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. madrep

    Now Obama is a Christian????? I am confused.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Teasus Chrysler

      No news here, clearly you have always been confused.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  2. Chris

    Writer/Readers, If this was 1776, what kind of an answer do you think you would get from our founding fathers? This country was founded on the biblical God. Read the history. Check out the building of the supreme court in DC, Moses is at the center holding the ten commandments. People show up after all this stuff and say they don't like this, they don't like that, which God, remove God from schools, etc. Could you imagine if you had a guest come to your house and say they didn't like aspects of your house and asked you to change them? What would you say to them? Nothing, you'd kick them out.

    Dave, Jesus Christ died on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. In God's eyes, he was the only acceptable sacrifice because he was sinless and pure. Just like the white pure lambs the Jews would sacrifice before he was sent. The whole was without hope, until he was sent. All you have to do is believe in him and you will be saved from hell and have everlasting life. Prayer is how we talk to God, and the bible is how we listen to him. You're not going to hear a voice, read the bible and get to know Jesus, you're gonna want him on your side.

    Hope this helps.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • godoflunaticscreation

      So please explain all the quotes from the founding fathers proclaiming a separation of church and state. I guess you are the one who needs to move.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • billy

      Lets talk about why sacrifice is so important to earn forgiveness. What the hell is that all about anyways? Go find the pure white lamb? Pure bunk.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Chris

      Well then, someone should start working on removing Moses from the Supreme Court, don't you think? And money, and the pledge of allegiance, etc. Here is the first Amendment statement that you are calling separation of church and state, "Congress shall make no law respecting and establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". Unbelievers are doing the separating.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • billy

      Seriously, Lets put ourselves in the mind of god for a second. So he's really angry at these people he created everything for. He hates that they are not worshiping him enough or are running around killing themselves or getting killed by all the romans and mongols, and he decides to incarnate himself to earth in the role of some everyday dude, whose mom happens to be the only one on earth who has not sinned. So that is starting to work, as he is now the son going around preaching, teaching lessons, getting people to actually listen, but decides this is not enough and so he commits suicide by getting killed by the very people he is trying to save, in order to show everyone that they are now forgiven from all the bad stuff they did.

      I don't see the logic here.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Chris

      @billy, you haven't earned forgiveness and you weren't the one that was sacrificed. Someone else was sacrificed for your sins. Yet, while you were still going to sin, yet while people were still sinning when Jesus was alive, he still accepted the punishment and death. Think about sending your loved one to go out and be beaten and tortured, but for you and others to benefit from it. That's what God did, he sent his son to feel and go through that. But it needed to be done to give us salvation. It's free, you don't have to pay for it, you just have to believe in it and seek it out.

      The bible predicted that the Jews would return to rebuild Israel, and they did, thousands of years later. No man could ever predict such a thing. Take a look around you, look at the complexity of all living things, there is a creator. Do you think the computer that processes, holds and transmits these text occurred by accident? No, complicated thought and design went into it, NO ACCIDENT. Same thing with what's happening all around us.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Mike

      What kind of evil being has the power to make up the all rules for the universe and finds the only acceptable way to solve a problem to be the brutal torture and murder of his child?

      Even if your invisible friend in the sky were real, he wouldn't be worthy of worship.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  3. jackfnburton

    Well, typically, when someone asks "Do you believe in God" they mean "Do you believe in MY God". It's the human tendency to assume that everyone thinks the way YOU do until they shock you with their dissenting opinion. Yeah. We need a Special Prayer Day because otherwise, God will have no idea what we're all thinking. If you don't Assume the Position, the call won't complete. Do what you want, Team Jesus, but leave me out it. I'll pray to whom I want, when I want, IF I want.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  4. BRichmond

    Pray all you want. I'm betting God (if there really is one) is pretty disgusted with the whole lot of us these days. I know I am.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  5. sharky

    Pray or do not pray. Good grief people get into such a snit over something so innocuous. People get into a whinge fest over a national day of prayer there is it not mandatory and enforced to pray, you will not die or be locked up if you do not pray, YET we celebrate Cinco De Mayo nationally which is NOT a US holiday and has not significance to the US at all.

