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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.

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. Ari

    I believe that there is an inherent psychological benefit in prayer, irrespective of the method or the target deity.
    Just do what makes you happy and allows you to have meaningful reflection. It doesn't matter if anyone is listening or not.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • zayah v

      That is true. I've raised my kids without brainwashing them and the always do that thing kids do when they really want something "oh I wish I could have this, I hope it happens" etc. Prayer is the same thing wrapped in different clothing.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • bejay

      One does not need to pray when one behaves like a guest. Thus one does not need to ask for anything.
      I do not know anyone who remembers having asked to be born; for me it is an act of mercy to be given a body. During my life I had experiences that showed to me that some people had lived before.
      Maybe many people have had experiences like me.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  2. QS

    Who ever thought it was a good idea to put "In God We Trust" on our money? Seems a bit too close to implying that the only god people should really believe in is the Almighty Dollar...an idea I believe to be just as abhorrent as religion.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • no nothing

      In god we trust, all others pay in cash.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  3. James

    Why is the 4% the loudest on these boards (and others)??

    May 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      The internet is where religion comes to die, didn't anybody tell you?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • rp

      Because obviously that 4% figure is nonsense. Most people just pretend to believe in God because that is what is expected of them by their peers, but once surrounded by the cloak of Anonymity suddenly feel safe to write how they really feel.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  4. fuzzer

    All these posts prove to me is that the Christian faith is failing to show the world the love that it believes in. A behavior can be considered wrong without it meaning that I don't love you. My kids do wrong stuff and I still love them. Where do people get the idea that expecting people to have a code of behavior to live by means that we hate people who don't live by that code. No one is perfect.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  5. To all the close-minded atheists that have all the answers

    Okay. Some of the comments from you people truly show how unhappy, lost, and miserable you are. Misery loves company. Love conquers hate. The old testament was a time when God was closer to His people which is why there were talking snakes and four-legged flying creatures. God changed it up because we were so lost He had to give us a new hope. The new testament. Study the prophesies I assure you that there is not one false word written. Even Nostradomus had off days. The Bible will never be abolished or proven wrong. Look for God and you will find Him. Stop letting hate run your life. I can't show you the holy spirit, I can only tell you where to find Him, then you will know the Bible is real and you will regret the day you mocked God and His children, but don't worry....He will forgive you. Stop being stupid and pray that God will rebuke Satan from your presence. He will. Good luck. To all the believers: keep praying for these lost sheep

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

      OMG, you are hilarious. Way to troll. You actually sound like a X-tian nutjob. I would even say you sound Texan. Kudos.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • no nothing

      I hate to burst your bubble or vacuum or what ever world you live in, but how dare you call me a lost soul. how about you mind your own soul for once?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Can't tell if trolling or actually that stupid. Poe's law in effect.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Zeibodique

      If as you say "Love conquers hate" then why do so many who do believe spew as much vile hate and disrespect for those who don't believe? Contrary to what you think, no one person is better than the next. I do not believe and I can guarantee you that A) I've NEVER molested a child or person...unlike the Priests and other members of the cloth as you see lawsuits on an almost daily basis B) Help my fellow man with no questions asked or expectation of return C) Bilk millions of dollars from people who have so little all in the name of a God, then buy lavish homes and cars like they're owed it. I'm a very happy person not living under your cloke of needed acceptance by others. You're the miserable person if you can not accept a person for who they are, not what they are....a non member of your hypocritical club.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • gerar

      Amen

      May 3, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • John

      Thank you. And I pray to my God, Magma Crom, that she spare your soul from boiling in the unending cauldron of molten diamonds she must cast you into. HER love for HER earthly children knows no limits other than false idol worship. In the name of all that is HOLY I beseech thee to abandon thine narcissistic, Godless ways and join in worshipping Crom lest ye be eternally part boiled and fed to the beasts (daily) of Hades.
      May SHE bless you, Amen

      May 3, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  6. rickp530

    For those who believe, I commend you. But I'm sad to say that it is hard for me to believe that their is a true God. People that experience near death experiences are only fooled by the illusions that their mind creates when in the early stages of shutting down. Another is; Why would God send a soul to earth to only die before birth or right after birth. This would show imperfection on his side.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  7. HONESTLY!

