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. Delon lawrence

    If prayer ceases in our government, America will plunge even faster towards its demise.

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

      How very christocentric of you.
      By your logic all other non-christian countries shhould be in chaos. That is not the case.

      Try again

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

      So, prayer is actually working, not fixing anything but just slowing down our plunge?

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

      Prayer in government.... you know that if there is any one group that needs prayer, its Congress. We need to pray that they eliminate corporate tax breaks, quit voting in pork projects, cut what really is unnecessary like bailout loans that will never get paid back. They need to remember who they work for instead of handing our country over to special interest, overseas concerns, corporate juggernauts. Instead, Congress is praying that the American Public will never wake up and stay at home the next time Election Day rolls around.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  2. DeeCee1000

    Religion: The Great Deception

    May 3, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  3. lipkink

    If everyone made prayer apart of their day, not just on a national day of prayer, this world would be a much better place.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      I agree, if we kept our lives apart from delusional religious thinking this world would be a better place.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  4. Richard

    I prayed for God to fix my golf slice. it didn't work.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  5. don

    Unlike Romney who prays to an unknown God, sure they call him Jesus, probably to gain acceptance, but we all know that Mormonism is a CULT RELIGION.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Yes, your version of an imaginary friend is clearly superior and more based in reality, lol.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • sybaris

      Don, you need to break out Websters and look up "cult".

      The only difference are the numbers.

      Your cult is just larger than theirs.

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

      Actually, we do know the name of our God. Its not Romney.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  6. I'm a mormon...

    Umm... This article was a waste of time written by someone who doesn't see the bigger picture...

    May 3, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  7. vulpecula

    "we are all atheists. I just beleave in one less god than you."

    got to love this quote.

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

      Goes along with, "We were all born agnostic".

      More uncomfortable truths for christians

      May 3, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  8. wakeup333

    The National Day of Prayer is a black-;and-white, bald-faced violation of the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..."). It doesn't matter whether some choose to follow or ignore it. It's a law passed by Congress, performed annually by the President, broadcast nationally as a government-initiated act.

    Wikipedia: "On April 17, 1952, President Harry S. Truman signed a bill proclaiming a National Day of Prayer must be declared by each following president at an appropriate date of his choice."

    "In 1988, the law was amended so that the National Day of Prayer would be held on the first Thursday of May. Two stated intentions of the National Day of Prayer were that it would be a day when adherents of all great religions could unite in prayer and that it may one day bring renewed respect for God to all the peoples of the world."

    Rational people, demand Congress repeal this ILLEGAL law!

    May 3, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  9. Bill

    It would be great if every year we had one day of prayer and 364 days of reason.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  10. Patrish

    And why do we need a national pray day?. If you are truly are religious, believe in a God, etc., then you probably pray frequently, if not daily, If you are like me (not religious – not interested in 'God') then it won't make any difference. I find the people who claim to be Christians are often trying to impress others, and usually not as kind or as generous as people think they are. So what's the point?

    May 3, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  11. Joe or Providence

    This article is a joke right? There are two types of people in the world – those who believe in fairy tales and those who don’t – right now the ones that do dominate society, maybe someday everyone will use reason over silly pipe dreams but that is a long way off.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      you can make fun of religion and god all you want, but even atheists have a philosophy. How do you define your reality? What makes an action good or bad?

      reason and evidence do not preclude faith in something, just as faith in something does not need to be absent reason and evidence.

      what i try to encourage people to do is think for themselves. Don't let others define reality for us. I don't personally believe in a guy with a beard spying on us from the clouds. I do believe that there are forces at play, much like physics and gravity, and that acknowledging them leads to a greater understanding of our world and ourselves, often with benefits. Teamwork, for example, is a wonderful thing. We can choose to work as a team and when we do our potential to achieve goals increases, our power and influence increases. I can't help but wonder if this is not where 'do on to others as you wish them to do on to you' comes from, in an attempt to maximize cohesion for teamwork.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  12. Walter

    Gee what a surprise, another "belief" blog lambasting Christians. You oughta call this thing "lack of belief."

    May 3, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      The Christian persecution complex is hilarious. If your faith cannot stomach some simple criticism it's even weaker than I thought.

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

      Do you know of a good christian whine ? Nobody cares what you think, Walter.

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

      It's so pathetic when the majority who demonizes and persecutes everyone else plays the victim.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  13. FoolKiller

    "some believe in one God and some believe in fewer" Whoever wrote this thought he was a real wit. I think he's half right.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  14. Let's Make Every Day A National Day Of Something!

    Since we are happily celebrating National Day Of Talking To Invisible Buddies today, how about we come up with other really important days so that EVERY day can be a National Day of something. Here are my votes; add in yours!

    National Day To Step On A Crack, Break Your Mother's Back – good opportunity for those of you with mother issues.

