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. hammer

    And you ask why CNN rating is at all time low.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  2. Randy, San Francisco

    People should remember the guiding rule: Separation of church and state. Although most Americans profess to be Christians, there is NO national approved state religion. It is up to each individual to direct prayers to his or her deity of choice.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  3. Colin Morgan

    To each their own of course, but I will just never understand those who still follow religion.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  4. lily

    This is a silly article. The answer is you pray the way you pray. Or don't, if that floats your boat. Religion is personal, to each their own (or not). Again, silly article.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  5. God

    Dear Stephen,
    i love you.
    Get over it.

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

      But God, you're still not answering our questions.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  6. kc

    There is still a National Day of Prayer? I thought FOX news said that the President was trying to get rid of it. Personally, I wish all you bible thumpers would follow your bible. You know how Jesus felt about praying in public.

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

      Faux News said that to make the religious right hate and fear the POTUS .

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

      lol word.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  7. Bleah

    A cheap lazy article. "Are you there, god? It's me margeret!"
    this sort of thing has been done to death already.
    Prothero must be losing it. Im surprised we get to comment on this one, the turd.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  8. Mike

    Today, I'm "praying" by putting together an important regression on climate data.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  9. Tron

    If you are right and I am wrong then at the end of my life i will have wasted some of my time here on earth praying. If I am right and you are wrong for you it will literally be hell to pay .I will pray for you anyway.

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

      Pasqual's Wager. Go back to fighting for the users.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • Colin Morgan

      The only thing worse than your idea of hell, is the notion of spending eternity with a being so bloody egotistical and self-serving that he would deny someone entrance to your "Kingdom of Heaven" simply for not believing; lest they be a good person or not.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • sbp

      It's Pascal's Wager, and not even Theologians or Clergy try to foist this argument. It's ridiculously full of holes. Bottom line, if there was a God, he'd have an awfully feeble foundation if he sent otherwise good people to hell solely for not believing in him. Or rewarded simpletons whose "belief," if you can call it that, is motivated by fear of missing the goodies after they die.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  10. Thinkergal

    Priceless article. I am so with this writer!

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

      I agree–and it sparked some thinking and the desire to learn more. As a well-written piece should.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  11. Reality

    Steve, Steve, Steve,

    There is only one prayer for the Christian folk i.e.

    The Apostles' Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (References used are available upon request.)

    With respect to the budget and taxes, apparently you missed this:

    How much money would the following save the US taxpayers ?: And how many “souls” would be saved?

    Saving 1.5 billion lost Muslims:
    There never were and never will be any angels i.e. no Gabriel, no Islam and therefore no more koranic-driven acts of horror and terror LIKE 9/11.

    – One trillion dollars over the next several years as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will end.

    – Eighteen billion dollars/yr to Pakistan will stop.

    – Four billion dollars/yr to Egypt will end.

    Saving 2 billion lost Christians including the Mormons:
    There were never any bodily resurrections and there will never be any bodily resurrections i.e. No Easter, no Christianity!!!

    – The Mormon empire will now become taxable as will all Christian "religions" and evangelical non-profits since there is no longer any claim to being a tax-exempt religion.

    – Saving 15.5 million Orthodox followers of Judaism:
    Abraham and Moses never existed.

    – Four billion dollars/yr to Israel saved.

    – All Jewish sects and non-profits will no longer be tax exempt.


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

      marsha, marsha, marsha!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • willard43

      While he was crucified by the Romans, it was at the behest of the Jewish Pharisees. I believe Pontious Pilate even plead in favor of executing Barabas over Jesus to the crowd prior to his execution, did he not?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  12. Vicki

    If our National Day of Prayer is mostly Christian, perhaps we can have a lesser period of time devoted to other religons or un-religons. For instance, agnostics could take a certain portion of a day while aetheists may have a lesser time representation. Jews can claim a larger portion. Budhists and Hindus will have an afternoon allocated to them.

    I am not sure why we even have a National Day of Prayer. It is my agnostic/aetheist opinion that this is inappropriate and is against the seperation of church and state. In fact, I find it insulting.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Night Of The Living Dead Christians

      What, like The National 17 Minutes Of Jewishness? The National 13 Seconds Of Wiccan Dancing?

      I rather like that idea

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

      The reason why we have it is because the Christians can't stop pushing their religion down everyone throats. When the Puritans got of the ships they started pushing Jesus on everyone and haven't stopped. That is why you have GOD all over the place in the US. Christians are never satisfied to just believe instead they want to convert people and if you don't they have no problem telling you that you are going to hell.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • btldriver

      Maybe we should stop celebrating New Year's day because the Chinese have a different beginning of a new year. Maybe we shouldn't celebrate Thanksgiving because those who are not American may not celebrate it. Even better, why have national holidays or days of remembrance because someone might be offended and we wouldn't want to offend anyone. Get over yourself. If you want to pray, pray how ever you feel necessary or appropriate and if you don't believe prayer works then don't pray but don't complain because someone has a day of remembrance about something they feel would be of assistance.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • tod

      I find it insulting that you don't understand the concept of separation of church and state

      May 3, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  13. Lass

    Is there a God, absolutely? Does he listen? Yes, He knows and hears all things, even words and actions of those who do not
    want to believe. Does he care? Of course, he is a parent!

