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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. Kyle Iverson

    Praying gives people hope. Even if you don't believe in prayer or a God, you should at least give those that do the day to pray for you. Whether they pray to God, Allah, Krishna, Yahweh, or a shrine to Chuck Norris, there is no point in attacking a day of prayer. The more people go after days like these that have been implemented for longer than most have been alive, the more the proponents will cling to it.

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

      Placebo makes people well. Why not just spend your money on Placebo and forget medicine?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  2. hemplover

    Faith is the enemy of reason. Or, to quote Bill Mahar, faith is an opinion.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Ellen Thompson

      I think I would give more credibility to a quote coming from Barney Rubble.

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

      Ellen – Barney Rubble is more real than your god. When you have a shred of evidence that God exists, we can talk. Until then, you believe what some people wrote in books hundreds and thousands of years ago. Yeah.... there's evidence.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  3. uos_spo6

    Believers are emotionally weak by their own self-admission. Their faith is their everything, without it, they couldn't even stand up. They are the most flawed among us, whatever deep held insecurity or mental dysfunction drives individuals to seek truth in the completely unknowable and to accept words from the quill or mouth of another human being as that of a deity is long obsolete in the hearts of man.

    The evolution of the schools of thought surrounding religion are similar to those regarding ever other idea mankind has come up with. If you bother delving in to any degree of anthropology or historical studies, when keeping all of that in context in the consideration of specific religious tenants, they are impossible to reconcile.

    Divinity is a romanticized notion that exists only in the mind of man as a self-defense mechanism against the paralyzing terror of the uncontrollable chaotic unknowns of our vast universe.

    Believers are emotional weaklings, unequipped to deal with the reality of the mortal world we exist in, so they bury their heads in a fallacy world where there exists order and "justice", but such things are the trivial vices of petty man who would lose their minds if they were ever made to accept the idea that in the grand scheme, nothing matters. Creation comes about only through destruction, in a universe and plane of existence of seemingly infinite stretches and constantly redefined understandings, the poor wretch who clings to archaic mans reasoning will find himself continually outclassed, out thought and out performed.

    Some Atheist angles may be content to allow the rest of the world believe whatever it wants, but so long as those beliefs are hoisted upon others as a burden to bear, used to judge and separate people who are unlike others, and make absolutely no sense whatsoever. . . I personally will always crusade for the destruction of this plague.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • jj

      I am afraid all your utterances firmly fall under the category of belief. In scientific terms this can also be called a religion. In fact, any faith is religion.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Ellen Thompson

      So what you're saying is you're a believer. You just found it necessary to be verbose.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  4. Someone

    If god does have some divine plan, isn't praying saying, "You're Wrong!"?

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

      If that is supposed to be clever, it is an epic failure because it is simply stupid.

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

      If that was to be a good retort, you have failed miserably in your execution.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  5. Istrt

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

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

      That's funny......science and religion confirm each other!! Hardly....Science has helped to show that religion is for nut jobs.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Istrt

      Really? Where? Please enlighten us.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  6. Phoebe Louise

    The reason for the prayer day is to recognize what God has done for us and our country and to pray for repentence. Since I've read all the messages about this story I'm coming to see all the hatred people feel toward Him. WOW! But I'm still thankful he sent Jesus to die for me and lives again so I will enjoy a life everlasting. David said it a long time ago, "The fool has said in his heart – there is no God." Long after we are all gone and people realize who directed their path in this life God will still be in control. It's been that way since Genesis 1. Read THE HARBINGER, by Caen and get a new direction in your thinking!

    May 3, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  7. nolongerarepublican

    I would like to see national atheist day, where all the atheists can gather, and everyone else can laugh at them as the ignorant fools they are.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • QS

      LOL! You mean just like how we laugh at religious people every single Sunday!?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      Because we are all going to burn in the Lake of Fire when Judgement Day comes? Or that we aren't going to get Raptured? Wait ... Neither did you! What happened?!?!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Rscan1

      Yeah, atheism sure looks like make believe. Filled with talking snakes and magical trees and myth people who walk on water. Atheists are great healers too.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  8. Libs Are A Disease

    Simple, we pray to the only God that actually exists, the God of Abraham who came down to Earth as a humble carpenter and cleansed our sins with His Holy Blood. Atheists can go screw themselves. They don't believe in anything and in their jealousy of the faithful they attack or first amendment right to assemble and pray to the One True Living God.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • QS

      And religious people honestly don't understand why we hear things like this and think to ourselves "Wow, these people are completely insane!"?

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

      Yeah....the only god that exists. I've heard that one. How do you know he's the only god who exists? It says so in the Bible. Why does that matter? God says the Bible is His Word. How do we know that is true? He said it in the Bible. That's logic.

