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. ICmy2Cents

    Instead of praying, how about opening a science book or learning some math and design or make something that will ACTUALLY do something.

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

      instead of commenting how about go out there an actually do something that will make a difference.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • ICmy2Cents

      I'm and engineer that has probably designed something in the computer your using right now.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • William Demuth


      SIlly man who fears the dark.

      Death shall have you, and Jeebus is powerless to change it.

      You shall die, rot and be forgotten, and no amount of childish Christian foot stomping shall change it.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • Dallas Poster

      What's your point 2Cents? I work with lots of engineers who believe in God. Very talented engineers.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • ICmy2Cents

      Don't waste your time trying to do things like "pray for rain."

      May 3, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • It comes down to this...

      What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Matthew 16:26

      May 3, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  2. DrD

    Prayer: the best way to feel like you're doing something, when you're really doing nothing.

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

      leaving comments, the best way to make yourself feel smart, when you're really not.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • It comes down to this...

      Actually, it's a good way to accomplish what only God can do.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  3. Da King

    There are many religions but one God. God is not in favor of religion because it is of man. At great cost he made it possible for you to be with him for ever. When you understand the love of Jesus you will be known to your creator.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • William Demuth


      If he comes back, we will kill him again.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  4. Matt

    Jay –

    "Even if you don't believe in God you have to respect the fact that the bible teaches compassion and respect for one another" Have you read the old testemant?? I don't think you need to believe in a god to have compassion and respect for one another, you just need common sense.

    As for "Atheists are depressed, self loathing people and just upset at their miserable lives" – I can't speak for my fellow Atheists, but I'm quite content and happy with my life, how about you? For all the countless gods that have become before yours, you're an Atheist as well... some of us just go one god further. You can't make yourself believe in something you don't, right?

    May 3, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  5. Martin

    Celebrate the National Day of Reason instead.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  6. Warren V

    prayer, what a waste of time and effort.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  7. GOD

    “If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.” -Penn Jillette

    One of my favorite humans.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  8. It comes down to this...

    The unbelievers spend a lot of time mocking Christians and their faith even though the only way they can know what Christ and Christianity is all about is by becoming a believer. And the fact is: if they became a believer (and not just a pretender) they would stop mocking and be praying for more to understand the truth.

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

      You don't seem to be aware that most of us started as Christians, then became atheists when we actually applied reason to our beliefs, because we took the mandate in 1 Peter 3:15 seriously.

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

      Just like any other addiction.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • William Demuth


      Shoot the heroin to love the heroin?

      Christians are addicted to lies, and they want us to shoot it up as well.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • thinker in the sun

      But what if you were a believer half your life and studied religion so much you finally realized it made no sense? For example, why would a god make a world where different parts of that world believe totally different things? And then make each population belive they have to go out and change all the others? Sounds like a god who enjoys watching wars.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • It comes down to this...

      @Martin – your statement, based on this scripture you posted, doesn't make sense.
      1 Peter 3:15
      King James Version (KJV)
      15 But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:

      May 3, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • logan5

      You fail to realize that most atheists/non believers are former Christians. Since the Christian belief system is forced upon people at the moment of birth and since the majority of people born in the Western world are born into the Christian faith then it stands to reason that most atheists would be former Christians. And if that's the case then why would you assume they never at some point came to accept and know your Christ?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • It comes down to this...

      @thinker in the sun
      When God created mankind he gave them free will to choose whether or not they would obey Him. They chose not too. (Garden of Eden) so we inherited a sin nature. The way back is through Christ. We choose to believe the gospel or not. It's all very simple and explained in the gospel of John. Read for yourself and find the truth. A loving God has provided the way to return to Him. It's everyone's choice.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • It comes down to this...

      No one is born into the Christian faith. Some are born in homes where the parents are nominal Christians not "born-again" Christians. There lies the difference. Jesus said, "you must be born again"
      One becomes aChristian when they understand the gospel and choose to follow Christ's teaching. When one truly does this they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit who guides them into all truth. The first step is faith.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Andi

      And Christians spend a lot of time hating, stealing, cheating in the name of 'their' God and telling other religions they are doomed to Hell because they don't believe what the 'Christians' want them to believe. I find it disturbing that 'Christians' feel they can break all 10 commandments, live a life of lies and deceit, be cruel to animals and other humans, but will go on to eternal life because they 'love' Jesus, and all others (including their victims) are doomed to Hell.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  9. 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 3:32 pm |
    • It comes down to this...

