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. Adam

    Religion is a joke

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

      And it's not even funny.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Hotas Fuchs

      Organized religion is the greatest crime ever perpetrated on mankind.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  2. Hotas Fuchs

    He's not praying to a christian god... he, like all politicians in DC, is praying to the pagan god Money.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:44 pm |

    "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." – Ghandi

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

      Oh so true!

      May 3, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  4. Those used guys.

    As a Pastafairian, I don't bother praying at all as the FSM does not really find any of his followers that intresting enough to listen to, sort of like get over yourself. Most Gods would find the litany of prayers asking to forgive the conduct of the prayer as a huge bore. Lets hope all the supposed 78% or so of Christians, pray that the USA keeps from going to war with another country for lets say a couple of decades; you all will have to pray real hard to avhieve that.
    RAmen....Peace from the FSM

    PS: Does anybody remember the last time Christians were not at war with each other or another religion? Anyone?

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

    Prayer is an act of modesty. By its nature the person praying is putting her or himself in a position of asking for wisdom? In that way it takes on an aspect of divinity.

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

      If it's an act of modesty then why do politicians need to make a spectacle of it?

      If I'm not mistaken, the Bible clearly tells Christians NOT to pray in public. But, like most of the Bible, they ignore that and cherry-pick what they agree with (and even in many cases completely make things up, since the Bible says nothing about abortion, for example).

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


      1) You are so right. The more a Christian wears their religion on their sleeve (or belt buckle) the more judgmental and critical they are.

      2) Absolutely GREAT SCREEN NAME! I take it you read the book "Your Inner Fish"

      May 3, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  6. Jon

    I don't understand why everyone can't respect eachother's belief's. I personally do believe in God but if someone else doesn't then that is their decision. I am not going to push my beliefs on anyone (including my family and children). I will let them know what I believe and let them decide on their own. But if your an atheist (which I was at one point in my life a long time ago) then please don't call me stupid for believing in God. Keep it to yourself and think anything you want inside your own head. The same goes for believers. Don't push your beliefs on someone who doesn't believe. If they want to have a conversation about it then by all means talk. But what happened to people just being respectful of one another.

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

      Why would I be respectful of behavior that is total lunacy? You believe in invisible men in the sky? Why should I respect that? Its crazy.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Non-believers are stupid!!

      If someone told you that they believed the Earth if flat (hopefully you know better), would you say it's OK for them to think that?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  7. Jew

    I love when atheists get mad.... I love bugging them and make them even more mad until they explode 🙂

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

      That's just typical childishness and hatred from people who believe ancient Middle Eastern fairy tales are real. Thanks for proving us right. Again.

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

      Not being an atheist I don't care but I would tell all of them regarding people like you...."consider the source and move on."

      May 3, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • JT

      As a Jew...wouldn't you say atheists and christians are in the same boat? Christians will roast for eternity for falling for some con man from 2000 years ago who said he was the messiah.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  8. Unit34AHunter

    As a Pagan, all I can say is that I too look forward to the Rapture, so that all these frigging evangelicals will finally leave!

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

      Wow a pagan. I thought the Christians killed all you guys. Glad you made it through the genocide.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Unit34AHunter

      Thanks. They actually missed a bunch of us. A whole bunch. They were too busy hunting down Jews I guess.

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

      Yeah, the Christians stole all your holidays too. Must really suck.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  9. mon

    I don't see any reason against a religious group having a National Prayer Day. Heck, Muslim countries have prayer five times a day! (I know, I know. It's law and that's a different story...). My thoughts are, this isn't a government sanctioned day, so if you don't believe in prayer then just don't pray. I also don't see anything wrong in atheists having a National Reason Day. Not only do I not see anything wrong with it, but I think they should equally feel free to celebrate their views. But in the vein of "can't we all just get along?", I think having it on the same day out of mocking protest goes against the call for tolerance. Just as I think religious people should be respectful of someone's atheists views, I think atheists should be respectful of someone's spiritual views. Tolerance must go both ways if we wist to strive for peaceful diversity.

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

      I have a problem with it. People should not encourage mass lunacy. Praying to invisible men in the sky is lunacy. And besides your crazy book says to pray in private. So if you want to be crazy, at least do it in your own house.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • William Demuth

      So now Christians are asking for tolerance?

      When have they EVER given it.

      Only one group can win, and Jeebus is going down.

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

      Really well said.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Tiktaalik

      It's not a religious group; it's the U.S. government officially endorsing it, hence the label NATIONAL day of prayer. It's a violation of the establishment clause. If religion would stay out of politics, then I'd stay out of religion.

      Until then, I will fight the religious right's theocratic tendencies.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • mon

      Who ever said I was Christian? I believe in a monotheistic deity, but that belief expands beyond, after, and before Christianity from Sikhism, Bahá'í, Zoroastrianism, Islam, etc. I think there is beauty and wisdom to be found in all view points: monotheistic, polytheistic, enlightenment philosophies, and atheistic emphasis on reason. Obviously I don't believe in all aspects of each faith, or non-faith, but I believe there is a collective wisdom that can be found from taking parts of the whole. Nobody has to believe in even any part in any of them, but if you respect the meaning they give to another person rather than taking a unilateral "I'm right, you're wrong" approach, it's a positive step to a more peaceful society.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  10. carla Nelson

    I just want to say this that just because you are a Repblican don't mean that you are a Christian. That why Mitt Romney can't talk about anybodys religion he needs to back off of Obama on that because last I heard is that mormonism is not at all Christianity. They are so hard on calling Obama a Muslim. The reason why I say this because during slavery you had promiment people in socety going to Church every sunday but yet still they owned slaves and slept with them and still wnet to Church on Sunday like it was nothing and thencalled themselves Christians.

