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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.

Sincerely,

Steve

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. Broken Window

    How can we have a National Day of Prayer when different people believe in different gods? Let each person pray (or not pray) to any god he or she chooses. Or, just ignore the day. Nobody makes issues out of non-issues like CNN opinion writers.

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

      I would LOVE to ignore it! Unfortunately, when it is our lawmakers that are invoking it, in an official capacity, instead of just clergy members, it becomes something that it too important of an issue to ignore. I don't need my lawmakers telling me who, what or how to worship. It isn't their job, their business or their right. If they just left all of this to the clergy and kept religion out of government, I would have no problem ignoring it.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  2. JC in Western U.S.

    If there is a God, and if He is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, it would be the height of arrogance for any mere human to claim to know His will.

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

      Well put.

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

      If god has a perfect plan for the universe...and you are praying to ask him to alter that plan...isn't that the height of arrogance? You are assuming that you know better than god, or that you can change god's mind, or that, for some reason either god doesn't know of your need, or doesn't care about it and thus you need to remind him. Now, if that's the type of god you worship – an imperfect, absent-minded, uncaring god...then maybe you *do* need to pray. But if you actually believe that there is some perfect god up there, praying to him to ask for things he already knows you want and has either decided you will, or won't get because of his perfect plan...just seems rather pointless.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  3. Kevin

    I guarantee if it was National Day of Meditation – which can involve prayer – this article would not have been put out by CNN. Because, you know, meditation is like yoga and stuff. And it's like foreign and looks cool and deep. It's like nature dude. But not religious. Oh, for the love of...I mean, anything but religion as long as it's spiritual can be cool, right?

    Prayer mostly seeks the same effect as meditation. It's semantics.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  4. Gabriel

    FUUUUUCK off all non-Christians......... we own and control the country so shut the F up or us the majority will move towards more theocracy and wipe out nonbelievers @sses!!

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

      Another funny person posting. 😀

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

      Adolph...is that you?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Wholly Mary

      Gabriel blows.

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

      Your statement is not representative a true Christian. And most Christians don't even practice the worship correctly. IF you want to know how to pray to God, the one from the Bible, read Jesus's statement. To summarize ...

      1. Let Jesus's Father, God (not Jesus), know he is most holy, all powerful, and his plan will always be done
      2. Ask Jesus's father to provide what we need
      3. Ask him for forgiveness for our sins
      4. Promise to forgive everyone else that has wronged you.
      5. Ask Jesus's father to guide your life

      But the most important thing you should always do, even before you pray, is believe God will take care of you and lead your life in the direction you need to learn the really important lessons to become more.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Lulala24

      This comment is exactly why I am NOT a christian.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  5. Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

    Dear Lord,

    Please keep your most radical, hateful, bigoted followers away from me and grant good things to the sensible ones who are at peace with their religion and are happy to live and let live.

    Amen.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Darw1n

      Amen

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

      Amen

      May 3, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  6. aceblazin

    I'm a Muslim and don't worship Jesus. Sorry I worship God that is incomparable to anything the likes of creation. Jesus submitted to God, & so do I.

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

      You worship Muhammed, a pe.dophile OK

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

      So all the killing according to a book written by Muhammad ( a man) did not happen?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Rscan1

      YOU worship the same god as the Jews. In fact, with Adam & Eve & Abraham and Moses and all-YOU believe the Jewish religion almost precisely. It sure is their ancient mythology you borrowed and rewrote. (Poorly I might add). And science has linked you genetically, too. Ask yourself, "How can I live with myself knowing this????" Ask yourself, "Who created God?"

      While you do that I'm gonna go fry up a pork chop.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Mark

      Christians are not suppose to worship Jesus. They are suppose to acknowledge him as the everlasting sacrifice enabling us to speak directly to God because anyone with sin cannot speak to God. So any Christian that worships Jesus is breaking God's first commandment to not worship anything other than God.

