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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. † In God We Trust †

    atheism is on decline because more people realize their big mistake

    May 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • ShawnDH

      Yes, unfortunately we can't all be obsessive psychotic religious fanatics like you. You are making a fool of yourself.

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

      Or if you did some research you'd see it's not. But I doubt you like to read. I doubt you like to do anything but troll. Hopefully my plan includes you moving out of your mom's basement. We'll see.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Darw1n

      I would expect someone who lives their life based on faith in their invisible sky buddy to believe this false statistic. The truth is oposite, but I'm sure you know that.

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

      http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1847/how-religion-divides-and-unites-us-david-campbell-conversation-transcript

      Oh snap! Evidence/statistics are so tedious, aren't they?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  2. Sly

    I gotta love all the talk about 'polls' and percentages of Americans who beleive in God.

    Let me remind you that when Bush invaded Iraq 95% of YOU supported that move. Just like the early polls about Vietnam.

    And just like Vietnam, now all you wishy-washy flip-floppers, 95%, think it was a mistake.

    So, please don't complain about Romney flip-flopping – 95% of American's speak first, and then after a few years, actually start thinking about what they believe in.

    God? Um, yeah, right – a fat white man living in the clouds? And He requires humans to sit on their knees and adore him each day?

    Sorry, but that has to be the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of. But, good luck getting your 79 virgins or whatever you God-Sters believe in.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  3. Matthew Menadier

    Jim,
    Yes, I have. I have studied most of the Old Testament. First, were these victims innocent? Do you know who these victims were? Second, have you heard of the book of Job? If so do you recall how Job argued with God not to destroy the city of Sodom? Abraham asked God not to destroy the city if ten righteous men were found in the city. God answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.” Gen 18. Yet, Sodom was destroyed. The victims of these towns were WICKED: maybe that is something you didn't quite catch.
    I have plenty of evidence to support the Bible is true, not just my own "fath"-based experience, as you call it.
    Finally, I am pleading for many people to understand the Bible and believe there is a God because I love them – I am not forcing you to accept the God of the Bible. That is your decision, this is your life. But the freedom that comes through faith in Jesus Christ is unbelievable. But that is your decision. You can hate all you want.

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

    Has prayer ever made an eyeball reappear? How about grow back a leg or a hand? Maybe a finger? Never in recorded history! Maybe people that lose any appendages are just to evil to be helped? Maybe there is no god?

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

      http://www.whydoesgodhateamputees.com

      May 3, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  5. uos_spo6

    The root of religion is self-absorption and a shaky comprehension of world history and anthropology.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  6. Redemption23

    "Truly, Man has become the measure of all things".

    May 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  7. NC

    "Seventy eight percent or so of U.S. citizens are Christians"

    Stephen, I hate to tell you, but if this were an accurate statistic, our nation wouldn't be waging war in so many areas of the world.

    We are far from being a truly Christian nation, much less, understanding what this entails....

    May 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Lisa B.

      Most wars are waged because of religion, so technically we're right on track as a nation.

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

      that seems to be an accurate observation:-)

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

      Right, because no predominately Christian nation has EVER declared war on another nation. They're so peaceful and full of love and tolerance for everyone. War-mongering Christians is crazy! It's an oxymoron!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  8. AtheistDude

    wake up people! religion is useless and a waste of time! wake up. read some books on science and evolution and the cosmos. think analytically for a change! your life will be better once your imaginary friend leaves your brains for good!

    http://healthland.time.com/2012/04/27/losing-your-religion-analytic-thinking-weakens-religious-belief/

    May 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  9. Chris Christian, Jesus' Lover

    My fellow Christians, don't you think National Day Of Forcing Politicians To Kiss Our Special Interest's Ass is going really well? I sure do!

    May 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  10. ambersue

    Today is National Day of Prayer and it is for those who believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior. This day is for Him, and Him alone.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      And THAT'S the problem.

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

      We wouldn't want to anger me. We know how jealous I can get. I'm working on it. But still omnipitent. By the way, if Chrisitian were the only way, why would I create far more Muslims?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • NC

      yep, I guess the rest of us don't exist anymore...

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

      Then why aren't you praying right now?

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

      Ah, so inclusive. Thank you for being a shining example of exactly what the author of this piece is talking about.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • adonisalexander

      So, according to you, to hell with everyone else who does not share your views of Jesus? Amazing. The thing is has any of you asked yourselves what prayer is? Does it have any meaning at all? Prayers, mantras and chantings will never lead you to the truth. One who is trapped in their belief is lost and does not see. (to believe is a lack of seeing.) So, to pray to an unknown god in the hopes of him hearing your pleas has no meaning. Without discovering within oneself the truth, all such things as prayer are superficial. To pray is nothing more than an act which has been taught to you by another who does not see or have understanding. But, out of ignorance we repeat whatever false thing we have been programmed to repeat.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  11. Paul

    Ya know, ya gotta get over it, pray to whatever God you like, pray to Buddha, Krishna, Allah, hell pray to a watermelon if you like. Or, here's a bizarre and novel thought, don't pray to any God if you don't want to. By the way, that's one reason its called "Land of the Free". Yesterday was National Press Day, bet you didn't know that, so which Journalist did you praise? Which news feed did you read, listen to or watch?

    You've got to get a life man.