      Christianity is for those who think for themselves and do a thorough search for truth rather than just listening to those who have not done a thorough search for truth but have decided to listen to those who enjoy mocking what they do not understand. Christianity is for those who understand God has provided a way for mankind to be reconciled to Him through Jesus Christ. It is for those who know they are sinners and want to be free from the power of sin. It is for those who love truth. It is for those who want to know how to live their life with peace and joy in their hearts. It is for those who are willing to take the first step of faith and ask God to show them the way.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • ICmy2Cents

      It is for those that like fairy tales. This is such a tired and thin argument based on opinions and fantasy.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  10. Ray Van

    Check out the Call Abraham Lincoln made in 1863 (March 30th):

    WHEREAS, the senate of the United States, devoutly recognizing the Supreme Authority and Just Government of Almighty God, in all the affairs of men and of nations, has by a resolution, required the President to designate and set apart a day for National prayer and humiliation:

    And whereas, it is the duty of nations as as well as of men, to owe their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord:
    And, in so much as we know that, by His divine law, nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole People? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us, then to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

    Now, therefore, in compliance with the request , and fully concurring in the views of the Senate, I do, by this proclamation, designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer. And I do hereby request all the People to abstain on that day from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite, at their several places of public worship and their respective homes, in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.

    All this being done, in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope authorized by the Divine teachings, that the united cry of the Nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings, no less than the pardon of our national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering country, to its former happy condition of unity and peace.

    In witness whereof, I have here unto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

    Done at the city of Washington this thirtieth day of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-seventy.

    By the President:

    William H. Seward, Secretary of State

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

      now that is how you pray!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  11. achepotlex

    I guess if CNN didn't want people laughing at Christians, they wouldn't run stories about them.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Christian persecution complex never fails.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • logan5

      Christians bring the derision on themselves.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  12. WillH85

    I'm an Agnostic (not Atheist as so many like to mix up) and honestly I don't care if there's a national day of prayer. Unless it comes down to trying to force kids in public school to pray today I don't think it's that big of a deal. I expect religious people to have some respect for what I believe and I think that's a two way street. I think a national day of reason is a good idea, though, but it should be on a different day.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • logan5

      The sad truth is, religious people (the Abrahamic religions) do not have a respect for your beliefs. How can they when their religions mandate they make some sort of attempt to convert others. Also, their belief systems emphatically assert that ALL human beings are subject to the rule of that religions particular deity. In other words, the way they see it, whether you like it or not, you are an adherent to their religion and doomed to eternal torture if you do not submit to the will of their god. How can that be considered respect for the beliefs of others?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  13. † In God We Trust †

    † In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †† In God We Trust †

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

      Are all Christians psychotic like you? Your goofy religion is obviously bringing you no peace of mind at all.

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

      Seriously, who farted?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Science Guy

      this is sooo typical of Christian thought. lol

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

      I only trust in me.... Oh what a coincidence I AM GOD...

      May 3, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  14. Notarichboy

    What is interesting is the fact that many Obama supporters claim not to believe in God, (any God) and will bash anyone who does believe in God, (any God) but they seem to keep quite when Obama speaks of God, speaks of the Bible, participates in a prayer and states that he is a Christian!

    May 3, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Because he wants you idiots to vote for him.

      Sheesh, what were you, born yesterday?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Science Guy

      Obama is clearly not a Christian. He only pretends ... so as keep people like you happy

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

      And I hold my nose and try not to gag every time. It's called political expediency.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • what


      May 3, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • Wake-Up

      I know hundreds of people who have and will again vote for Obama. Only two of which do not believe in a higher power. We do not care that Obama believes in GOD! We just do not want it shoved down our throats, we are sick of hate and hateful actions ... then cowards hiding behind GOD/Religion. This country was NOT found on GOD it was found on the right to choose individual faith! You are wrong, you think you have Obama voters pegged and you don't.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • logan5

      Ya but Obama is possibly the first president in the history of this nation to admit this country is not exclusively a Christian nation. A couple of years back he made it clear this nation is a nation of believers and non believers as well. It's about damned time a president had the guts to speak the truth. So in my book he gets a free pass.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  15. 5thApe

    When you understand why YOU reject all other gods, you will understand why I reject yours.

