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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. Dl

    My prayers involve chickens, goats, nudity, knives & fire... will you please join me?

    May 3, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      I like that prayer! It gets stuff done!

      May 3, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  2. cg10

    The answer is you pray to God. The breakdown of the prayer that Jesus taught the disciples was to Our Father who is in Heaven, hollowed would be thy Name (whose name is sacred and Holy.) We are praying to God only, however, when you mention the Name of Jesus, the devils must yeild to the power you are put before them. I can't go to deep here but understand the hidden forces we battle even when we pray. The Bible speaks of this.

    May 3, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • LOL Religion

      Hollow is God's name, indeed.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • just sayin

      You are trolling or :
      .
      Psychosis is a loss of contact with reality, usually including false beliefs about what is taking place or who one is (delusions) and seeing or hearing things that aren't there (hallucinations).

      May 3, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Nonimus

      What hidden forces?

      May 3, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Zeke2112

      The bible says God created everything.
      Sin and the devil exist.
      Therefore, God created the devil and sin.

      Those hidden forces are God's own creation. Now go worship him.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  3. Doc Vestibule

    Christians should obey Paul:
    "I chastise my body and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps when I have preached to others I myself should be castaway" (I Cor. 9:27)
    "In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, that is the Church." (Col 1:24).

    Get out there are mortify your flesh so that you might please God, just as Paul said to.
    Opus Dei folk can give you lessons in how to do it properly, or you can visit the Phillipines to see some good ol' fashioned Christian self-flagellation.
    Our Shi'ite muslim brothers also seem to think that God likes pain as they annually have a parade to commemorate Hussein's martyrdom in which they lash, cut, pierce and otherwise make themselves bleed.
    That's the kind of prayer that changes things! None of this namby pamby, hands folded on your knees kinda prayer.

    May 3, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  4. james

    If I didnt vote for the current president does that mean that he and democrats alike are forcing their beliefs on me?

    May 3, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  5. Chris

    Excuse me! What do you mean Mormons don't pray with the ease and familiarity of born again Christians? I happen to be Mormon and I pray to God multiple times a day. Plus, I believe that I have developed an intimate relationship with my Heavenly Father. So, how can you say that Mormons don't pray with the same ease and familiarity as a born again? I don't believe it's fair for you to make unfounded assumptions about other religions.

    May 3, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • just sayin

      "I believe that I have developed an intimate relationship with my Heavenly Father. "
      .
      Psychosis is a loss of contact with reality, usually including false beliefs about what is taking place or who one is (delusions) and seeing or hearing things that aren't there (hallucinations).

      May 3, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  6. sybaris

    It's more like, "Show The World How The Most Powerful Country In The World Promotes Ignorance And Takes Guidance From An Invisible Sky Daddy Day"

    May 3, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • JB

      I like to refer to "him" as the magic wish grantor in the sky, thank you very much.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  7. Wayne

    "Two hands working can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer" —Anonymous

    Nothing fails like prayer. Let's be honest and call it by it's correct name, "wishful thinking".

    May 3, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  8. john

    What laws have congress passed to established a religion???

    May 3, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • LOL Religion

      The National Day of Prayer, Faith Based Initiatives and slapping God on our currency and Pledge for starters.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  9. Holly in CA

    Those 4% of Americans who are atheist or agnostic are obviously dominating this site. Why would they be browsing a religious blog anyway?

    May 3, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • sybaris

      Uh because we fear the triumph of ignorance over reason.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • LOL Religion

      Because the internet is where religion comes to die.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Nonimus

      Because silly religious laws/rules/thinking, e.g. blue laws, marriage dictates, and science abominations, impact non-believers more than believers.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      Because most people actually are Atheists .. it's only on these sites that a person can be honest about their belief without fear of retaliation or scorn.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Becuase not everyone posting here is American.
      The world watches with interest the political movements of the globe's dominant empire – and American politics are frighteningly intertwined with religion.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Rynomite

      Some of us have fundamentalist wives/families who we love even though they are ignorant. Unfortunately fundamentalists aren't overly tolerant of Athiests even if we are somewhat tolerant and understanding of their social conditioning and the lack of education on the topic that prevents them from overcoming it. That's why many Athiests are "in the closet" so to speak.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • JB

      There are more than 4% of agnostic/ atheist people in the U.S. I have seen statistics as high as 10%. Those are just the people that admit that they are like that, the rest of the population lives like there is no god and just checks Christian on the questionnaire so people don't think they're a bad person.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  10. PS25

    Instead of prayer, we should have a national day of doing something actually useful. You know that thing you are praying about....go make it happen yourself.

    May 3, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  11. PraiseTheLard

    National Affirmation of Stupidity day...

    May 3, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  12. as;ldkfj;aksl

    re·li·gion noun \ri-'li-j?n\
    A mass human psychosis that usually results in participants believing in incredibly silly crap and acting like total retards.............

