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. Lulala24

    There is nothing wrong with prayer. But, forcing your religion on others and judging them for the GOD they pray to? Now, there is defiantly something wrong with that!

    May 3, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • EJ

      I completely agree, but that door swings both ways. Just as we should respect those who believe differently (or do not believe at all), our views should also be respected.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Search for Truth

      Lulala24 – I would agree with you that there is nothing wrong with prayer. I would also agree that there is something wrong with forcing your beliefs on others. But that cuts both ways. Why is it that lately it seems that if somebody proclaims to be Christian and to hold onto those beliefs it's a problem because somebody else thinks differently and that they believe because you share what you believe that you are forcing it on somebody else but if a non-Christian tells a Christian that they ought to be quiet or tells the Christian that they are wrong it's okay and it's free speech. It has to go both ways.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  2. Ray Van

    These Liberals that love Abe Lincoln need to consider his prayer – which God did he pray to? We can't force people to pray to the true God, but we can encourage people that know the true God to humble themselves and pray for mercy. II Chronicles 7:14

    If My People which are called by My name shall.....

    May 3, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Liberals that love Abe?

      I mean he had a cool hat, but he was crazy as a loon!

      But he DID kill a boatload of rednecks, so I got to give him props!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  3. Diest

    Our country was founded on the basic principle of Freedom of Religion and Freedom from Religion. Why is it that so many seem to leave out half of the concept.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • *


      May 3, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Search for Truth

      It doesn't say "Freedom from Religion." That is somebody else's interpretation. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

      May 3, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  4. CRH

    Apparently Boston University used the term "scholar" loosely. There is 2 minutes of my life that I'll never get back. At least if this was in print, I could line the bird cage with it.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  5. Chuck

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

    May 3, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  6. ChillOuT

    Stephen Prothero's letter to CNN was a bit annoying to read. I don't see anything wrong with praying as a nation. As for how and who to pray to? That's you're own decision. And, what if you don't believe in God? Then softly smile, and respect the fact that many do. This is the action allows us to be more unified as a nation. Not to jump up every time something or someone has differences that may deviate from your point of view.

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


      May 3, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  7. Atheist got fired

    I got fired from my job after working there for 30 years because my boss found out I'm an Atheist 🙁
    Of course he gave me another lie reason

    I rather stay closeted

    May 3, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Kill him.

      Vengenance is OURS sayeth the Atheist!

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

      Maybe you ought to pray that you can find a new job!!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Mopery

      You need to talk to a lawyer from the ACLU and sue the pants off your boss. Then open a clothing store and sell your old boss some new pants.

      May 3, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
  8. joe

    kind of pathetic to see grown men standing around praying to an invisible sky being in 2012. It's something that was justified in 1012 because of their limited knowledge but not in 2012 (well that and if you didn't they'd cut your head off).

    Think about it. Praying to an all knowing God make no sense whatsoever. It already knows that you were going to pray before your prayed and the result–that's what "all knowing" means.

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

      There is a difference between kneeling and Bending over.
      Frank Zappa

      May 3, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Indrid Cold

      You expect logic in conjuction to religion?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  9. Mister Jones

    “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one less god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” —Stephen F Roberts

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

      So true!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  10. Ray Van

    These Liberals that love Abe Lincoln need to consider his prayer – which God did he pray to? We can't force people to pray to the true God, but we can encourage people that know the true God to humble themselves and pray for mercy. II Chronicles 7:14

    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 3:46 pm |
  11. waterman

    God knows the future, so he knows what you will be thinking, that you will prey, and everything that you will ever do in your life, and what will happen to you after that. So what is the point of preying or doing anything at all?

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

    Separation of church and state means the government cannot pass laws to impede religion and the religion cannot tell the government what to do, that’s all. The government recognizing religion is not impeding or taking orders from religion.

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

      Tax every Church.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Mike

      If it were only that easy as we all saw in the resent uproar about the Catholic church and the Health Care Reform Act butting heads on the contraceptive issue.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  13. Krep1

    Hey everyone...understand this....the Bible is not a book about being religious, and competing with other gods. The bible is about a King, extending influence of His Kingdom to earth, through man. Humanity lost it's purpose as recounted in Genesis chapters 1 through 3. The rest of the bible, especially the coming of Christ was to restore man back to God's original purpose of His Kingdom coming and His will being done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). When Jesus began his earthly ministry, his message was repent...change your thinking...the Kingdom of God (not religion) is here Matthew 4:17.
    Many of you are frustrated because you long to fulfill your divine destiny and Christianity and other "religions" have failed you. I understand your pain, but now God is allowing me to post this so you can begin searching what he always wanted you to have in the first place....a Kingdom!!

