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. Isabelle

    Atheists try to impose their gothic and evil lifestyle upon all of us. Ignore them and they will be depressed and eventually kill themselves!

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

      they most certainly are depressed (atleast the ones I know in real life, have anger issues too) however we should hope they can find peace.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • jsmith89

      Why would atheist kill themselves? We don't feel guilty about enjoying ourselves. 🙂

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

      LOL gothic? Do you know what that word means?

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

      Athiest = EVIL?

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

      No most likely we will raise our children without fear, guilt or shame. We will love them without brainwashing them. We will take care of people on earth and live our lives without worrying about baking in a made up place that a child molesting priest whispered about in our ear. Oh and we will watch you and roll our eyes at your ritualistic nonsense.

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

      I myself am a pacifist and an atheist. But someone needs to smack some sense into this moron.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • Stan Satan

      It's so cute when inferior people patronize their betters. How's the weather in 1000 BCE?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • Not Your Mom

      How very Christian of you to wish others death and suffering. Thanks for letting us all know how badly you were raised.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  2. Bible just a theory

    If God is omnipotent, then he must control the motion of every atom in the Universe. If that's true, then he's currently busy directing the digestion of my lunch. If he doesn't control all the atoms, then there must be natural events, such as tornados, disease, earthquakes, etc. that happen without his control or direction. In addition, if there is FREE WILL, then his beloved creatures can do whatever they please, and God can't intervene, or else he is interfering with free will. Therefore, God has nothing to do with 1) people deciding to drive drunk and killing someone in a crash 2) Family values Republicans and John Edwards sleeping with their girlfriends 3) Religious nuts blowing themselves up in the name of God, etc. etc. So if you take the latter view, then God doesn't appear to have much to do with anything that happens on this planet.

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

      The bible doesn't claim God to be omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent.

      In several places God is depicted as not getting what He wanted, surprised at how things turned out, expressing regret, and being a total rat-b@st@rd to people and even admitting He acted unjustly (see Job).

      May 3, 2012 at 4:54 pm |

    Who knew there where so many theologians trolling the CNN editorial columns?

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

      Politics and religion always bring out the best in people! lol

      May 3, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  4. cityofdebaryflorida

    People rising from the dead... The maker of our 4.5b year old world is the Father of a man who died 2000 years ago... Pregnant virgins... Walking on water... People rising from the dead every calendar year... Flying fat men and reindeer who deliver billions of gifts every year via the chimney and on one night... Give me a break!...

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

      Comparing the idea of God, the universe and how it all came about and why, to things like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus isn't really making your take on the matter and the importance religion played throughout history and continues to shape the world, well, what can you say? It doesn't reflect too well on your view you've offered.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  5. Tim

    How about not obeying some man made group that decided on a specific date to mean something more than any other day? Who cares! Pray when you feel like it, not when some group tries to lay out the day, especially if they have their own agenda motivating them.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  6. DNA

    Do we really need to have a national day of prayer? It seems to me that if one truly believes in God or in some cases, gods, then how in the world can the government dictate when to pray. God is everywhere, anytime. Yes, yes, I know that many wars stem back to religion, but stop and think, it's not God doing the killing, it's man. Maybe if more people found religion the world wouldn't have half the problem it has today.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  7. Jim

    I wonder how many people throughout time have died in the name of the Lord? All of the Lords names. I personally believe in spirituality but find all organized religions (with the exception of Buddhism) to be oppressive, ignorant, intolerant and one of the greatest dividers of people on this planet.

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

      Buddhism has it's share of oppression and people doing wrongful acts in the name of it as well, including violence. That's a man-made problem, typically opposing the religion the people claim to act in the name of. Since the start of man, people have also killed over land, power and so on, so it's not just religion; though people typically have an easier time believing some crazy person's claim that they represent their faith in their violent acts... somehow?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  8. pa jesseson

    if anyone thinks that the god they love is THE only god, they do not know anything about god. if anyone thinks that god loves them more than others because of their version of god is theirs, or their denomination's, they have not even dreamed of god. if anyone thinks anything they think about god is true, and not just them thinking, they need a bit of a lesson called modesty.

    but most of all, if anyone who says they love god and god loves them continues to feel they are in any way special, or better, or more righteous, or more deserving, or that their ball teams are watched over by god because certainly god loves baseball or basketball or football or soccer more than starving children, which is why god is watching the game, then, friends, get – a – life and get thee to a nunnery, which will keep the rest of us safe from you. god bless.

