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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. QS

    Religion has become nothing more than another corporation peddling a product....one that far too many choose to buy.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Greg Shaffer

      To say that it has "become" that is to presume it was ever anything but that to begin with.

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

      I get your point, but really I'd say religion only took on the corporate image once it came to this country – before that it was simply tyrannical.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • Bob

      There is religion and then there is Faith, Spirituality. Aeithist are religious in their beliefs. The environmentalists are some of the most religious zealots that I've ever seen.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  2. Invisible Man

    Our ignorance is God; what we know is science.
    Robert Ingersoll

    May 3, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • jsmith89

      I think the "google" is a god. It is all knowing! When you ask it questions it answers. It is everywhere at once. Sounds better than any Christian god to me.

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

      And what we don't know empirically but believe,,, is Faith.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  3. Andi

    I pray every day, in private, as I feel it should be. I don't need some evangelical 'Christians' to tell me when and how to pray.

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

      Jesus actually (well, allegedly) said to pray and fast in private, and said not to make a public spectacle of yourself.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  4. Stella Limegood

    I clicked on this link, and honestly skimmed the article. But overall I guess what I want to really address is the question it asked, How can we all pray as a nation to one God when we all believe different things. Well, I going to brave and post what I think the answer is, crazy & personal as it may in fact be, (and perhaps wrong); the answer to the question: How can we pray to one God when we all believe in different things is simple. We can all pray for the same thing. Peace & Happiness for Humanity. Peace between those that do believe in different things, peace between those that think different things. And peace for ourselves & loved ones. After all, no matter what the concept or your belief's our, the concept of a god or being greater than ourselves is interlocked with our species since the dawn of man. And I think that in a world of such diversity & differences; whatever or whoever, is responsible for our world, won't mind whether one prays one way & one prays another, since we are each a part of the amazing act of creation.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • what about bob?

      Best answer yet.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • There. Are. No. Gods!

      I hear what you are saying, but why pray for peace and happiness when working for it would yield actual results?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  5. Candise Kane

    HUD employee prayed in 1992 & while sick/in need for medical help. God answered and they taped message she was a prophet. This name means Who was at ClevelandOHIO Crusade in 1994? Hinn, Benny evangelist put me on tv & everyone spoke behind my back, none told me about it. Some kind of evangelists said Candi's income down, yours goes up. Inverse relationship to me while at HUD still and they went for it ?? They ended up in prison as richer people due to mortgage subprime scandals then to religion for their repenting feeling to be...however whats' with the non-revealing of illegal activity of it to her as employee & everyone "gotRich".

    May 3, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  6. billy

    This is America! You gotta pray in a Megachurch to get heard! Or at least at a Costco. Or go Zachary Tims style, get some crack, lock yourself in a New York Hotel Room and party till you meet god personally!

    May 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  7. QS

    Religion and morality are not synonymous.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  8. Abraham

    Religion is the most destructive thing that mankind has ever created.

    Millions, maybe billions, have been killed, maimed, and tortured in the name of a "peaceful" religion.

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

      Astroids murdered all the dinosaurs in the name of religion!

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

      And Atheists have never hurt another human being? What about those crimes and atrocities not done in the name of religion?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • It comes down to this...

      Religion with the wrong gods is what kills and FYI the crusades were the result of Islamists killing Christians first and responsible for about 3000 deaths, whereas campaigns against Jews, Christians and others waged by Athiests or other non-Christians range in the millions.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • Bob

      Really Abraham? Religion (you're right to some degree, man made, not God made) is the most destructive? Not sharp sticks or cars or guns or even carbon dioxide? Surely all of the man made green house gasses are more destructive.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  9. johnnyboy13

    I have a feeling there are a lot more atheists than the 1.6% who (this article claims) call themselves atheists. Just look at this message board...

    May 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      Nope johnnyboy13, it just seems that way because the atheists are a noisy minority (like the g a y s).....

      May 3, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Max Powers

      I don't dispute the numbers, it's just that atheists are more likely to be educated and read a lot of articles.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  10. Bruce

    I think when it comes to Christians, there are several things they were taught about prayer that would actually be helpful in this context:

    1. Pray to "our Father, who art in heaven" which was a more-generic term for God at the time Jesus (allegedly) gave the prototype-prayer and could apply to most of the major religions without any problems. This was fine and dandy when Jesus (allegedly) said it, it was not until later when trinitarian theology came around and made "Father" more-specific to Christianity.

    2. Pray alone, away from others, not publicly, behind closed doors. It's between you and God, not between you and everyone else.

    3. Rend unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. Rend unto God that which is God's. A "National Day of Prayer," just like all other things where we try to destroy the fundamental separation of Church and State, is rending unto Caesar that which is God's.

    Strange thing... were Christians actually to follow Jesus' instructions when it comes to prayer (among other things), they would not be so annoying to the rest of us.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  11. Gregory McCooper

    When someone can prove that there is a god (which there isn't) and that evolution and nature topple that of religion and crazy stories, let me know. Oh, and with the whole jesus thing, "he" doesn't appear in cloud formations, a piece of toast, or on your fogged mirror in the bathroom....it's nice to believe and to each his/her own, but seriously....the stories of yester-year were derived from people who were so often drunk or hallucinating and being passed down for generations, obviously got changed. Wake up people, enjoy life, stop the bickering, and help yourself and one another....religion has caused so much conflict in the world yet people deny it.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • It comes down to this...

