and powers the winds and oceans keeping everything moving on our planet. Without it we would never be able to survive much less exist. Every part of us came from the Sun so in essence the sun is our "god".

      Now the question is does it have a conscious?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  20. Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

    Dear Lord,

    Some guy cut me off in traffic today. Can you please smite him for me?

    Your faithful follower,
    Jacques Strappe

    May 3, 2012 at 2:52 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.