home
RSS
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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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.

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

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. MeMelvin

    I am glad it is National Prayer Day. What I can promise is that I will not foist my religion on you.
    Let's just leave it at "I hope you all have a safe and happy day. We all deserve one, heh?"

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

      National prayer day is fine. Taking loads of time to argue and fight about who is *truly* religious and what the *true* God is, that's just sickness.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  2. Sir Ivanhoe

    For more insight into religion and its influence in the world read the groundbreaking international novel - king of Bat'ha - and the sequel due out by summer 2012 -- Tales from the East: Return of Ivanhoe.

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

    The inevitable end to a belief in religion is self-righteousness.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • me

      Wrong, pretending that you know what happens in the afterlife or if there is one is the paramount in self righteousness and arrogance.

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

      You want to talk about arrogance, go look at some of the far-right literature about the rapture. *Knowing* that you are sooo righteous that you're sure to be taken first is about as arrogant as you can be. They are SURE they are perfect and so they are leaving behind audio tapes for us to find when it happens. I hate to tell you this, but there was only one person that was truly righteous, and he died around 2000 years ago. Even by your own beliefs you're a sinner, friend.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  4. E-TN

    This is news worthy? Worthy enough to be on the front page of cnn.com? This is an opinion piece, not news. For God sake, please don't become like Fox News!

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

      LOL it's priceless how many critics of editorial decisions such as font size and page placement you get in these comments, as if "front page" means the same thing today as it did when they printed this stuff on actual paper...

      May 3, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • E-TN

      Yeah but this is supposed to be a news website, not an opinion column.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  5. Sam

    It's 2012... many people in the US are still confused and believe that some kind of creator is necessary to account for life (or account for after death). I think they got past this in most of Europe several generations ago... Sure, we're a younger nation, but aren't we supposed to be an "advanced" nation with access to all sorts of great scientific knowledge? Consider the amount of time and money that is thrown down the drain at religion. What if those resources were invested in something useful? I was happy to see our first black president. Now let's see an atheist in office. This will be our next useful leap as a nation. Ramen!

    May 3, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  6. jen

    i

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

      Really CNN? Is it that slow?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  7. james

    guy is really full of himself, ain't he. moron. cnn please get some decent writers and thinkers and fire this moron.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Brian K

      CNN doesn't employ him...and you are calling him a moron?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  8. Stephen Nowlin

    How about a "Those who Want to Pray, Go Ahead," Day? I guess I'll just take Thursday off from citizenship, because the "National" day of prayer doesn't represent me.

    By the way, what do the prayerful imagine is going to happen as a result of this Day of Prayer? Do they think God is persuaded by sheer numbers, by higher volume? Doesn't he already have a Plan, and isn't he omniscient? Would he change the course of his Plan just due to high traffic in the prayer pipeline? And if he did, wouldn't that mean he's not omniscient? How can humans have the arrogance to imagine they can persuade God of anything? Isn't prayer, the very idea of it, blasphemous?

    Maybe folks are supposed to pray on Thursday as just a kind of worship, to give God a high-five and not to ask for things or affect the course of human events. But most prayers are for something - "heal my cancer," "keep me and my love ones safe and well,' "help my mortgage get approved," make my wedding day a sunny one." Seems to me an omniscient god would already have made up his mind about those things and all future events, and I'll bet he doesn't like mortal folks presuming to ask him to change it.

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

      Deep stuff. In dude we trust.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  9. indogwetrust

    It frustrates me that dudeism is never mentioned with the other religions.

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

      Are you kidding? It's the jedi that see the *real* discrimination in the U.S. And those that follow the Flying Spaghetti monster... they can never find housing. You think HUD cares... no.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  10. tgriffin

    Stehphen , you have sadly missed the point in National Prayer Day in an effort to gain exposure that you are truly a radical thinker. National Prayer Day is for "every one" to include "all reilgions ",all non reiligious groups and even the non belivers of anything close to religion.It is a time as a Nation to jointly fall to our knees and to seek guidance from a "Power" that we accept is greater than us as individuals or as a group and that we accept has created us. Becasuse of that hope you should join us and fall to your knees and try to search with in your soul to seek that guidance. If you will try ,you may just find that guidance.... Then you should return to your commentaries.....In our Creator we put our trust.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  11. nibiro

    beer

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

      I'd go to a Beer church.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Oh Well

      Amen!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  12. Oats

    Woooo wee! The evil doer bloggers are having a field day posting and re-posting to attack religion and God. Any mention of God is enough to lite thier fuse. Its funny to watch them squirm, squeal, mock and attack. Makes ya wonder...

