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. Cam

    Christ tells us that when we want to pray, we should go in a room and close the door. He refers to those who pray in public as "hypocrits".

    May 3, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • momoya

      And besides, when jesus prayed in public that one time, he raised Lazarus from the dead.. You shouldn't pray in public unless you can raise people from the dead when you do.. And not 'spiritual death' but literal, actual death.. I'll be looking forward.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • pat

      We should install praying booths on the side of the highway.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Happy

      Actually Christ differentiates between public and private prayers

      May 3, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  2. Everett Wallace

    Who is barak prayin to GOD THE FATHER don't hear him. GOD THE FATHER says go in YOUR secret place to pray and HE will acknowledge you openly with HIS blessings. There is no specific time to pray to HIM or a specific direction or a specific place HE is all knowing, everywhere at the same time. HE hears HIS childrens prayers. Take it from someone who has seen the unseen GOD and HE always acknowledges my prayers and I am always in prayer. Walking down the street or asleep in my bed HE always hears my prayers.

    May 3, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • LOL Religion

      No, religious folks aren't delusional at all, lol.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Joe Pesci is Better Than God

      If that isn't proof positive of the insanity of religion, I don't know what is.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • just sayin

      Psychosis is a loss of contact with reality, usually including false beliefs about what is taking place or who one is (delusions) and seeing or hearing things that aren't there (hallucinations).

      May 3, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  3. pat

    I notice people who pray usually close their eyes and point their face toward the floor. That's what I look like sometimes when I'm trying to use my imagination. Are they using their imaginations?

    May 3, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • One of Those Christians

      Imagination? Nah. I know I close my eyes to shut out anything that can concentrate on what I want to say to my God. It's so important that I don't want to be disturbed by anything that can take my attention away from Him. You don't have to close your eyes though. I know lots of people that do not close their eyes when they pray. It's all a personal choice. You should give it a try sometime. It won't hurt a bit. You may come away with a lighter heart and a little more peace ; )

      May 3, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • fintastic

      That's what I do when I'm taking a dump...

      May 3, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  4. Betty

    If that makes you fell better Voice of Reason so be it.

    and btw no one forces anyone to pray today or anyday or to a specific deity. It is your choice. As always in The USA.

    May 3, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • pat

      And it is certainly not my day because I don't worship.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Voice of Reason


      It by no means makes me feel better to point out to a person that they make no sense. I wish I could congratulate you on some common sense and rationale.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  5. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    Government Insider Says George W. Bush Planned and Authorized the 9/11 Attacks...

    Stanley Hilton was a senior adviser to Sen Bob Dole and he has represented hundreds of families of victims of 9/11!

    go to http://www.rense.com/general57/aale.htm

    Please carefully vet and know the character and personality of your republican candidates before you cast your vote! Just remember its your future and your children's future at stake!

    May 3, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  6. Chewbacca

    Who doesn't enjoy attempting to telepathically communicate with a bronze-age, middle-eastern, Jewish deity (Yahweh) and his son (Jesus) on National Prayer Day?

    May 3, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  7. Geoffrey Dudley, Sr.

    Your article makes no theological sense. No I am sorry are you still here, it makes no sense at all. Try again

    May 3, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  8. Cristino Xirau

    I have a great idea. Let's all pray the Hail Mary on the National Day of Prayer! What's that? You don't like that? You don't want to say my favorite prayer?

    OK. I understand. There are a lot of religions out there as well as agnostics and atheists. So if we are all going to pray together whose prayer are we going to pray?

    Why don't we simply have a National Day of Reflection when all of us take a fews moments to consider who we are and where we are going. If we wish to bring a higher power into our meditations, fine. If not, that's fine too. Perhaps we might think of things we can all do together without regard to personal beliefs, such as fighting poverty, racism and other "isms" that are unhealthy in a nation that brags it stands for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happpiness"?

    May the Force (however you interpret that) be with you.

    May 3, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  9. asdf

    If anybody gave a hoot about the National Day of Prayer, I might care.

    May 3, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  10. David Nelson

    Do I have to pray extra today? Is there some type of form that needs to be filled out that I don't know about? Am I under some legal obligation to pray a certain way? Is it illegal to pray on other days? What next? A National Day of Rest?

