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. Realist

    It horrifies me how many people actually believe in "god".. Like casinos, religion is a burden on people who can't think clearly.

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

      Religion= A tax on time for those unable to reason.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  2. Mike Schimpf

    As several posts suggest, let people pray if they want to. There is NO ONE trying to stop people from praying. But why should our federal government be in the business of encouraging prayer? It's silliness, and worse, it violates the principles on which our nation was founded. If hundreds of millions of Americans want to pray to their special mythical beings for help, have at it – just don't get ask our government to endorse your delusions.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  3. Sam Yaza

    attention all Pagans, Heathens, and Non Believers please proceed in an orderly fashion to your designated train i hope you have a lovely time at our faith centers were you will learn of the wonderful glory’s of Christ your lord and savior. who has come to cure you of your sinfull ways, its your American duty to follow Christ in all his grace

    God Bless America

    every time when this day comes around this is what goes on in my head

    so all i do is sit at home listening to Electric Six

    while cradling my shotgun

    May 3, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  4. lipskip

    How would someone go about praying for recovery of bad knees? Do they drop to their elbows? This article needs more charts and diagrams.

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


      May 3, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  5. Chuck

    This is America. Pray however you want to whoever you want. That's kind of the point.

    I'll be praying at the alter of Joss Whedon tonight before the Avengers midnight screening.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  6. Merc

    Perhaps we should call the evangelicals bluff...let's lobby for national recognition of some of the more esoteric pagan holidays and see what kind of backlash that generates. After all, we're not forcing anyone to celebrate Baal.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  7. larry5

    Where are the pictures of Obama praying with his Muslim friends? In the White House? Wearing the proper clothes. Is it because advisers told him it would not play too well during a re-election campaign? From now until election day the stage is set and the actors are reading their lines. May the man with the best story win.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  8. caralee2010

    My first thought is that the author has no business being a scholar of religion. While the major religions of the world teach peace and love, this fellow seems to love to stir up division and push people's hot buttons. He isn't interested in a serious discussion about the National Day of Prayer – which is purely voluntary, btw – he is only interested in getting press by ruffling feathers.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  9. clinky

    When people presume to know what it's all about, not only for themselves but for everybody else, I get the impression they're running scared.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  10. Liz

    This blog, unfortunately, was far too irreverent for me. You, Steve!, could have simply made your point about the misuse and abuse of religious beliefs for political gain by focusing solely on the NPD Task Force and the political parties without disrespectfully addressing God. If you don't believe in Him, don't. That is the point of free will and reason. Hopefully you take a more appropriate approach in your classes.

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

      Yeah. How dare you question my fairytale.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  11. Kendra Chase

    People that believe in a god or a religion can't think for themselves...so they have to rely on a fictional god to lead them in life...it would be more interesting to let a cartoon character dictate your life...their fictional like "a god" and they are more exciting...

    May 3, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  12. Barnabas Collins

    The religious pray whenever they feel it appropriate. No special day needed. The irreligious are not going to pray, simple as that.

    So what is the point of a National Prayer Day? It is an underhanded attempt to get politicians to obey your special interest group, and an attempt to make your special interest group predominant, if only for a day.

    Religion has become little more than political special interest groups, complete with lobbyists, legislation tilted to their desires, voter blocs, and the rest of it. Many Christians are far more consumed with the political aspects of Christianity than the philosohical aspects.

    Just another ugly little special interest group forcing its desires upon America.

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

    Dear God, I like to know what is in my food. Please make them label it. Especially corn and corn derivatives because it makes me sick and I'm sick of being sick. They wreck good food. We aren't getting more food out of that, they are just wiping out anything that might have been good. Thanks God.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  14. tinyprof

    The National Day of Prayer is a feel-good promotion for religious people so they don't kill everyone.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  15. HURLCO

    Typical of CNN to slam something sacred with a so-called article based on intolerance, bigotry and hate.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  16. Anthony

    Great....2.2 billion fools. When are we going to start looking at the real instead of this silly Jewish fairytale. When are we going to grow up.

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

      Oh wise one... impart your wisdom to us fools. What is the wellspring of your sublime wisdom?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  17. Chris Chijioke Iweha

    It is pathetic to read and watch the way the Christian faith is often attacked by some folks in the media and academia relentlessly. In an attempt to vilify the Christian faith they end up committing the very allegations they make against christianity. It has become a tradition that every christian must appologize each time they stood their grounds based on the tenets of their faith, however, most of the so called critics would bash the Christian faith blatantly without an appology. Yes today was decleared a day of prayer so let all pray in ways that underline faith, no obligations to pray in a certain way, why use it as a time to continue the senseless attacks on Christianity?

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

      Probably because of people like Billy Graham who try to keep other people from having the same rights he has.. When you ostracize entire sections of the population because of your own ignorance and fundamentalism, you should expect a little backlash..

      May 3, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Zeibodique

      "It is pathetic to read and watch the way the Christian faith is often attacked by some folks in the media and academia relentlessly" Do you mean the say way that those who aren't on board with Christians or any other religion one chooses not to follow is deemed lesser a person and more than often chastised for not being like you? Deal with it, just like we have to.

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

      Because that is what so-called progressives and intolerant tolerants do. It's part of their soul-less DNA. Your post is well stated. It's now fashionable and quite acceptable to smear people of faith who believe in the redemptive blood of the lamb. To experience reconciliation through the blood of Jesus Christ is quite different than giving mental accent to a particular belief.Now our society has devolved to where believers are labeled as "haters", when in fact, the hate emanates from those who claim otherwise.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  18. Azhermit

    What a moronic post devoid of anything... it is apparent that life has taught you or your editor nothing. Go back to sleep now you little man and keep worshiping at your altar of self.

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

      Altar of self? You can do that? Hmmm....

      May 3, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  19. Shawn

    Every politician who uses their office as a means to promote religion should be impeached for violating the 1st Amendment.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  20. Jason

    How about this, if you want to pray, then go ahead and do it and leave everybody else alone; if you don't want to pray, then don't do it and leave everybody else alone.

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

      But you could do that any day. What would you need a "National" day for that? It is meant to promote religion, which is not good.

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

      Most sensible post of the day... NOW LEAVE ME ALONE 🙂

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


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


      May 4, 2012 at 4:36 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.