    Think about it.

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

      Good one.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  16. Sly

    'Pray'? You mean this fat white man that lives in the clouds want's human's to pray to Him?

    How come monkey's and whale's don't pray? I thought the dude built them also.

    It really amazes me that in 2012, in a world filled with technology and highly educated people, there are people that think there is some white man in the sky. Amazing! Has anyone ever stopped to think how ridiculous that concept is?

    Sorry, but I believe in dinosauers and carbon dating and science ... it is fine for y'all to pray to Mohammad or Hari Krisna or Jesus or whoever y'all like, but the idea that you folks are getting 79 virgins each once you die, or whatever it is that god-thumpers believe, is really a fantasy. Sorry. But that is just the facts.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Not Really 'Sly'

      Too much Cartoon Network there buddy?

      And just an FYI; every thing prays to God by their own means, we humans are not just capable of measuring it.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  17. What For?

    A National Day of Prayer is such obvious pandering. Prayer has not been shown to accomplish anything (outside of some individual meditative sort of benefit), so what is the point of declaring a day of prayer besides politicians trying to get the votes of a particular segment of society?

    May 3, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  18. Candise Kane

    HUD employee prayed because she had died/undiagnosed by doctors to have suffered that much...and they called her a Prophet. Then many disputes about her income with govt GS11/12 to be insufficient. No disability forms were granted & no doctors available (even though she had many and visited ailing grandmother for 2yrs /hospital faithfully)... she had alot of friends who were in mortgages, subprime is assumed & became fbi /cia agents in their 20's (or 1980's). Now you all pray and it took me 15-20 yrs to remember/be able to think. Non-war position is HUD yet you gave not even those benefits & did not officially state the war-related issues to my life. 2012. Prophet is highest position in the churches/my job eval was high to excellent wen I left. Off work now too.

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

    Atheists should be put in prison for life!!

    May 3, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • What For?

      Prison is for people who are harming others. How, exactly, are atheists hurting anyone?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • 5thApe

      Ok Ok..... I believe in Zeus. Will THAT get me out of jail?

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

      Yay. Bring back the dark ages.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Bring it!

      I luv to cap your redneck ass!

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

      Okay Taliban. You are making a fool of yourself.

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

      For what?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      We are in prison. We are surrounded by idiots who believe in a magic sky god, his zombie kid and the holy spirit (which is yet to be defined). We are limited by your beliefs, since you insist on imposing it's convoluted moral system upon us. Your religion has stifled scientific prorgress and development by almost a MILLENNIA, and it has killed untold millions. Your blind following of tales told by farmers and goat herders has imprisoned the intellect of humans on a global scale. Stop worrying about your imaginary life after you die, and worry about the physical, tangible world that we all live in.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Some Guy

      I totally agree–it should be a crime for anybody to believe anything other than what YOU believe. Freedoms are only for those who are exactly like you.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Dobro

      Another religious person attempting to be a god.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  20. freetime1

    A 2004 BBC poll showed the number of people in the US who don't believe in a god to be about 9%." the 1.6% of Americans who call themselves atheists" is why why off. Because of the hate directed at atheist it is believed that the real number is well above 10%. Get a clue CNN!!!!!!! And BTW it is going up every year.

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

      LIAR...... shut up

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

      YOU shut up.

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

      Yeah what about the hate directed by them at Christians? Atheists make a point of criticizing people of religion. It's funny to me that they think they are so smart.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • bob

      The fastest growing segment of religion is no religion!!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Don't hate....

      While there are some religious people who flat out don't like atheists, in general, it is not the case that religious people hate, or even don't like atheists. I am religious but have some very good friends who are atheist. We get along just fine even when we discuss religion or lack there of. The problem is you hear from the wind bags rather than the majority. I appreciate the fact that you have the freedom to live as you wish because I wouldn't want anyone telling me what to believe. Any one who understands our nation should appreciate and respect this freedom.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:57 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.