    May 3, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  11. Bob

    USA was established as a Christian nation. WHY CAN'T WE HAVE A CHRISTIAN NATION???????? There are Muslim nations, Buhdist nations, etc. If these other religions choose to live in the US, they need to sit down and SHUT UP as we have to do if we live in another nation not of our religion.

    May 3, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • Voice of Reason

      Ban all religions.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      It was not founded as a christian nation. It was founded as a secular nation by deists. Rather sad when Canadian's know more about your country and its founding principles than you do but then again we are secular and we have good reason to care what happens there...it inadvertently affects us.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • William Demuth


      My family was here before you, and we say it is NOT.

      Our laws and treaties say it is not.

      It seems you lose. Please return to RedNeck land and submitt to reeducation.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • pat

      God gave us the Bill of Rights. Right?

      May 3, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • claus

      The more religious, the less educated. It's proven.
      Hardly surprising.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Shakira

      Actually America was not founded as a Christian nation, if you look at the Founding Fathers and their view on God they made sure this nation was not a Christian nation. I hate that myth of America and it keeps popping up. Read the views of our Founding Fathers and see for yourself.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • One of Those Christians

      Voice of Reason – Why don't we just ban all acts of stupidity, racism, hate, and apathy? They are useless. When prayer and meditation actually do a person good, you want to ban it. That's about ridiculous! Let's ban the good stuff and let the bad stuff have free reign. Where's your voice of reason now?!

      May 3, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      @One of Those Christians

      Where do you think all acts of stupidity, racism, hate, and apathy come from?

      May 3, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  12. Betty

    someone posted on facebook the difference between people with tatoos and without tatoos is that people with tatoos don't care if you don't have a tatoo.
    So if you don't want to pray today then don't. If you do pray to whoever you want to pray to. Why do you have to make it so difficult?
    BTW I am forced to take Martin Luther King day off. I respect the man but I don't really think I need to take the day off work. Would rather have my birthday or anniversary. But I do not ruin it for those who do want to take the day off to go beyond my simple respect of the man and maybe attend a service in his honor.

    May 3, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • Voice of Reason

      Hey Betty!

      Once again, someone that doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  13. Alicia Townes

    Prayer should be by choice not by force

    May 3, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • One of Those Christians

      Exactly! No one is saying you have to pray. It's just one day out of the year when our nation as a whole comes together to ask whatever "ultimate power" to pray for our country, its leaders, and its people to be able to live in a better, peaceful society. That's not exactly a bad thing. If you don't want to do it, then don't do it. Anytime people think of anyone other than themselves, it's cause for celebration! : )

      May 3, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      Just think, for a moment, about how many times it actually HAS been forced. Or do you disassociate yourself from that? Are you only a reflection of the "good side" of your religion, and all the evil that has been done in it's name is because of someone else?

      May 3, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  14. Pops

    Yes, Yes and yes. Stephen. But soon I will answer all of your concerns face to face. Just remember that it must be done with all your might- soul and strength. The name and form are just a "bit" secondary. Have a blessed NDP. ME!

    May 3, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  15. wakeup333

    I pray that some day enough rational US citizens will write their Congress people and demand the National Day of Prayer be abolished, since it's an illegal, bald-faced, blatant violation of the First Amendment.

    First Amendment refresher: "... Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..."

    May 3, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Voice of Reason


      May 3, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • Manomer

      Are you forced to pray or does your work day change in any way at all? Yea I didn't think so. Don't pray. Simple as that. The country is going to hell in a hand basket a little prayer definitely wouldn't hurt.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Contact the ACLU...they fight for this stuff every day...as the one guy said, knocking this stuff down is like a game of whack-a-mole...as one goes down and is forced to follow the consti.tution, another pops up that needs a reality check.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Voice of Reason


      You are delusional.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • jeffro

      its not a law. i understand your point if it was though. it's just a day, no legal obligations

      May 3, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Manomer

      Voice of reason.....well I live a good life so if someone whom I have never met wants to think I am delusional.....I guess that's ok.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • BRC

      As much as I wouldn't mind seeing the day gone, and I find prayer to be only as useful as meditation and wishing wells, as long as it is kept non-denominational, it's not unconsttutional. That passage means that no one religion can be set over all the others (or the lack there of), so as long as they don't FORCE people to pray, adn don't say any one way is the specifically correct way to pray, then it is just a day of recognition for those in the country that do believe, and it's legal (however useless)

      May 3, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Voice of Reason


      It is your words that clearly define that you are delusional. You're probably a great person, I don't know, but all I have to go on is your rhetoric and the mere definition of delusion is what you display.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • claus

      I'll be happier when that "In God we trust" will disappear from federal buildings.
      "E pluribus unum" is our real original motto. Until religious fanatics took over...

