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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. sugarendra

    Obama has explained that the girl friend in his book was a composite.His God also could a similar composite that rules out any conflict among the several religions in the U.S.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  2. gOD

    ouch! you smite me

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

      Instead of a Bible, get a dictionary. God doesn't like illiterates, neither do we.

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

    Everyone must pray to his God. There is only one God but he comes to us in many forms. Americans must get over their me, myself, and only me, itis.

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

      And the difference between praying to a God/s and praying to a potato?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • danielwalldammit

      No, no, no, and no.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  4. ccd08

    So just who is Steven Prothero? A guy who teaches religion at a university. And obviously someone who thinks it is cute to mock the notion of a single God.

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

      ccd08, the notion of a single God (or any Gods) is so absurd it should be mocked until those that believe in such fantasies come to their senses.

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

      Apparently, he is someone you will need to dismiss with all deliberate speed. Well done!

      May 3, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  5. pennylane

    Why not just pray period....

    May 3, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  6. wAKE UP

    Look at the picture of our politictians faking prayer.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  7. MrBill

    I don't know about anyone else, but the mere fact that there are billions of people alive today who believe that Jesus existed is testament to something. If He were just a figment of a few conspiratorial individuals, I doubt His influence would still be present some 2000 years after His death. Share with me any widely accepted concept or belief that has withstood a 2000 year test of time. It seems to me that it would be a lot easier just to perpetuate a rumor that He never existed!

    May 3, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      So many logical fallacies....

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

      It's very easy to explain: rumors spread far faster than truth, and simple rumors are far more readily believed than complicated truths.
      Plus, when the followers threaten anyone in their path with "believe what I believe or you'll burn in fire for eternity," it has an effect on the spread of said belief.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Religious sects

      Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Paganism ...

      May 3, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Religion = Hemorrhoids of the Brain

      you're not a very well-read person, are you?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • ProudJew613

      More people believe in Mohamed than Jesus, does that mean something to you? It's not about the number it's about the truth, and Torah is the only truth.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Evian Bidet

      there are more non-christians than christians on the planet earth. mormonism was made up less than 200 years ago and it is the fastest growing religion on the planet... know why? marketing..

      May 3, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • billy

      What makes you doubt that a myth would last for 2000 years and fact would not? How long was the world flat? How long did Zeus / Jupiter rule over greece and rome? Pick your mythology...

      May 3, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Hope

      Millions of people also believe in Santa Claus.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • JohnQuest

      Slavery, Polygamy, Zoroastria (older than Jesus), Allah, there are too many Indian and Chinese Gods to list (all are older and are still worshiped today).

      May 3, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      @Hope – True. ... But most of them still wet the bed.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  8. Rod in Texas

    What's the difference between talking to someone who isn't there and someone praying to God? One is considered dilusional and the other is considered Christian. Aren't they both the same?

    May 3, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  9. Evian Bidet

    Damn we are lucky the dinosaurs didn't think up this prayer business... we'd never have made if they'd preyed (prayed) more... or was it their lack of live births? or an asteroid hit?

    May 3, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  10. Religion = Hemorrhoids of the Brain

    It is.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  11. Mike

    Tom-Man you are a funny guy "not".....Like I said atheist love to put out hate into the world. I just hope you are ready for what's coming when you past away. Good luck:)

    May 3, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Evian Bidet

      god is so vengeful isn't she

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

      Show me an example of an organized act of violence perpetrated by atheists and I'll show you a thousand comitted in the name of God.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  12. Andrew

    Man this is so disrespectful to Christians! ON CNN.com homepage, I wanted to hear about politics not have my faith maligned and slammed.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      The Christian persecution complex is a fascinating and hilarious thing.

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

      You'll live.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  13. jon

    Pray or don't pray but quit bashing those that do... daily in this liberal joke of a media outlet

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

      Perhaps if those people didn't need a national event to facilitate their prayers, it might be easier to just live and let live.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  14. SuFiSm iS dIfFeReNt

    I dare any non believer to find a quit place and ask with all the will you can muster for: knowledge

