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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. Inesita

    Just pray. God Knows!!

    May 3, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  2. Paul

    Thw World is so close yet so far that is what the prince of this world is encouraging. Have your cake and eat it to be super successful just dont allow God to be a part of it. first inwardly ( accepting him in your heart then outwardly telling others of his grace.)

    May 3, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • Believers are stupid!!

      Idiocy cannot and must not be tolerated. That includes religion.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  3. John

    I will pray whether the nation calls for it or not. Believe in God or not or believe in your many gods. Believe in yourself. It's a free country. But if prayer helps then don't get in the way please and just do your own thing rather than attack people whether they are evangelical or catholic, whether they are atheist or Buddhist. Just please stop the veiled attacks and the questioning of people who haven't done anything to you. Sorry if prayer is offensive to you. I won't stop sorry. So best you just learn to deal with it. I have to read articles like this every now and again. So how about you all tollerate us religious people and we won't go all crusade on you. Thanks. And have a blessed day.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Believers are stupid!!

      Idiocy cannot and must not be tolerated. That includes religion.

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

      "So how about you all tollerate us religious people and we won't go all crusade on you."

      Sorry, but you've got this backward – we'll start tolerating beliefs in unprovable things when you all stop crusading to get us all to believe in the same unprovable thing you do.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • trueblue42

      OK John, I'll make you a deal; I'll stay out of the way of your praying if you stay out of the way of my Atheism, you know, like an American, with rights and all that. Whaddya say?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  4. Cari

    Loved this blog... did you receive any answers?

    May 3, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  5. Newyorker

    The vast majority of Christians are ignorant and backward, whereas only a minority of atheists are. Therein lies the difference.

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

      So, how's that working for you? Must be lonely without the other 99% of us.

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

      Are you a christian ? based upon your definition, your word express it very well.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • wallybird1234

      And they are hypocrites. I have yet to have a single religious person, who rants and raves about Leviticus as the basis for anti-gay sentiment/banning gay marriage, say one thing about (or complain about,or try to change) the back of the dollar bill. Totally makes no sense. And when I ask them why, they get this deer-in-headlights neanderthal look and say, "huh??"

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

      To claim as fact there's no higher power is just as bad as claiming for fact that there is one.
      Atheists are anti-theists in beliefs, but are the same in principle.

      Don't announce yourself an atheists and pretend you're more open minded than they are.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • Newyorker

      @houbie & Paul: I rest my case.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • Newyorker

      @Dave: Atheists do not reject science and reason. It's Christians who do that. I think you're confused.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Dave

      @Newyorker
      No, atheists reject the idea of a God or a higher power. And in rejecting that, they reject logic.
      They have no more proof of his nonexistence than theists do of its existence.

      Agnostics recognize that a higher being can neither be proved nor disproved, so they don't make claims one way or the other. Neither result can be scientifically proven.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  6. QS

    The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world he didn't exist.

    I say – The greatest trick man ever played was convincing the world that god does exist.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  7. Sarvo

    I don’t understand why all the non-believers feel so threatened by the people that believe in God? What is it about yourself that compels you so comment negatively about what someone else believes in? Are you jealous you don’t have something meaningful in your life? What is it?? I mean, I feel like people that have tattoos are one of the most ignorant groups of people walking the earth, but I have never gone on a board until now to voice that opinion. Anyone that needs someone to scratch a permanent cartoon on their body to try and draw attention to themselves is obviously a person with very low self esteem that follows trends. Basically a weak minded sheep. Good luck with that. LMAO!!

    May 3, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Non-believers are stupid!!

      It's a matter of setting the facts straight, not a matter of being threatened.

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

      Religious people tend to mock what they don't understand....which is strange since they don't mock their own beliefs.

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

      I don't know why people who believe in god feel so threatened by people who don't.

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

      I often find it very unnerving (though perhaps not "threatening") that so many people believe as fact, something that can't be proven. Worse, many follow a book that's 2000 years old, written by men, translated by men, rewritten by men, interpreted for them by men.... and they think it's still accurate. That's irresponsible at best. Delusional at worst.