    Luke 22:29 And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me;

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

      Tell me, since the whole Jesus thing happened...what exactley has improved on this earth? Man is just as evil as ever, maybe even worse. Not to mention all the wars and innocent deaths because of "christianity". The whole thing is a farce. Why was the supposed son of God a carpenter? And don't get me started with the emmaculate conception

      May 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Indrid Cold

      I see lot's of hatred and intollerance in the Bible. I dont follow it, and no one can make me.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  14. zorroprimo

    What vapid swill.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  15. GOD

    Surely if you believe in me and my "plan" you'd have to realize atheists are part of said plan. I like them just the way they are. They leave me alone. Everyone else comes at me with their Facebook-prayers or wealth and infatuation. Spare me. You're all on your own. Always have been. Some of you just waste less of your time.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  16. glorydays

    Pray to anyone or anything you wish...just don't shove it down my throat or try to run the government with it.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  17. yneemee

    A person can pray to any supreme being of their choosing... only one supreme being is really there to answer.

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

      And his wife?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • jebus

      That is the dumbest thing i think i have ever read!! Please, flatter me with your reasoning behind that statement.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  18. RobbieB

    Honestly who cares except for the small percentage of people who feel as if they are somehow being wronged by this, we have many many observances that are not all inclusive but do we hear non mothers complaining about mothers day? non blacks complaining about black history month? The list goes on and on. Celebrate what is right for you and yours be happy for those who have something to celebrate instead of trying to tear them down because you have a personal preference that does not mirror someone elses the wedge is not being driven by those who observe a special day to THEM but by those who would want to take that away from them!

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

      Well said!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  19. Neesha

    I cannot comprehend based on my own experiences how no one can believe but it’s your choice & I’m not knocking anyone. Besides Jehovah gives us free-will but he does give us instruction through the holy bible on how he wants us to live in order to have a fulfilling life & to live forever. Jehovah is not bigoted or hateful but he does hate the act of sin but not the person so people who act hateful is doing it by their choice. God forgives us of any sin as long as we repent. His thoughts are not like our thoughts & he is not a man. Radical Christians & people taking his words out of context to fit their own agenda’s is not God’s doing. The God I know doesn’t agree with a lot of Christian’s behavior. It’s the men or women who choose to act on them in a non-godly way. Many people have turned away from God & society as a whole is allowing the devil to mislead the world & turn away from God & by looking at some of these postings he is & has succeeded. Read the bible for yourself & ask for understanding. May Jehovah God reveal himself to you so you can understand why I believe & believe in his son Jesus.

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

      Oh Jeez

      RUN it's the Jehovahs at the door.

      Turn out the lights and hide!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Rbnlegnd101

      Do you think belief is a choice? I don't. You believe in god, to you, god is real. You may choose to act as if he isn't, or you may find a way to convince you that he is different than you beielve he is now, but, you do think god is real. People who do not belive, are not choosing not to believe. They don't feel the same conviction that you do, that there is a god, and choose to pretend otherwise. They just don't understand why you believe as you do. Could you choose to start believing in Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Hercules and the rest of that group? Probably not, they aren't real to you and no amount of saying they are will change that.

      There are many many gods I don't believe in. You and I only disagree on one of them.

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

      @ William, I'm actually not a Jehovah's witness but Jehovah is the name of God that's been translated into the English Language. Some pronouce it different ways but it all leads back to the one & only true God many of us believe in. I don't coin myself as a baptist, catholic, witness or anything, I just believe in the word of Jehovah & his son Jesus Christ.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • Neesha

      Rbnlegnd101-Yes, there is a choice. You can choose to believe or not but no one can force you. Maybe if you were living in another country that would be different because they force you to believe as they believe or risk being killed. I'm not trying to force my belief on anyone because it's up to them to decide but no one on this earth could tell me that he does not exist. My beliefs comes from experiences (supernatural) not just being taught about it. But I pray that you guys will some day too.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • AverageJoe76

      Neesha – As you just answered Rbnlegnd101; if you lived in another country and died without knowing 'Hova, where does their soul go?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  20. Jim

    Most of what I hear coming from "chistians" lately is hate.

    Hate for that socialist Obama

    Hate for gays

    Hate for muslims

    Hate for pretty much anyone that doesn't think the way evangelicals want them to think.

    Overblown hyperbole? Maybe. But how is generalizing hateful evangelicals to all christians different than generalizing hateful muslim extremists to all muslims? And that seems to be more of a national interest for evangelicals that god.

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

      No, just hate for people like you.

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

      I would disagree. Most Christians do not hate gay people, or Muslims, or Obama. They just disagree with their actions and beliefs. There is a big difference.

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

      Why thank you leelanau for proving my point.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Rbnlegnd101

      That would be funny, Leelanau, if it wasn't so pathetic. You don't get it at all, do you?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • Agreed

      I'm Muslim, and I agree with you completely.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • bankole

      Hey william, †ђξ 'jehovahs' Ɣ☺ΰ were trying τ̅☺ hide from does really makes ɑ̤̈̊ lot of sense. ℓ̊ tried listening τ̅☺ them once α̲̅πϑ they answered all ♍Ɣ questions sensibly; ℓ̊ suggest Ɣ☺ΰ give them ɑ̤̈̊ chance once instead of hiding!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Indrid Cold

      The whole concept of religion is based on mental illness. The closer one is to religious thinking, the further one is from sanity. In my heart of hearts, I believe that Barack Obama is a closet athiest. He sees the evangelical christian movement for what it is. NUTS!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:04 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.