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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. Art

    Just because there are non believers, athesist or what ever.."shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect? God forbid; yea let God be true but every man a liar" Romans 3:3.

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

      people who quote bible verses to support their claims have no concept of corroborative evidence. ^^^^^^^^^^^

      May 3, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • voyager

      Amen to that!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  2. Daniel

    National Day of Talking To Oneself

    May 3, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  3. Shannon

    Good luck atheits believe in nothing.... you will burn in hell anyway

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

      That's a soul savin' sermon if I ever heard one. Did you accept Jesus because somebody scared you into it?

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

      Nobody is interested in your childish ancient Middle Eastern fairy tales. You are embarrassing yourself.

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

      You leprachaun haters will be first in line to burn.

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

      Dumber than dumb

      May 3, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • AverageJoe76

      @Shannon – When the losers of the spiritual races are sent to 'hell', will you be there to tease us when we burn? I know you'll feel all warm & toasty inside because all of your Earthly sacrafices have not been in vain, and you can finally say, "Naaa-Na-Naa-Naaaaa-Na...... I was right". (sigh) ...... Because that's a logical way to run an afterlife.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  4. Steve

    Only 1 energy that different faiths call god. You will progress beyond this life regardless if you are religious or not. There is not a Christian God, a Jew God, a Muslim God, etc. Different religions were put in place to see if people could accept different view points and - do we as a species fail on that one.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  5. BlackDynamiteNYC

    The only Allah I know is Allah..........Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches!! (Poof!)
    BD

    May 3, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  6. jakshadows

    It's also the National Day of Reason: http://nationaldayofreason.org/

    May 3, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  7. Gunner Dupree

    Religion has exsisted since man could think beyond predatory standards, It's not going away, Human's need faith it keeps them going, and any person who claims to be smarter for being atheist just shows just how stupid they really are. God may or may not exsist thts the point of it all, faith.

    But thats not my point, my point is religion is a personal matter its your choice and no one else should say anything about it.
    This includes the Goverment, why do we have congressmen, house members, and even president who constantly brings in religion into politics? it doesn't fit, it shouldn't belong, we are a diverse country with many faiths ,we should emphasize that on this day becuase we all pray a diffrent way and some not at all, our goverment should never exclude any american.

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

      Perhaps your god should teach you grammar before you kneel next time

      May 3, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • WhatNow

      Thank you for a sane response. I am not a believer, but totally agree that religion has no place in public education, politics or peoples personal lives.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • Gunner Dupree

      I never said I believe in God.
      I believe that there's no way all the religions in the world over the course of thoasands of years could say the same thing have the same message and find out it was all made up by diffrent people who never met.
      I beleieve there is truth in the many words spoken by every religion. The most important message in these faiths are the morals they give. Not what god is waiting for us, are who are creator is, we will find this out when we die, not any sooner.

      And stop being a grammar nazi, no one cares.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  8. ThereIsNOgod

    Should not be praying to ANY god

    May 3, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  9. † In God We Trust †

    Christianity grew by 2.2 billion in only 2000 years 🙂

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

      amen. This guy is an atheist

      May 3, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • toxictown

      slower than Facebook

      May 3, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • JT

      Thanks to Roman Emperor Contantine's convert or I'll kill your entire family policy.

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

      A great number of those converts did not do so voluntarily.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Idunno

      So did the population.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • What the...

      *Only* 2000 years? 2000 years is a LONG time... and you only have 1/3 of the present 7 billion inhabitants of Earth? Sluggards. If Christianity were true, it would be accepted world-wide way before now.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  10. David W

    "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".

    Um, no I don't. I am perfectly willing to call this the National Day of Prayer. Why should I try to interfere with someone's beliefs when their actions are not harming me in the least?

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

      I'll go with "because people who believe in god are MORONS" – pretty simple – they are naive, weak simpletons (read that GOP)

      May 3, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  11. Knucklehead

    "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him." Matthew 6:5-8

    May 3, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  12. BH

    Some politicians pray EVERY day and some just on the big National Day. Pray to whichever God you like. I hate to tell you all this, but it is all the very same God. It has no name, it is everyone's God. We are just unable to know more than that. Our religions are just different perceptions. There is only one and all that is asked to be in that presence is to be good to and not hurt one another. Many are already lost, even though they are still alive. THIS, your life, is the proving ground and you don't know when your time will run out.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  13. Chuck

    This is a Christian country. Why, so is hell. Inasmuch as "Strait is the way and narrow is the gate, and few-few-are they that enter in thereat" has had the natural effect of making hell the only really prominent Christian community in any of the worlds; but we don't brag of this and certainly it is not proper to brag and boast that America is a Christian country when we all know that certainly five-sixths of our population could not enter in at the narrow gate.
    – Mark Twain in Eruption

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

      Good ol' Sam....

