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. Jake Fantom

    And that's not to mention the 65% of Americans that don't believe in any organized religion at all.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • tkessler45

      That gives me hope. 🙂

      May 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  2. formerjewnowwiccan

    I am Wiccan and believe in One Deity but with many faces.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  3. OldMo

    "Dear Deity, In the Milky Way. . ." CNN religious "scholar". . .smarmy, mocking atheist. Po-tae-toe. . .po-tah-toe.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  4. billy

    Did God invent internet trolls? Did moses take two of them onto the ark?

    May 3, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  5. Jeebus

    A person high on drugs is far less dangrous than a person high on religion.

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

      Depending on the drug I'd say it's about 50/50 😛

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

    If you really want to understand the value of prayer from a secular view, read up on the emporer Constantine and his efforts to make Christianity the state religon of Rome.

    I'm not talking about the hocus-pokus cross in the sky stuff, I'm talking about how Constantine used religon and prayer to recalibrate the Roman Empire well after it's hay day.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  7. James Angus Linney

    Did the writer of this nonsense peace read the headline, or did some jerk at CNN decide to get stupid. It makes no sense, and neither does the concept of God, Christians, etc.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  8. Variety

    So CNN, is this the only guy you have to blog on this subject? We need a breath of fresh air please. Your blogs are becoming more opinionated by the day. So much for the unbiased nature of CNN. Can we have more news please and less agenda-pushing? We just want the facts, leave us to establish our own opinions.

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

    Science flies you to the moon.

    Religion flies you into buildings.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • tkessler45

      Roger that! 😀

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

      But science cannot explain the creation of any kind of matter. How did matter get here?

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

      It's a cute saying, and I for the most part agree. However I'm going to say that people utilizing science fly to the moon. People utilized by religion fly into buildings (sometimes this isn't literal).

      May 3, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • tkessler45


      Neither can religion. Someone just makes up a story about something "making" it and you believe it? that's not at all any evidence or truth. It's just a made up story, like the cow jumping over the moon. The fact is that no matter what religions say, they are not at all based on truth or fact. Instead, they are there solely because "we" need them. People are in large part innately confused, and religion allows them to cope without factual answers.

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


      May 3, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  10. 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 4:04 pm |
    • b

      You limit God. He created the universe which means he is present in more than just the sky.

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

      Nothing like a man quoting a man who didn't understand the Bible. Carlin had some good bits though.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  11. Jimmy Cracks Capricorns

    Hey Steve, you be sure to let us know what he says!! You know, we want to get it right and the best way to get it right is to hear it straight from the horses mouth.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  12. Steve

    I believe in creationism... that man created religion

    May 3, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  13. Atheist4Evr

    Why is our government even involved in having a day of prayer? Religion is a PERSONAL matter; not a government matter. Just because the majority believes in a "god" does it make it right to force such beliefs and practices on all citizens.

    I long for an America where religion and references to "god" are removed from our government...where such archaic beliefs are restricted to the fools that believe in such tomfoolery and not forced upon all citizens of our nation. America is no different than Iran; it, too, is a Theocracy masked as a Democratic Republic.

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

      Steve, my friend, I would say that's optional, since this isn't National Christian God Day. Kinda simple. A non-issue, actually, unless you are after the paycheck. Just pray. And if you don't believe there is any listening Source out there to pray to? Even easier; like most everything else in America, its optional. Hey, we're right back where we started...how about that? Guess its all about choice.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  14. hemplover

    Faith is an opinion.

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

    I had 10 reasons Jesus is Hot To Trot but CNN deleted the,. What are you trying to hide? I'm a fancy lady.

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

      you are a monkey's decendent and just as wortless as a monkey

      May 3, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • † In God We Laugh †

      Perhaps spell the insult correctly as to not look dumber than you tried to paint me. Remove head from bottom, try again.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  16. Saifuddin Ansari

    I recommend to pray "the Almighty", it would cover almost any once god and better!

    May 3, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  17. baelknight

    If you want to pray today... pray. Have at it. Enjoy =) If you pray to God, pray to Him. If you pray to Jesus, pray to Him. If you pray to Allah... pray to Him. If you pray to Shiva... Odin... Osiris... Pan... Horus... pray to Them. Even if you pray to Cthulu.... pray to Him... or the FSM and his noodely goodness... pray.

    I don't see why it matters to other people what you are doing or who you are praying to.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  18. dav

    Stephen Prothero is a a worthless writer.You pray to God the way that is right for you.CNN try and get some competent writers.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  19. chizzlinsam

    there is no god....time for these churches to start paying property taxes like every other property owner....

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

      Look another arhiest ,you there the animals that have monekeys for children and the morals of pigs.

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

      Better yet , make property taxation illegal. It destroys our rights as citizens. Government officials embezzle all our money anyway.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • trueblue42

      I couldn't agree more, sir.

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

      So what you are saying is there should be no seperation of chruch and state?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • trueblue42

      Hey Dav, what's an "arhiest", and what are "monekeys"? We literate people would like to know.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • trueblue42

      @Mine: Taxing churches does not amount to having no separation of church and state. Churches are businesses, and should be taxed accordingly. Your attempt to project an unintended "meaning" on chizzlinsam's statement was rather feeble.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  20. KGSCAS

    You've probably seen it before but just in case you haven't...

