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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. Charles Darwin

    Atheists should pray to me.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • J-Pap

      I follow the path of logic. Logic tested by repeatable tests that derive the same outcome. Praying is for saps.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Matt

      The guy below prays to logic. What a smarty pants.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  2. Tom Leykis

    Nobody cares. The whole "god" & "jesus" thing? A total myth.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Jam

      Better hurry and accept Him....you'll find out when your heart stops that He is Jesus !!

      May 3, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  3. keefah

    test

    May 3, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  4. Ed Fern

    Some Americans believe in many gods. Some believe in just one, named Jehovah or Allah or just God. All of these are human creations intended to explain what humans are not yet informed enough to explain. What we should be praying for is humility, enough humility to say we just don't know where the universe came from or what will happen to us once the body stops working. Then, perhaps, we might recognize that it is not our job, as Americans, to run the rest of the world through our military. We must pray that our politicians cease ordering the death of those who do not agree with them.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Matt

      You don't believe in a God. Fine, thanks for sharing (atheist missionary work). Oh, and not believing doesn't make you smarter than the guy that does. Just saying.

      Now those that do believe in a higher power can pray any way they want. The political correctness of this article/subject is such a joke. There is no national religion, so all can pray in their homes anyway they want. Even the atheists can pray to nature and Darwin.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Evian Bidet

      Umm... we need to know who the fanaticals are and deal with them.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Matthew

      I am a Christian. I have no issue with Athiests/Agnostics (and I agree with them more often than I agree with card carrying Christians). I have no problem working towards real solutions based on real science for a real world.

      I don't think beliefs are completely fabricated by humans (thus my admission earlier), but I completely understand why you do. I don't think I know more than you, and I don't think I'm better than you.... I'm just a person, like you, who took the information presented to them, and made a decision one way or another. I don't care to persecute or judge you for the way you see the world, much like I would appreciate you not doing the same to me. I will to the best of my ability, make decisions that affect other people, based on reason and science that are logically accurate and defendable.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  5. Mike

    Boy the atheist love to come out of there holes any time cnn talks about religion. What losers they are. They just love to put there hate out into the world.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Tom Leykis

      The losers are the cretins who believe in myths like you. Lol

      May 3, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Can't tell if being intentionally ironic or actually that hypocritical and stupid.

      My money is on the latter.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • Opps

      At least "they're" smart enough to spell "their" correctly. Hey! See what I did there!!!!

      May 3, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • dashiel

      Their. Belonging to or associating with.
      There. In, at, a place or position.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • urouttolunch

      Love it, opps!

      May 3, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Robert

      Funny you say this. I've seen much more hatred from my religious acquaintances than from my atheist acquantances. Perhaps you should look in the mirror before making such general statements.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • big dog

      Mike– You sir are what's wrong with America today and in particular, the right wingnuts. Never mind what our founding fathers wrote about church and state seperation– it has to be your mythical religion and it being the only way. Turn off Fix News; read a book.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Dan

      Thank you for such an insightful comment, Mike.

      You might want to look up the difference between 'their' and 'there' sometime.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Allaisa

      Learn English man before you talk about things you do not about.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  6. b4bigbang

    b4bigbang

    Dave, dont go to anonymous junk online for your answers, go to the new testament.
    For example, here's a good Bible answer to your quwstion re prayer:
    4 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. James chapter 4
    Lots more light in there to illuminate the mind and soul.

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

      It is quite incomprehensible and embarassing to me that it seems that the louder the Christian voice the less they know about Christianity.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  7. In Reason I Trust

    Oh magical invisible baby Jesus in the sky, please help my fellow citizens grow up and stop believing in ridiculous myths.

    AMEN or AROD

    ps; A magic apple in a magic garden guarded by a talking snake sounds more like a Disney movie than world history.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Charles Darwin

      I'd rather trust in a mythical god than in an even more mythical "human intelligence"

      May 3, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • Edward

      I get the feeling that when you are facing death you will be as earnest in finding religion as you are now against it. Always seems those that protest the most are the ones that have the most doubts in what they currently claim to believe.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • J-Pap

      I would believe in the hallucinations from a psychedelic trip over any religion.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • In Reason I Trust

      OH NO, the magical invisible baby in the sky that loves me more than anything is ironically going to burn me forever and ever.

      Folks, I realize your scared of dying, that doesn't mean this nonsense is the answer by default. Grow up.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • urouttolunch

      @Edward. That's because we think.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  8. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    Your faith in God can become weakened by man, too many people follow the messenger instead of looking past the messenger and looking to God. When I learned to look to God and not to man, my faith has been restored.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  9. mmaxum2002

    1.6% atheists ? You better check your statistics again my friend. There are many more than that!

    May 3, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • Jason

      Yeah. that 1.6% seems like a completely made up number. I personally know more atheists then i do christians.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • J-Pap

      Agreed. For every 10 people I know, I know 8 that have an education and they are atheists. Ironically the ones who have not gone past high school are the ones that follow religion. Blind leading the blind.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  10. Lardoggy

    Were are all the haters at on this one,come on its pray day,I know all the ones out there who hate Christmas,Easter,Holloween and crosses on America land must have something to say here!

    May 3, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  11. Oda

    Reality check – we really are all praying to the same source or creator. If only people were able to see this, we would all get along so much better!! We are all made from star dust and come from the same source!

    May 3, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  12. Tom

    I don't care who you "pray" to or believe in. Just don't force YOUR beliefs or morality on others through legislative means.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Steve

      That right is reserved for Republicans only!

      May 3, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  13. tom

    Enjoyed your comments ;however I reply back but to no avail to see it posted

    May 3, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  14. Rob G

    We should all pray for the human race!! That's all we should be praying for, because we need help!!

