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. KR

    Can we please keep religion out of our government? Enough already with the days of prayer.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  2. Mario Brown

    Prayer is simply prayer. I don't believe that the day was created to bring about this type of conversation. The day, in my opinion of created to create unity amoung the great people of this country.

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

      Religion has never created unity.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  3. Gary P


    May 3, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  4. Russell Johnson

    In the next election if 78% of the population cast it's votes for a Democrat (or Republican) president, Congress and Senate it could be fairly stated that we were a Democrat (or Republican) country.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  5. Pamela Sanderson

    I can't think of a bigger waste of time than praying. If you want something to get accomplished, stop sitting around hoping some invisible "deity" cares about your problems and get off your ass and make thinks happenwith actual productivity.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      Right! You're in control of everything...try and stop cancer, a tornado, etc.....

      May 3, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Pamela Sanderson

      are you really that delusional that you believe prayer stops cancer and tornadoes?!?!?

      you know what "might" stop cancer"? take all the wasted hours in church and praying and combine it with the money thrown into the church coffers and then "donate" those hours and dollars to the scientific community who will be the only ones to stop cancer

      May 3, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  6. Pedro

    Religion = Poison

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

      Your comment = dumb

      May 3, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • kiefern001@hawaii.rr.com

      haha. good one.

      Atheism = Bobo the Clown

      May 3, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  7. wisdom4u2

    It’s so easy to spot the demonically-oppressed people on here…..just read their ‘anti-God’ comments… and take notice of what their comments really exposes about each of them – HOPELESSNESS and MISERY. Wow!
    I’m so thankful that I have a God to trust, place my hope in, and to lean on…. Praise the Lord and thank you Jesus!
    Dear Great I Am,
    Please open the ‘spiritually’ blinded eyes of the ‘God naysayer’.
    Amen and Amen.

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

      Been hitting the vodka early?

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

      LMFAO! Religious arrogance makes me giggle!

      May 3, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      LOL! See what I mean...read the 'Replys' to my comment?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • Mike

      Well said!!!!

      May 3, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Jake90

      I thought the same about you religious folk. As it turns out, people with less religion actually tend to have more happiness. But you would probably disagree because you are against scientific studies.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  8. Jake90

    "Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment." -Buddha. Please, realize that it is only yourself that is responsible for your actions. Each day, you are given a menu of choice that ranges from donating to a charity to killing someone. And it is only you who is responsible for selecting that choice. Well I have bad new for all of you church going folks, it is not your church that will get you into a heaven (assuming there is one), it is only your personal actions. You need to realize that your church is not the correct one. Had you been born with a different set of parents, you could be sitting in another church right now. So please, stop praying to god and attending church, and be more useful with your life, like helping the less wealthy, going to school, etc., and start contributing to society.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  9. Reinfield

    Some seem to have missed the overriding point here, which is that no one cares when, to what or with what frequency you pray. We just don't believe it is the business of our government to endorse mythology by national poiicy. Even if 99 percent agreed on one religion, it would still not be the business of a free government. BTW, atheists/agnostics outnumber Episcapalians, Methodists and Lutherans combined. Cheers for the Day of Reason!

    May 3, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  10. Numyorangay

    Why not call it the National Day of Hypocrites.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • keefah

      Or maybe National Day of Raving Atheist Clowns?

      May 3, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  11. Rational1

    Nothing fails like prayer.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • keefah

      Yeah. Only rationality can heal the sick. All hail human rationality!

      May 3, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  12. Jayakumar

    They said "God" and not Jesus or krishna or allah or any of the other names that GOD comes with in various religions. I see no confusion here for people who believe in God to pray together, except they will be using different names for the same God, workshipping in their own ways.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • james

      Are they really all the same God, though? Hindu has multiple gods. Are you trying to approach this on a more agnostic level, where there is a greater power and we don't know what it is, but we all have come up with a way to describe it and guess at how it wants us to live.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  13. james

    So, I'm confused? Who is America praying to? Do we just pray to who ever we want. Is there a specific prayer we should say. Can I pray that there not be another national prayer day? or maybe for new politicians. amen.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  14. MashaSobaka

    Let the people who want to pray do their praying. Let the people who see no need to pray do their abstaining. Keep both out of government. Your spiritual choices are between you and your conception of a higher power (or lack thereof) and no one else. Please keep it that way. Do not force your belief or your non-belief onto those of a different persuasion and I will be happy to leave you alone.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • keefah


      May 3, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  15. kiefern001@hawaii.rr.com

    Why oh why does cnn post this kind of bool sheeit? Prayer is an individual thing, and usually considered somewhat sacred. Can't you just let people have their day and leave it alone? Go hash it out on a college campus somewhere if you must, but spare us this kind of pompous, skeptical "news."

    May 3, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  16. BRG

    The world is not black and white. Believers and non-believers both need to realize this. If you want to pray on the National Day of Prayer, great. If you don't want to pray, also great. It doesn't make a bit of difference to me one way or another how someone lives their life. Just don't push your beliefs (or lack therof) on me, and I'm fine.

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

      Amen...uh, whatever 🙂

      May 3, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • chris simpson

      life is about right and worg thats wart i know about the bible you have to have fath in this turth or you will never understeand how the bible has the guid line for how thay can be peace in the world if you will really spead a lot of time reading the bible than look up on google or in some other books to many for me to name im taking about none chritin books at that and comeper them you will find that there is a lot of stuff that proves the bible as being right i wise i kone how to say it better to but i cant sorry but wan you pray just ast if there is a god make your self real to me other wise i have to hard a time beliveing somepen i cant see or hear and he will make his safe real and than you just sheek him to show you ware to go from there

      be bless

      May 3, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  17. sgreco

    Any attempt to narrow this nation's beliefs into a single religion defies the freedom of religion upon which it was founded.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  18. frankpendle

    religion just isn't important enough to worry about. Magic friends in the clouds granting wishes. . . sheesh.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  19. Boom

    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 4:52 pm |
  20. swohio

    Steve....get over it.

    May 3, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
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