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. M.

    If you believe that you can ask God something, and get an answer, why waste questions on things like this? "God, how do we cure cancer?" or "God, how do we make efficient solar cells or fusion reactors" would be far more efficient questions to ask. Besides, if you ask that question and get an answer, maybe people like myself will start to believe you are actually talking to someone, as opposed to having an imaginary conversation with yourself.

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

      You don't always get what you ask for, you get what you need ... even if you don't understand it at the time.The Bible makes it very clear that you have to find faith on your own ... salvation isn't free. It requires an act of faith.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Aubrey

      I once prayed to a gallon jug of milk. I asked it, "Where the hell is all the cereal?" It didn't answer me. So I just had a glass of milk.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  2. Le Cheri

    What is most interesting is found in Revelation—"And I (John) beheld another BEAST coming up out of the earth (America), and he had 2 horns like a lamb (peaceful) and he spoke like a dragon (warlike).

    America started out like a lamb and now look at her—A Dragon. A BEAST. I didnt say it. God said it.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • me

      No dummy, men said it and wrote it in a piece of propaganda.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  3. Minister Peter

    While the noise what to pray, who should pray, and how is buzzing around. For the followers of Jesus, 2 Chronicles 7:14 provides guidance to the heart of humility to which the Lord will answer. Prayer is not parroting a bunch of words for the sake of being religious. Prayer is the cry of the heart for salvation of souls. The question is not the how, why, or selected set of words of piety. The real question is: If you life was to end today and you were standing before the Lord of the Universe, would your eternal soul be ready? Would he say, "Well done thy good and faithful servant OR depart from me your doer of iniquity - I never knew you? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAtD_-YKKe8&feature=plcp

    May 3, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • no nothing

      IThis is the same stuff the Taliban tells you when they come to your village.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  4. me

    It should actually be called... National Day of Endorsing Insanity Day, or Day We Talk To Imaginary Men in the Sky Day.

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

    Dear Steve,
    On this National Day of Prayer, I suppose I will pray to the God in which I believe; my neighbor will pray to his god; and you, of course, are free to pray to your God - or not. It's not that difficult.

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

      I agree with Howard. We should pray to the God that is in our heart. If it is a different God than our neighbors, let God sort that out. If we are truly following God's teaching what name we use for Him won't really matter.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  6. omg pilot

    crazy religious people, praying to a fictional book all they long!

    May 3, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  7. jms58

    If you can show me one thing accomplished by all that prayer, I will pray too. If god were real, all that prayer should stir up something really big .

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

      It did.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Darryl

      9 months out of college and I was working for next to no money and had a wife and new baby. I worked out of town for 2 weeks at a time and was home for a day and a half. I prayed so hard for help! Within a month a company called me that I had not applied for a job with, no one I knew worked for them, no one I knew would ever tell me that they had recommended me, but their HR Dept. called me while I was working out of town and with two weeks I had that job making top dollar with 15 minutes of my home. Also, 4 years ago my son was in a hospital with a brain tumor the size of a small orange and the doctors all told us that he might not live and if he did we would have to take care of him the rest of our lives. That would be the same son that was walking within 2 weeks of surge, riding his bike within 3 weeks and is currently a 3.8 GPA college student. I have many other times that God has given me and my family what we needed, when we needed. God doesn't necessarily give you what you want, you get what you need ... even f you don't understand at the time.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  8. Dicazi

    Bow your head and pray to whoever or whatever you believe in. You don't have to direct your prayer to the same being the beiing your neighbor is praying to. But to come together and to say that there is something greater than ushumans is a good thing.

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

      If anything, humanity itself is greater than any one person.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  9. jodyhaworth

    Does it really matter? People cry about everything. Pray to God... or don't pray. These cries are only an attempt to remove all religion and God from our government and society. They are so envious of God and the values that are behind religion, that they will say and do anything to have religion removed from every corner of society. All in the guise of taking offense. Give me a break. They aren't offended, just manipulating emotions to get what they want - and atheistic world.

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

    Hmmm, apparently this guy has never bothered to crack a Bible ... or maybe he just skipped the part where Jesus taught us how to pray. As to who you pray to on Nationa Prayer day, that is pretty much between you and your maker. We sure don't need some journalist asking us who we should pray to or if we should even be allowed to pray. I think they just put these article in here to get the Nationa lnquirer effect on the comments.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  11. Ricky

    How to pray to God should be determined by God, shouldn't it? This Supreme Being is so because he created us. Therefore he has the right to tell us, not only how to pray to Him but also how to worship Him, what to do and what not to do. (Revelation 4:11). So God, who by the way has a name (Exodus 3:14, 15) and likes to be called by his name (Psalms 83:18), sent his son to earth and as stated by a previous reader, his son taught us how to pray (Matthew 6:9,10) Notice that the first thing we need to be concerned about in our prayers is not our petty differences or politics. It is in fact the sanctification of Jehovah's name and that his will is done on earth. No, his will isl not going to be done by following human efforts or by politics. His will shall be done by a Kingdom he has created, yes a Kingdom as in a government. No, not human government but a government created by God himself with his son as King. (Psalm 2)This one God has a purpose for earth and humans, and part of his plan is described in Daniel 2:44. Those who truly want to know God must search for the necessary knowledge to become subjects of God's Kingdom on earth. (Proverbs 2: 1-6) He promises many blessings to those who sincerely search for him and obey him. By the way, true worshipers of this God, Jehovah God, do not need a day of prayer. They know they can pray to him any day, any time, anywhere (1John 5:14).