      The only god who could possibly exist is one who punished clay-man and rib-girl for eating a magical apple at the behest of a talking snake. And who then turned into a semi-unemployed carpenter who wandered around raving until the Government executed his indigent ass for being irritating. Yeah, with a compelling narrative like that, it's a wonder EVERYONE isn't christian. LOLZ

      May 3, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Ben

      Nice circular logic. How long have you been on that crazy train?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  9. Mark

    Satan- everything you want to happen is happening "Put greed,corruption, sinfulness and above all, self above all else.." and it's all thanks to good christians who vote for war and tax refunds and don't want poor people to have medical care and won't let people who love each other get married.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  10. sortakinda

    How about this question for the author who uses a public forum to spit on the religion he calls his own: Do you know what blasphemy means?

    May 3, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  11. Some Atheist

    Lets all pray.

    Dear God,
    Let everything I have done and will do fail. Please kill me, my baby and my wife slowly by fire. Let my nation turn to ruin, my President become a leper, and all of our armed forces into traitors.

    Sincerely, a skeptic.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • To all the close-minded atheists that have all the answers

      congratulations idiot. you have committed the one and only unforgivable sin (rejecting and making fun of your creator). Sucks for you. Did u hear the one about the scientist that drilled so deep into the Earth that he heard people screaming? look it up on google. bye dummy. start praying.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  12. hemplover

    Atheist and proud of it.

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

      Like Stalin.
      Yep.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Jeff J

      Stalin was educated in a Seminary. Yep.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  13. Ganan

    so point your rugs towards Mecca (like Obama does) and bow down......................

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

      ROFL. Dude...Obama is not a Muslim. If he was...he'd tell you. Do wingnuts like you believe that crap? Do you REALLY believe you are right, or do you just enjoy repeating the lie in the vain hope it will become true? And if he were a muslim? How could that Middle-Eastern Death-Cult be any wackier than YOUR Middle-Eastern Death-Cult? Their god is the same one, by the way. The same one you revere. The one who tortured Job just to see how much he could take. The one who visited death on the Egyptians' firstborn sons in the dark of night, like the bad guy from an episode of "Supernatural". Yep. You guys are a lot alike, you muslims and christians.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  14. linashkam

    So if you want to pray . . . pray. If you don't want to . . . don't. I personally don't celebrate any of the Jewish holidays but I have no problem with those who do. I don't celebrate Cinco de Mayo, but have nothing against those who do. So what's your point? It's another day that some will participate in and others won't. Since it doesn't hurt anyone or effect anyone's life one way or the other, can't you just shut up and let it go?

    May 3, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Ellen Thompson

      Well said.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  15. † In God We Trust †

    Few 100% true Reasons why Atheism is TERRIBLE and unhealthy for our children and living things:

    † Atheism is a religion that makes you angry, stupid, brainwashed, ignorant & blind.
    † Atheism is a disease that needs to be treated.
    † Atheism makes you post stupid things (90% of silly comments here on CNN blogs are posted by closet Atheists)
    † Atheist are satanic and have gothic lifestyle.
    † Atheists causes problem in our religious society.
    † Atheists are mentally ill, that's why they have no faith.
    † Atheism won't take you to kingdom of heaven and paradise.
    † Atheism making you agree with Stalin, Hitler (Denied his faith later), Mao, Pol Pot & other terrible mass murder leaders.
    † No traditional family lifestyle, no holidays, no culture, boring and feeling 'outsider'
    † Atheists are angry, drug additcted and committ the most crime.
    † Atheist try to convert people over internet because they feel "safer" behind closet.
    † Atheists do not really exist, they just pretend that they don't believe in God and argue with religious people.
    † Atheists have had terrible life experience, bad childhood and not being loved.
    † Most Atheists are uneducated... No Atheists could run for presidency.
    † Atheism brought upon the French Revolution, one of the most evil events of all of history.
    † Atheism cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists.
    † All atheists believe in evolution, which means they don't believe in morality and think we should all act like animals.
    † The Bible says atheism is wrong, and the Bible is always right (see: Genesis 1:1, Psalms 14:1, Psalms 19:1, Romans 1:19-20)
    † Countries where Atheism is prevalent has the highest Suicide rate & Communist countries = Atheism!
    **Only 2-3% of the U.S. are Atheists/Agnostics VS. over 90% who believe in God (80% Christians) in the U.S.**

    † † Our Prayers goes to Atheists to be mentally healthy and seek their creator † †

    PS! the USA is a Christian nation and will always be.
    http://rightremedy.org/tracts/7 .....

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

      That's the most ignorant blab of hogwash I've ever read. Atheism is awesome. I love it.

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

      How come you always leave out the popes that were mass murderers?

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

      It's funny because it was man who created God.

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

      Remember to stone your neighbors for improper crop rotation. The Bible is always right.

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

      Hahahahaha! Seriously, that's great. I actually hope you believe that.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Jeff J

      We commit the most crime? We must really, really be good at it then because less than one percent of the people in prison or jail in the USA are atheists. Either you are full of crap (highly likely) or atheists are highly intelligent and skilled criminals. Either way you should watch your bank account very closely.