      And for Christians that believe Jesus is God. Never has Jesus ever said he is his father. Rather Jesus continously repeated that his Father, God, is someone else.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  7. Byrds of Pray

    Our nation was founded and has been successful due to the discipline and laws set forth by our Christian God. It is why we are the UNITED STATES. Look around the world, in which countries would you want to call home? Most of the highly successful, civilized countries of this world were founded by Christians or are now civilized and habitable due to Christians. I don't think there's anything wrong with having the freedom to worship a different religion or not worship at all, but our country works because it was founded on Christian Laws to change that would change our country as we know it.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      you god set no such laws....those were the words of fallible humans, not god.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      your*

      May 3, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Darw1n

      Pure garbage

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

      Our nation is founded on God, Christian/Muslim/Jewish, and God would be ashamed at the way we push our beliefs on others. God didn't push his beliefs on others. In all his examples, it was always the person's choice, and with that choice is the understanding that if you don't choose God, you parrish eternally. God doesn't teach freedom, which is what America is founded on. God teaches us to detach ourselves from the governments and follow him first and the governments second. He also says not to judge others, which Americans do all the time. And finally, Jesus asked us to forgive others an unlimited number of times. If you want to worship God, read his Word.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • Organics

      Nonsense. If our discipline and law were based on the Christian god then we would be alternately stoning our kids to death for talking back (Deuteronomy) and letting thieves go with a free gift for their trouble (Matthew). Do you ever read that bible of yours? Our discipline and laws are largely based on the Greeks, who predate Christianity by hundreds of years.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • John John

      1) No it was not. Most of the founding fathers were not Christians.
      2) Christianity became the fad during the western migration in the 1800's mostly due to revivals being about the only exposure isolated people had with religion.
      3) Building a government out of fantasy characters is silly. Unless it is Batman of course. That would be cool. ( WE"RE BATMAN! ) Think of the boss national anthem... that would keep the Taliban in line.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • Apex301

      The church of Batman is now my official religion.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
  8. shagpal

    who gives a F'ck. its festering JEWS at CNN again stirring religious friction

    May 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  9. mikehipp

    National day of prayer? Says who? That's insane. I'm not praying and I know a heck of a lot of other people that don't pray – ergo, no 'national day of prayer'. You shold change the name to me and a bunch of other people's day of prayer for accuracy.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  10. Rscan1

    The Earth's current overall social situation is based on one religion or another. It sure wasn't an atheist idea. To an atheist, war=murder (with no deity to "justify" it). If The Church (all of them) was wrong about the Solar Syetem in 1630, and before, and since, how can it be valid today? Answer: It cannot. God pertains to nothing except lost grownups acting stupid.

    It was religious people doing all the damage in WW2. Most believers pretend otherwise.

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

    Louisa, you're not obeying the law. I guess you'd better leave.

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

      This article is running cover for Obama. Confusing the event so readers will not look to their boy's past. Not a mention of Obama praying regardless how the citizenry will observe the day. The photo does little.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Hawk

      I couldn't care less if Obama prays, or to which mythological deity he prays to. Also, doesn't Matthew 6: 5 say, "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward."?

      So...aren't those seen praying in public disobeying their god?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  12. BostonMonkey

    And when will the government keep their noses out of this? They should leave anything having to do with religion alone. It is an individual choice to believe or not believe in a deity. It is a private matter and shoudl be left as such.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  13. Punisher2000

    NDP has the gall of calling itself Judeo-Christian. How many of these Evangelists don`t care for Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or others. They don`t even acknowledge that there is but one God, at least to Christians, Jews and Muslims. What hypocrites!

    May 3, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • BostonMonkey

      There are SO many Christian-touting people that are hypocites. It's sad.

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

      The Jews are OK, because they're God's Chosen People; evangelicals just don't want them at their country clubs and marrying their daughters.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  14. Matthew

    USA IS A CHRISTIAN COUNTRY AND WE PRAY TO JESUS CHRIST, OUR LORD AND SAVIOUR.
    Period.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • BostonMonkey

      Says who? You're funny. 😀

      May 3, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Punisher2000

      Who died and made you King?

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

      Could you repeat that in a larger font? Then maybe you would get your message across better.

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

      False. The United States of America is a nation that was founded on the separation of church and state. Please go back to school and pay attention this time.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Darw1n

      You speak for yourself cretin.

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

      Except that most people in this country are NOT Christians. Most either don't care, or have enough education to not believe in fantasy. The numbers quoted in the article for atheists are not correct, and not even close. There are more atheists than Jews, more that Blacks, and more than all the other "misc" religions combined, so that is a pretty important minority don't you think? Not to mention that many Christians take their kids to church for moral and not educational purposes. Education cures fantasy religious believers, which is why the GOP is so anti-education.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Dl

      Move to Iran or Israel – one of those sh # t holes – who care what, how much & if you 'beleive' in all the 'right' ways

      May 3, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      congrats...you talk to yourself. you should be so proud.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Lulala24

      USA is a free country! Not a christian country.

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

      Thats what you were taught from birth and don't have the intellectual capacity to break away from your cult.

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

      Next time you pray to the imaginary god in your head, ask him why he made you such a fool.

