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. Salty Bob

    I dont know what to say thought we would were past this, this cant be the way it is religions are as fake as 2 cent penny. How can we the few escape this insanity. Other than leave the country or make our own state.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  2. Kent

    Everyone has their own God. Their God may be the mastermind in the creation of the earth associated with religion or maybe their God is Money, or Power, or Fame. A national day of prayer is a day for those who wish to pray to their own God whomever or whatever it be. How to pray to God is mearly an issue of personal preference. Praying helps many people to sort out their lives. Isn't that wonderful. So, as a nation, it's great to appreciate recognition of a part of life that has done much good in the lives of billions.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  3. Don

    "The world holds two classes of men – intelligent men without religion, and religious men without intelligence."
    – Abu Ala Al-Maarri

    May 3, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • thinker in the sun

      Very good

      May 3, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  4. Terri Baker

    Bullying anyone online about their opinions, religion, their lifestyle, politics, or about anything else that is personal is detrimental to the country. If someone shares their beliefs, that doesn't give anyone the right to launch personal attacks. I've seen (and been the recipient) of Christians go on the attack, I've seen (and been the recipient of) atheists going on the attack. There's alot of meanspirited and hateful people on the internet. Narcissism and sociopathic behaviors are not a religion or philosophy. It's a mental disorder. It would be so nice to talk to people who don't call you stupid for believing in God, or claim you're going to hell because you aren't a far right extremist. It would be great if everyone could find middle ground so that peace can be achieved and everyone could get along.

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

      Don't know about you, but I'm gunna go down and Jack it in San Diego!

      May 3, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  5. thinker in the sun

    I just don't understand prayer. If there is a god who is omnipotent, doesn't he already know what we want? And if he has planned something different for the future, why should he change his plans just for us? And what if there is someone praying for the opposite thing that we want – who should he listen to?

    May 3, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  6. QS

    Religious people make their first mistake when they get into the mindset that one MUST be religious or believe in some version of god in order to be a moral person.

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

      You don't have to be religious to be moral, there are lots of moral people out there that are good and decent people. But, the bible lays down certain things in the gospels that a CHRISTIAN is supposed to do to be a Christian. and that is what you are to strive to do.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  7. The Master

    How about IGNORING IT? Nothing does less work than hands in prayer! LOL!

    May 3, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  8. Abrondon

    Dear Jesus,

    Thank you that you granted us freedom. Freedom to hate you, or worse, dismiss you. Even those of us that love you fall excruciatingly short of the love you deserve. And while this world, all of us, mock you, curse you, blame you, reject you, and accuse you, instead of rising to your own defense and turning the mirror of judgment and justice upon us, you instead listen patiently and intently, just as Dostoevsky described in the Grand Inquisitor, and respond with a kiss.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  9. Bill

    Those who believe in a supreme being, no explanations is needed. For those who don't believe in a supreme being, no explanation will suffice. One thing we qall should be thanful for living in the USA, we can believe what ever we want and pray to whatever the supreme being is called. We all call him God in general and by other names to be specific. Those that don't believe don't care one way or the other as long as a belief is not forced on them.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  10. tomnikoly

    "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World", Mr. Prothero's book, at least acknowledges the other major world religions as being relevant, at least among deists. Apparently he isn't given over to the almost fanatical zealotry of those among Christians, Muslims, and others that constantly proclaim that THEY are right, that THEIR way is the ONLY way, and all else is rubbish.

    Consider that their are roughly 30,000 Christian denominations and around 240 Roman Catholic....I'm not sure about Islam. So, take your pick....they ALL say they are right.

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

    I put no stock in religion. By the word religion I have seen the lunacy of fanatics of every denomination be called the will of god. I have seen too much religion in the eyes of too many murderers

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

      you could also use the word money instead of religion and make the statement true. People kill for all sorts of reasons. The Greeks went to war over a girls if you can believe it. How many populations destroyed for resources? The problem lies not in religion but in the perceived power it generates. Just like money.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  12. Patricia

    If we absolutely have to have a "national day of prayer," since, presumably, people who want to pray do it all the time, how about taking turns organizing this thing so it doesn't seem like yet another right-wing Christian "America is a Christian Nation" scam? Next year, let the Buddhists, the Muslims, the Hindus, or the Pagans organize and lead this. The Dobsons' 15 minutes have been up for years.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  13. Deity

    Dear Stephen,

    Thanks for writing. I appreciate your faith, but thou shall not refer to me satirically or ironically, or else you know what – you must remember my reply to Nietzsche.