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

      Thank you Paul. Well said! As a Christian, I personally believe there are different paths to God, Nirvana, etc... We all have choices and no one is saying that today you need to pray to one religion's God. That concept is so mis-understood and is the result of ignorant thinking. Articles such as this one are worthless and miss the whole point completely. This is a day to wish for peace and understanding of each other.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  12. californiagirl1129

    Why not just call it the National Day of Prayer and Meditation? Pray to your God as you understand Him, or simply connect to your spiritual self - chant, hum., spend time in nature, listen to some great music that moves you. People having different beliefs from the mainstream is not a problem–the problem only comes up when I try to FORCE you to believe the same way I do. Even people in the same church, religion, small Bible study believe differently from each other. It's not a problem. It's an opportunity to learn and grow.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Why have the government be involved at all?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Well Said

      Excellent response! Thank you.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  13. Knucklehead

    Jesus, please protect me from your followers...

    May 3, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • NC

      lol:-)

      May 3, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  14. D987654321

    All this public prayer is vulgar. Stop shoving your lifestyle down our thoats.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Rick W

      Just remember this, when you die, You will see God!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  15. Bhawk

    The only reason this is around was to show people the dirty commies were ant- religion. For this country the dominate religion is monetarytheism. Most americans worship money and can do anything if they can justify it as "its business". Business clamers for fewer regulations so they lie, cheat, and steal without government influence. Reps nominate a businessman to fix the economy–if they want the economy fixed nominate a economist not the one of the group he destroied the ecnomoy, who enjoys firing people.

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

      Right on! bravo

      May 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • RedArmy

      Communists are not 'dirty' as you say. Communism is simply a form of government. Do you really think that communists walked around saying, "Those dirty republicans!" (We are a republic, not a democracy)

      May 3, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  16. ShawnDH

    † In God We Trust †

    Obviously your dumb religion is making you a psychotic and deranged person. You are making a fool of yourself.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  17. voyager

    Jesus CHrist is not running for election – He is already on the throne and none of the negative comments spewed on here will change that. There will come a day when EVERY knee will bow and EVERY tongue will confess that He is LORD. Whether in joy or sorrow, but there will be no denying that.

    Furthermore, I sometimes see that national day of prayer as hypocrissy. God calls for repentance -that is man turning away from his wicked ways and making and being transformed into who God has called us to be. Not devoting a day to pray to Him as if to do him a favor and thereafter go back doing the same old nonesense – you can't fool God. Either you are with Him or against Him. Can't drink of the Lord's cup and of the devil's cup. Hate me if you wish, but I love you nonetheless, and JESUS loves you too.

    Be blessed

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

      Amen to that

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

      I don't hate you. I feel profoundly sorry for you. You're pi ss ing away your life for a myth, and not even a very good one.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • KDub

      Maybe if we CAPITALIZE every word that WE find IMPORTANT, maybe that will CONVINCE others that OUR BELIEFS are the only ones worth BELIEVING.

      Why do people do this? I'm still not convinced...but mildly frustrated with your bi-polar typing.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • GOD

      My son does not sit on a throne. He was meek and meager. He was humble and caring. And believe it or not, he was not white. Sleep tight America, you know I only have your back when it comes to killing people.

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

      Amen. God is not "flattered by our sanctified exhaustion" when we hurl prayers at him just because it's a day of prayer. And I don't take offense to anyone offended that their religion is part of today.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  18. Keksi

    Americans need to start praying to Earth God not just American God.

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

    Why don't other animals have Gods? Afterall, according to atheists, those who believe in God are dumb and delusional. It is only the atheist who is smart and logical.

    Given that logic, animals are much more dumb than we are so shouldn't they believe in God(s)? I'd love to hear some replies from some f.,ucktard atheists.

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

      I'm sure Jesus loves that modifier you put right before "atheists."

      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

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

      I'm sure you would love to hear responses....but unless you understand the difference between sentience and intelligence you won't understand most of the responses you get.

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

      I'm not an atheist but I don't know where you heard that b.s.......and just as a side note, if you call yourself a "christian" and make comments like that, it's no wonder alot of people (including me) can't stand you hypocritical hatemongering Jesus freaks.

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

      Who says you are smarter than a monkey ?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • uos_spo6

      Every word you secrete reeks of a simpleton.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      Prime ... We Atheists are no smarter or logical, we simply don't believe in deities.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • uos_spo6

      Animal brains don't have the cognitive capacity for "imagination" and abstract thinking like a human being. Take a science class of some kind man if you want to attempt and have an intelligent enriching conversation on religion.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • jim

      Who told you animals don't have gods?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • AverageJoe76

      I would have to say that any animal having a religion would be intelligent in technical terms. Humans crafted cutting tools out of stone, showing intelligence. Fast foward into the future; humans can forge metals to make stronger cutting tools. Their thinking evolved.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Blergy

      You probably won't get any response because you're using horrid logic. A implies B DOES NOT mean that B implies A. For example, McDonald's workers wear hats, Derek Jeter wears a hat, therefore Derek Jeter works at McDonald's.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Angela Birch

      How do you know if Animals have a God or not? You make the assumption they don't. What is your assumption based on.
      I am always amazed by people who think they supposedly "know" such things.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  20. QS

    If we went so far as to put "In God We Trust" on our money....wouldn't that explain why so many so-called "people of faith" worship money over all else?

    May 3, 2012 at 3:34 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.