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

      I think I love you, pa jesseson. 🙂 That was awesome.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  9. GeebusRubsMeh

    Ooga Booga!

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

      Good thing i just finished praying for protection from the boogie man. That prayer always works.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  10. GOD

    Its just about praying...not about National Day of GOD...that you start deciding which god to pray.
    Its about FAITH, BELIEVING in some power which is above all....even the MILKY WAYYYY....
    Hindus come under one umbrella and respect everybody's belief and hence recognize everyone's faith in as god, because they know GOD is everywhere its not in names and numbers, he is in every living and non-living thing equally,
    HINDUS are believers and definitely consider praying as a road to keep your mind and help soul towards one target which is unification with one power, The Supreme GOD.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  11. steve-o

    Religious fanatics like this chump or Bin Laden are the real threat.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:50 pm |

    Believe in "REASON"! There's reason to believe it works!

    May 3, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  13. Michael

    this was wonderful to read. don't mind the others, haters gonna hate

    May 3, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  14. Saddened

    This is the web page headline for CNN and they wonder why they are losing viewers. I don't even know why I stopped by for a glance.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      You read every word of it and commented before going on to tread the rest of the site. LOL

      May 3, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  15. andrew

    Ok Steven, here's the deal: Just pick a God and pray to your heart's content; how's that! It's your call and I will never complain about which one you pray to. Just don't try to claim that your God told you to do something affecting me! Got it? That's control freak cheating isn't it? You can't get me do do something so you pray and then claim God just told you to tell me to do it. That's a fake, and it will never work.
    Just mind your own God's orders and I'll mind my own God's orders. Since neither of us can make our God's appear and confirm they just said it, then it's futile to stand and waste time arguing about it, isn't it?
    You can pray standing, sleeping, eating, jumping, running, swimming, or parachuting; i care not how or to whom. But when you're done praying, don't come to me and say, "God told me this or told me that, and he didn't tell anyone else."

    May 3, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  16. Yours truly

    I heard you loud and clear and stop bothering me with this silliness, I have more important things to deal with.

    Yours truly

    May 3, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  17. Snod123

    What a tool. Read the Mayflower Compact and get back to me.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  18. ann

    Since there is no god it is a travesty that this is taking place in our government.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  19. Bremen

    It's easy. Just let people who want to pray, pray. Simple. I am an Atheist myself and one of the sick things I see all the time is other atheists getting upset at people praying. That is there business, not yours. If the President wants to pray in the oval office, too bad. Get over it, stop trying to tell people what not to believe or do, it harms you none and if you think it does, your an imbecile.

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

      I can't agree with you more. Excellent comment, especially coming from an Atheist, because people do believe they are more anti-religion, than just non-believers. The two are not the same, and when they are, it makes you look like you are Atheist out of rebellion, not principle. That is like me being offended by something they show in HBO, when I can just turn the channel! If religion is a choice, exercise it or ignore it. Life goes on regardless of what you choose!

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


      I mean, if we're going to use words like "imbecile" it's only fair to expect you should know the difference.

      And the issue for atheists has never been what people choose to do or believe in PERSONALLY. The issue is when someone's religion crosses the line and becomes a matter of law and/or government. That is a problem.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      People are already free to do exactly that. The problem lies in the government violating the establishment clause by endorsing it.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      They get together and tell each other we are evil, since we don't "believe" in their stuff, and then they pass laws telling us how to live. Read about the Salem witch trials some time. If they don't stop trying to run us, we'll have to take charge of them.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • Mike

      AMEN! ....I mean, yeah you're right! Really, even if you don't believe, what the President is doing praying with others is putting things in perspective and "organizing their thoughts" which is actually productive. Now if there is a God, (which I'm a believer), then what is it really going to hurt? If anything, it's productive regardless of your beliefs.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  20. tkessler45

    I fear god just like I fear Harvey the rabbit.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
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