    As for your original question, pray as you will – I will understand.

    Smite? Good suggestion – it's been a while. Shall I start with you?

    Marginal tax rate? I think you know the answer – camel, eye of needle (or was that newt?).

    I will not accept your bait on that Roman Catholic question I'll have none of that!

    Thanks for the letter. Keep the faith.



    May 3, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  14. Faith-Isn't-a-Preacher

    'God' is a generic name for wherever our Heart and Mind is fixated upon as our compass. Typically it is upon a Benevolent Role Model (Tangible or Otherwise) or that which justifies our hope of being more than what we are. Too often belief in such is used as a justification to claim supremacy over others with or without a belief in something external or internal to oneself.
    It is: "In God We Trust" because no human deserves our 'trust'. And no human has proven to be worthy of our trust.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Zaphod2010

      Religion is the BIGGEST threat to civilization since, well since, it was invented by man.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • SameSame

      Zaphod your other head is showing. Got to suck knowing when you die there will be nothing, no dreams, no memories, nothing of you will last. Your entire life worthless, your accomplishments pathetic. But hey that's how atheist roll. All of this randomness of the universe, you know the one with the rules that seem to complement each other so well...almost like it was designed...but wasn't because you know it was randomly created...by nothing....

      May 3, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  15. goneballistic

    I really have other things to worry about. Life is too short, but if Stephen Prothero wants to worry this like a bone, have at it!

    May 3, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  16. adrifter

    Wow, just four per cent of Americans describe themselves as atheists or agnostics. That explains a lot. In Canada, about 16 per cent of the people have no religious affiliation, according to the census. Perhaps that's why we have fewer murders per capita, gay marriage, no death penalty, universal health care, etc. Religion doesn't screw up Canada so much.

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

      That same correlation applies to most of the European countries also.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  17. Ohiojoy

    The Lord's Prayer
    King James Version (KJV)
    Matthew 6:9-13

    9 .) After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
    10.) Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
    11.) Give us this day our daily bread.
    12.) And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
    13.) And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

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

      Why did you skip verses 5 & 6?

      "When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

      May 3, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • tkessler45

      I can recite the Gettysburg Address if I memorize it.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  18. ma


    May 3, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  19. Cami

    I have just spent the past 6 months with a committee of diverse Christians planning and today hosting our area's National Day of Prayer. I can honestly say it was the nicest event. There was music, good food and of course prayer to God. I believe in God and that praying to Him gives Him our country the best possible chance to be healthy and blessed. We prayed for the safety and protection of law enforcement and fire and ambulance personnel. We prayed that school teachers would be role models and leaders and good educators for our children. We prayed that elected officials would have the wisdom to lead justly in their respective positions. We prayed for our armed forces and that there would be peaceful resolutions to all conflicts. And we thanked our veterans for their service. There is nothing wrong about asking the God who created us to be involved in making our lives good, is there? Nope!

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

      There is one thing wrong with it: that gods do not exist and you have wasted considerable time, money and concerted effort in a bid to speak to something wholly imaginary.

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

      I'm interested in Christianity ... I've never really believed in much ... but here is my question: Why should we "ask God" for stuff? Isn't He or She or It the creator? I guess I always thought prayer was about listening for God, hoping we are pure enough at that moment to hear a personal message that helps us forward. I guess to me, prayer as is done today is nothing but begging God to do stuff for us. I think that's what puts me off to the whole mess.

      I'd like to hear an intelligent, non-violent response to this, since I really do just want to understand how to reconcile things that keep me away from churches .... God is jealous, God is angry and we should fear Him / Her / It ... and this whole deal about someone paying for my mistakes by letting himself be killed on a cross. I struggle with the common sense of that, and to me, faith is just an opinion that some people share. Please, enlighten me ... I am listening.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  20. levi

    Why don't they put Christs' picture on a $1000 bill. Then when someone gave you one you could shout "Jesus"

    May 3, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • tkessler45

      Hah! 😀

      May 3, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
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