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

      In case you haven't noticed, people of every faith have members who post negativley. If you are going to criticize non-believers who are negative, don't ingnore your brothers and sisters in faith wha are negative. Not to mention that by saying ALL, which means 100%, you are being dishonest, and falling prey to proving a negative. Prove polite non-believers don't exist. Oh, you've never seen one so they don't exist? Where have I heard that argument before?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  8. me

    You obviously know, the 1.6% of Americans who call themselves atheists – a hater must hate

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

      Actually the percentage is much higher. They are just afraid to be identified as such because being an atheist in this country in the 21st century is like being treated as a leper during Jesus' time. Of course Christians don't really let things like this bother them, because God says they are good, so anything they say and do in God's name (hate, discriminate and even kill), must be good.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  9. in search of a conscience

    it implies to me that people are in search of a conscience. not religion so much, but evidence of a conscience. that's not religion. a certain number of people are just born without a conscience. you can't shame them into having one. they would just think you are silly if you have a conscience. they learn to use that to get to positions of power. read The Sociopath Next Door.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  10. navredleg

    I love it when all the atheists, agnostics, and people of "reason" who doubt that God or a "god" exists, yet still find it important to read and comment to articles such as this. Not so sure of your beliefs after all? Got a few doubts? Hmmm?

    May 3, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • me

      because people like this scare the crap out of rational thinkers

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

      Nope, none at all. Just funny to read about all you non-thinkers.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Believers are stupid!!

      It's a matter of setting the facts straight. Idiocy cannot and must not be tolerated. That includes religion.

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

      Just because I'm Caucasian doesn't mean I won't read an article about blacks or hispanics.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  11. naturechaplain

    Good work on this, sir. Humor (with an edge) may be one of the only ways left to us to raise these essential questions, since reason doesn't seem to help much with those who place all their colorful masks on the Natural Cosmos, and pray to their own image.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  12. gheezy

    religious scholars are hilarious, you spent all that money and time to study something that is not real.

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

      Doctorate in fictional literature.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  13. Non-believers are stupid!!

    Stupid is, stupid does. Why is that such a mystery?

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

      stupid is as stupid does? hmmm the very word of those who are religious because you are simply hypocrites. You're all Christians but have different rules ways of practice, and then you tout which sect is better than the other. where is your god during the wars that we have been in. why cant your god bring world peace if that what he is intended for. Why fear a loving god's wrath? and mind you that you are judging atheist for being stupid simply for not believing, i thought only god had the right to judge? oh wait, you're just being a hypocrite again. currency is a man invention but you put god's name on it, isn't that using his name in vain? where's the world equality that you preach about? if you can give me explanations to these i will believe, but until you precious Christians who blame the Jewish for every problem, and hate the Muslims can get along with anyone, i will not believe.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  14. An answer

    To the author: This is a day to wish for peace, respect and understanding of each other.

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

      Then why bring religion into it, which has been the source of so many wars and so much suffering?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  15. PercievedReality

    To all you Cristian haters, I as a Christian wish much peace and blessings upon you.

    You have to read the Bible once you are indwelled with the Holy Spirit to trully gain it's wisdom.

    Athiest like to point only to Duet or Leviticus because they state the laws that were to be used during that period when slavery in almost all nations was legal. The laws in the Bible were a drastic upgrade to the prevailing laws of the time as far as treating slaves with dignity. Some slaves once they fulfilled thier terms did not want to leave thier masters, if they were treated so badly, why would they wish to stay with thier masters until they died.

    All the versus Athiest bring up, that may appear at first glance to be cruel, must be read through the lens of the times they were written.

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

      That's because atheists are as bad as theists. They're out to disprove theist religions just as theists are out to disprove other theists' beliefs.

      Agnostics are the only open-minded group. They just won't accept belief as fact.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  16. Dave

    Belief (or disbelief), faith, religion, prayer, meditation, reflection... are all personal things that the government shouldn't have anything to do with one way or the other.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  17. the voice of reason

    One of the funniest stories I've seen. My supernatural deity is bettter than yours..... Listen up people, there's only one sort of conceptional being, and u can call it whatever you want. Doesn't exist, anyway...so believe what you want.

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

      Thanks, I will, I will continue to believe that I am a child of God, put here to make a choice between serving myself or to serve and love him, I choose him.

      Feel free to keep believing you are fertilizer that exists for no reason whatsoever and that your life is utterly meaningless.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  18. God

    Hey, all you whining pu ssies. Knock it of. I don't care about you. Isn't that obvious yet. Gotta run me, Allah, Shiva Ann a bunch of other gods have an org y to get to. Die yall.

    May 3, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  19. DC Observer

    Hey Boss, this is Saint Peter. I am at the front gate now. Based on what I am reading down below, I think we should lock this place up for a bit before more loonies get in.

    Oh, and Boss, the Black guy in charge killed that Muslim guy Osama. Osama is at the gate now, but he is dripping wet. I am going to let him dry off down below in the "hot room" for a bit. And I will send that black guy a note on Commandment #5 before he gets carried away.

    Night boss.

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

      Great post, "Night Boss"! Only you guys Up There ought to put out some memo's to the loonies regarding that 5th commandment, hmm?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  20. Libdumb

    Pray the way you and and for whatever you think someone has to provide you. W

    May 3, 2012 at 3:58 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.