      May 3, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  16. Lisa

    "Dear God, save me from the stupid things your followers do in your name. Amen"

    May 3, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Tim Tebow

      AMEN Sister!

      May 3, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  17. ragosta

    The eighteenth century evangelicals who stood at the center of the development of American religious freedom - see Wellspring of Liberty - recognized that a governmental call to prayer (or any government endorsement, support, etc.) interfered with the "free will offering" that was the only thing that could please God.

    May 3, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  18. Tim Tebow

    I pray on bended knee in the National Football League...So for me, every game is a National Prayer Day!
    Go Jets!

    May 3, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Karla

      I hope no matter what you do in this life you continue to pray on bended knee. God is watching us!! And praying we follow him....

      May 3, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Voice of Reason


      Why don't you take the time to stop and read what you just posted. You're plain nuts!

      May 3, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • Heather

      Every day should be Prayer Day!

      May 3, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  19. Maude

    Steve, on the one hand you criticize people for their faith, which I suspect you envy, and then you ask them how to pray. In the Christian religion, God cannot be foisted upon you, each much find him alone.

    I will be praying something like this....Heavenly Father, we come to you today to seek your guidance in protecting this nation and our fellow man. We thank you for the blessings which you have bestowed upon each of us and this great nation. We ask you to forgive us our sins and we pray you will continue to bless us, Father. In Jesus' name, Me.

    P. S. Please also bless Steve and others who do not know you and who do not understand the love which you bestow upon those who do. We ask that you help him to find you, Father, and that you bless him and keep him.

    May 3, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Zeke2112

      I will pray to Mhjwhewtrty, the all-knowing amoeba who created you, that you find a path to him before you are consumed by his holy phagocytosis. Deal?

      May 3, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • National Day of Reason


      I respect your beliefs because I want you to respect mine. However, I have to point out that prayer, realistically speaking, does nothing. Action does. Churches that act in helping the less fortunate rather than pray that an invisible being helps instead are churches I would accept and support.

      A pair of hands taking action does more than a thousand clasped in prayer.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • lolwut

      Maude Flanders?

      May 3, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • Tracie


      May 3, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • Voice of Reason

      Hey Maude!

      If you think for one moment that someone should "envy" someone that has "faith" then you are clearly defining who you are. A delusional idiot!

      May 3, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • Manomer

      Prayer, realistically speaking does work. If you don't pray how would you know? I have had many prayers answered in many ways. I understand that you don't believe so understanding how I could have a prayer answered makes no sense to you but it makes perfect sense in my eyes. To Voice of Reason Calling someone an idiot only shows your intellgence level. So much hate.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Happy

      Maude is sincere. And National is correct, asking God to help out without putting any skin in the game isn't showing faith. Pray, and then act to help along your request. Then God recognizes your sincerity and helps the righteous request along.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Zeke2112

      "Prayer, realistically speaking does work. If you don't pray how would you know? "

      Sacrificing dolphins, realistically speaking does work. If you don't sacrifice dolphins, how would you know?

      Feel free to insert anything else which cannot be proven. It works just the same.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  20. Andrew

    Lincoln also had a psychic regularly read his future for insight to his private life and how to lead the country. but I don't think that means we should have a national psychic day.

    May 3, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • ??

      That was Ronald Reagan. The same people who believe in the Burning Bush tend to believe in the power of psychics. What is the threshold for delusion?

      May 3, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • JustDoRight

      @Andrew–LOL!!! True.
      The sad thing is if all religions were not so extremely harmful to the people on this globe, they would be HILARIOUS!!

      May 3, 2012 at 11:51 am |
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