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

      That may be true, but the religious element of the Party is clearly calling the shots.

      If the GOP wants to be taken seriously, they need to end all their religious intolerance and theocratic legislation that enforces their version of "morality" upon the rest of us.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  11. Trent

    I'm pretty sure the act of speaking to people who aren't actually there is a mental health problem.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      And, unfortunately, this one is highly contagious. An interesting statistic is that the less intelligent are more susceptible to this disease.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  12. † In God We Trust †

    By declining, I mean doubling every 8 years.

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

      People like you prove God doesn't exist.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  13. AgnosticAGame

    How about a day where no one should pray to celebrate the freedom from religion our nation should hold dear? There are plenty of nice people and places around the world that have already admitted that religion is man made. There very well may be a god or gods out there, but I would bet they are laughing at all of the ridiculous things we do in their name.

    Since this is a day of religion, "God, gods, nothing, or whatever is out there, please forgive my fellow human beings for being so gosh darn ridiculous."

    May 3, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Paul J

      Nobody in this country forces you to pray. Actually Christians are the one who are in pressure and being forced to deny what they believe.
      So, you can be without God and without hope as you wish.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • AgnosticAGame

      Thanks for the response Paul.

      I think you have two fundamental misconceptions in your comment : (1) That Christianity is more threatened than the minority of other religions and non-religious people out there, (2) That only religious people can hope for a better future.

      I still help people, support my community, vote, work my 8 to 7 overtime, support my family and love them dearly. Yup, I'm just a human being making it through this world just like you.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  14. Justice

    Try practicing patience and tolerance with those who are different than you. What do you gain by persecuting others with your hateful comments? Do you always judge others that are different than you? What is your goal? Is the nation and world not divided enough? Nobody said you had to agree with others' beliefs. Today you judge others that are different but tomorrow it may be you who is judged.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  15. blessedgeek

    National Day of Religious Persecution

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

    Thank God I moved to America where religion is huge in public and government..... Europe is a big mess

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

      Is that sarcastic? Because if it's not, it ought to be.

      We need religion OUT of politics.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  17. Zak

    While you dupes are praying, I am going to be masturbating feverishly and eating fish sandwiches! Suck it Jehovah!!

    May 3, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  18. tom in CT

    Our nation was founded by christian Pilgrims, please get over it.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • William Demuth


      You lose. Actually you lost that argument in 1797.

      We are not now, never have been and never shall be a Christian nation, and soon enough your filth will be washed from our streets.

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

      Tom, are you talking the first settlers to the new world or the people who actually risked their lives, planned, fought and died to create the United States of America? Cuz you're talking people a century apart from each other. And now it's been another 250 years or so since then? You know how Georgia came about, or Rhode Island, not to mention Louisiana, the Southwest, Oregon, Oklahoma, Hawaii, etc. Not everyone was a Pilgrim. But you know that because you know our history. Sorry, just getting over it.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • tekstep1

      America was not "founded" by pilgrims any more than it was "founded" by Native Americans.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Haps

      Please refer to Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli to get a bit of history regarding your appallingly ignorant, misinformed statement.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Observant Historian

      The Pilgrims came about 13 years after the Jamestown colony was established. They didn't exactly "found" the nation, and they weren't looking for "freedom of religion" so much as the freedom to impose their religion. People in their communities were not free to practice religion (or not practice it) as they saw fit, and the Pilgrims had no intention that it would be otherwise. That remains, for many American Christians, their stance on religious freedom today. It much like the slave-holders' self-righteous stance on "states' rights," which actually meant their right to hold slaves. It's unfortunate that most people know so little about their history.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  19. Chuck

    Gee, if 78 percent of us are Christians how come it's so hard to get a tee time on a Sunday?

    May 3, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • EJ

      Lol. Because some of us (Catholics) can also go to Mass on Saturday and Sunday evenings!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Golf Fan

      Last time I checked, church lasts about 1-2 hours, not all day. And for most of us, golf is not work. Maybe you need to work on your swing. 😉

      May 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  20. MiketheElectrician

    As long as your activity is not illegal (human sacrifice, smoking crack) you can worship whomever you want, or not. That is why the Chinese dissident wants to come here. We can worship or not as we see fit.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • Dudus57

      That is not the point. The point (kinda) is how, not if. Nobody is arguing Agilent freedom of religionS. The argument is how and if it's appropriate for a "free country" to state things that are terribly offensive to some of it's own people.

      This is swept under the run for years. What si the percentage of the US that gay or lesbian? I bet it's lower than those who publicly states they are non-religious. Yet we spend far more time on a far smaller group of "non-mainstream". Sorry gays and lesbians, just needed an example, didn't intended to offend.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:52 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.