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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.

Sincerely,

Steve

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. urmomlol

    If people want to pray, good for them. I wouldn't have even known the "National Day of Prayer" existed if I hadn't stumbled across this article, and last time I checked nobody was standing behind me with a gun to my head forcing me to participate, so what the hell do I care?

    For all the author's smarmy efforts to make an issue out of this, in reality it's about as controversial as arbor day.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • dolfina

      some day "the hell" will make you wish you had cared!!!

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

      Oh noes!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • William Demuth

      dolfinas fresh from the looney bin again!

      Hell? What a moron!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Barry G.

      Consider:

      Prayinng to (or trusting) anything or anyone other than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is a waste of time and energy and will only lead to anxiety and violence.

      Only the God of Abraham created the universe and gives life to everything that lives and breathes upon the earth.

      Only the God of Abraham gave laws and commandments, which are just compassionate and wise, as a blessing to the world.

      Only the God of Abraham brings his judgments upon the world, each and every day.

      Only the God of Abraham loved humanity so much that he gave his son, Jesus, to be crucified for the sins of the world.

      Only Jesus, the son of God, loved the world enough to die for everyone.

      Only Jesus can save.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • SkepticOne

      Barry G.

      you trust your god; don't trust your fellow doctors, police, firemen, soldiers, teachers, nurses ect. who sacrifice daily to make it so you can spread your lies and ignorance. You are one of the most selfish ungrateful people out there to give all your love and thanks to a dead jew to insure your place in a made-up paradise after you rot. Thank one of those people who give their one and only life to make their fellow man safer, happier, and live longer.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
  2. † In God We Trust †

    Will someone please raipe my face?

    May 3, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • dolfina

      What IS raipe?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  3. migeli

    Let's all pray that a plague descends upon those who lie to us about who is to blame for this economy.That means you-Tea Party.

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

    Much hate toward the Christian faith...it is difficult to imagine where the U.S. would be without the Christian faith, or the world for that matter...

    The poor and homeless in the U.S. – they typically seek shelter, food and medical from Christian founded/sponsored charities and shelters and hospitals. The poor and homeless in the world, often the same.

    Go down to Haiti (now that it isn't front line news – now that the celebrities have moved on from the emotional high)...where is all the aid coming from? Christians make up a large majority of those still engaged in humanitarian aid.

    African nations – who are the primary organizations funding schools, medical facilities and irrigation? Not Muslims, not atheists, not Hindus...primarily Christians.

    I know the followers can be judgmental, and of course many atrocities were caused by people in the name of Christianity, but I can't imagine what the U.S. or the world would be like without it.

    After all...your freedom to spew venom toward Christians was started with the words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights". Doesn't sound like the words were inspired by an atheist.

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

      Two things:

      1) You don't need to be christian or any religion to be benevolent
      2) Not being a christian country does not mean it is in chaos and in some instances the country is a lot better off

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

      It also doesn't sound like those words were put together by any rational person with any knowledge of the world around them. It should self-evident to anyone with a brain that all men are not "created equal". Think of the children born with autism, or more severe disabilities, were they "created equal"? It's a nice line of prose, it sounds like a unifying statement, but it is inherently untrue.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • sybaris

      You also might want to read the Treaty of Tripoli and consider that the term Creator by default does not mean christian creator

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

      If y'all weren't so self-greedy and anti-paying taxes, the government would be able to provide for ALL the people properly. Health, and food and shelter in emergency. Religious charities NEVER give enough to do any lasting good.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • limbodog

      I believe "deist" is the word you're looking for. And yes, lots of that money comes from "christians" (I put it in quotes, because few self-described christians fit the description Christ gave for his true followers) But I suspect that's because America has the most money and 78% of America is, again, "christian." If the 1.6 atheists were out-donating the theists, that'd be quite a feat!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Tightan

      Of course you don't need to be a Christian to be benevolent. Christians comprise a small percentage of the world's population...do you think there is another faith (including atheism) that gives more of themselves in both time and money?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • Tightan

      limbodog...are you part of the 1.6%? If so, how much would you say you give charitably? Honestly – how much did you claim as charitable deductions in 2011?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  5. Ken D

    Yawn. Pray or don't pray. I don't care. I just don't want the government recognizing the ignorance that is religion. It's too bad that an estimated 95% of you are idiots.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • CC

      Romans 14:11 It is written: "'As surely as I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'" Yep, that settles it. Whether in this life or after–Thank God for National Prayer Day. Pray or don't. The Word of God is true.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • William Demuth

      CC

      We capped your savior once, and if he shows his feminine Palestinian sandal wearing rear end again I will personaly nail him back up.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • Ken D

      I could print anything and include the phrase "this is true" but that doesn't make it so. It's a farce. It's an ancient tactic for controlling large empires. People are stupid or religion wouldn't still exist. We really are little more than advanced apes.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Tightan

      Wow Ken. You are such an intellectual. We all wish we were as intelligent as you are. So bold and enlightened.