      May 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  14. james

    Here's one thing about God many overlook. He's not there to hold our hand and solve every single problem for us. Like a good parent, he provides the basics for us to learn and grow. In turn IT IS UP TO THE INDIVIDUAL TO DO SOMETHING WITH THEIR LIFE. I grow ever so tired of people using God as an excuse for everything under the sun. From doing absolutely nothing but sit, there as if that would help. Or to the opposite extreme of self-righteous religious zealots that for some warped reason assume they can conduct acts of violence in his name, whatever that may be. Really?!! So did they get that message via email or carrier pigeon? Bottom line, and this is SO HARD TO DO... TREAT OTHERS AS YOU WISH TO BE TREATED!!! Pretty simple. WORK FOR WHAT YOU HAVE. STOP WORRYING ABOUT EVERYONE ELSE'S DRAMA AND LIVE YOUR LIFE. That simple formula pretty much covers bases for everyone. No matter where they're from. All the quoting of religious text in all their forms means absolutely NOTHING as long as people continue to act like animals. The virtue of it all is supposedly to enlighten and uplift. Yet most use it as a means to justify horrific acts or to enrich themselves by using religion as a business. Mankind in all our different views has utterly lost their way. Where love should reign supreme, all you find is hate and fear.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  15. † In God We Trust †

    Atheists needs to SHUT UP.... they try to impose their evil and devil lifestyle upon us

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

      True Christian Fascist ^^^^^^^^^^^

      May 3, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • J-Pap

      yeah that's right. We tell you to keep fairy tale beliefs yourselves. OOOHHHH The devil. Grow up. You sound like a 6 year old who thinks the boogy man lives in his closet.

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

      And what "evil and devil" lifestyle is it you think we lead? I work, I pay my taxes, I walk my dog, I spend time with friends, I read, I l share, I love. What do you do? You appear to be governed by nothing but ignorance, hate and fear. You're a shining example of just how bad religion is for people. You sound no different than the Taliban, or any other zealot whose reaction to anyone different is to scream in incoherent rage and anger. I would pity you, but I fear it would be wasted.

      So no, I will not shut up. I will continue to speak out, until the world rises above the small minded destructiveness of religion and people can at last enjoy the freedom of reason, enlightenment, and shared humanity.

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

      Listen to the evangelical right wing GOP nut bag – don't hate him cause he's stupid, hate him cause he might breed

      May 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  16. J-Pap

    Less than 2 percent atheist? I HIGHLY DOUBT THAT! Where I live I don't know anyone religious apart from maybe 1 or two people. In the cities I'd easily say 50 percent are athiest/agonostic.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • † In God We Trust †

      Which cities? Your moron and liar.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • J-Pap

      Vancouver Canada Bi!ch

      May 3, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Knucklehead

      43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. " Matthew 5:43-48

      May 3, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Specimen Yarp

      If you call someone a moron you should know the difference between "your" and "you're". Maybe you should find someone in grade two to teach you the difference.

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

      InGod...Although you are posting a lot of pro religious propaganda, I find it hard to believe that you are actually a believer. You appear to be extremely judgemental. I'm not a religious person, but I grew up in a religious home and don't recall the bible saying that it was good to judge and insult others.

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

      DC, NYC, LA, to name a few.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  17. Jeff in Oregon

    I think Jesse Ventura said it well. Religion is for the weak minded. I find it alarming that people will pray for or to some fictional thing to solve their problems or find strength. I guess it is a lot easier than doing the hard work for themselves. I have no problem with people pursuing religion and prayer, but my goodness, keep it to yourselves and inside the walls of your homes and churches.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • joe schmo

      Doesn't say much for you if you heed his advice. That's funny. Gullible.

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

      Here Here.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  18. WachetAuf

    Doesn't anyone get it? If there is really a "God" ( and I do not know for sure – there is some kind of creative "force"), then it is very evident that he has put us on this earth to work things out for ourselves. Is there anyone (except the likely insane) to whom God has spoken in the last 2000 years? God is very much like an absent father. He gave us the rules to play by and left it to us to refer to the owner's manual. If we can believe it (and there is no reason not to trust the principle, at least), then we must love our enemies, not merely our neighbors. So why do we "pray" at all when it is apparent that we have been entrusted with the owner's manual? Isn't that the answer to all of the prayers which we might float up to "heaven"? So why do we ignore Jesus while we hold onto a Bible in one hand and a gun on the other?

    May 3, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  19. Kevin

    This is an outdated law that was well-intentioned (prayer makes a lot of people happy).

    It's such an insignificant law with such little effect on anything...and its a front page/primary opinion. Ipso facto, its placement proves that the animus behind the article must be about something else – CNN's war on religion. Boom.

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

      its not a law it was a resolution

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

      But still. Who cares about it? People that want to attack religion care.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  20. † In God We Trust †

    Pray to our God and you will live a better life

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

      Promise?

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

      Then why are you so filled with hate and the need to oppress everybody who isn't exactly like you?

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

      What makes you think that? It hasn't worked for you.

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

      No, pray to OUR god(s) and you will live a better life!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • mustapha

      No, pray to OUR God! (or we'll kill you)

      May 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • WhatNow

      You and those like you are one of the reasons that I will never believe in your god. So much hate is just sad.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:38 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.