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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. Dakota2000

    I pray the catholic church does not abuse any more boys, and encourages condom use to fight the spread of HIV.
    I pray that Muslim don't blow themselves and other up.
    I pray that the Israelis recognize Palestinian statehood.
    I pray that evangelicals stop peering into my bedroom.

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

      Fat chance – or is that Fat divine intervention?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • saopaco

      Good luck! =)

      May 3, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  2. Bob

    The problem with this author is he is makeing the "NDOP" political. The orginal intent of this was never to be political, and to my knowledge it still is not. Therefore your obvious political rant is out of context. After all, those who will gather to pray on this day, in front of higth schools, in churches, on town commons, in houses, are those who doing it for all the right reasons. And I think are very brave, since they will be mocked by most everyone else. Most who read this and agree with you (though I agree with some of the thoughts strickly from a discussion vantage). are not going to take part. So why are you trying to make this "politically correct".

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

      Religion is political. It's a tool for control. Pray instead of rising up and throwing the b-ds out!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  3. Phil

    In 200 years, people will look back and laugh at us and point out how silly we were, just like we do regarding the people in Salem Massachusetts that burned "witches", and we laugh at the idea of Zeus now, being the God of Thunder. It's more sad, than funny actually. This religion has been shoved down peoples throats for centuries. FINALLY people are beginning to say, "oh really? let me use my brain one sec.... um that sounds like the ramblings of a madman. Parted the red sea did he? We should stone our kids to death if they disrespect us, should we? Keeping slaves and beating them is ok, is it!?" I can live forever if I worship this god and only this god, but you have to commit, or even though I unconditionally love you, it comes with conditions. That you will burn in hell forever. I'm not a jealous god, but I really am. So just worship me, give me 10% of your money, and all is well. Don't ask questions.

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

      HOW CAN I ECHO YOUR SENTIMENTS MORE? THIS HAS BEEN AN ONGOING DEBATE.
      ONLY LOOK TO THE HISTORICAL FACTS. YOU GOT PRETTY MUCH A FAIRY TALE OUT OF HAND.

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

      Well Said!!!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Beinaido2

      Well Said Phil!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  4. Bible Clown©

    This is the day when bigots pretend the President is a Muslim who has canceled the national day of prayer. This is just more evidence of no one actually believing in god. It's only an excuse to hate other people.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  5. chriswiz

    I plan to celebrate the Day of Prayer by sacrificing a bull to Zeus in my backyard. Mmm, burgers...

    May 3, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  6. This is for you

    Someone is Wrong on the Internet
    by R.C. Sproul Jr.

    It takes two to tango, and that doesn’t even include the band. Our choices, our behaviors, are rarely as discreet as we think they are. Not only do our decisions bleed into our other decisions, they touch on other people’s lives, more often than not. No man is an island; neither is any man a peninsula.

    First, consider gossip. If gossip is spoken in the woods and no one hears, does it still make a mess? Guarding our tongues is important. But we need to guard our ears as well. Without an audience, gossip dies on the vine. It isn’t gossip when I know something you don’t. It isn’t gossip when you find out what I knew first. It’s only gossip when I get to be the one telling you. Ego and pride drive the tongue and open the ear.

    The same is true of controversy. In the prototypical schoolyard fight, there is typically the victim, the bully, and the cowards. While we rightly cheer for the victim and hiss at the bully, the cowards, too, deserve our opprobrium. They haven’t even the willingness to risk what the bully has, and worse still, they provide the audience he craves.

    The Internet has not helped. Cyber-bullies hide behind proxy servers and false names. Victims slowly learn that fighting back only encourages them. And there is no vice principal patrolling the hallways and breaking things up. Then there are the cowards. They create the page views, and some even input their own comments, usually anonymously, yelling, “Fight, fight,” while they sit three rows back. They create the audience that is the real raison d’être of the controversy to begin with.

    Internet controversy gives us the liberty to play theological video games. That is, it is vicarious, faux drama, exciting enough to keep us tapping away at our keyboards but not so exciting that we lose sleep. We read an attack site (discernment blog, as they like to call themselves), and find that the kingdom is crumbling because Joel Osteen’s book is being carried in some LifeWay store somewhere, or because a guy in our camp invited a guy in their camp to speak at a conference. We head over to our favorite guru’s blog to get the straight skinny on just what the respectable ones are saying about this issue or that.

    In all this reading, all this key-stroking, what we are really stroking is our egos. We think that by keeping up with the controversy we are really fighting the battle. And because of all the Internet play it is getting, we know it is the battle for the ages. We think we are fighting off Suleiman’s Muslim assault on Vienna, preserving Western Christianity, when all we are really doing is playing with toy soldiers. Like those who fought in the Saint Crispin’s Day battle, we can then go to our beds thinking ourselves fine fellows for having been in the fight. We, in short, aim far and miss far.