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

      They are trying to help the lost. Its confusing to them that some people just believe whatever they are told.

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

      Makes you wonder what? The only ones squirming are the religious zealots lol

      May 3, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Ghost of Esther

      Makes you wonder why they're so insecure about their god that they need a national day of prayer in addition to the weekly dose.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • QS

      It's even funnier watching the passive-aggressive defensiveness of the religious posters.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • Study People

      Yea, it's as dumb as the people trying to push a God or two on everyone. Neither side has any evidence to prove their beliefs. But does that stop them? No. I wonder what it would take to get them "Both" to keep their beliefs to themselves. No one really cares. Or do they?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • fuzzer

      Pray without ceasing and love those who persecute you!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  13. n8263

    Religion is delusional and prayer is delusional.

    You do not believe in religion because you honestly think it is true, you believe in it because you are afraid of the unknown. It does not take a genius to figure out all religion is man made, so for humanity's sake, please stop lying to yourself.

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

      You are confused.... the love of God casts out fear!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  14. If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

    How 'bout we have a national day of budget balancing !!

    May 3, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • tkessler45

      That would actually be us doing something....don't be silly.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • drb

      Amen

      May 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  15. Paul J

    It is heatbraking to see from comments that what kingd of Godless country we turned into.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • QS

      And to some of us it is a welcome sight!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      But it's terrifying to read the comments from religious followers!!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • tkessler45

      ...a VERY welcomed sight.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • drb

      Ditto on the welcome sight thing!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • waterman

      It is sad that only around 4% are atheists/agnostics. There should be many more.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • JHoover

      Paul your exactly right if people would just pick up a bible an read it they would see and belive everything that is in the bible is coming to pass

      May 3, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  16. paul cos

    will the real god please stand up

    May 3, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • just sayin

      *crickets*

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

      Oh he will! And when he does, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  17. eric calderone

    Frankly, Prothero's blatherings are a waste of space. I will not use any more of my time reading anything he writes. He is a relativist through and through. And, relativism is a BAD thing.

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

      A bad thing relative to what? 😛

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

      We'll alert the media about your decision.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • jobdespair

      "Relativism" is a code word meaning "I'm right and you're wrong." Spend time looking at yourself and don't worry about me. I don't need it. Thanks.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • elnyka

      Because pointing out the blatant differences in faith is relativism, I guess doing that it is, by definition, a bad thing. And since you do not present an alternative and paint relativism as innately bad, the only other option in this half-baked discussion is its polar opposite: absolutism.

      Catholics (like myself), Jews, Orthodox Christians, non-Evangelical Protestants, Muslims and followers of non-Abrahamic religions. Who cares about how they pray. By decree, the Nation will ignore these differences and pray all the same. Jesus speaks English and is Evangelical, so get on board with the program (unless you are an Anti-American atheist!!! Raaar!!!!)

      Screw any naturally occurring differences. That's not how we role. GI Joe Xtreme!!!!!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  18. Denae

    Let people pray if they want. If others do not want to participate then don't. I could care less whether people pray or not. That is the beauty of this nation. We have the freedom to pray if we desire, and we just ignore it if we don't, and people that believe in God don't have to participate in activites they don't want to. Why does everyone have to make such a big stink about everything in this dang country. No one is forcing anyone to pray!

    May 3, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • Paul J

      well said. Thanks.

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

      But those who pray also go to the voting booths and vote away the rights of some of us.

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

      It has been and always will be "COULDN'T care less", not "COULD care less". If you don't get that after three seconds of thought, just forget it. Do you say "irregardless", as well?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  19. fuzzer

    The day of prayer is not MANDATED. Pray if want, don't pray if you don't want. I somehow don't think God is picky about what you call Him – just that you know Him. Do I believe in God? Yes! Do I believe in Jesus? Yes! Do I believe in the Holy Spirit? Yes! Do you HAVE to – No. That is why we have been given free will. God loves us in spite of our sin, so much he sent his Son as a sacrifice for us. Peace to all.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  20. MrApplesauce

    The Christian Taliban won't stop until there is a cross in every room and the Bible quoted over the airwaves every hour on the hour.

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

      obama's preacher ole rev wright won't allow it remember "God Damn America"!!!!!!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • jobdespair

      Do you know what a non sequitur is? I guess now...

      May 3, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Kana

      Christian Taliban? Isn't that some what of a counter statemnt? Being the Taliban are Muslim they can't be Christian. You either are uninformed or your comment just meant to incite emotion?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74
Advertisement
About this blog

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.