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. It is all good and God is at the end

    We should thank God we live in a nation where we can praise God or not believe in God and it still all be okay.

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

      Wonder how much longer that will last, happy prayer day, peace to you!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • me

      what nation is that? not the U.S.. Try telling christians you're an atheist once, then duck

      May 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Religion is closer to astrology than truth.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Michael Robinson Gainesville FL

      We all are OK, believers or not. What exactly is your point? Religion is fake, you say it's not. We are all still OK.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • Michael Robinson Gainesville FL

      god who?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • no nothing

      Iran has a worship god thingy too.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  2. Wilks

    Check your Bible. Your answers are there and very clear to those with eyes.

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

      On second thought don't read the whole thing, only some of it I meant, apparently.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • no nothing

      Yea but what about their mind?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  3. Dallas

    What a dumb article – National Day of prayer means "pray to the 'one' that you believe his your higher power", doesn't mean it has to be God. Whatever your religion is, pray, for Pete's sake. If you don't want to, that's your choice.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:10 pm |

    Bible =

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

      Bible = fiction

      May 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • GOD



      It must be true!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  5. JimBob

    The honest answer here is simple. Neither Atheists, Christians, Agnostics, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Italians, Venezuelans, or any other living human being on the planet truly KNOWS who we are, where we came from, where we are going, etc., etc. Keep an open mind, but be tolerant and respectful of all the varying opinions out there, because WE DON'T KNOW THE "TRUTH". Bashing each other over conflicting opinions is nonsense and folly. Science and reason aren't even CLOSE to having all the answers, and anyone who says differently is either indoctrinated or in denial. But I respect their opinions, and do not argue with them. We have lived in this fishbowl called Earth for millenia, and nowhere else. The universe is larger and more complex than we can comprehend. I personally believe that anything is possible, and I keep an open mind.

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

      May God bless you.

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

      I pray that all the bad things in life happen to you and you only. And for the Jets to go all the way. Amen (burp)

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

    O Lord Jesus Christ,
    Who said to Your Apostles:
    "Peace I leave with you,
    My peace I give to you,"
    regard not my sins
    but the faith of Your Church,
    and deign to give her peace
    and unity according to Your Will:
    Who live and reign, God,
    world without end.


    May 3, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  7. serena Ali

    There is only one God, one Creator, whatever name you call the divine by, or what label you put on yourself. Even hindu's mostly believe in one God, claiming statues as forms of God, or representations or manifestations. All scripture preaches worship of One God without idol worship. But the greed and power among the humans is the problem, with one wanting to feel superior to the other. We all want to be small gods – and that is in itself idol worship and breaking the commandment to worship the one same God.

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

      My Lord commands me to be humble. I would never want to be God, imagine the pain of watching your children commiting vile disgusting acts when you had created them completely innocent and perfect. My wish is that all my earthly brothers and sisters would be with me in God's immaculate garden being fully alive and overflowing with joy and love.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  8. Cindy

    Pray if you want and believe, don't pray if you don't. Very simple

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

    Religion is a growth industry in this country and the "news" industry uses it to get your attention so they can sell advertizing.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  10. lorenzo

    SHut up and let these people (PRAY) mfs gota alaways so analytical about this sH** SHUUUUTTTT UPPPP and just pray ...PRAY PRAY

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

      Yeah! Who are all these people with their "thinking" and "questioning." Like you implied, we should just blindly believe and "pray, pray, pray."

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

      Andrew, the more some people think, the less they understand.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  11. † In God We :) †

    Fancy lady.

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

      Hopefully as humans evolve we will stop believing in fairytales.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • PercievedReality

      Hopefully when humans evolve they will lose all sense of Self and Greed.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  12. Shawn

    Pray when life is good, pray when life is bad, pray when you have your first baby, and pray when you lose a loved one, pray when your up, pray when your down, PRAY PRAY PRAY. Amen

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

      Two hands working can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer.

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

      jimtanker: What about those things out of our hands? You are limited to what you, as a human being, can make happen.

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

      Amen Ra is the origin of "Amen" at the end of the lord's prayer. Amen Ra is the sun god of the egyptians. The Hebrew borrows the word, but claims no origin. Have you ever asked why you say "Amen"? What does this cryptic word mean? It is a small prayer to the egyptian god Amen Ra.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • PercievedReality

      Allofthetime-http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amen Na try again

      May 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  13. † In God We Invent †

    I think it's cute the way you imagine what your imaginary friend wants out of you.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • Michael Robinson Gainesville FL

      I agree, it's kind of funny how these people pray. To what? Imaginary friends? I think the easter bunny, santa claus and jesus are all the same person, a figment of one's imagination.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Baptiste6

      that was a good one : )

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

      I think it is funny how you are still spinning circles in your material house of mirrors

      May 3, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  14. Jay

    I wish that people would question the bible.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • Darw1n

      Many do

      May 3, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • no nothing

      They do, they are called heretics, or devil worshipers, or atheist,or lost souls, or someone who is going to burn.