    May 3, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  15. Allaisa

    How about National Day of Non-Prayer when everyone is asked not to pray. Will that be offensive? Ofcourse it will be. There will be chorus of people asking who the hell is the Government to tell us not pray, mind your own business. But they dont see any thing wrong in asking Atheist, Agnostics to pray.

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

      Interesting point.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  16. Edward

    It is really very simple. You are free to pray to anyone or anthing you wish and you are free to not pray if you wish. That freedom is more important then any national day of anything.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  17. Jerry Pelletier

    Dear President Obama:

    You are the thirteenth President under whom I have lived and
    unlike Any of the others, you truly scare me.

    You scare me because after months of exposure, I know
    nothing about you.

    You scare me because I do not know how you paid for your
    expensive Ivy League education and your upscale lifestyle
    and housing with no Visible signs of support.

    You scare me because you did not spend the formative years
    of youth Growing up in America and culturally you are not
    an American.

    You scare me because you have never run a company or met a
    payroll.

    You scare me because you have never had military experience,
    thus Don't understand it at its core.

    You scare me because you lack humility and 'class', always
    blaming others.

    You scare me because for over half your life you have
    aligned Yourself with radical extremists who hate America
    and you refuse to Publicly denounce these radicals who wish
    to see America fail..

    You scare me because you are a cheerleader for the 'blame
    America ' Crowd and deliver this message abroad.

    You scare me because you want to change America to a
    European style Country where the government sector
    dominates instead of the private sector.

    You scare me because you want to replace our health care
    system With a government controlled one.

    You scare me because you prefer 'wind mills' to responsibly
    Capitalizing on our own vast oil, coal and shale reserves.

    You scare me because you want to kill the American
    capitalist goose That lays the golden egg which provides
    the highest standard of Living in the world.

    You scare me because you have begun to use 'extortion'
    tactics Against certain banks and corporations.

    You scare me because your own political party shrinks from
    Challenging you on your wild and irresponsible spending
    proposals.

    You scare me because you will not openly listen to or even
    consider Opposing points of view from intelligent people.

    You scare me because you falsely believe that you are both
    Omnipotent and omniscient.

    You scare me because the media gives you a free pass on
    everything You do.

    You scare me because you prefer controlling over governing.

    You scare me since your mom and dad are Muslim and
    I have never heard your story of how you became "Christian".

    Finally, you scare me because if you serve a second term I
    will Probably not feel safe in writing a similar letter.

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

      What a silly list. QAask and Liberal and they will tell you that Obama is the most conservative democrat President in the last 100 years. Look at the things he has pushed and he is very much like Reagan. Were you afraid of Reagan also?

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

      Must suck always being afraid.......and of one of the least scary people in the world.

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

      Nice write!

      May 3, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Obama's spam filter

      Identified as spam.

      /delete, block email address.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Andrew Smith

      You, my friend, are a thoroughgoing idiot. Your nonsense is so foolish that any attempt at a response would be a waste of effort. Crawl back under a rock, where you so clearly belong.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • albert

      People like you scare me because you believe all the lies that your false churches teach you in order to control you. Learn to think for yourself!

      May 3, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • Tim

      Obama scares you, because crazy, over the top biased media outlets like Fox News, Beck, Palin, etc. have exploited the fear based areas of your brain, because you lack the intellect and logic to discern what is truly ridiculous. Listen, it's political and corporate agendas. These same groups and people would praise Obama if he were simply a GOP favorite, even if he acted and did the same things and is the same person he is now. He'll get re-elected, most likely, and in 4 more years, it'll be someone else as president (maybe Dem, maybe Rep) and the world will keep on turning. Get a friggin' grip!

      May 3, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • urouttolunch

      Amen, Steve, and to Jerry, please quit randomly capitalizing words in your rants. It makes you seem even leas credible.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • DaveC

      Two points :
      1) Much of what you say isn't applicable to just Obama, but applies to most politicians (e.g., 'never been in the military').
      2) What the hell (or heaven, take your pick) does this particular screed have to do with the National Day of Prayer. Please save your rants for a more appropriate site.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Wayne Kilmer

      Mr. Pelletier –

      I have neither time nor inclination to refute your points one by one, but I cannot help but respond to your being scared because President Obama wants the government to run your health care. If you have lived under 13 Presidents, then you are on Medicare. And guess what: Medicare is a government run health care system.

      I suspect, Mr. Pelletier, that what really frightens you is the color of the President's skin, not his policies – which of course do not radically differ from any other Democratic President.

      Have a nice day.

      Wayne

      May 3, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  18. taburere

    This is a clever way of writing an article, but one thing stood out to me:

    "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."

    To be completely fair, I have to admit I don't know how Jews pray, nor do I know much about how born-again Christians pray. But I DO know how Mormons pray and I'm not so sure that it's that different than the so-called easy familiarity you're referring to. We begin a prayer by addressing Heavenly Father, thank Him for our blessings, ask for blessings that we feel we (or others) stand in need of and close the prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. What's the difference? I really am curious. Thanks!

    May 3, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  19. Copernicus

    It's hard to believe in this day-in-age people still believe there is some person, thing, or spirit up there, or down there, watching over them; but, religion is big business, so there's no doubt in my mind it will continue well into the future.

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

      One day you will find out that here is One God and his name is Jesus. Pray you accept him before it is too late.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  20. NJH

    According to recent polls, there is more like 13% of the US population that are Atheists or agnostics. Not 1.6% and 2.3%.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • JT

      Most atheists in the US are afraid of losing their job or friends, etc. Some Christians can be very vicious.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Nonimus

      I think it depends on whether you count non-religious as atheist/agnostic as opposed to self described.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
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