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. RetiredNavyMan

    It's simple. Everyone can say a silent prayer to their own God and if you don't believe in God... you say nothing! This is sad and ridiculous. People make any and every excuse not to pray which is a problem since most of us believe in one God or another.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      You're already free to do exactly that, the problem arises when the government endorses it – it's a violation of the Establishment Clause and extremely presumptive as well.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  2. Religious sects

    This Atheist President will do anything for votes!

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

      Wait I thought he was a closet muslim?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  3. Ken D

    If you believe in God you haven't been paying attention enough.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  4. servantofTHEWORD

    Jesus Christ...The One True God...Thank You Lord for your many blessings and mercies.I pray for our nation and all nations...that those who don't know you...may know you.Pray for our enemies.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  5. keefah

    Believing in human rationality as your god is like believing in Zippy the Pinhead. And believers in God don't constantly ridicule your stew pid balogna day after day, do we? So maybe shut the heh-yell up and let Americans have this day? Thanks.

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


      May 3, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Religious sects

      Keefah , you just did...

      May 3, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  6. jmarm

    Read Abou Ben Adam

    May 3, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  7. commonsense

    I wonder what jesus meant when he said we shouldn't go around seeking the kindom of God but rather we should seek it within our selves..hmmmmmm

    May 3, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • Sherri Tober

      But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
      Matthew 6:32-34

      May 3, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  8. Sherri Tober


    IF YOU DARE, PICK UP A COPY OF MY BEST SELLER. As you will clearly see, I have instructed you to pray as follows:

    Matthew 6:9-13:

    “This, then, is how you should pray:

    “‘Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be your name,
    your kingdom come,
    your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
    Give us today our daily bread.
    And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
    And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one,
    for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

    DO I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION YET? It's been awhile Steve. Come back home!


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

      And once you are there, don't skip over verses 5 & 6 like Sherri did!

      "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 5:14 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Somebody needs to review Matt 6:6, Sherri.

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

      Hey Sherri, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Timothy+2%3A12&version=NIV

      Just sayin'.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Anonymous

      This is just an example of how one can go to God in prayer. Steve is obviously addressing the fact that how can we as a nation even say that prayer when in this nation of ours everyone views God and worships God differently. Seems to me he knows quite about religion and doesn't need bible quotes. He's right we can come and unite as one to pray together when we all pray differently.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Sherri Tober

      Are you there Steve?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • Sherri Tober

      Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked.

      Galatians 6:7

      May 3, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • Daddies Anjol

      God, you better go on with your bad self!!! SAY IT AGAIN!!!!!!!! 🙂

      May 3, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  9. Rebel4Christ

    Of course you should pray to the Christian God! What other God is there?

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

      Well, there's Bobo the Clown, god of atheism! And Zippy the Pinhead, god of human rationality! Don't forget them!

      May 3, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one less god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” —Stephen F. Roberts

      May 3, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • J

      Thousands, all of them as imaginary as yours.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  10. old lady

    I see and understand your perspective, and it saddens me. I am not bothered that others pray to a god I believe to be false or non existent. I can still find common cause with them because we are all people. I may pray to the one God who created heaven and earth and see that alone as truth and still not dislike my fellow man because we disagree. Matter of fact what I believe causes me to greatly value others as they are made in the image of the God who created them, whether they see it or not. Sadly others who disagree with me have some odd need to censor behavior and negate our influence. All people believe something even if it is to believe nothing. No one hollers that they should not be allowed to express themselves in the public square. Fredom fundamentally allows all expressions short of those causing physical harm to others and calls on the consciences of men to help them make decisions for the greater good of their fellow citizens. We need to put the needs of others before ourselves. How does a group of people crying out to the God they believe in asking for his mercy for they and their fellow man harm others? How does asking for wisdom for all our leaders and that justice and goodness prevail throughout the land harm anyone? Even were we wrong I fail to see any harm that can come to others by my seeking their good.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      I could try and list the countless ways it has and continues to harm others, but I will try and highlight it for you: The mass delusional state caused by organized belief in fairy tales has resulted in millions upon millions of deaths. And I am talking about actual, real people being actually, really killed. I don't care if you think that their "soul" is in a better place, when a person dies, they are gone. Removed from their parents, or their children, or their spouses. Gone. Your unquestioning faith in a non-logical system has also resulted in the retardation of scientific progress on a global scale. So, my top two reasons are that it makes us dumber, and it kills people.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  11. Willie12345

    Let's see if we can start an argument or debate. How will we start ? Why have someone write an argumentative article. Hopefully, we can find a way to show intolerant and bias. You need those for a good heated argument. Let's make it something that know one really understands in depth. That always works.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  12. Deity du jour

    The evolutionary mutation known as religious belief has been hijacked and perpetuated by those in power.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  13. JT

    I still find it amusing that three of the GOP candiates, who have since folded, each said that God told them to run. I guess he was just fucking with them and pulled a fast one and chose the Mormon who never made this proclamation. I guess God does have a sense of humor or is just downright mean. I know I am laughing.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  14. jimbo

    Prayer: Helping people feel better about doing nothing.