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

      I have Jay, there are lots of things in the bible that the powers of the world have altered. Beware and read with your heart, and you will know the truth from the lies. Be cautious of being misled through the writing of any book, even the bible. Some men have evil hearts and would do anything to keep you from understanding and knowing your God. Jesus himself through out some words of moses and he said the truth will be made known to your heart. So next time you think to yourself " It says God would do what??? " or " Thats not what my God would do " you will know you are being lied too.

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

    How to pray? Jesus already told us how to pray...Our Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done onearth, As it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, The power, and the glory, For ever and ever. Amen.

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

      Once you say it one time, why keep repeating it?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • Darw1n

      I wrote this prayer after the last NFL season:

      Santa Clause who art in Atlantis
      Hallowed be thy magical flying reigndeer
      Your elves will drum
      On Merlin's bum
      At the North Pole as in the Mall of America
      Give us this day our daily Sports Center
      And forgive me for wiping a booger on my mother in law's couch
      As she is a beyotch
      And lead us not into an embarrassing off-season
      But deliver us from Tebow


      And lo and behold, Tebow was removed from my favorite team which is nothing the Broncos management could have accomplished without his divine intervention. Prayer works!!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Kay

      Nope. That's just the version and translation *you* have chosen as being "the" correct one.

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

      USDude-Amen may peace and blessings be upon you my Brother in Jesus, Yeshua, Emmanuel, Wonderful.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  16. Those used guys.

    So if all of the supposed 78% of christians in the USA were to pray really, really hard that their country would not go to war with another country or religious group, for say a few decades, you may all call your country a truly christian country; lots of luck with that. The military industrial complex can't sell their tools of the trade in that scenario, can they?

    PS: Can anybody tell me the last time so called christians were not at war with each other or another religious group? Anybody?

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

      When was the last time humans were not hateful, greedy and selfish?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  17. Errrr

    They're all the same. Doesn't anybody realize this? I feel like I'm taking crazy pills

    May 3, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  18. Steve

    God is nothing more than an imaginary authoritarian dictator. And if you actually read the bible he makes Fidel Castro seem like a pretty reasonable guy... Which makes it ironic all these right wing "freedom" people are so willing to bow down to a dictator.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  19. Doc Vestibule

    o The John Templeton Foundation funded a 10 year, $2.4 million dollar study involving 1,800 cardiac patients to measure the effectiveness of intecessory prayer.
    The patients were broken into three groups. Two were prayed for; the third was not. Half the patients who received the prayers were told that they were being prayed for; half were told that they might or might not receive prayers.
    Analyzing complications in the 30 days after the operations, the researchers found no differences between those patients who were prayed for and those who were not.
    Over the longer term, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications like abnormal heart rhythms, perhaps because of the expectations the prayers created, the researchers suggested.
    A 1997 study at the University of New Mexico, involving 40 alcoholics in rehabilitation, found that the men and women who knew they were being prayed for actually fared worse.
    Prayer does indeed seem to change things – for the worse.
    God speaks to people all the time.
    In 2008, He told Boyce Singleton Jr. to shoot and stab his pregnant girlfriend.
    Deanna Laney heard God direct her to bludgeon her three sons, aged 9, 6 and 15 months. Only the youngest survived.
    Blair Donnelly received instructions to stab to death his 16 year old daughter, Stephanie.
    Christopher Varian was slaughtered with a cheese knife after God spoke with one of his employees.
    God told Jennifer Cisowski to dash her infant's head on the rocks, so ""Just like Jesus raised Lazarus, I threw the baby on the stones by the pool."
    Khandi Busby got a direct message from God advising her that the only way to save her 6 and 8 year old boys was to toss them off a bridge in Dallas. Fortunately, they survived.
    Angel Rico says he received a divine command to strangle his 4 year old son, so he did just that and left him at the side of the highway.
    Lashaun Harris threw her 3 kids – aged 6, 2 and 16 months, into the San Francisco Bay after God let her know that He wanted a human sacrifice.
    All of these people have been found legally insane by the judicial system.
    If you hear God's voice speaking to you, it's time to check in with your local psych ward.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • me

      you forgot andrea yates and what she did to her 5 children

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

      I remember reading that study. It was fascinating. I wish more people read it...and then thought about it.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • PercievedReality

      In 2011 I prayed to Jesus Christ to change my disgusting, sinfull, worldy thoughts. I told him I did not want to live the life I had made for myself over 20 years and that I give myself completely to him. He answered me with sending the Holy Spirit into me, sending a massive rush of joy I have never felt before and I was changed instantly, I will never look back and I will never be what I once was. Thank you Lord Jesus I will be yours for all of eternity and will gladly serve you in the new kingdom JESUS IS LORD!!!!!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  20. JYo

    I think yall's perception of "God" is very small and funny to watch yall argue about the "Gods". If you believe in a higher being or "God" then so be it, if you don't then live your one life well thats all I can say. Just be good people and respect others views then there won't be no right or wrong. I could be a combination of all, who knows. We need more common sense and independent people to run this world and show that we shouldn't divide ourselves based on religion, political party, or race. Just speaking my mind and yes I'm from Texas. Good day

    May 3, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
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