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. ...

    I concur with you strictly in your opinion of the comparative merits of atheism and demonism, and really see nothing but the latter in the being worshipped by many who think themselves Christians.
    -Thomas Jefferson, letter to Richard Price, Jan. 8, 1789

    May 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      We dot-posters never pay attention to any dot-posted message that contains less than four dots. You missed it by just one dot buddy!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  2. waterman

    "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."
    – Another poster "Chris"

    May 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  3. Fred

    Stop talking to invisible people.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      It's called 'Spirit', not invisible...okay? Doubting Thomas!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  4. Mike

    People over analyze anything. It's a national day of prayer. Participate or don't – don't make an issue out of something that isn't.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      I agree 100% Mike, but if everyone follows your sage advice, then how, oh how will Mistuh Prothero make his wad of cash whilst projecting and feeding his ego?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  5. Justin Adams

    religion for 90% is only a factor of where you were born and not education, intelligence, study, or experience. it's no different than saying my favorite college sports team is better than yours. simple hypothetical- let's say you are evangelical or baptist, or whatever you believe your faith is now, and imagine if right after you were born your parents and all relatives died in a tour bus accident. and you were orphaned. then were were adopted by devout muslims, would still be a evangelist or baptist? or chrisitan? or jew? i doubt it. if you were adopted by an atheist, would you believe in any god? how many people believe what they believe because their parents told them to? how many of you actually have changed your opinion on god in your life? how many of you studied faiths before you choose one? or were you just born into it? how many muslims grew up in christian families? how many mormons grew up in jewish families. catholics are baptised right after birth and have first communion by first grade, does any 6 years really know what god is? no, their parents forced them into that religion. jews are jewish simply because their were born to a jewish mother therefor they have to believe what their mother believes. just about every religion in the world is based in intolerance and hate for another group of people. how many people use religion to justify killing, greed, hate, and intolerance?


    May 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  6. Greg9d

    Thanks for this irreverent essay. Isn't sad that you make your living trying to make fun of an event that is meant to bring us together. May God forgive you for using his name in vain.

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

      Which god did you have in mind? There have been so many...

      May 3, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  7. wisdom4u2

    Eezzzzz! Let those who pray to the 'real' God pray, and the others can pray to their idols....DERRRR.

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

      Or as the late great George Carlin so eloquently put it – "My god has a bigger d**k than your god."

      May 3, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      @boobcat ~~~ Your comment has nothing to do with 'prayer'...you big d ick!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  8. saleh saleh

    How to pray to God- God is the one who created Moses, Mohammad, Jesus, and Ibrahim. All are his creation.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  9. Common Guy12

    This article seems to be a whole lot to do about nothing.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  10. SevenTimes

    I applaud my president. He has no fear of praying to his God in public. Much respect!!

    May 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  11. John Patrick Grace

    For starters let's look at the origin of the word "God." It comes from the Old English "Goode," a shorter form. Thus God is the ultimate Good. And we all pretty much agree on the meaning of "good." That which is true, is positive, is helpful, beneficial, etc.
    The great monotheistic religions all point to God as One (though Muslims have trouble with the Christian Trinity, thinking of Christians as polytheists worshipping three different Gods; St. Patrick solved that one by picking up a shamrock and telling the druids, "See, one plant, with three equal leaves, but all connected, all 'one.'")
    Our Founding Fathers were "on board" with that concept of God as One. Their expressions of fealty toward or reliance upon that One God are plastered all over the monuments in Washington, for everyone to read.
    When Rick Warren prayed in the name of Yeshua, he did so using "I," as in "I, Rick Warren, offer this prayer in the name of Yeshua." He was not imposing that foundation upon all his listeners, simply stating his own faith that Jesus is God (as the second ;person of the Trinity); the distinction is important.
    Personally, I applaud the evangelical Protestant leaders' plea for prayers to unite all Christians - and I say that as a Catholic. There are plenty of Catholics today who resonate to the kind of personal faith that the evangelical leaders espouse and promote.
    i hope some of these points and distinctions will be taken to heart by those who follow this blog.

    John Patrick Grace
    Huntington, West Virginia

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

      Uh, the word "God" does not derive from "Goode" or any English word. Even if it did derive from the word "Goode" it doesn't follow that God is the Ultimate Good. That doesn't make sense to normal people since it is illogical, but I guess you talk to invisible men in the sky so it kind of makes sense to you.

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

      From your point of view, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and others also have a 'problem' with your 'Trinity'

      May 3, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  12. dave

    I love how so many people that don't believe in God love to read religious articles. Personally, I tend not to invest my time in reading articles about Islam because I don't believe in Islam. I don't know, maybe it's just me, but reading articles that refer to things I don't believe in (and are, therefore, irrelevant) is just a waste of time. I guess that's just me being an irrational person, you know, believing in a God and all.

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

      If you were an intelligent person you would understand the value of reading about opinions you do not hold, it is called challenging your own ideas and putting them through the microscope of reason. That is something Christians rarely, if ever, do.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot


      What if Islam was trying to run our government, enact laws and public policies, inject their beliefs into public education of our children and retard progress in science? Would you be interested then?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  13. KM

    It's very simple. Pray if you want to and don't pray if you don't believe. Why is it a must that everyone do the same? Last time I checked, this country was supposed to allow personal freedoms. I'm so sick and tired of worrying about what will offend who.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  14. edvhou812

    Pray if you want to–don't pray if you don't want to. Pray to multiple Gods or the "Spagetti Monster" if you want to. No need to make a big fuss about it.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Yeah, so what if it violates the Establishment Clause.

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

    What a great photo of President Obama... reminds me why I didn't vote for him last time... (and won't vote for him this time, either...)

    May 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Merry Prankster

      So I take it you are a right wing atheist?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      Hey PraiseTheLard, professor Forbin is developing an intelligent computer to run our nuclear defence and eventually run everything (us included). His (its) name is Colossus – you'll probably want to vote for him (it) as I hear that he (it) is an atheist.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  16. 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 3:39 pm |
  17. Keither

    Jews and Muslims pray to the God of Abraham, Christians pray to the later verison of the Holy Trinity. Now with a presidential Mormon candidate, many are very misinformed about the very different Mormon God. Look it up, a Mormon God used to flesh and bones from some other planet, is one of millions (or billions) of gods, and nothing even close to the God of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Many this is the correct God or maybe not? You figure it out and pray away.

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

      This may be true, but as a President, he's still gotta be better than Obama.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  18. brett

    how can a government recognize a day of prayer when we're suppose to have separation of church and state? As a sometimes christian, pagan, Buddhist, I surely don't need a government to tell me that i need a day to recognize prayer, i take the time to pray when i need to.

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

      Because we a one nation under God. Why would you want to take a Loving God out of the picture anyway.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  19. MiketheElectrician

    I think this letter went in God's spam box..

    May 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  20. Paul Buckley

    I like what God said in Isaiah 43 I even I,am the Lord.And beside me there is no Saviour. Before me there was no God formed.Neither shall there be after me . WOW. Now what God should we be praying to ? Give me the God of the Bible ,the rest are counterfeits .

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

      Are you _sure_ that god said that?

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

      You may think they are counterfeits, but not everyone believes in the bible. I suspect we all think there is one god but there are many paths to that god, not just through the bible, which wasn't written by god, since god isn't a human, he can't write anything

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


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

      But each religions "Bible" says the same thing so why is yours the right one?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:50 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.