    May 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • no nothing

      do us a favor and move to Iran.They have no problem what god wants from you.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Bruce

      And in Matthew 6:1-18 Jesus very clearly states to make your prayer a private one and not to make a public spectacle of yourself.

      "National Prayer Day" in light of that passage is quite ironic, indeed!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  12. no nothing

    To all of you who think god's law should be law over everyone should move to Iran.

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


      May 3, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  13. Willa45

    Why not just "live and let live"? What possible harm is there be in having a 'day' of prayer? Should we abolish Mother's Day too, because many of us no longer have mothers? It's the amount of goodness in a person's heart that matters, not their faith or lack of it, so please lets allow all people to worship whenever and in whatever way they want, (or not at all), as long as it's peaceful.

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

      Because followers/believers don't stop at live and let live. They need the mob mentality to feel superior, which is why the often cite how large their team is as proof of it's validity. Then they try to manipulate our Gov. into passing laws designed to increase their groups power ... that's why no live and let live.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Aubrey

      The problem with your illogic is that everyone has a mother, whether living or not and not everyone has a religion. My mother has been dead since '97 yet I still honor her on Mother's Day, as I should.

      The bottom line is this: The so-called line between church and state is an illusion. There's no such thing. How can a "Christian" President leave his religion at home when he works from an office IN his home? In other words, the religions that politicians cling to definitely have a LOT to do with the decisions they make, decisions that affect us all. This I find unacceptable, which is why I refuse to vote as I do not endorse this system of "government".

      May 3, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  14. Truth

    The end times are certainly fast approaching. Nobody knows when but the birth pangs are certainly approaching at an increasing frequency. Jesus saves! Peace be unto all.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • tkessler45

      Jesus has been dead for thousands of years. Wake up and realize that, if anything, its you saving yourself.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  15. rochdoc

    Stupid stupid piece
    Prayer is a personal thing. The stupo is asking to which God "we" need to pray. There lies the problem. There is no "We" stupid. Stop trying to divide Americans for your own agenda. The more you dish it out, the religious right will only get stronger. If only you can live and let live; pray and let others pray aw well – for everybody.

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

      America divides itself: States, Counties, Districts, Cities, Blocks, Gangs, Red, Blue, Right, Left, Atheist, Jew, Christian, Non-, White, Black, Hispanic, Gun-toting, Peace-loving, Rich, Poor, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera...

      A house divided will fall. Can you see the U.S. falling? I can...

      May 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  16. MHG

    I understand that you are sick of these annoying push down the throat "Christians", but you have to realize that not all Christian people are like that. I'm Christian myself, and honestly when people assume all Christians are like that it kind of makes me go bonkers. Me myself would NEVER push my religion down someone's throat. People deserve a right to live their life, religion or not. I apologize if anyone tried to push the religion down your throat. God says to spread the word, but in a sense that the person wants to listen or asks about it. I just want all this drama to stop, please. This is a place to say your opinion but in a adult and proper manner.

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

      Well said...

      May 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  17. Lilith

    If I participate in the national day of prayer does that mean I don't have to pay taxes today?

    May 3, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • The Tax Man

      Yes it does, on your tax return make sure you check the particpation box, your taxes will be deducted today.

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

      Yes, because you were supposed to pay them by April 15 unless you filed an extension.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  18. levi

    What does an atheist praying mantis do? What a delemia!

    May 3, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  19. Johnny Orlando

    The atheists have a day for them its called SEPTOBER 42ND...IT doesn't exist, so they can feel free to wait for that day to feel special. Just like most of the events in their life, it means nothing. Nothing is all they are good for. Let people who believe have their day.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • t

      we dont need an invisble man in the sky to feel special and enjoy life.. you on the other hand....

      May 3, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Johnny Orlando

      I dont need anything other than making idiots like you upset enough to comment. Thanks for that. Made this class go a little faster.

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

      agreed t.... Its sad to think that the religious have to post rude and obnoxious comments on here while atheists continue to suggest freedom and tolerance for everyone. Kinda ironic isnt it....why dont you religious crazies go start another war afterall thats all religion is good for...

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

      You are exactly what's wrong with religion. Keep your ignorant opinions to yourself.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • Ron

      Johnny, while you're sitting in Algebra 1 be sure to ask your teacher why god made numbers so confusing.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Chris

      Thank you for displaying your hate and ignorance for all the world to see. It may have not been people like you that convinced me religion in general was wrong (internal inconsistencies and contradictions were sufficient for that...) but it is enough to make me glad I did walk away.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • Johnny Orlando

      Chris, is that all you got? You sound like every other non-Christian person who doesn't believe in His power to smite those of you who taunt Him and His followers! You just wait, once I leave class I'm going to pray so hard to our Lord that He not allow you into Heaven... oh you'll be sorry!

      May 3, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Aubrey

      Didn't your Lord warn you: "Judge not lest ye be judged by that same judgment"?

      A hypocritical Christian is no Christian at all.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  20. Bruce Carter

    I'll pray to Jesus Christ. His tomb is empty – unlike the founders of all other religions – validating Jesus claim that is THE way THE life and THE truth, and nobody comes to God except through him.

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

      Absense makes the heart grow fonder .. and the memory weaker.
      So lack of evidence is now proof?!

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

      There is one God and many prophets, they came at different time in the history of mankind to educate us, they are all from the same God, so if some believe they are the only way to God they are fooling themselves. Also prayer is a personal thing between humans and God, none of this fanatical ideology goes down well, in the west nor in the east, when it becomes this way it turns into fanaticism and dictatorship.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
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