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. Yes

    C'mon people. Don't get your undies tied into a knot. This isn't the inquistion and we live in a modern age. Don't confuse true believers with those who use religion to divide this world (even those who appear to be holy). Having faith is just one of the many great experience we can have as being human.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • levi

      So you are saying that Billy Graham is not a human. He is dividing they gay community from the rest of NC by supporting an amendment banning gay marriage.

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

    So which god does a praying mantis pray to ?

    May 3, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  3. GIUK

    Vaal is the one, true God. He will be angry if we pray to a false god. Don't make Vaal angry.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      All hail John Frum !!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  4. Secure

    This guy is totally confused, who gave him a spot in the belief section? And guess what, you didnt have to write an open letter to God, remember thats the entire purpose of PRAYER. Also, God wrote on all kinds of subjects in his book the Bible. You may have to use your brain a little to translate its morals/ main ideas to modern day problems. Of course the entire article had a sarcastic under tone but not very funny. To be sure, to answer your question, NO, you did not have His attention.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • SV

      How do you know God was not paying attention to the writer? Thank God, He is not You. He loves everyone. If you cant stand reason, does not mean that God cannot. And God's book is not just the Bible. You think a being as powerful and omnipotent as God would give us only one way or one book? You are "Secure". Alas, you are Secure in your Wrong ways!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  5. Nick

    God is God no matter what. I'm pretty sure all of the different religions represent good will to mankind and all around being the best person you can be while sacrificing as much of your life as possible to the worship of God.
    For example: rosa, роза, ruža, roos – all different names for the same thing.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  6. Sam

    So you pray to the God in which you believe. How hard is that?

    May 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Fa'iz

      Best answer award!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  7. sleepytime

    Always find it funny when religious people write "uniting" articles like this which only service to isolate the non-religious from mainstream, believing society.

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

      I really don't give a big RA's what the non-believing do. I don't push my religion on them but I'm sick of seeing billboards full of crap from athiests!

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

      Religion only unites those of the same faith. In most cases it fractures society.
      If there are 8 dominant religions on earth, which is right? I am sure that none are. If God is infinite, how can a finite being (human) comprehend God or know what God wants?

      I'll keep an open mind, but that includes the chance that there is no God.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  8. Neesha

    Postings such as these are the reason why a lot of people who call themselves Christians need to change the way they're viewed. A lot of them aren't

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

      Amen to that.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  9. Mopery

    Jesus saves! The rest of you take 2d4 damage.

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

      "But while I have Your attention (do I?) I have one more."

      Yes, let's consider that question for a moment. What if no One IS listening? Either because there isn't any One to listen, or because the One doesn't care to listen? Is there any real evidence that the alleged One is answering any of these prayers? Or are all those who are praying just engaging in the mental equivalent of "j**king off?"

      May 3, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  10. seyedibar

    Prayer is nothing more than wishful thinking. It isn't meaningful to anyone but the person praying, and anyone that believes that a mysterious god or gods can hear them is merely fooling themselves. I'm ashamed to live in a nation where they'd create a new holiday for this. We're making steps backward here.

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

      Maybe you should try to develop an understanding of something before you invest your negative energy in being ashamed of people who do it.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • kierysma

      Of course we live in a society where individuals have their own beliefs. What's shameful and disrespectful is that there are those whom think it's ok to ridicule others for what they believe. What about others practicing a religion makes you so upset? It has nothing to do with you. I believe in God and prayer but I'm not going to go around saying that others are ridiculous for not believeing. Think you should be a little more respectful of others dude. Just sayin.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  11. Pwnd

    atheists < P00

    May 3, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  12. Ben

    Religion, by its very nature, allows people to be controlled. If God spoke directly to the people... that would be one thing. However, there is always some self-appointed human that "says" that god speaks through him... and he can control the masses. What a scam.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  13. Eman de Riuqer

    So, can we who are not religious participate too? I think we should declare this day "National Talk to Your Imaginary Friend Day," for those of us who don't have an imaginary friend to talk to, beg for his/her/its assistance, then act surprised when that imaginary friend does absolutely NOTHING to help... then we can act just as delusional as you "believers" when you pray... which is really just talking to your imaginary friend who "lives in the sky" or wherever you imagine him/her/it/them to live.

    Religion is not the opiate of the masses, it's the placebo of the masses.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  14. Nick

    Please let the Believers have their Day! Religion is a very much needed part of any society. Religion helps the masses, that will not achieve much in their lives, have something to hope for while they watch others enjoy the time that Nature has provided. Religion is the greatest mass 'Brain Pacifier' ever conceived. There's not enough around for everyone, so i say "Let them eat Bibles" while I eat Cake....