    Date: Eternity
    From: GOD
    To: My Children on Earth
    re: Idiotic religious rivalries
    My Dear Children (and believe me, that's all of you),
    I consider myself a pretty patient Guy. I mean, look at the Grand Canyon. It took millions of years to get it right. And how about evolution? Boy, nothing is slower than designing that whole Darwinian thing to take place, cell by cell and gene by gene. I've even been patient through your fashions, civilizations, wars and schemes, and the countless ways you take Me for granted until you get yourselves into big trouble again and again.
    But on this occasion of My Son's birthday, I want to let you know about some things that are starting to tick me off.
    First of all, your religious rivalries are driving Me up a wall. Enough already! Let's get one thing straight: These are your religions, not Mine. I'm the Whole Enchilada; I'm beyond them all. Every one of your religions claims there's only one of Me (which, by the way, is absolutely true). But in the very next breath, each religion claims it's My favorite one. And each claims its bible was written personally by me, and that all the other bibles are man-made. Oh, Me. How do I even begin to put a stop to such complicated nonsense?
    Okay, listen up now: I'm your Father and Mother, and I don't play favorites among My Children. Also, I hate to break it to you, but I don't write. My longhand is awful, and I've always been more of a "doer" anyway. So all your books, including the bibles, were written by men and women. They were inspired, remarkable people, but they also made mistakes here and there. I made sure of that, so that you would never trust a written word more than your own living Heart.
    You see, one Human Being to me - even a Bum on the street - is worth more than all the holy books in the world. That's just the kind of Guy I Am. My Spirit is not an historical thing, It's alive right here, right now, as fresh as your next breath.
    Holy books and religious rites are sacred and powerful, but not more so than the least of You. They were only meant to steer you in the right direction, not to keep you arguing with each other, and certainly not to keep you from trusting your own personal connection with Me.
    Which brings Me to My next point about your nonsense: You act like I need you and your religions to stick up for Me or "win souls" for My Sake. Please, don't do Me any favors. I can stand quite well on my own, thank you. I don't need you to defend Me, and I don't need constant credit. I just want you to be good to each other.
    And another thing: I don't get all worked up over money or politics, so stop dragging My name into your dramas. For example, I swear to Me that I never threatened Oral Roberts. I never rode in any of Rajneesh's Rolls Royces. I never told Pat Robertson to run for president, and I've never ever had a conversation with Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell, or Jimmy Swaggart! Of course, come Judgement Day, I certainly intend to...
    The thing is, I want you to stop thinking of religion as some sort of loyalty pledge to Me. The true purpose of your religions is so that you can become more aware of Me, not the other way around. Believe Me, I know you already. I know what's in each of your hearts, and I love you with no strings attached. Lighten up and enjoy Me. That's what religion is best for.
    What you seem to forget is how mysterious I Am. You look at the petty little differences in your scriptures and say, "Well, if this is the Truth, then that can't be!" But instead of trying to figure out My Paradoxes and Unfathomable Nature - which, by the way, you never will - why not open your hearts to the simple common threads in every religion?
    You know what I'm talking about: Love and respect everyone. Be kind. Even when life is scary or confusing, take courage and be of good cheer, for I Am always with you. Learn how to be quiet, so you can hear My Still, Small Voice (I don't like to shout). Leave the world a better place by living your life with dignity and gracefulness, for you are My Own Child. Hold back nothing from life, for the parts of you that can die will surely die, and the parts that can't, won't. So don't worry, be happy (I stole that last line from Bobby McFerrin, but he stole it from Meher Baba in the first place.)
    Simple stuff. Why do you keep making it so complicated? It's like you're always looking for an excuse to be upset. And I'm very tired of being your main excuse. Do you think I care whether you call me Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, Wakantonka, Brahma, Father, Mother, or even The Void or Nirvana? Do you think I care which of My Special Children you feel closest to - Jesus, Mary, Buddha, Krishna, Mohammed or any of the others? You can call Me and My Special Ones any name you choose, if only you would go about My business of loving one another as I love you. How can you keep neglecting something so simple?
    I'm not telling you to abandon your religions. Enjoy your religions, honor them, learn from them, just as you should enjoy, honor, and learn from your parents. But do you walk around telling everyone that your parents are better than theirs? Your religion, like your parents, may always have the most special place in your heart; I don't mind that at all. And I don't want you to combine all the Great Traditions into One Big Mess. Each religion is unique for a reason. Each has a unique style so that people can find the best path for themselves.
    But My Special Children - the ones your religions revolve around - all live in the same place (My Heart) and they get along perfectly, I assure you. The clergy must stop creating a myth of sibling rivalry where there is none.
    My Blessed Children of Earth, the world has grown too small for your pervasive religious bigotry and confusion. The whole planet is connected by air travel, satellite dishes, telephones, fax machines, rock concerts, diseases, and mutual needs and concerns. Get with the program! If you really want to help Me celebrate the birthday of My Son Jesus, then commit yourselves to figuring out how to feed your hungry, clothe your naked, protect your abused, and shelter your poor. And just as importantly, make your own everyday life a shining example of kindness and good humor. I've given you all the resources you need, if only you abandon your fear of each other and begin living, loving, and laughing together.
    Finally, My Children everywhere, remember whose birth is honored on December 25th, and the fearlessness with which He chose to live and die. As I love Him, so do I love each one of you. I'm not really ticked off, I just wanted to grab your attention because I hate to see you suffer. But I gave you Free Will, so what can I do now other than to try to influence you through reason, persuasion, and a little old-fashioned guilt and manipulation? After all, I Am the original Jewish Mother. I just want you to be happy, and I'll sit in The Dark. I really Am, indeed, I swear, with you always. Always. Trust In Me.
    Your One and Only,

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


      May 3, 2012 at 4:15 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.