    There are true, important, eternity- in-the-balance controversies going on all around us. There are fights we are called not merely to egg on from the sidelines but to join. The calculus for the importance of any particular battle, in terms of its lasting impact on the great war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the Serpent, is simple enough. First, we need to know how large is the teaching ministry of the principals involved in the battle. We need to know how many unique visits this guy’s website gets. We need to know how many people recognize his name. The higher those numbers, the less important the battle.

    The real battles are these: Will I speak graciously to my children today? Will I have a grateful and cheerful heart about my neighbors, my fellow employees, those with whom I worship? Will I go to war against gossip, not by pointing out the gossip of others but by tending my own garden? Whether some evangelical superstar embraces some mystical prayer form is less important to the kingdom’s future than whether I will pray faithfully for that little girl with the brain tumor.

    It is true that the world out there matters. There are controversies that count. Martin Luther changed the world, facing bullies like David before Goliath. But when his beloved wife, Katie, trusted in the finished work of Christ alone, that changed eternity.

    Not many of us worry about what we will eat or what we will wear. Sadly, that’s not because we’re so spiritual; rather, it is because we are so prosperous. Having been freed from such worries, do we then focus on pursuing the kingdom of God and His righteousness, or do we instead worry about the future of this theological coalition or the direction of that shared blog? Pursue the kingdom by pursuing His righteousness. And then all these things will be added to you. Stop your fretting. The future does not depend on you. It depends on the One on whom you depend.

    There is someone wrong on the Internet. It’s probably you. Log off, hug your kids, kiss your wife, and go get some of His rest. The world will not only be there when you get back, it will have been made better.

    (From Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. © Tabletalk magazine. Website: http://www.ligonier.org/tabletalk. Email: tabletalk@ligonier.org. Toll free: 1-800-435-4343)

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

      Prayer does nothing. That's why the World is just like it was 10, 20, 50 years ago. Or worse.

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

      This is nothing more than an attempt to stop people from questioning religion. There is nothing wrong on the internet compared to the bullsh!t of religion!!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  7. tony

    Man was made in god's image. And all men are atheists when they are born. There goes the foundation of religion down the tubes right there.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  8. PraiseTheLard

    I pampered my dog... now he thinks I'm god...

    I pampered my cat... now she thinks she's god...

    May 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  9. Hitchens in the Kitchen

    atheists suck

    May 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • billy

      So do Vampires!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • jason snowpeas

      That is true; however, jesus lovers are live in delusions.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      And you know this how? A big whack from the Clown Hammer™ for you.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • me

      Why do atheists suck?

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

      Let me guess, Hitchens, you're a Christian. Typical humanity unloving Christian response on you. God loathes you.

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

      Well said. You are obviously a genius of some sort.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • t

      why? because we have enough sense to use our brian and decide for ourselves? opposed to blindly following along with what was used to brain wash children from the moment they are born?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  10. Moses

    Religion is for those who refuse to think for themselves and fear death.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • LMAO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      Wow after over 2000 years of humans debating this issue you have solved it and summed it up in one little short sentence. ALL HAIL YOU, YOU ARE THE SMARTEST!!!!! Dumbf.,uck

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

      I disagree with your logic. I am a Christian and fear death because I am so. Will I measure up to what God has asked of me? It scares me quite a bit. However, if I knew for certain that when I died I would just be a dusty pile of carbon and my consciousness would cease to exist... that would be a relief!! What is to be afraid of in that? As for thinking for myself, I have spent most of my life analyzing and deciding if I believe in a God. How much time have you spent on it?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Moses

      Brent, why do you feel there is a need to be afraid? It seems you're so worried about something that isnt' worth worrying over. God's all forgiving right? So relax and enjoy life while you can. Devoting your short life to appeasing a (possibly existing) forgiving God is like spending half your income on earth quake insurance in Kansas. You're responsibility is to be a good person to yourself and others, not obey a church because they threaten you with hell.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Brent

      Moses – You are absolutely correct, with a forgiving God I really shouldn't be afraid, but I am the type of person who can know they did good on a test and still fear hearing the results in case I have misjudged myself. It's a flaw of my nature. The condition of God's forgiveness, in my belief system, is that I have faith in God. However, I often by my actions show that I lack faith. So who knows ultimately how I will be judged?

