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. Smarterthanyou

    Prayer is just talking to yourself, which means you are not all there mentally. There is no invisible man in the sky that is going to grant your wishes.

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

      He doesn't grant wishes, he answers prayers that are in alignment with his will. He's real! You should read some articles on some people who where self-proclaimed Atheists & now believe in God based on their experience. No matter how much society would like to do away with Jehovah & the bible is not going to change the fact that he doesn't exist. I could pose the same argument that says that people who don't believe are mentally challenged because there's no way that humans & animals created themselves, not matter how many theories that scientist pose. Scientist know too that there's a component that they can't understand & a lot of them cannot exclude that there is a possible GOD. I'm not saying you're mentally challenged because there's no need to be condescending for your belief.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  2. Newyorker

    How about not holding hands and not praying? Did anyone think about that? What a novel idea in this country.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  3. L

    atheists must love CNN

    May 3, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  4. Paul J

    In this country nobody forces anybody to pray. In fact, Christians are under persecution for their believe.

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

      Sure Christians are under attack from people who they condemn and persecute. What planet do you live on?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • William Demuth


      You have killed more than all the other cults combined, and now you're persecuted?

      Don't make me pee myself!

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


      May 3, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Mark Anderson

      Where are Christians persecuted, get over it, that's a total lie.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Emefkay

      Christians are under persecution? Lol

      May 3, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  5. Non-believers are stupid!!

    Religion is such a joke. And the people who follow it are even more so. Religious people should absolutely be known for being lunatic idots, wlhich is what they are.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  6. Frankly Speaking..

    Muslims pray 5 times a day, EVERY day.. You can keep this special "prayer day" to yourself

    May 3, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  7. Mopery

    Let us all bow our heads and pretend to be serious, as we attempt to communicate telepathically with our own self-induced delusion.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  8. peick

    Dear non-prayers-to-the-Christian-God:

    Suck it up.

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

      How about you just suck it?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • Rbnlegnd101

      So, P, you are a christian? I think it would be a good idea for you to print this page, and take it to your priest, and show him your prayer. Show him how you are out here, on the front lines, testifying in the name your god. Show him how you have taken your faith to th eunblievers, and done good works, in gods name. I am sure he will want to shake your hand, and congratulate you.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  9. thor

    Pray to only one god and the rest will get angry! Zeus be with you!

    May 3, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Umm Thor.

      Your father Odin called.

      He didn't sound happy.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  10. Jeffrey P

    Getting back to you on prayer. This country was founded on the belief in God. as well as freedom of religion. Goverment should not influence religion, but religion should influence goverment. That was the seperation they we're looking for. So to pray to God for direction is not only proper but should be expected in this country.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • what?

      where did you get that version of the concept of separation of church and state from? Never heard the concept couched like that in my life.

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

      @JeffreyP – No, not really. See my comment below. Ever hear of the Treaty of Tripoli? Authored by American diplomat Joel Barlow in 1796, the following treaty was sent to the floor of the Senate, June 7, 1797, where it was read aloud in its entirety and unanimously approved. John Adams, having seen the treaty, signed it and proudly proclaimed it to the Nation. It states "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion..." This was signed less than 20 years after the founding of the Country by people who were original founders. If being a Christian country was what they intended, don't you think they would have objected to approving this?

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

      That might have been the way it was, but that doesn't mean we need to keep it that way. If the founding fathers were content to keep doing what they were used to, we would still be shouting "God save the Queen." We must progress to the reality that a separation of church and state is a two-way street not one-way. Either that or get rid of religious freedom and establish one religion for US citizenship.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  11. george in texas

    so, why is shirley dobson presuming to speak on behalf of all people in usa? in the republican primaries, the "real conservatives" got a good thrashing for making religion the center piece of their compaign, didn't they?
    btw, about the issue of taxes on the rich that the author talks about, it has just come to notice that a lot of rich americans are giving up their citizenship to save on taxes.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  12. Hugh G. Rection

    Man created god, not the other way around.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Paul J


      May 3, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  13. Violette

    One thing I find irritating is the assertion that "this country was created by Christian people who wanted to be free to worship their God." First of all, the people who came here for that reason were fleeing other countries that were CHRISTIAN, just not their kind of Christian. Second, when the government of this country was founded the majority of people that lived here were not here for that reason, they were farmers and businessmen and indentured servants and people who came here for a better life and a chance to own property. The country was founded so that we weren't being ruled by a far away government and paying taxes with no representation. The parts about freedom of religion came from having been citizens of England which has a state religion. Just look at their history and you can see the problems that created.

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

      Separation of church and state also engineers a barrier to foreign rule under the guise of religious loyalty. example: Roman Catholic church.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  14. Agnostic mom

    USA is a Christian country..... us nonbelievers needs to get over it unfortunately

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

      By that ration it's a Muslim world. Sleep tight.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Jeffrey P

      Wow, I commend you on that . You have a right to your opinion. I wish more realized that on both sides.

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

      Do you know what agnostic means? "The government of the United States is in no way founded on the Christian Religion." –The Treaty of Tripoli, 1797, ratified by 100% of the U.S. senate

      May 3, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  15. nibiro

    tell lady gaga i love her

    May 3, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  16. Carol

    Can't remember on growing up and being a young adult that anyone was concerned about our nation praying in unison to one God we all believed in. So why now? Stop trying to divide and control our beliefs and everything will be fine.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  17. God

    My beloved Stephen:

    In answer to your recent diatribe on religion – don't get hung up on all that stuff. Just tell me what's bothering you, repent and don't sin. I left you a book that kind of addresses this stuff.



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

      This is God from the old testament, you will burn for all eternity!

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

      This the real god! I must have blood! Kill yourselves in the name of me to quench my blood lust.....just kidding, I don't exist. Lulz!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • thinker in the sun

      I need to TELL you what's bothering me? You don't already know? And then I need to beg you to do something differently than you had planned?

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

      Dear beloved stephen,
      God again, i forgot to mention, the book i am referring to is the one that the aposltes wrote 70 years after they followed my Son-ur Savior, u know the great white guy that looks look u even tho born in the middle east. Yes, they were in there late thirties and forties so yes they wrote it when they were in their hundreds, but i gave the special memory powers.
      Remember to tell all non christians that we still love them even tho theyre going to hell.
      GOd bless America and no place else!!!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  18. Uncle Bob

    Evangelicals say that Romney is not christian because mormonism is a cult.

    They also say, however, that Obama is a christian, but don't like his brand of christianity.

    So, evangelicals back Romney because they hate Obama more than they love jesus.

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

      The Daily show much?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  19. † In God We Trust †

    I wish I were a fancy lady. Dear God, make me a fancy lady.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  20. me138

    Pray to Joe Pesci.

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

      George Carlin speaks

      May 3, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
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