    Hell is just a belief not a reality!
    And even in the event of such a place. No-one knows who's invited, and who isn't!

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

      Are you really willing to bet your life on that?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • John

      To Ben: Sounds like a reasonable suggestion. But now I'm stuck at a crossroad of trying to figure which of the hundreds of religions to bet on. I can't tell one from another and got no idea what one you think will work. Any betting tips?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  8. achepotle

    Can we make the other 364 days officiial "Days of Reason", where politicians make a big show of using logic and critical thinking like adullts?

    May 3, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • no nothing

      I think you are asking for too much.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • zayah v

      That would be nice wouldn't it. Less time trying to impose your garbage on other people and more time trying to solve real life problems. If only.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Coyote Seven

      If they did that, then Congress might explode in a puff of logic.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  9. CBR

    Freedom of Religion. Regardless of what the publicity says, if you wish to pray by all means do so in your own way.

    We need to find another day and time to protest about the blogs or google. The more who write, the more they might listen. If not, we have our own day of prayer or meditation.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Coyote Seven

      We certainly have freedom OF religion, in that you're free to pray to the Christian god in any way you want. The freedom to practice any other religion anywhere in the country without fear? Not so much, unless perhaps you live in a big city and you're not in a flyover state. Freedom FROM religion? We got even less of that. I'd like to think that situation is improving, but I usually find my faith in other humans to do the right thing to be rather weak.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  10. Reasonable response

    Sorry I am late to the conversation but for those are have a loving and open relationship with "god" fell that they nee to go to the forums and try to point out thier logical falicies to unbelievers and tell them they are going to hell. Also if you have an open and loving relationship with "god" why do 99% of us have some conflict with our own families and friends and human brothers and sisters. If you relationship with "god" is as great as it is why do you have to defend it? does not the text we unbelievers get shoved down our throats from you bible address this in that you are going to go somewhere already for believing. Do you have to fight and use "god" as your reason to be ignorant of science and others beliefs or absence there of. Can you show you love and the love you "god" has for you by showing some intelligence and uplifting the ideas of those who do not? But alass I digress you cannot and fell that as an unbeliever I should be more accepting of your views while I get reminded that my unbelief is because I have wickeness in my heart despite being a loving father and contribute to the community through community service

    May 3, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  11. Derek

    I propose a National Atheism Day where for one day a year there is no god, praying, or talking to yourself with your eyes closed.

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

      We should NEVER bow down to the 4%, I say, the 4% should just go and create their own Godless country...

      May 3, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Ben

      Further proof athiests just don't get it.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • rp

      It's not necessary. The divisive and threatening religious fairy tales are slowly fading away on their own. What a better world it will be when they're all gone and everyone is personally responsible for their own fate.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  12. Zeibodique

    Believe in the highest power you know.....YOURSELF. If you don't believe in yourself, what else should matter?

    May 3, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  13. HONESTLY!

    Believe or dont believe however you wish! But no-one has any proof that the other is wrong!

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

      But the burden of proof is you to prove that he exists.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • bejay

      From the little that is known about Jesus and Mohamed, the facts that arein print show there was no Jesus as proclaimed by the ew Testament or Mohamed as proclaimed by the Sunis or Shia. The God of the Old testament is like a forman in a shop who takes orders from a higher authrity, the Lord.
      There is no God to pray to.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  14. Bruce

    I'm not sure how Christians manage to square something like "National Day of Prayer" with Jesus' words in Matthew 6:5-6:

    "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 4:44 pm |
    • no nothing

      Is this the same secret some Catholic priest told you to keep after they......... never mind.

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

      It's "pray" and not "prey," though way too many Catholic priests apparently get that one confused...