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

      Choose your battles people or else you look like whining nitwits.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • F..Religion

      Cinco de mayo is not celebrated in Mexico...more a US holiday...check reference to civil war and France to learn more.

      Your welcome.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  6. GOPlies

    Religion was created to control the populace. Please explain the dino bones in the ground

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

      Jesus buried them dino bones to test our faith.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • sharky

      So was Government, what is your point?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Stupid Theist

      They were put there by Satan to test the faithfull.
      No, I didn't make that up, I actually heard it from a Catholic priest.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  7. Cynthia

    How to Pray? you ask. First humble yourself as a man who was created not by your own ability but of a more Powerful, Ordained and Predestined Spirit that has not yet entered into the heart and mind of Men to understand... Pray a fervent Prayer (be as serious and sincere as you know how to be, and without the sarcasm. My advise is that you pray and ask for knowledge, because FEAR OF THE LORD IS THE BEGINNING OF KNOWLEDGE. Secondly, ask that your' lack of obdience, be not sacrifices cursed onto you as well as to your Loved one (GOD doesn't necessarily punish all of us individually of our SINS, but he's known to Punish Generations, because of our sins.)... You're missing some type of satisfaction of fulfillment in your life ( God said (through Jesus Christ) "We have not, because we ask not)... I hope you read this (will you?) In conclusion my Lost Friend, we end our "Sincere Words of Prayer by asking "If it be the will of GOD "our Heavenly Father" to Bless as well as Forgive us, receive your words of Prayer only through our "LORD & SAVIOUR "JESUS CHRIST".... Amen. And it is my prayer, that God will answer your prayer, and clear your mind of the Perplexities that Satan has your mind into. Be Blessed, Stephen.. In Jesus I'm asking....

    May 3, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  8. TG

    In the Bible, there is no one day on which to pray. Jesus gave an illustration (of a widow crying for justice to a judge that does not fear God nor man) to his disciples on how and when to pray, for Luke 18:1 says: "Then he went on to tell them an illustration with regard to the need for them always to pray and not to give up." The apostle Paul wrote: "Pray incessantly".(1 Thess 5:17) Thus, prayer to God, whose name is Jehovah, should be "incessantly" or at any given or length of time, pouring out a person's heartfelt feelings.

    Jesus also taught what a person should pray for first and foremost, saying: "Our Father in the heavens, let your name be sanctified." Hence, a true Christian prays for God's name, Jehovah, to sanctified or cleansed of all reproach that the churches (and other religions as well) have heaped upon it over the course of the centuries as by hiding it, taking it out of their Bibles and their misconduct that has besmirched it.

    Secondarily, he taught to pray for God's kingdom to bring peace (Godly peace whereby all his enemies are wiped off the earth, meaning permanent removal of false religion (Rev 18:8), the political governments (Rev 19:19, 20), and greedy commercialism (Rev 19:21) and only "meek" ones remaining, Matt 5:5; Ps 37:11, 29) to the earth, as in heaven, saying: "Let your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth."

    Our personal needs are down the line (verses 11-13), only after the sanctification of God's name and for his heavenly government to restore genuine peace to the earth (as in the Garden of Eden), as seen at Revelation 21:3-5.

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

      "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." Matthew 6:5-6

      Actually it appears that Jesus' instructions on prayer pretty much forbid the "National Day of Prayer," doncha think?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  9. migeli

    The tax rate for the wealthy should go back up to 91 percent because they have not created any jobs with their tax cuts.All they have done is corrupt congress and the Supreme Court and raise a bunch of spoiled greedy brats with their wealth.Every third generation the wealthy should be stripped of 90 percent of their money so that they don't raise dynisties who think they are royal and more deserving than everyone else.We have third generation congressmen whose only qualifications are money and powerful relatives.As for prayer day, lets sacrifice some alligators or other predatory beasts signafying our resentment toward those predators in government who take from the poor and middleclasses and give all the benefits of this country to the rich.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  10. 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 5:23 pm |
  11. Jason

    God Bless everyone, yes, even you Atheists (all 2% of you) haha

    May 3, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • CP in FL

      Jason – I suspect the percentage of people who do not believe in the imaginary being you call god is much higher than the 2% that you site. Many people say that they believe in god so that they are not ridiculed by believers such as you. Also, just because a majority of people believe something to be true does not make it so. In the fourteenth century a majority of the people believed that the Earth was flat and that the Earth was at the center of the universe.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • adude

      So I am a two-percenter. Cool !