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

      There are so many loaded, slanted, and derogatory lines in your post that it is honestly shameful to read it as a fellow Christian. I have many friends who are atheist and not one fits your derogatory inflamatory labels. Choosing to not believe in a God is the same as making the choice to believe in a God – it is a choice. To hate someone based upon that choice is shortsighted as you cannot force your views upon others. There have always been atheists, there always will be, so why inflame them with hate? Try putting your good foot forward and it might actually give an atheist a reason to look at religion differently. But, when you give an atheist a reason to see religion in a negative light, as you just did, all you do is creative more division and splits amongst society.

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

      Here's my take on Christianity: It's the belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.
      Now, honestly...Why would you call Atheists (those who rely on thorough scientific studies) brainwashed, when it is the religious people that believe in 2,000 year old camp fire stories told by Middle Eastern Sheep Herders that should be called brainwashed?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      93% of scientists in the American National Academy of Science are atheist or agnostic.

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

      Hurry, check your tags. Poly-blend fabrics are also an abomination. Or is Leviticus supposed to be ignored. I keep forgetting what words I meant to omit to my devine word.

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

      You cannot be serious. Most of these are pure opinion. 90% of stupid cnn posts are by closet atheists? Please seek medical attention now. Judge not lest ye be judged.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • ICmy2Cents

      Religion is for those that can't synthesize facts and think for themselves, plane and simple. Sure, I think there are great aspects of organized religion, like setting a good moral compass, however when you take the text literally it's akin to believing in Santa Claus.

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

      And some self-proclaimed Christians don't always practice what they preach...ya know "Love thy neighbor"??

      May 3, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Betman

      That is without a doubt the stupidest post I have ever read. Religious zealots like you traditionally have lower I.Q. scores than those that question. There was not one truthfull thing in your post. You are a liar, and the main problem is that you know it. You spew your garbage to bully people into believing your tripe. When you can not enlighten someone you quickly turn to fear. If we don't buy your stories you make up more stories to threaten our etermanl soul. How pathetic.I personally don't care what you believe, I do care when it's forced on me.I don't need it, I don't want it....Although the money is pretty good, it's such a vile and dirty business even this athiest has the moral fiber not to lie for money.

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

      This post is one of the reasons Christians get a bad name. It is so illogical and in many cases demonstrably wrong, that it would be laughable were it not meant to be serious.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • gheezy

      wow you're post sounds as if belongs to those who believe in god 100%. Let's go over some things from your post, "athiest are mentally ill because they do not believe in god? hmmm, now why is that? Yet it's ok to say that there is a god, who not once showed his presence in the 2000 years that you think earth was created. You believe all men are created equally, yet where is the equality in the world? You pray in the hopes that someone will answer it, but have you ever heard any response back? you believe you have guardian angels, which are about as equivalent to children having imaginary friends. And in the 2000 year history of your earth, you still cant find peace throughout the world, people turn their shoulder for money, and war wars wars. So by your defninition i am mentally challenged but i can accept that because i do not need a god.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Wow we have a winner

      That is probably the least intelligent post I've ever seen on a cnn.com article.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  16. Religious person

    When is National Day Of Burning Heretics At The Stake? I am nostalgic for the good old days.

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

      I agree, let's start with you!

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

      ahhhhh! religon at it's best.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Ben

      You should bring back the Spanish Inquisition. Religion at it's finest.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  17. lastone

    If there is a a god, he's a programmer, not someone with super powers. All programmers screw up, God has screwed up many times. It almost seem as if he's human, or created by an active imagination.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  18. rhea3

    For those who care what Jesus is supposed to have said, he told you how he wanted you to pray, but few people pay attention to him:

    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. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seest in secret shall reward thee openly. (Matthew 6:5-6)

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

      Why do you talk so funny, tehiest, thoust, Where's your proof, You wouldnt trust your neighbor with your children, but would trust an unproven god.

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

      Why do you believe the Bible? Because the Bible tells you to? Sounds SMART!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • To all the close-minded atheists that have all the answers

      Good post. All you can do is pray for these people. They love to argue. All they need to do is seek, and they will find. God bless you.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • just sayin

      To all..... Psychosis is a loss of contact with reality, usually including false beliefs about what is taking place or who one is (delusions) and seeing or hearing things that aren't there (hallucinations).
      .
      Yeah seek and find baby!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  19. weedouthate

    According to the deepest roots of our common Judeo-Christian-Islam heritage, there is one prayer to God that is always answered: This is the prayer to weed out hatred in our hearts and souls.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  20. John

    Why do I feel mocked for my belief's by this opinion piece? It is horrible and should be taken down. Its amazing how popular it is to be different today.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Oscar Pitchfork

      Because, John, political correctness be damned, some things simply are wrong. Just because some people are stupid enough to believe in them, just because there's enough people to make a quorum, doesn't make them real or right.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Some Atheist

      If you don't want your beliefs mocked, stop believing in fairy tales.

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

      Because you're overly-sensitive, perhaps? No one forced you to read this article, and the author isn't responsible for controlling your emotions and catering to your sensitivities if you're unable to do so on your own.

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

      I agree. Stop accepting fairy tales as facts. Prove your beliefs with facts, not stories.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:26 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.