      To address your second comment, I do not obey any church. I do not attend church. I hope people don't get confused by the actions of church's and what personal faith is.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  11. Ben

    Religion was necessary thousands of years ago as a way to calm fears of the unknown, and back then everyting was basically unknown. Then religion morphed into control of the masses (Roman Catholic Church) which ruled the known world and had vast armies. Religion is a nice fairy-tale, but is mainly just stories handed down over thousands of years based on fear and ignorance.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  12. If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

    All hail JOHN FRUM. He is the one true savior. If you don't believe in him you will go without spam for all eternity!

    See ... "Cargo Cults of the South Pacific". A microcosm of the history of religions.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  13. Bob

    hmmm.... well lets see. Prayer for some, little American flags for all!!!

    May 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  14. hemplover

    Guns don't kill people, religions do.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  15. dugee

    Abe said God , where you want this killin' done. God said out on highway 61.
    -Bob Dylan

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

    I need no shepherd for I think and reason...and I am not a sheep,
    I shall want only what serves humanity best;
    I lie down in green pastures because I choose to, not because anything makes me.
    I swim in still waters, I need not be led beside them;
    If a soul exists it is mine and is for me to restore how I see fit.
    Paths of righteousness will never fail to lead a person astray…
    especially for His name’s sake.

    I will walk through many valleys, it’s called life;
    the shadow of death follows one and all, no matter where we walk.
    I fear evil;
    evil is created by man, which is to be feared far more than any of the countless versions of god;
    your rod and your staff do not comfort me as they are herding tools...and I am not a sheep.
    I would be arrogant to think goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, for I am human and we make mistakes.
    I shall not dwell in any house that believes me to be nothing more than an animal which must be told where to go and when.

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

      This is wonderful!! Thank you so much. As an atheist I get real tired of the business of religion being shoved down my throat. Thank you again.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      If you think and reason for yourself and not dwell in such a house that you be told where to go & when .... why do you FOLLOW religion and it's supposed guide book. You contradict thyself!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      meant as sarcasm to followers but didn't come out quite right.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • QS

      🙂

      May 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Brent

      Good, you are not a sheep. If there is no God, what is your purpose? Why do you bother with anything? The sum total of your existence will be nothing.

      If there is a God, and he gives you a choice of whether to follow him, does that make you a sheep?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • QS

      I see Brent, so one can only feel they have a "purpose" if they believe in a god of some kind.

      But those who believe in some version of god or another end up thinking their sole purpose is to get to heaven....by any means possible.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Brent

      QS – I can't say specifically that the only way to have purpose is to believe in God, but I would say that it is required to believe in an afterlife in order to have purpose. Otherwise the sum total of all human efforts is zero eventually. Subsequent to that statement, I have a hard time imagining an afterlife that doesn't have some version of a "god" ... unless us humans created everything and all the rules that govern it – then I suppose we would be the god – but I'd think I would remember doing that.

      As someone who believes in God, I wouldn't say my sole purpose is to get to heaven at all costs. I would say that I have an appreciation for what created our existence and my purpose is to align to their plan since I believe in it's results.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • QS

      "but I would say that it is required to believe in an afterlife in order to have purpose."

      We'll definitely have to agree to disagree on this one Brent.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  17. me

    How about a national day where people stop praying and actually _do_ something to improve life, the world, or themselves? That, I would gladly participate in.

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

      Yabba , Dabba , Doooooo!!!

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

      Yea, I would like "National Help-A-Stranger Day". That would, you know, actually help someone.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • Witches and Wizards

      That is just crazy talk...also it involves more effort than bowing your head and taking a nap.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  18. Walter H

    I like polytheism. Whatever God fits the situation at hand is the one to invoke. Nobody knows anything about God for sure. If somebody tells you they know, run away. They're trying to sell you something.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Science Guy

      That was really really badly plagiarized

      May 3, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  19. tony

    No tea partier's personal, private gas guzzling RV, and multiple rental incomes and will ever take them through the eye of the needle.

    But they can't be soooo stupid to not realiize that. So maybe they are all really closet atheists???

    May 3, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      Well, I don't like to lie; I'll do it in a social situation of you make me, but deliberate deceit is abhorrent to me. Christians have no such moral problem with a lie. They are told to lie if it might gain something for God's Church, like money or souls. Look at the stuff they post here? "All atheists are criminals and rapists." Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose.

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

      Don't misunderestimate the Teapotters' stupidity...

      May 3, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  20. QS

    Religion – the world's ultimate dividing force.

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

      I don't know, I've see people get more heated about sports. Maybe religion is a close second.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • Science Guy

      Religion is also the dividing line between intelligence levels

      May 3, 2012 at 4:18 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.