    May 3, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • Eman de Riuqer

      Religion is needed the way any other harmful addictive substance that addles your brain is needed. The merest suggestion that religion is needed is a fundamental insult to the intelligence of all humanity. In a few thousand years of recorded history, we went from dwelling in caves and mud huts and tee-pees, not understanding the natural world around us, or the broader universe, to being able to travel through space, using reason to ferret out the hidden secrets of how the world works, from physics to chemistry to biology, we worked out the tools and rules underpinning it all, mathematics, and now we can see objects that are almost impossibly small, the very tiniest building blocks of matter, (or at least we can examine them, even if you can't "see" them because you're using something other than your eyes and photons to view them) to the very farthest objects, the planets circling other, distant stars, that are in their own way, too small to see from here, like the atoms and parts of atoms themselves, detected indirectly, but indisputably THERE.

      We, as a species... we humanity learned most of what we learned throughout human history only AFTER refusing to accept the old-time explanation "because [insert name of local deity or other spirit, etc.] decreed it should be so." We realized all gods and supernatural explanations are inherently false, and relied on reason, and we went from thinking sweaty shirts gave rise to filth flies, and that trees simply yielded sheep when no one was looking (abiogenesis, the phrenology of biology) and a belief that there were only four elements, earth, fire, air, and water, to understanding DNA and its role in inheritance, in the production of new generations of living beings, of over a hundred elemental substances from among which everything we see around us is made, the natural laws that result in the physical world we see around us...

      We went from ignorance and religion, to wisdom and reason. Religion and reason are basically diametrically opposed things, even when some people seem to be able to blend them... or operate with both somehow simultaneously, the truth is religion is what people use to fill in the gaps in their understanding. Try that sometime when and where it matters. Try to solve a mathematical equation, for example, just guessing what the variables are equal to, rather than using knowledge of mathematics to figure it out.

      Take a quadratic equation, for example, ax^2 + bx + c = 0, and just take random guesses at the values of a (not zero), b, and c, and try to solve for x. Is it even possible? Do you suppose this equation has valid solutions for all possible values of a, b, and c? Of course it doesn't... assuming we want to constrain (as is usually the case when solving this type of problem) x to be a real number? Not only is it true that not every possible combination is valid, but there are in fact infinitely many WRONG choices.

      As anyone who remembers his or her basic algebra can tell you, any set of choices in which b^2 < 4ac is WRONG.

      Now when people similarly plug random numbers into the equations of their lives, filling in the gaps in their knowledge with religion, sometimes they get it right, by accident, (they are lucky) and oftentimes they get it wrong.

      Another way to look at this is two people engage in single, mortal combat. Each prays to the same god before-hand, feeling confident that he/she/it will protect him or her, and allow that one to be victorious, and come away from the fight alive and well.

      One kills the other. The one who lived tells everyone it was divine intervention, that his/her god helped him/her defeat the other one, and most everyone around accepts this explanation because, well... they're stupid. The other person of course tells no one that he/she prayed to the very same imaginary, fake, and nonexistent "god" or whatever, because he/she is now DEAD and can't, by definition, tell anyone anything. This is how religion perpetuates itself. The ultimate random reinforcement is the one imposed by reality, that they who survive can assign whatever meaning to that survival, unchallenged by the notion that it could just as easily have gone the other way, and no force, no spirit, no god or force of any kind was supervising the battle, or caring about its outcome, or either of the combatants.

      Religion, at the end of the day, in the mind of the believer, is fundamental intellectual laziness.

      Get off your a-fiftyfive, and start thinking for yourselves!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  15. D.Raven Foncell

    Freedom of Religion means just that! Religion, not one religion! Our nation was the first created without a "state" religion. Many fanatical people want just that! It their way, or the highway! well, no. All religion is welcome in our nation, the founding fathers had the forsight to serperate church, and stae so one religion woulddn't ever be the religion of the state. Also, in our nation you also have the right of no religion, and no-one, state, company landlord. whatever can hold that against you or deny you service. We can all debate our beliefs without being desagreeable! That's is one of the things that makes us a nation to all. Those who damn you, say you'll be damned if you don't believe as they do, are themselves damned in their own darkeness. Even if I don't believe as you do,I would fight for your right to believe as you do. Also, I would fight for your right not to believe in any religion at all.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  16. Person

    I prayed to God that I would win the Mega Millions. Apparently he didn't hear my prayer. Jerk!

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

      Maybe God in His Wisdom, is trying to save you from the Lottery Curse? Ever think of that?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Eman de Riuqer

      "He" didn't hear you because "He" does not exist. Don't be mad at "God" for not existing. It's not "His" fault, because "He" is not real. I'm sure you were kidding, but you notice the other response your post got, in which some religiot tried to find an excuse for why your "prayer" went unanswered, or at least, answered in the negative? Duh, it's what religions do, cause their adherents to find meaning and reason where there is none, using what passes for reason without actually THINKING.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  17. dizzylucy

    I wish everyone would just believe, or not believe, whatever they wanted, and quit trying to force their opinion or take away someone's rights.