    May 3, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  13. john

    What laws have congress passed to establish a religion?

    May 3, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • Nonimus

      Actually the phrase is "....respecting an establishment of religion,"

      May 3, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  14. as;ldkfj;aksl

    re·li·gion noun \ri-'li-j?n\
    A mass human psychosis that usually results in participants believing in incredibly silly crap and acting like total retards....

    May 3, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  15. Rynomite

    A whole day dedicated to ignorance and refutation of logic! Woohoo! Can't wait to break out my aluminum foil helmet for the celebration!

    May 3, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  16. nonbeliever

    national waste of time day

    May 3, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  17. God's Oldest Dreamer

    All just a smoke & mirror waywardism to give solace to those who are leaning upon the cross in prayer mindives of stressful accordances! Betray not one's God is of leveraging partaking to elude and vary the masses allness recogning trivial accords! Such prayers cannot overwhelm a nation's malignancies in social disfigurements! True healing of a nation will come when all slaves of working classes will have an outright equality with the upper classes! The pawtriness of token salaries cannot emulate the masses cursing wants toward the upper classes of wealthiness who hordes and will not let go!

    May 3, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Nonimus

      ... and you should know your "smoke & mirrors" that's for sure.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Nonimus,,,,,,,,,,,, ,

      So sayeth the one to slay the equalizer of tenured foolishness being a slobbering and babbling egoist! Tenure well your verbose commonwealth interactives! Spew forth one's unpleasentries to further the chasened and fill up your cups all! Put upon your plates the nuts and bolts and eat gingerly! Right-sided of left-with cannot compare to my bellowings of the infidel's looney tunes of sarcasms' dissentaries! Flowing to hell's kitchens wears well your mustard seeds children!

      May 3, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  18. just sayin

    Christians/Muslims/Jews are mentally ill, we must find a cure
    .
    Psychosis is a loss of contact with reality, usually including false beliefs about what is taking place or who one is (delusions) and seeing or hearing things that aren't there (hallucinations).

    May 3, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • ThereIsMoreThanYourBrainIsTellingYou

      If we're ill, you're challenged. Do you really think our 5 senses are the only way to intake this universe? By your "logic" (which is supposedly real in comparison to mine) the intelligence buck stops with humans. The things we can explain are true, and the things which are brains can't are false. But remember, Rome was the center of the Universe, the world was flat, and we can only land on the moon. GET OVER YOURSELF.. God is so much bigger than that box on the top of your head, it is finite, and we are a vapor..

      May 3, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • just sayin

      God is so much bigger than that box on the top of your head, it is finite, and we are a vapor..
      .
      So is Santa. Enjoy the fantasy.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • just sayin

      ps which God are you speaking of? There are so many.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • ThereIsMoreThanYourBrainIsTellingYou

      Santa is bigger than my brain, whats your point? Santa has been proven to be a fairy tale for children. ( i know i know) Your opinion says God is the same, but nothing with any clout in this world has declared accordingly. You can't explain anything yet call Christians out for a fantasy? Talk to a real follower of Jesus and they will explain for days, and from a book that is geographically and historically accurate even without Christ in it. What is your foundation? You just don't "THINK" any of this hoopla can be real. (Oh yea, because the human brain can comprehend everything about the universe right?) Is that not just as ignorant and silly as you claim Christians are? (Yes, plenty of "Christians" worship the God that fits THEIR life, and thats not what the Bible teaches and really sends mixed messages to unbelievers, i understand) You have your "thoughts" and we have "beliefs"...from what you replied your only thoughts are that Santa is fake, so is God..with nothing else to explain yourself. Sounds like an ego thing to me...All I can say then is set out to disprove Him, it will be one of the most important journey's of your life..

      May 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  19. Nonimus

    @Steve Prothero,

    Well said. Let us know if "He" gets back to you.

    Namaste

    May 3, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  20. calvin

    Maude-Well Done, God Bless you!!! Our country as well as the entire world is in need of much prayer. Without God in the picture brings much disaster. I too pray that God will forgive our sins and heal our land in Jesus name!

    God Help Us and bless those who reject you in Jesus name!!

    May 3, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Voice of Reason

      delusion |diˈlo͞oZHən|
      noun
      an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder: the delusion of being watched.

      May 3, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • JB

      With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. -Steven Weinberg

      Men never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions – Blaise Pascal

      Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God? – Epicurus

      May 3, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • just sayin

      Psychosis is a loss of contact with reality, usually including false beliefs about what is taking place or who one is (delusions) and seeing or hearing things that aren't there (hallucinations).
      .
      ps Jesus was born from a mother who slept around and used "God" to cover up her w h ore ness. Jesus was delusional, insane and gay to boot.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:35 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.