      Where would we be without people like Ken? Ken brings wonderful insight to the conversation. Your post is both inspiring and original. What a remarkable person.

      Can't wait to hear more! Ken should write a book. Ken should start a blog that provides access to his inner thoughts. We could all marvel at his ability to analyze the most complex issues facing the world.

      Thanks Ken for taking time out of your busy day. Your enlighenment shines brightly upon my screen. And for that, I am grateful.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • Jack

      Atheism. A religion closed minded people join to appear smarter, and oh so enlightened.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Mopery

      Jack, your ignorance is astounding. To say that Atheism a religion is like saying that not collecting stamps is a hobby.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • Stephen

      Is it beyond the realm of possibility Ken, that you are in fact the idiot?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  6. crazyvermont

    Pretty simple to me....day was set of as a Christian day of remembrance. I have no problem with any other faith or person of non faith having their own day set aside, please just quit infringing on mine.

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

      Not on my tax-payer Dollars, you shouldn't

      May 3, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  7. Uncle Bob

    Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.

    Evangelicals can do whatever they want, just leave everyone else alone. Which most importantly means, stop trying to legislate your religion into my life.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  8. Bob

    I am not a religious person but I believe we are meant to be here for a higher purpose, maybe there is a GOD or a being in the universe that is older and wiser that we can possibly imagine. Whatever is the case I just can’t help but notice that atheists are extremely hateful people who obviously cannot deal with their own sad lives so they must interfere with others.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • DC from NJ

      You don't seem to understand the concept of atheism. In my opinion, atheists as a group are much less hateful than people who are convinced they have a personal connection with a mythical sky creature (for example, the "believers" who flew planes into buildings on 9/11, convinced that they were killing infidels as "Allah" wanted. Now that's an example of interfering in someone's life! I don't know of a single example of an atheist attempting to kill a religious person....

      May 3, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • JackK

      I love it–atheists are the hateful ones, going around messing with other people? Was that a joke? The whole point here is that the national government is recognizing a religion that many Americans do not subscribe to. Do you see how that makes them feel excluded? Yet still you claim that atheists are the aggressors here.

      As for hate... I wish I had a penny for every time a Christian told me I would be tortured forever in hell for not believing as they do. For not believing as they do! And often it is said with implicit or explicit glee! If that's not "hate" then what is?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  9. mega man

    My god is bigger than your god!

    May 3, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  10. Primewonk

    atheists suck.

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

      only if they get the chance.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Uncle Bob

      I think you're refering to choir boys.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  11. POD

    Just pray to the God of your choice.....he has many names and he loves us all.....inspite of ourselves

    May 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  12. Tom

    "How to Pray" you ask? Jesus taught us very plainly! "Our Father, which art in heaven. Hollowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever, Amen."

    I see no mention of a "religion" in this prayer...I see a RELATIONSHIP that was bought and paid for by a blood sacrifice. Not by US (man) reaching out to God...but by God reaching out to US (man) in the form of JESUS CHRIST! This is THE DIFFERENCE between "religion" and Christianity!

    May 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  13. Deist

    Live and let live, believe and let believe, talk to whatever God you wish, but do not tell me which one I must talk to.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  14. Mopery

    Jesus was a "bachelor" whose favorite passtime was drinking wine with twelve other "bachelors" and preaching that they should all "love one another". So why is it that Christians claim to hate gays, when it's so obvious that their savior was himself gay?

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

      Peter was NOT a bachelor and he certainly wasn't the first pope! The "Rock" (Peter) that Jesus built His church on was the FAITH that Peter showed, not his popeness.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Outlaw

      Were you born ignorant or did you spend years working at it?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  15. dolfina

    Every religion as a "god". Pray to the One you believe in. I,personally, pray to the "only mediator between God and Man, the Lord Jesus". I pray to God, in Jesus name, Amen! It doesn't seem to offend any of my buddhist, jewish or other friends. Atheist shouldn't mind, they don't believe in God anyway so they think we're praying to the clouds...which brings up another religion...

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

      please...continue..

      May 3, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  16. PJ

    I don't know exactly what Romney considers God, since the members of his Church are all supposed to become Gods if they obey Church rules. They also believe Lucifer was the brother of Jesus and I don't know exactly what they consider Jesus to be other than it is convenient to call themselves Christian. Obama should just let the day of prayer be as it has always been rather than stir up controversy.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  17. just Me

    Only the Clueless News Network would consider posting a non-news story like this.