    May 3, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Suzette

      I am a religious studies high school teacher, and I am by no means an expert, but I feel compelled to write in order to convey the fact that I was surprised and disappointed to read this article (blog) because the writer has made several inaccurate points. First, the desdendants of the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) all revere the same god. Extremists in all three groups don't all acknowledge that the other groups exist, unfortunately, but when they speak of God, they are referring to the same one. There is no such thing as the Jewish God or the Muslim God or the Christian God. All three groups are descendants of Abraham, which is why they're all known as the "Abrahamic religions." Groups within these groups and the groups themselves do not all pray in the same manner, but there ultimate point is teh same. Second, Buddhists don't revere a god at all. Buddha was not a god; he was very clear about the fact that he was a man and did not want to be worshipped after (or during) his life. His objective was to teach others about an improved way of life and living. Hindus are polytheistic and revere thousands of gods, but they also believe that all of these gods are just versions of one main god: Brahman, but really...who cares? Writings like this only polarize rather than unify. Adherents to the different religious groups or philosophies have more in common than people realize. First, all encourage compassion, and as far as the three monotheistic religions are concerned, they share many commonalities – more than people realize. For example, neither Jews nor Muslims believe Jesus Christ is the son of god, but Muslims believe he was one of the major prophets (along with Moses, Abraham, et al)....Jesus Christ is mentioned more than 90 times in the Koran. There are so many misconceptions out there, too. The Koran (and Torah and Bible) state that people should dress modestly. It'sonly the extremely oppressive regimes of a few countries that practice Sharia Law and force female citizens to cover so much of their bodies (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Nigeria). Terrorism is not sanctioned by the Koran, either, and Muslims who practice it are the small (yet sometimes most visible) minority, similar to KKK memberss who are a lso terrorists yet proclaim to be Christian. On a day like today (our National Day of Prayer) I would have appreciated a piece that speaks more to what unites us as Americans rather than what divides us because the latter merely fuels the polarization that is eating us alive right now. To honor this day, I hope people will reflect how they live their lives and how they treat others, on promoting and adhering to good values that honor our fellow countrymen rather than adversely focusing on what separates us. Peach and love!

      May 3, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  15. Chad

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men The Declaration of Independence

    seems fairly plain that our founding fathers recognized a creator, that our rights flowed from that creator, and the government was instituted to secure those rights.

    Our government was established based on that principle.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • godoflunaticscreation

      Glad you chose to ignore all the quotes of our founders denying Jesus' divinity and clearly stating that religion must remain separate or it will become another European bloodbath of religious violence.

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

      Declaration of Independence =/= Consti.tution of the United States of America

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

      I recognize a creator as well. Or more accurately, two of them. I call them "Mom and Dad". They created me, not some fantasy sky ghost.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  16. n8263

    Religion is delusional, prayer is delusional.

    You do not believe in religion because you honestly think it is true, you believe in it because you are afraid of the unknown. It does not take a genius to figure out all religion is man made, so for humanity's sake, please stop lying to yourself.

    Deluding yourself in religion does not change reality.

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

      I believe in the God of Abraham because He's real.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Fheal

      delusion is in the eye of the beholder...

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

      You are a joke.....Boy atheist people hate so much.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Flatsguide

      God doesn't believe in athiests.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • JH1

      Chad, if I say I believe that my brown paper lunch bag contains an invisible, untraceable alien because he's real, how is that different from your statement?

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

      @JH1" if I say I believe that my brown paper lunch bag contains an invisible, untraceable alien because he's real, how is that different from your statement?"

      =>well, that depends.. If your invisible, untraceable alien claims responsibility for the creation of the universe and life on this planet, if your invisible, untraceable alien created a race of people, led them out of slavery in a foreign land, appeared to them countless times, spoke thru prophets to them over thousands of years, and all of that interaction was successively captured in a book over those thousands of years..
      If a man was born claiming to be the divine son of your invisible, untraceable alien, if that man died, was buried in a tomb and three days later that tomb was found to be empty, and hundreds of people were suddenly of the opinion that they had meet that son physically resurrected and were willing to go to their death for the truth of that statement.

      now, if your your invisible, untraceable alien did all that.. then, there wouldnt be any difference at all 🙂

      May 3, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  17. mike

    Ever wondered why there is no presence of athiest groups in America that help cloth, house, and feed the poor? Promote morals, etc. Is it just "everyone for themselves" since they no not believe in a God? I think I'm going to the YMAA (young men's atheist association) and ponder this.

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

      So you are going to lie to yourself and proclaim that atheists don't donate to the poor? Keep those blinders on.

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

      🙂
      excellent question

      May 3, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Rod in Texas

      I am athiest and I donate money and clothes to charities. I volunteer at the American Red Cross! I donated a car to a student in need. I mow my elderly naighbors yard every Saturday. I do quite a bit of good deeds without a God in my life.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Bruce

      "Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

      May 3, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Chad

      Mike's question was the excellent one..
      🙂

      godoflunaticscreation: do you have any statistics on atheist charitable giving vs Christian charitable giving? if you dont, I do.. 🙂

      May 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      atheistvolunteers.org

      Also Doctors Without Borders/MSF is completely secular, so are many other charities. If you haven't seen these groups it's because you have blinders on.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      People do all the helping, religions don't.
      So you're saying that if not for the threats from you God(s) you wouldn't be helping anyone? You're a sad individual.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Reddit Atheists raised over $200.000 for Doctors Without Borders already this year.

      http://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/r-atheism/ratheism

      May 3, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Golyadkin

      @Chad: Do you have statistics on atheist charitable giving vs. Christian charitable giving that doesn't include giving money to churches as "charitable giving?"

      May 3, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  18. JH1

    Can we not just all get along and behave without religion?

    On the flip side, it's no wonder the world is so messed up if we have leaders asking the invisible sky man for advice.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  19. Believer

    Everyone has the right to their own belief and faith. My belief and faith is that Jesus is real and He is the Savior. Almighty God, Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor. I will pray to Jesus.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  20. siriusvh

    What is the point of praying?

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

      Nothing. Apart from making yourself feel better or making yourself feel like you're doing something while not actually accomplishing anything of value.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
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