      May 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  15. Boom

    This guy said it best:

    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

    May 3, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Coyote Seven

      So then believing in a god is like owning a Harley?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  16. no nothing

    Pray like your life depends on it or at least that is how the American Taliban wants it

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

      Wrong again. As usual.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  17. Chirs

    Why did he drop in that piece about the tax rate at the end, I thought this article was about god. I cannot help but think that conservatives are using religious speak about my god in order to get my vote. Passing "days of prayer" and christen legislation does not make you a good christian, your own acts as an invidivual define your relationship with god, not weather or not you go along with some holiday the government passed.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  18. Barbara

    Its sad to see so many lost people. Unless they have a change of heart; they will be in for a rude awakening on Judgement Day. Scarey.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • tkessler45

      Well you go ahead and let me know when judgement day arrives, and I'll be happy to kiss your feet and other parts of your anatomy then.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Nothing like being threatened with eternal torture through somebody's imaginary friend. That never gets old.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Greg Shaffer

      Existential blackmail: the soul of any true religion.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • rp

      Oh brother. Do you really live under the fear of that fairy tale?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Ben

      rp – are you really gonna keep living in denial?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • rp

      Ben I can't deny something that isn't even real. Show me the proof buddy. Here we go. I hereby right this minute challenge God if he exists to appear before me and convince me that he exists and that the bible is the truth. Hmmm... still waiting...

      May 3, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • Coyote Seven

      On the day Skynet strikes back, I'll be the first to pray to our new machine overlords.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  19. denroy

    'the 1.6% of Americans who call themselves atheists and the 2.4% who call themselves agnostics' = nonsense statistics. Where were these gathered? Just because one's parents are classed on your birth certificate as 'Catholic' etc does not mean that you are a catholic let alone a practising catholic. Atheism is on an inexorable rise and must be well over 20% by now.

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

      An atheist trying to lie and make up his own statistics to suite his point of view? nah couldn't happen. ROFL Loserrrrrr.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      denroy, you may be correct about the numbers of atheists increasing. This is the fulfillment of yet another of the Lord Jesus prophecies.
      Btw, when complete, ie almost 100% becoming atheists, it will also a perfect illustration of the bandwagon fallacy.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • Ben

      "Atheism is on an inexorable rise and must be well over 20% by now."

      You have proof to back that up? Or are you just spewing more athiest crap?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Ned Flanders

      denroy, I could not agree more without pulling a hammy.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  20. The King

    Some of those who profess to be uber-Christian are some of the most non-Christian people I've met (Evangelicals). They know nothing of the teachings of Jesus Christ, and have hijacked religion to suit their agenda. They act more like a cult that worships avarice than a legitmate religion.
    "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians, they are so unlike your Christ"
    Mahatma Gandhi

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

      I grew up in the church and I totally agree. Most congregates don't even read the bible for themselves. It irks me to no end that people just blindly swallow the bullet points the senior pastor puts up on the "big screen" week after week after week. I think the Jesus of the bible has been hijacked by most American churches and turned into a card carrying Republican/Uber-American/gay hating/gun toting whack job. It saddens me more than anything. If you read the new testament and believe the teachings of Christ you are here to love people. PERIOD. Not judge them. Not rally for a particular candidate. Not suppress the rights of people you disagree with, etc. Church has become nothing more than a social club full of people that want to live in a bubble...

      May 3, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Ben

      As opposed to the cult of Liberalism you worship?

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

      "Liberalism"? What is liberal about his statement or mine? If it is considered "liberal" to think about your faith and arrive at your own conclusions and not just follow the crowd or a "doctrine" because the pastor says so? If this is the case then, yes, count me as a "liberal". I think your statement shows one of the big problems in Christiandom today. Instead of engaging in a conversation with those that they disagree with they slap a label on them, make assumptions, and move on. As I can see nothing has really changed since I stopped going to church about 3 years ago, perhaps it is best that I stay out indefinitely...

      May 3, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • The King

      Nothing "liberal" about any of our comments. Probably one of the evangelical "Christians". In their bubble, liberalism is aking to slavery, and is evil. Unlike their policies on right to work, or union busting...Just like Republican Jesus did.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
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