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

      Watch Fox News if you are so down on CNN. FOX willteach you how to become a complete moron and you will soon become a stoodge of the wealthy and so stupid that you will actually enjoy being betrayed by the Tea Party and the Supreme Court.Then we will all pray for you!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  18. :)

    Few 100% true Reasons why Atheism is TERRIBLE and unhealthy for our children and living things:.

    † Atheism is a religion that makes you angry, stupid, brainwashed, ignorant & blind.
    † Atheism is a disease that needs to be treated.
    † Atheism makes you post stupid things (90% of silly comments here on CNN blogs are posted by closet Atheists)
    † Atheist are satanic and have gothic lifestyle.
    † Atheists causes problem in our religious society.
    † Atheists are mentally ill, that's why they have no faith.
    † Atheism won't take you to kingdom of heaven and paradise.
    † Atheism making you agree with Stalin, Hitler (Denied his faith later), Mao, Pol Pot & other terrible mass murder leaders.
    † No traditional family lifestyle, no holidays, no culture, boring and feeling 'outsider'
    † Atheists are angry, drug additcted and committ the most crime.
    † Atheist try to convert people over internet because they feel "safer" behind closet.
    † Atheists do not really exist, they just pretend that they don't believe in God and argue with religious people.
    † Atheists have had terrible life experience, bad childhood and not being loved.
    † Most Atheists are uneducated... No Atheists could run for presidency.
    † Atheism brought upon the French Revolution, one of the most evil events of all of history.
    † Atheism cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists.
    † All atheists believe in evolution, which means they don't believe in morality and think we should all act like animals.
    † The Bible says atheism is wrong, and the Bible is always right (see: Genesis 1:1, Psalms 14:1, Psalms 19:1, Romans 1:19-20)
    † Countries where Atheism is prevalent has the highest Suicide rate & Communist countries = Atheism!
    **Only 2-3% of the U.S. are Atheists/Agnostics VS. over 90% who believe in God (80% Christians) in the U.S.**

    † † Our Prayers goes to Atheists to be mentally healthy and seek their creator † †

    PS! the USA is a Christian nation and will always be.
    http://rightremedy.org/tracts/7

    May 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • † In God We Trust †

      Why so smiley, fancy lady?

      May 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Mahash Boolabong

      Thank you for this 100% totally true factual load of crap. Since we're going there, Christianity was "responsible" for the Holocaust (since Hitler was Christian and used his faith to support the Final Solution). All there really is in these cases is people; no invisible magical grandfatherly types need apply.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • neoform

      I've never read something so chalked full of mistruth and lies.

      You should be ashamed to be copy/pasting that garbage. Not a single thing there is even slightly true.

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

      Can I pray for you to be in the next Loving God's mass slaughtering Tsunami. You seem innocent innocent enough to be selected as a victim.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Uncle Bob

      And christians say that they don't hate.

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

      Where do you get your information?Marvel Comics or Fox News?Nevermind! There's no difference!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • thinker in the sun

      If the Bible is always right, then I guess we need to bring back slavery.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Steve

      Who made your God?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • Angie

      ^^ MORON

      May 3, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • me138

      I think if god was real he would smack the taste out of your mouth.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  19. nobody cares what god you believe in or pray to

    nobody cares what god you believe in or pray to. that's between you and god. and you if you choose not to believe in any.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • the last thing i want to hear

      the last thing i want to hear is people hearing god speak to them. even moses. sounds too schizophrenic as worst case, or too desperate at the very least. more like something people do when there's no place else to go but on your knees. been there, but i know how much stress that represents.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  20. citizenUSA

    Simple answer really. Most people who believe in a higher power usually pray so... pray to whatever you consider your god even if it's a can of soda.

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

      A can of soda never told anyone to fly a plane into a building or invade a country.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Mahash Boolabong

      You obviously haven't tried Dr Pepper 10.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Barry G.

      Prayinng to (or trusting) anything or anyone other than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is a waste of time and energy and will only lead to anxiety and violence.

      Only the God of Abraham created the universe and gives life to everything that lives and breathes upon the earth.

      Only the God of Abraham gave laws and commandments, which are just compassionate and wise, as a blessing to the world.

      Only the God of Abraham brings his judgments upon the world, each and every day.

      Only the God of Abraham loved humanity so much that he gave his son, Jesus, to be crucified for the sins of the world.

      Only Jesus, the son of God, loved the world enough to die for everyone.

      Only Jesus can save.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:03 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.