      No, what causes so much conflict is the denial of Christ. Consider Pol Pot, Hitler, Mao, Nero, to name but a few. Like these tyrants Islam would enslave you, also, if left to their fundamentalists. It's not Chritianity that causes uprisings. The defense of freedom and freedom of choice may cause conflict but what is the alternative? Cowardice.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  12. Aleric

    What would Bill Maher say about his hero ?

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

      Aleric you Know what Bill Maher would say. and you know what? He would be right

      May 3, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  13. MeMelvin

    Prayer and faith make a big difference in my life. I find myself with positive energy and behavior which I receive as a mysterious blessing. To those humans who have not found comfort and strength in pray, there are no words on earth in any language which I can say to convey my experience.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • PM

      I agree. It brings a feeling of peace and I honestly believe I am heard. Sometimes prayers go unanswered, but that's not always a bad thing.

      As for prayer in general, I pray as a Christian but I feel any prayer that brings peace, hope, love, and relief into one's heart is wonderful. I feel that you may want to vent to another human, but completely coming clean and venting, as well as asking for strength, to God is incomparable.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • Max Powers

      Eat some magic mushrooms...it's a lot like that...I've tried both prayer and mushrooms, and I like mushrooms better.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "I find myself with positive energy and behavior which I receive as a mysterious blessing. " Great, now stop calling the president a Muslim. Why are you all so hateful if you are filled with love?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  14. Anointed Fighter

    I choose to believe! I know who save me!
    Jua 3:15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
    Jua 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
    Jua 3:17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
    Jua 3:18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
    Jua 3:19 And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
    Jua 3:20 For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.
    Jua 3:21 But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • jsmith89

      Adults with imaginary friends should be locked up!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • Max Powers

      He was high when he wrote that.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  15. TheRealist

    RABBLE RABBLE RABBLE RABBLE

    May 3, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  16. Jimmy

    Atheist beleive in absence of God, so they shouldn't be critisizing beleivers. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • JT

      Do you apply that same "logic" to everything else for which there is no evidence?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Uncle Bob

      That makes no sense whatsoever.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Answerman28

      Thats the problem you with fools.. Atheists have evidence.. its called science. Religion has nothing.

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

      Non-belief in presence is not the same thing as belief in absence.

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

      Jimmy, total fail on that point. 🙂

      May 3, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • Greg Shaffer

      Should this same logic be used to criticize my lack of belief in Unicorns? After all, I can't prove that there's no such thing as a Unicorn, any more than I can prove that there's no such thing as a deity.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • PM

      I agree. We don't know EVERYTHING. There may be no unicorns on our planet or even or galaxy, but who's to say there isn't in another? We don't know everything. Humans have might big egos for knowing so little about our universe and the supernatural.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • PM

      I agree. We don't know EVERYTHING. There may be no unicorns on our planet or even or galaxy, but who's to say there isn't in another? We don't know everything. Humans have mighty big egos for knowing so little about our universe and the supernatural.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • jsmith89

      Go Spaghetti Monster!!!!! PastaFarians RULE!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • just sayin

      Jimmy, even God is thinking waht a dumb @ a$$ you are. lol REALLY think hard about what you said..lol

      May 3, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • jsmith89

      Extraordinary Statements require EXTRAORDINARY PROOF!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      Do you "believe" in your car? I know mine exists. Do you "believe" in Gravity? It's only a Theory, you know. I know it exists. Do you believe in Allah? Me neither, or Buddha, or Yahweh.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  17. wyominguy

    Question: Why is the Presidents photo headlining this article.....?????

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

      Because he is the leader of the NATION and it is a NATIONal day of prayer. Whomever is in office would have their picture on said article.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      Because Republicans believe he is supernatural and has strange ninja powers that he used to kill bin Laden.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  18. LAURIE

    JESUS IS THE WAY, THE TRUTH AND THE LIFE. AMERICA IS FOUNDED ON THAT TRUTH.

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

      America isn't founded on Christianity. You fail. And lose the caps lock.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • Deism

      Actually, no.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • jsmith89

      If some guy, walked in off the street and said "I am the WORD of God believe in ME!" and had 12 buddies that said "it was true" would you believe him?

      If not, why do you believe it when it is in a 1000+ year old book?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      Actually America was founded by refugees running away from two giant god-corporations, the Catholic Church and the Church of England. We fought COE again in 1812, and stayed free of their religion. When you get to high school, you can learn all about it!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  19. J

    I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of this essay. Thanks, Stephen Prothero! As usual, of course, the comments attached to the article are needlessly inflammatory and only tenuously on-topic, at best.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  20. Not important

    Pray to a head of lettuce, it will result in the same outcome. Geez, can we please move past mythology and into self accountability please? How long must we suffer such delusions.

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

      You have a head of lettuce!

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

      How on earth does my religion affect your life? It doesn't. There are plenty of laws and views offensive to religion, just as there are some that appear to "favor" it.

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

      The difference is I can eat a head of lettuce.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:16 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.