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

      Amen. (No pun intended)

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

      Prayerlessness: Helping yourself feel better about doing stew pid shiite.

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

      Prayerlessness: Helping yourself feel better about doing stew pid sh- ttt.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  15. Name*trentcopes

    Our Father, who are in Heaven. Hallowed be Thy Name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done on earth as it is Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trepass against us And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Amen. That's it. Done.

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

      You're right. That's it. Just words. Nothing else. Not anything that actually accomplishes anything of value.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  16. Ann

    Anytine you talk, you should consider to whom you are speaking. If we can clear that up, I don't think the prayer idea would be such a challenge. May I introdure the Almighty God, Creator of the heavens and the earth. He is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and just omnieverything. His name? I AM. He began it all and will complete it. He was aware of you before you every donned your earth suit, knows your every move and thought, and will still be knowing all that about everyone when you are only a memory. His thoughts and ways are so far above those of the human race,we can't begin to understand Him. But, He loves each of us enough to endure the unimaginable pain and sorrow of the most horrible death ever invented-crucifiction. All othe "gods" have been created by the minds of men to satisfy that emply place inside. The most popular "god" right now is the god of self–probably the most pitiful of all. The Almighty God came to provide hope and joy in a world of hopelessness and human insufficiency. Who wouldn't want to spend time with that God? From Him came the ability to think, feel, and even breathe. Without His permission, none of this would be yours. So, what do you say? How about "thank you"?

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

      Hey Ann, check this out: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Timothy+2%3A12&version=NIV

      May 3, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      Hey Ann, how do you know what your god thinks or feels? If he is so all-powerful, how can you proclaim to comprehend him? You say he loves us all so much ... what is your source of information for any of this? Is this just a nice story that your mommy told you, and that her mommy told her before that? You specifically state that "we can't begin to understand (h)im" ... so why do you think you understand? Isn't that condtradictory? And finally, there are far worse ways to die than crucifiction. Your clergymen have invented several over the years. Take a look at the Spanish Inquisition.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  17. thinkingswissmiss

    The first Amendment guarantees our right to exercise our religion (any religion) without interference from the government. This means that on the National Day of Prayer, we can pray to any god or no god or not pray at all. Even members of our government are free to pray on that day – and they are free to pray to the god of their religion. Where it gets tricky is when a public prayer is said, because we no longer are "one Nation under God" – we have become "one Nation unto ourselves". We value whatever we think is right in our own eyes and we have abandoned the beliefs upon which this nation was built.

    To the author of this prayer – it is apparent that you do not understand prayer, and definitely do not understand the nature of God. The God of the Bible is allmighty and He has many names. Both Jefferson and Washington knew that, although Jefferson was a Deist, not a Christian. Regardless, they did pray to the God of the Bible. Since the God of the Bible is not only allmighty, he's also all powerful and all present. Meaning, of course He hears you, of course He's interested in you and of course He cares for you.

    As for the tax rates, I don't think you will get an answer from Him, though. He has made us stewards over the whole world and therefore we are responsible for such things ourselves. He's not likely to give you His opinion on this topic. However, if you were asking how much to give Him, the answer would be 100%

    May 3, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  18. James

    When you understand why you reject the 5,000+ other Gods out there, you will then comprehed why I reject yours. Religion is for the weak minded who can't accept the reality that no one knows what happens after death or if there is or is not a higher power. Hey, whatever gets you through life, even if it's a fairytale.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  19. Mark Yelka

    North Carolina is about to vote on reducing gays to third-class status. Religion is behind it. Hate is behind it. The prayers are for god to smite and hurt those the are different. Blame hate: I'm just following what god tells me to do.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      Hey Mark Yelka: Hate is behind the whole g a y thing. The author of hate (Satan) influencing people to abuse each other's bodies, yeilding to h o m o s e x u a l temptation.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • CP in FL

      b4bigbang – You sound like an intolerant buffoon that is as smart as a box or rocks.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  20. GuidoFawkes

    It still bothers me that this dude followed Jeremiah Wright for 20 years.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
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