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. Dear Stephen,

    As you, and all those individuals from your planet who have written about or envisioned me, are mortal beings who are extremely limited in terms of perception and mental capacity (especially when viewed in the context of the entire universe), all of your conceptions of me are at best limited and flawed, and at worst completely incorrect and inaccurate. As such your methods of prayer, which are based on these flawed conceptions, are also inherently flawed.

    Therefore, although I appreciate your willingness to improve your lives, better yourselves and communicate with a higher being (such as myself), there is no particular method of prayer which I prefer, as all of them fall far short when attempting to establish any meaningful form of communication with me (be it one or two way). In short, any method you choose, from those available to you, should be sufficient to meet your needs.

    Thank you for the question and keep up the good work,

    The Alpha and The Omega

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

      Cool reply. Can I have your autograph?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • billy

      Fail. We are in God's Own Image, so we have the same brains as he does so we CLEARLY get it. Plus he's been talking do Earthlings for thousands of years so the dude likes to intervene with us on a personal level. Floods, Plagues, Burning bushes, mana from heaven, staffs that turn into snakes and call up water whenever people need it... I think there's scripture somewhere that says this whole universe contraption was built just for us. God, get over yourself and answer this dude's blog for Christ's sake!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  2. Patrick

    Change it to National Day of Prayer, Thought and Meditation

    May 3, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  3. fofo

    Wow only less than 2% are atheists. I never knew how backward American were. Just kidding, I always knew it.

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

      Most Americans don't really think about it enough to classify themselves as anything. So they identify with whatever they grew up with (typically christian), though they're really just non-religious non-thinkers...

      Not that thinking is so important, mind you.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  4. brainjohnson2011

    Hey- I think your percentages to certain religions and denominations do more harm than justice. For example, the way you've stated as if fact that 24% of Americans are Catholic and then gone on to joke they don't pray like evangelicals. Prettys sure there are many people who are culturally Catholic (ie they don't really believe or practice the teaching of the Catholic Church[which they believe are the teachings of God]) and then there are those who are religously Catholic (those who practice there faith). But whatever, these are exactly the problems when we as a nation are encouraged by our government to recognize holidays and create laws the ecourage everyones individuality to be sacrifices for the well being of the government. Yuck!

    May 3, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  5. Roger Ogilvy Thornhill

    God kills. Just say no to gods.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  6. Hector

    The majority of Americans believe in 3 gods:
    1. Money.
    2. Pleasure.
    3. Power.
    That is what makes this nation great and above all other nations.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  7. richard

    This has got to be one of the worse articles ever. Who cares? If you are a non-believer "pray" to your "non-god" (or don't) and shut up. As far as the various religions are concerned...again, who cares? Pray to whoever you want. The author of this article makes it sound like everyone in America has to agree to allow meatloaf on a menu before it can be allowed on any menu anywhere or the resulting confusion will be too much to bear. If the article is an attempt at humor, it stinks.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  8. Jennifer

    atheists our prayer goes to you


    May 3, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Jennifer, my ejaculate goes to you.


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

      Yours and who elses?

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

      If someone states they are Atheist and a believer replies I'll pray for you, basically you are rewarding them. If you belief is true then your deity will answer your prayer for the non-believer; and if you belief is incorrect, then the Atheist was right all along. So whats the point in converting an Atheist when it is proven impossible and pointless?

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

      What makes you think we need you to pray for ust? I rather have the Mormons baptize my stinking dead body after my death. Oops they only baptize Jews, I re'con.

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

      ........ can someone seriously tell me if obama actually believes that theres " an INVISIBLE MAN...LIVING IN THE SKY...who watches every thing you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten special things that he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish where he will send to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry for ever and ever 'til the end of time...but he loves you. [George Carlin, from "You Are All Diseased"]

      May 3, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • What the...


      You are praying to atheists?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  9. loathstheright

    I have never met an atheist who was a bad person, I have never met a Christian who was a good person.

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

      An interesting psychological experiment has shown that when we think we are observed, we tend to be more honest (e.g. posters with faces or eyes in the work place have this effect).

      Religion therefore has an interesting effect: as it poses supernatural surveillance it keeps people to follow societal rules even when they are unobserved (as they believe they are observed by God).

      It seems there is a religion-shaped hole in our minds having to do with the way the success of our species is based on group behavior and collaboration. Religion can be seen as one of the most successful memes filling that hole. We as a species are religious by nature because it works in keeping us cooperative instead of a contra-productive bunch of free-riders.

      Sustaining cooperation by having an unseen almighty 'observer' works, so much is clear. But societies that successfully introduce non-religious cooperation-sustaining mechanisms like a rule of law, trustworthy police, less corruption tend to become more atheistic, another corroborating point of this theory.

      The way religious people measure honesty and trustworthiness (for which they take belief in a supernatural being as a proxy) also explains why they distrust atheists so much.

      It also suggests that there is a link between the distrust of man-made mechanisms for trust (generally effectuated by a state) and religious fervor. Deep down, the distrust of Americans against collective agreements and government enforcement can be seen as correct reactions of religion that sees its own role diminished if government/state is too successful.

      Note: the fact that this may be true does not prove religion is nonsense. God may still exist and this hole may be designed...

      May 3, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  10. Roland

    The drunks in AA have it right. Pray to the God of Your Understanding. I don't care who or what that is. Neither should you. Your God is between you and Him/Her and no one else. Believe what you want. I really don't care. You immediatly run into issues when you start talking about the "one true God." No one really knows the "truth." That is why there are so many religions. Humans have filled in the blanks for eons, not just the past 2,000 years.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • † In God We Trust †

      Or just drink until you get what you want. Works just as often as prayer. I should know, I'm planning to be a fancy lady despite what my god gave me in my toolbox.