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

      Opinions are like Noses. Everyone has one and they usually smell.

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

      Christians believe death = separation from God. In this life we have good and evil. In the next life they are totally separate. Evil 24/7 forever and regretting you missed the boat out of blind arrogance to not trust the universal genius to lead you in a postive fulfilling life but rather like a spoilt child you refuse. Hell will be black, dark, lonely, tormenting. Christians don't want you to go there. We are trying to pull others from the flames they think they are fireproof and it will be too late. You are only focused on you rights today.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • SV

      If God said whatever you have written directly to me, I can work on it.
      Why should I believe you? Why do you feel so superior that you have the TRUTH that others dont?
      How can you say with 100% certainty that your beliefs are correct? I dont care about your faith. It has or needs no evidence. But convincing others that your TRUTH is the only way requires evidence.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Eman de Riuqer

      SV, you've pulled back the curtain, and shown everyone the "wizard". However, the religious being less smart than a teenager from Kansas and her little Scottie (or whatever kind of dog Todo was) have their eyes clenched tightly shut, and refuse to look behind the curtain because they've built their world-views around the existence of OZ, the great, and mighty and terrible.

      They don't handle it well when someone shows them the charlatan behind the curtain operating the god-head... because that would force them to acknowledge that all this time, all this while, they've been walking around thinking two and two are three or five, and have always wondered why they could never manage to balance their checkbooks.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  18. billy

    I used to worship the sun. Until people started crossing me and they were murdered with firey nuclear solar laser beams. That was too much to handle, so I've switched to Baptist. At least with them the fire comes later.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • Eman de Riuqer

      billy, have you been frying ants with your magnifying glass AGAIN?!?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  19. Hannah

    I love how you started out the article "Dear Diety". The most high has a name and he is definitely not a god. And he definitely didn't say for us to have "religions". In other words different perspective, traditions, and customs of religions – peoples own comfort zones on how to worship the father and what they believe is acceptable to him. So i would love to see what the outcome of this so called National day of pray would be to – to What God and what religion. I give all my praises to the most high and i do not need a national day governed by a day to praise and worship him.

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

      Hanna, can you elaborate? Do you worship an alien?

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

      How do you know the Most High is a Him?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  20. Travis

    I'm not catholic but in defense of the people of that religion: just because contraception has the media's attention doesn't mean that the catholic church doesn't spend countless time and money to help the poor and afflicted. Let me ask you this since you're still reading this (or are you?) If the Catholic church or any religion did an enormous amount of good in the world and the media wasn't there to cover it, did it still happen?

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

      The Catholic Church does a lot of good and a lot of evil, just like most people.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • just sayin

      Actually the Catholic church does more evil than good.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • SouthernCelt

      At Last! A tolerant non-Catholic. Thank you and God Bless you! Western History would have been quite different without The Church. Catholicscomehome.org has a lot to say about the good the Church has done. We have the Sacrament of Penance, a.k.a., Confession, because we are not perfect, just forgiven. You can be too.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • jungleboo

      No, it didn't. Your supposition that the Catholic Church "did some good" is just that: a guess. What they have in fact done is destroyed countless world native cultures in their selfish pursuit of gold and silver, land and power. They have preached cruel dogma that has destroyed countless souls owing to its inherent inhumanity. They have recanted over the years, sure, but gee, that hardly helps the dead, does it? The Catholic Church and the Baptist Church and all the rest of the Holy Fragments of Disagreement, all the way back to the "Old Testament", need to take a hike and leave people in peace.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Eman de Riuqer

      SouthernCelt, yeah... just like every abusive father who defends his beating of his sons, and raping of his own daughters by him, by pointing out that he puts food on the table, and a roof over their heads, and clothes on their backs, so they should be grateful and take their beatings and rapings with grace and praise him publicly, for the "good" he does for them.

      The Catholic Church, historically, has been one of the most evil and corrupt organizations on the planet. Since there is no alternate version of reality for us to examine, in which the Catholic Church did NOT "save" Europe from barbarism, or whatever, we can't really compare, and can't really say WHAT would have happened without the existence of the Cult of Joshua bar Joseph of Nazareth in Rome.

      The argument that there wouldn't have been all that art, or that knowledge would have suffered... you know, I'll just refer you back to the top of my post, and the comparison I drew between the Catholic Church and an abusive, psychotic, perverted father. And no, I'm not a Protestant, or a Morm-on, before you ask.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
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