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

      Where was your god when all of this was happening????? :

      The Twenty (or so) Worst Things People Have Done to Each Other:
      M. White, http://necrometrics.com/warstatz.htm#u (required reading)

      The Muslim Conquest of India

      "The likely death toll is somewhere between 2 million and 80 million. The geometric mean of those two limits is 12.7 million. "

      Rank …..Death Toll ..Cause …..Centuries……..(Religions/Groups involved)*

      1. 63 million Second World War 20C (Christians et al and Communists/atheists vs. Christians et al, Nazi-Pagan and "Shintoists")

      2. 40 million Mao Zedong (mostly famine) 20C (Communism)

      3. 40 million Genghis Khan 13C (Shamanism or Tengriism)

      4. 27 million British India (mostly famine) 19C (Anglican)

      5. 25 million Fall of the Ming Dynasty 17C (Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Chinese folk religion)

      6. 20 million Taiping Rebellion 19C ( Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religion vs. a form of Christianity)

      7. 20 million Joseph Stalin 20C (Communism)

      8. 19 million Mideast Slave Trade 7C-19C (Islam)

      9. 17 million Timur Lenk 14C-15C

      10. 16 million Atlantic Slave Trade 15C-19C (Christianity)

      11. 15 million First World War 20C (Christians vs. Christians)

      12. 15 million Conquest of the Americas 15C-19C (Christians vs. Pagans)

      13. 13 million Muslim Conquest of India 11C-18C

      14. 10 million An Lushan Revolt 8C

      15. 10 million Xin Dynasty 1C

      16. 9 million Russian Civil War 20C (Christians vs Communists)

      17. 8 million Fall of Rome 5C (Pagans vs. Pagans)

      18. 8 million Congo Free State 19C-20C (Christians)

      19. 7½ million Thirty Years War 17C (Christians vs Christians)

      20. 7½ million Fall of the Yuan Dynasty 14C

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

      Who told you this and why do you believe them? I'd believe in God if God told me He existed.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  14. abbydelabbey

    How about those who want to pray prays to his or her own choice of deity. Those who do not want to pray can go about their day as they usually do.

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

    If half as much effort were placed in getting that done which is "prayed for" (to a NON-EXISTEND DEITY!), the world would be a much better place! NOTHING FAILS LIKE PRAYER!

    May 3, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • JP

      Go hang yourself, lowlife. We're tired of degenerates like you ruining what is right and pure. You're a waste of air - do away with yourself, please 🙂

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

      Said by an atheist. How sad.

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

      go live in agnostic nation for a few years and report back

      May 3, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  16. Wholly Mary

    "Privately, I don't believe in any of it. Publically, I believe in them all and so do you."

    Sempronius Gracchus-Spartacus 1960

    May 3, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  17. iTexan

    Oh, please. Why are we making an issue of this? These colonies were originally founded for the purpose of religious freedom. National Prayer Day is to PROMOTE prayer, not require it. If you want to participate in 'it, then go for it! Pray to whatever god(s) you want. Enjoy it. Let it give you peace and solitude and comfort. Be thankful to live in a country that lets you practice as you believe, without persecution. If you don't believe in a deity (as I do not), then you are FREE to NOT participate, and still be thankful to live in a country that does not let others' beliefs trump your own. Many have died for this freedom. We should always remember and live it to its fullest, and not become like those we sought to escape in the first place all of those centuries ago.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • john

      Well said iTexan! CNN is just doing what they always do: 1. Create news instead of report it, 2: (And even worse) chose NOT to report anything that goes against their political left agenda

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

      and those settlers then became the religious oppressors... Witch trials anyone?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • kc

      Funny how the republicans/christians don't believe this when women want birth control paid for by their insurance.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  18. Woodrow

    I have prayed that the Toronto maple Leafs finally win the Stanley Cup all the time....So do I think there is a God? Hell No, as I have been waiting 45 years.....

    May 3, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • guest

      been praying that blues win this year and we all see how that's going. Maybe there are just more people praying for the Kings to win?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  19. JT

    As an American, this "mumble to yourself day" is very embarassing and unbecoming of a so called advanced nation here in 2012.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  20. cnnstooge

    Nitwits all. Just pray if you want or if you don't...shut up. Who or what you pray to is your business....life isn't facebook girls....let's not get our pantys in a knot over this. Should we call each other and get directions?

    May 3, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
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