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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. c

    How about this. You pray if you want to and dont pray if you dont want to. Don't make a mountain over a mole hill

    May 3, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Yeah, what's a little violation of the Establishment Clause between friends?

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

      ... and don't spend any of our tax money on it.

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

      Atheists have nothing else to live for it seems, other than being over-dramatic when the word "religion" is even uttered in the presence.

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

      EJ – and yet here you are!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  2. Chuck

    But who prays for Satan? Who, in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most?
    Mark Twain

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

      Keep 'em coming...

      May 3, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  3. hank

    I would like to see a policy of prayer or non prayer being a matter of individual choice, rather than some governmental policy about what is the day to pray on. If you pray, I would assume to pray ever day. If you do not pray then you don't need government telling you to pray. People who want freedom of government control often beg for government to control religion

    May 3, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • EJ

      I don't really understand the point of a National Prayer Day, but I also don't get why it is seen as such a negative thing by people who don't want to participate. Newsflash: When most people pray, they pray for positive changes in their lives and in the world. Why condemn something that has a positive outlook? There will always be a few sickos out there, but there are plenty of sicko atheists too, so that argument would be a weak one.

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

    Prayer changes things. The choice yours along, just like abortion, hate, greed, romney, and the republican taliban tea people.

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

      Show me where a prayer has changed something.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  5. † In God We Trust †

    † In God We Trust †

    May 3, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  6. Frank

    Leave it to CNN to make false controversy over a rather innocuous and uncontroversial event – national prayer day. This opinion piece is all baloney.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  7. liz

    One of the epiphanies this Christian had after moving to Alabama is that I don't berlieve in the same God as the neo-con evangelicals.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  8. steve

    Wow!! This guy is such a goof. He's a teaching at religion at BU and says Christians and Catholics don't pray the same way?

    At AA meetings Christians, Catholics, Jews, Mormans and Muslims all pray the Lord's Pray. Lets all pray the Lord's Pray and that should cover about 90% of the popluation. I'm sure these folks are okay with the other 10% praying or not praying whatever they want.

    He's not much of a expert on taxes either.

    When folks were taxed at 91% income tax rates they could deduct all kinds of things, including sales tax and passive investment losses. Allow that again and you'll collect less tax then you are collecting now. Believe me I know, I am a CPA who did taxes then and does them now.

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

      and a recovering alcoholic.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  9. † In God We Trust †

    I love america being a christian country

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

      You're trying to agitate, aren't you? That's not nice.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • JT

      Lol...you need to get better at not being such an obvious troll.

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

      Well good for you. I love America for my right to choose a religion, or not choose a religion. I choose no religion. Thank you very much.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  10. What is the big deal?

    If people could just understand that all religons are different path's to the same goal people wouldnt have to worry about how to pray. You could just respect that people pray with differently and call god by different names. Nothing to be scared of. Doesnt take away from your own religion to respect that other people have different beliefs. But most people are too scare to open their minds to this notion.

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

      HERETIC!!!!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  11. gerar

    Dear Father, please forgive our sins, thank you for your grace and mercy. Thank you for your love and for your son Jesus Christ that die for our sins. Thank you Father. In the name of Jesus. Amen

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

      Very good! I like it. A simple sentence like yours does it for me. Good job.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  12. Terry

    35 % is still to high

    May 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  13. MTP

    I think we should pray to all of the gods. I mean one of them may answer the prayer hotline or whatever system that particular god has for receiving incoming prayers. Unless they're all the same actual god. Then why all the different religions?

    Never mind. Just pray to the default god of the religion you subscribe to. If it makes you feel better then more power to you.

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

    whew, scary how many sad individuals buy into to the crazy mythical beliefs in creators. it is no wonder heavily religious societies always fail.

    i think i will stick with my favorite man made myths, santa clause, the easter bunny, fairy god mother. At least none of them "rose from the dead".

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

      LOL!!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  15. Dan

    How to pray? In the name of Jesus, on your knees, head bowed in reverence, humility, appreciation and thanksfulness. Every moment of every day should be lived in praise and thanks for all that God has done and will do. What you sew you will reap. Unrepentant sin will separate you from God at your death for eternity. This life is temporal, Heaven and the new Earth is forever. Take alone time and listen to the Holy Spirit for guidance. God is always there ready for you, HE LOVES YOU...you are the one who has the choice to love Him with His gift of freewill.

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

      And everyone else that doesn't believe like you do is subject to damnation.

      The old, "my God's better than your God." Ridiculous. I've not heard one dead person ever complain about not getting into heaven. Have you?

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

      I always thought today was "National Robbery Day". I've been doing it for years. There's just so many people closing their eyes and kneeling towards walls. How can I avoid all the free stuff they're ignoring?

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

      AMEN!!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  16. NewsRaider

    Not worth discussing. Why should anyone care what God someone else prays to? Or whether or not they even do.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  17. Isaac C.

    I put reason before any religious beliefs, but at times and more than not, religion and reason agree, the problems that emerge from religion are mostly misinterpretation on our part. Logic tells us religion is not necessary and its nonsense, but logic also tells us we shouldn't be here, at the end of the day everyone needs to believe in something, whether it is religion based upon a God or Gods, or simply on our precious science.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  18. Some Atheist

    You are free to practice religion.

    I am free to mock it.

    Learn to deal with it better.

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

      Did you become an Atheist to bully people and hurt their feelings or was that just one of the fringe benefits?

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

      I would say the same for you, actually. I could care less if you don't believe in God, and I think most people associated with a religion feel the same way. For some reason, atheists get a chip on their shoulder every time the word "God" or "pray" is uttered. Get over it, live your own life, and mind your own business.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • William

      As one who believes in God, I cannot agree with you more. Its my right to have faith in a Creator and while its also your right to to have a completely different belief, its even more my privilege to accept your mockery of it. Have a blessed day regardless of your belief.

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

      Raz, did you become religious so you could be part of a bigger gang to push people around & tell them how you want them to live? Yea, that's what I thought. Gotta love that mob mentality.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  19. Igo

    78% of American's are Christian? That sounds like an old statistic to me. God is dead. I would say that about 10% of my circle of family/friends still believe in an invisible, imaginary god.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Big Bob

      Yea right! That reminds of the story of the old woman in New York City who said: "How did Nixon become president? No one I know would have voted for him!"

      May 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • closet atheist

      @ Igo ~~ Exactly!!

      I'm a baptised and confirmed catholic, which I believe puts me in that 78%. I went through the motions because I didn't have the heart to break it to my parents until much later in life. I've been atheist for as long as I can remember, but am sure I'm probably being tallied as Catholic. I'd LOVE to know what the true numbers really look like... I think it would shock a lot of people....and maybe get a little more respect for secular humanists...

      May 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  20. James PDX

    I love religious sayings. "God helps those who help themselves." So if I've helped myself, what do I need God's help for? And if I could help myself, why would I be asking God for help? Why not just be truthful and say God isn't about to help me and prayer is meaningless.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:27 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.