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

      Odd how my Wiccan, Jewish, Atheist and Agnostic friends would all disagree with you.

      'America - a land of freedom...so long as you do what we tell you to do.'

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

      If Jesus is your LORD, then God will let you burn for no one shall be put higher than God (including Jesus). And Jesus was not associated with any government, so why would he associate himself with America? No Jesus associated himself with the unwanted, condemned, and abandoned (i.e. lepers, non-isrealites, etc.). America acts more like ancient Rome than any other country out there. And who put Jesus on the cross? Rome with the voice of the Isrealites.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Hawk

      "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries." – Treaty of Tripoli, unanimously ratified by the U.S. Senate June 7, 1797 and signed in to law by John Adams June 10, 1797.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  15. sunman42

    "And neither of those groups talks to You with the easy familiarity of born-again Christians."

    Um... Jews have been talking directly to G-d for 3,300 years. Whether G-d listens to us or any other human is another question, but Lord, have we been talking, and we're certainly on intimate speaking terms after that length of time.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Punisher2000

      Make that 6000 years and we have a deal.

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

      Uh... what's up with the "G-d" thing? Does a hyphen makes it OK to call Him "GOD"? I never understood this. It's like bleeping bad words on TV. We know exactly what is being said. Why does the bleeping make it right? Puh-leeze.... if you are ashamed to call Him God in public, that's even worse. Down with the hyphen. You want to say God, you say God. Unless you d-n't re-lly me-n it!!!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • John John

      Gods. That is plural, as the Jews used to worship more that one god, until they got kicked out of the holy land and assumed the big guy was punishing them for worshiping all those other gods and rewrote the old Tora to be mono-theistic. Religion is invented by man, not by gods.

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

      If Jews have been doing it without following the ritual sacrifice, God has not been listening to you. God expects Jews to perform the ritual sacrifice of a perfect livestock so that they can be "sinless" before they talk to him, otherwise they are condemned forever. And if that sacrifice has even a single blemish, that Jew is also condemn forever.

      So I am unsure how all Jews are talking to God directly. Explain it to me again.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  16. nolongerarepublican

    There was an event at our State Capital. NOT ONCE did anyone say what God you had to pray to. All religions that wished to be, were represented.
    Stephen Prothero is a nut case who wants to force all religions to be taught at public schools::
    "Prothero has argued for mandatory public school Bible literacy courses (along the lines of the Bible Literacy Project's The Bible and Its Influence), along with mandatory courses on world religions."

    May 3, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • honeypot

      our country/military and industry is run by a bunch of nut cases, things are much worse than people believe

      May 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  17. Dan Clayton

    And why do you need one way to pray? There is one God, he blesses all based on the knowledge and understanding they have of him. The exercise is simply a recognition that he is there, surrending self-focus to greater good. It is a personally healing process and helps the individual see themselves a little better for what they are...

    May 3, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Mark

      God says not to judge others as judgement is His and His alone. This basically means let people do as they wish and don't judge them for their actions because only God has that right.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  18. across12

    I will pray but not with you, and not to your god, how about that.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • nolongerarepublican

      If you want to pray to your god, satan, that's your problem.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      Did you ever think you might have it wrong? And by having it wrong every time you pray, you are praying to the Devil? You better hope you picked the right religion.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  19. Tim

    " But how to pray as a nation when some believers affirm more than one God and some affirm fewer?"

    Because prayer is a personal time. It should not concern you, what the guy standing next to you is praying to, or if he is praying at all.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  20. reality check

    Mythology is a rich and valuable part of our cultural history but should not be taken as literal truth. If a creative force played some part in the formation of the universe or if the universe itself is in some way sentient such a truth is not to be found in two thousand year old scriptures. Theology, like science and art, needs to look forward.

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

      Actually, every life answer can be found in the Bible. The Word of God was made to protect us, and is a love story. One that doesn't force us to love Him. This is one of the great results of Christ. That said, I encourage you to read the Bible from whatever angle you want. Just be open. I can tell you have intellect. God encourages his children to question and wonder. That's what children do...it shows we care. But when you read the Bible, you most assuredly will need historical context of the regions, culture, and different meanings when read on the surface may only give a surface message. The most important part is Christ's ministry in the first 4 books of the New Testament. It stands for all ages, as does the rest of it when read with an open mind, heart, and inquisitiveness. You mention several "ifs". Could we both agree there is one truth out there? This is a great start to finding it. Jesus Christ died for us. Why not look into him and Bible more deeply?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:24 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.