    National Day Of Chopping Down The Mightiest Tree In The Forest With A Herring

    National Day For Realizing That Your Dog May Actually Be The Dread Emperor Overlord Of The Galaxy

    National Day For Wearing Foil Hats (Yes, I know, that's every day for the Tea Party and the Religious Right, but I thought we would share the dingbat love and all do it)

    National Day Of The Spanish Inquisition (no one ever expects that day)

    National Day Of Saying Words In The Wrong Order – fun of lot that is one a!

    May 3, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Darw1n

      Yesterday was National Scurvy Awareness day

      May 3, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • Clark Nova

      When is National Reason Day?

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

      It really doesn’t take much to bring the atheists out of the woodwork and put them on high defense mode. Such insecurity is unbecoming... sincerely sorry you see our faith as such a threat.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • vancouverron

      I for one am not threatened by religious beliefs. I just become exasperated at such rampant stupidity. That's why I comment.

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

      Actually, our dog thinks he is the Overlord of the Universe 😉 But that doesn't stop me from praying & meditating today.

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

      vancouverron – Just keep telling yourself that, the same way you do the rest of us. Over and over and over and over and over... and you think YOU are exasperated!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  15. DC Observer

    There is a very simple answer.

    We all pray to a Savior or God – based on our very limited human concept of who God is -Our beliefs have been handed down by other humans all of whom are likewise limited about the true nature of God. Just maybe God has set this human existence up in a way that all the world prays to a different Savior or "God" not knowing who he is But all the prayers – whether they come from Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and the diverse christain beliefs of Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, Evangelicals et al all end up going to the same Savior or God -- and when we get to the afterlife, the Savior – God – Messiah – will reveal himself and greet us by saying - you were all praying to me and did not know it was I becasue of your human limitations

    May 3, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • thinker in the sun

      Have you ever really thought about what you are doing when you pray? Isn't it rather presumptuous to ask an omnipotent being to change whatever was going to happen and make things happen your way instead?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  16. Bill

    Prayer is personal. Not subject to anyones opion but yours and gods. Pray in your own way or don't it is up to you and you alone. It is a "FREEDOM" that we have not all countires have.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  17. 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 3:03 pm |
    • Aaron

      I find your comment truly childish & mean spirited toward believers please find peace with yourself there is nothing wrong in having faith.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Darw1n

      Interesting stuff, Dan, thank you.

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

      Actually, I think that Horus and Prometheus are metaphors for Jesus. If Christ did exist – and I believe He did, and I do follow his teachings – we can look at the different representations of Gods and Goddesses as referring to actual beings. I don't think your statements were meant to be hurtful or childish; such a diverse planet is not going to have the same realization of what compromises God.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Rbnlegnd101

      But, James, Horus and Prometheus pre-date Jesus. Don't you see the problem with your idea that they are metaphors for Jesus?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  18. Glenc

    There are two things we get uptight about in public; breast feeding and prayer. I don't get it. If you do, do. I you don't, don't.
    But if you don't, don't get up tight by the people who do.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  19. The 666 Club

    To all religious people – do the letter FOAD mean anything to you?

    May 3, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Religious person

      It means I still can't spell tode? Taod? Tood? Dammit, it's just a frog.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Art

      Does GFY mean anything to you?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • ziggy2

      Uhu, nice comment! By the way, there is a god, and he ain't YOU!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  20. Reason

    In Matthew 6: 9-13 God answers your question. In Matthew 18: 20 God answers your question about why we should gather in numbers. I am tired of all the anger towards us, I only have to give you a chance to accept God, after that you are on your own. You don't have to accept, you don't have to go the the NDP website, and you shouldn't try to make me turn my back on Jesus.

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

      Ahem. It's a little hard to accept a man made god(s) or any of the teachings that were done by hand me down rumors.

      If you're so insistent on Matthew, then why didn't your man made messiah come back when he promised in this verse: Matthew 16:28 Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.

      It says right there that your man made messiah would be back before many in that room that were standing with him in that room would see the 2nd coming and the kingdom of heaven.

      Looks like he and your religion was wrong all along just like many of the other times.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • Joe or Providence

      I want to see the original hand written letter by Matthew in its original form with notes by him explaining what he means in complete detail. What you quote is a bunch of propaganda published a century or more later that has been tailored to express the bible framers beliefs.

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

      "I only have to give you a chance to accept God, after that you are on your own."

      That's great, in the context of "I"....but then after you've given every person YOU encounter that "opportunity" and move on, the next religious person out of the millions out there is standing there, next in line, to offer that same "opportunity" to me again.

      In essence, religious people never give non-believers the chance to be on our own because there's always another religious person waiting to "save" somebody who doesn't believe what they believe.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Reason

      AnotherView and Joe, you both seem to care what I believe, why?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Reason

      QS, how many times to you let someone knock at the door before you open it?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • kc

      Quit preaching to us or condemning us and I promise you we (non-believers) will leave you alone.

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

      kc, I noticed there are far more anti-Christian comments then Christain ones, so I guess when you say "I promise you we will leave you alone" you really mean "I will leave you alone." by the way I cannot condemn you and I am as big a sinner as anyone.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:28 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.