      May 3, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  12. JT

    What I've never understood is people who believe in prayer believe that multiple people praying to their God for the same thing will have more persuation of this god to fulfil their request. So this god takes a vote on which prayer request to grant? Odd.

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

      God was too busy watching football to answer your prayers. Touchdown for Tebow!

      May 3, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  13. Arjun

    God is not christian/Muslim/Hindu. He is beyond such things. Our earth is too insignificant, compared with universe. So we cant limit God with what we created on earth.

    Jesus did not create Christianity. He preached truth. We created Christianity.

    Nature gives water for drinking. We pack that water in a bottle and market it with a brand name. Then we start fighting.
    For that reason, we should not hate water. But recognize that God did not give us religions. He only gave us the truth.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • CP in FL

      And where is the proof of this god that you speak of? The burden of proof is on the believers.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Stercus Tauri

      MANKIND created god it IT'S image and likeness! You are correct...MAN created Christianity, which prompted Mohandas 'Mahatma' Gandhi to say, "I like your Christ. I do not like Christians. Christians are so unlike Christ."

      May 3, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  14. Stercus Tauri

    Pray in one hand, poop in the other. See which hand fills up first.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  15. larryicon

    Ah much ado about nothing. Prayer is conversation with God as you see him & bringing it into the political arena is BS. We as Americans have the right to pray or not pray to God. The reason for separation of church & state is so that each person can be allowed to exercise worship or in the case of people who believe in no God, not to worship. In keeping with this we should be good citizens respecting the rights of others. That is our duty as Americans. How sad it is to see that most of us are so self centered that we want to make big deal out of this. When our own laws give us freedom of worship.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  16. mirockemsockem

    Like George Carlin and Bill Hicks have said over and over again, who cares, this is all just a ride. You know what I worship? The sun!

    May 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  17. drc

    Good God, if you don't want to pray...THEN DON'T. If it offends you that someone believes in 'a God' (any God) or it offends you that people have religious believes that is your 'belief' and no one else cares. I'm not the most religious person, but it is evident to me that the minority in this country have an issue with the majority having such beliefs. Get over it.

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

      Sharia law by another name is still sharia law.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  18. Thomas

    The U.S. was founded on God's word by our ancestors, but know most of our culture acts like its all crap and were "too cool for religion" in the end when i'm before my Mighty, All-powerful God, after my earthly body has died and rotting I know for sure he'll say to us all who were faithful "Well done my good and faithful servant." hopefully if you haven't take some time and read through His word to see what your life is really worth living for.....

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


      May 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Gotta Love Christian "Logic"

      Are babies better with a light lemon cream sauce, or perhaps something zesty like a picante salsa?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  19. godoflunaticscreation


    May 3, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  20. God


    Unfortunately, many of you have me confused with Santa Claus or perhaps a genie. I am often on the receiving list of a request or wish that I'm supposed to fulfill.

    Just so we all understand each other... I gave you everything you needed when you were created. How you choose to see the universe is completely your choice. If you choose to recognize yourself as the extension of me that you are and accept the unlimited potential that you were given to create, that would make things much easier for all of us. If you choose to see yourself as a victim of the universe, then you'll most certainly live in a nightmare of your own making.

    You are all perfect and all the same. What you see on the outside when you encounter another human form, has nothing to do with the infinite being that you're really in the presence of. You kill, hurt, and hate each because you haven't recognized (remembered) that yet.

    Remember that all of these harmful things that you do to yourself and others are meaningless in the universe. Nothing can touch what you truly are. Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God (Me).

    If you truly learn and accept these things, you won't have to worry about a National Day of Prayer. Everything that you could hope for or imagine would stand before you.

    See you soon! 🙂

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

      p.s. My name is Zeus. Stop calling me Yahweh or Jesus.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Paul

      "I gave you everything you needed when you were created"? You killed my mother in child birth. You took my father what I was 12. We lived in poverty when he was alive because the strain never let him finish school. Then at 16 you gave me spina bifida. Please stop helping me. If you really exist, you are the lowest form of life

      May 3, 2012 at 5:34 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.