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

      The answer is none of us knows if there is a god, much less which humans have defined said god correctly. So you pray to your god, let your neighbor pray to his god (unless he just doesn't believe in one) and leave everyone that disagrees with you alone, because you can not prove you are right and trying to force them to believe violates their First Amendment rights ever bit as much as them telling you NOT to pray to your god violates yours!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • Angelique Bouchard

      You clearly have never been near the AA cult. Given a choice between alcoholism and AA, keep drinking.

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

      So true. When I started praying to my toad, I finally found peace. Everyone begin to like me and my god. It is sooo cute – never bossy or be "better or superior than thou".

      May 3, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  11. Living in reality

    God doesn't exist. Stop with the nonsense. It's nothing more than a fairytale.

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

      I'm praying for you. Don't be afraid to seek the truth. I promise you won't regret it!

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

      haha yes, finally! someone who understands........ can someone seriously tell me if obama actually believes that there " an INVISIBLE MAN...LIVING IN THE SKY...who watches every thing you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten special things that he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish where he will send to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry for ever and ever 'til the end of time...but he loves you. [George Carlin, from "You Are All Diseased"]

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

      Hey matt – so you believe you came from a monkey? Where did the monkey come from? Poof – out of thin air? Takes alot of faith to believe in that!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  12. † In God We Trust †

    A fancy lady with a good head on my shoulders, so I am not duped paying too much at the mechanic. I would know that there is no such thing as a "clear undercoat," and I would be treated no differently than a man. Even if my thing was tucked.

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

    As an Atheist, it doesn't bother met at all.

    If people want to believe in God, pray to God, and have a day of prayer it in absolutely no way affects me at all.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • B9

      That's because you are a real Atheist. The fake ones think they need to worry about others praying and a cross at a public park.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  14. david

    I believe in God. But Steve, the % of Americans is much higher than what you claim, and is only growing.

    And the way you group Muslims in with Hindus and Buddhists is strange. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are the 3 Abrahamic faiths, yet you refer to Islam as if it's not. Muslims agree there is one god, butttttt.

    Kind of a dumb article. America is officially secular, and National Prayer Day shouldn't mean anything more than, pray on this day if you want, and to who you want, and in either case, cherish and value the fact that you are able to do so freely.

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

      ** the *% of atheists ..

      May 3, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  15. martiniano

    A question for monotheists: How many Gods exist? One, right? So if I call God "Jehosephat" or "Allah" or "Good Energy" or "Shiva" who am I talking about? God, right? One God. So it does not matter at all if Christians invoke Jesus' name or athiests wish you a good morning (check the etymology of the word "good") it is all the same. There is One Creator, one God. Call God as you like, prayer is a human trait not a religious trait.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  16. ed

    There is no god.

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

      What if the definition of God is the very first cause that started the long chain reaction of action/reaction that lead to this very moment? Not a man with a long beard and boomy voice. Not anything that we can visualize or imagine, perhaps not even sentient.

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

      Hey! Go f%$# yourself!

      May 3, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  17. migeli

    Why don't we sacrifice a bunch of animals or something sensible like that, you know like they do in "the book of nonsense".

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

      Stop being so parochial. To limit your spiritual world by believing that the Bible is the end all of God. The Bible is a relatively recent work compared to the Gita and the teachings of Zarathustra. Open your mind and stop being small.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  18. ICmy2Cents

    Step back for a moment and look at humanity from afar. If a "higher being" or other intelligent life exists in our universe, how sad they must feel for the people of Earth. A people that kill each other and chastise one another for petty differences in belief. Now, think about a post-religious world where people work together towards a common goal. Think about how much that could accomplish.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • DC from NJ

      Well said. Let's hope that people listen (and understand).

      May 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • martiniano

      Why do you assume that God cares? Are you anthropomorphizing God?

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

    what if we practiced this day for anyone willing to bow their heads and pray to whatever God they believe in? If a person does not wish to participate, they are respectfully excluded by their own choice. If you don't like that Americans are praying today, you don't have to participate and we will let you be. But, please don't take the right away from those of us who wish to bow our heads to the God we believe in (our personal choice of god). Isn't freedom of religion, freedom to choose? Let's not infringe on the right of freedom to participate or abstain, based on our own choices. Would those who wish to, please join me in their version of their own prayer to their own choice of God?

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

      Yes, we have freedom of religion, but that does not mean that every religion follows that belief. There are some other there who believe that by you not praying or worshiping in their methods, you are committing sacrilege against their beliefs. They believe that you are praying to their deity but since you are not doing it on purpose you are committing a punishable crime. Remember, most people (including our own government) holds religion higher than "The laws of Man." By praying, you have just told someone else somewhere that you think their God is false and that is punishment worth death in some countries. Not here, but those same do have that "Freedom of Religion" once they get here. Freedom to plot, plan and hate because you were not raised on the same beliefs. God Bless the USA for that one.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  20. CNNuthin

    On this National Prayer Day, I shall pray to the great powers: The Flying Spaghetti Monster, The Invisible Pink Unicorn, God from the Bible (not to be confused with Jesus. God =/= Jesus), Ra the Sun God, The Alien Seeders who brought life here from another planet/dimension(might be the same as the Bible God), and George Burns. I pray that one of you, if not all can finally sort this whole mess out.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
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