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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. Imogene Thompson

    Usually hold my tongue but just can't right now. The National Day of prayer is a Christian event. Started by Christians for Christians who care about their country and the world, both of which are in desparate need of prayer. If you want to know how to pray to our Heavenly Father I suggest you study the Lord's Prayer prayed by Jesus Christ and found in the gospel according to Luke chapter 11. The Lord Our God, He is One!

    May 3, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • n8263

      If it is a Christian day then the government should not be sanctioning it.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      'The National Day of prayer is a Christian event. Started by Christians for Christians...'

      And THAT'S exactly why it's a violation of the Establishment Clause for the government to endorse it.

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

      The beauty of private school is that my children routinely outperform the public school kids and remain free to hear the word. God bless America!

      May 3, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • *Willd*West*

      @Joseph
      The "Ugly" part is that private schools cost so much, that if a family wants to eat, pay housing, and if lucky, have some health insurance, after all that, there is not much left for anything else. Moral republicans think its just an excuse, and those who don't have, are just lazy and sorry providers for them and their families. What do you think?

      May 3, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  2. Angelo Ramirez

    I believe we should wait and see what God says in response to the question before opening this can of worms... Really, people need instruction on how and who to pray too? I dont pray and I dont believe, but know many others do, great enjoy our time. I just dont get caught up in the drama, unless of course you start telling me that God wants me to do something, well then I would say have the almighty come and tell me himself.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  3. To all the close-minded atheists that have all the answers

    Jesus loves me this I know. For the bible tells me so.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Prolix Paul

      And he may throw you into eternal torture, but he loves you.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Blasphemy

      Which Bible?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  4. s~

    really stupid article.

    if you don't believe in God don't pray. no is forcing you to pray or even meditate.

    simple, yey?

    May 3, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Joseph

      Exactly.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      The problem arises when the government endorses it. It's not only presumptive, it's a violation of the Establishment Clause.

      Just leave the government out of it and go on talking to the sky on your own time as usual.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • Lilith

      And if you do believe go ahead and pray away no one is stopping you. You don't need a day specific to prayer.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • s~

      it is not an official day like Valentine is not an official day.

      it's up to you to participate if you wish.... isn't freedom/liberty great? enjoy it while it's here.....lol....

      May 3, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  5. 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 5:37 pm |
    • s~

      you're too smart for us....

      but people have the right to be "delutional" as long as they don't force it on anyone else or hurt anyone.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • pbernasc

      praying is not necessarily delusional .. praying for itself is a form of meditation ... in Africa singing and dancing is considered a form of praying.
      Just take the God out of it and praying isn't hard to understand ... the reality is that praying was invented a lot before religion was invented ... it can be said that indeed religion is a degenerated from of praying.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  6. FunkyMonkey

    It is impossible to prove whether or not God exists from a scientific standpoint, because God's nature is such that he exists outside the laws of the universe. Because you can't prove whether or not he exists with science, you can't make a conclusion about his existence with science, meaning it's incorrect to conclude God does not exist and it's incorrect to conclude God does exist. This leaves, agnostism as the only truly scientific means to address to question. However, for those that believe in the existence of the supernatural soul, which again exists outside empiricism, then believing in God is perfectly reasonable because it supposedly gives believers purpose (which is a perfectly reasonable, though not empirical, justification). This applies to whatever else that is purported to give a person purpose.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • n8263

      Technically you can't proof Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy don't exist either. Do you think it is rational to believe in them?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • FunkyMonkey

      If it gives you purpose, then yes, it is rational to believe in it. It is rational from a personally reasonable standpoint, but it is not rational from a purely empirical standpoint

      It's like how the Ancient Greek pre-Socratics believed that Atomsim had to be true because there had to be a most fundamental matter in order for the universe to have meaning definitive of truth. There is no empirical basis for it, yet it is taken by most philosophy academics to be a valid argument.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  7. sweller

    Just pray. Unity in prayer, not in who we pray to. Sheeze the story must be written by a lib

    May 3, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  8. Michael Leonardo

    Read the books, believe what u chose. Pray to whom you chose. But for the sake of humanity stop with the middle men. Organized religion is simply middlemen controlling the masses.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  9. willmass

    Just let the people who want to pray to their God decide which one. This guy is trying to make something outta nothing.

    And CNN does not know why their ratings are so low rofl

    May 3, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  10. To all the close-minded atheists that have all the answers

    This world sucks. Thank God there is a heaven. "The world will persecute you just as it has persecuted me". I was a long time atheist too. I hope you find Him too.

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

      Nothing like pretending there's "another" perfect life so you can ignore the problems in THIS life. What a gigantic cop out.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Prolix Paul

      You weren't an atheist! There is a rigorous writing exam to become an atheist, and you would have failed miserably.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • To all the close-minded atheists that have all the answers

      Sorry everyone! I made this comment when I was high on crack... Don't worry I'll be ok as I'm still an athiest. Gotta get off that stuff.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  11. glorydays

    Just keep it to yourself. Simple.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  12. god

    Stop praying already ... I'm busy.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  13. Brian Elk Grove CA

    Mr. Prothero,
    I know some will claim you broke some kind of rule for talking about religion but I applauded you for addressing the topic.

    I am a non Catholic Christian and I wholeheartedly support every American pray to their God, even if he is different from my God because I have no desire to claim my God is better.

    While some would say this article is inflammatory, I say we need to be like you and talk about the difference we have in the hopes that we learn to live and let live.

    Thank you!

    May 3, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  14. Blasphemy

    Will it help if I pray for freedom from religion?

    May 3, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  15. Charles

    Idiot.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Blasphemy

      Was that a prayer?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  16. Theo

    Why do I pray? Because I believe. As an educated, trained scientist, as a deep analytical thinker, I believe... deeply. Why is it that atheists are so adversarial and so often angry. Are you the ones questioning or feeling threatened? Prayer begets peace – internally and externally. You should try it.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • godoflunaticscreation

      You seriously ask why the oppressed are angry at the oppressors?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Compartmentalization is a crazy phenomena.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compartmentalization_%28psychology%29

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

      Theo, prayer begets nothing but wasted time. In fact, prayer actually "begetted" violence in my experience. You ask why atheists are so "angry?" Maybe I'm tired of having 3 duo's of zealots come to my house every Saturday, and having them scream "JESUS LOVES YOU!!!!" into my house when I politely say "no thank you" to their offer of sharing their cult with me. Or maybe its from the time some good Christian boys dragged me into an alley and broke a few of my bones. So very peaceful, aren't these praying people?

      Perhaps you can put some of that "deep analytical thought" to good use, and stop assuming religious people are automatically GOOD people. The opposite is just as often true.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • dude

      That's fine, but you are implying that your faith is the result of an evidence based reasoned approach, and I don't think you can demonstrate that. Your authority as a scientist means nothing of itself.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • CommonSense

      As a non scientist and someone who just uses common sense to apply to to religion. I believe it's a bunch of hocus pocus meant to control the minds of primitive people...

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

      Well said. I am an energy research scientist and I work with very intellegent and highly educated people. Many of them are deeply spritual and religious, while being excellent scientists in thier own right. I never understood the assertion that educated poeple don't "believe". From my experience it has been quite the opposite. I myslef find to contemplation of the question of faith proof of the limitless capacity of the human mind and a liberating expression of thought free from the simple construct we assume our universe existis within.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  17. godoflunaticscreation

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4BaAur89MU

    May 3, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • VanHagar

      More proof that atheists kick their dog.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Prolix Paul

      According to VanHagar, all atheists own one single dog for all of them, and they all kick it.

      Gramer are hard, yeah Van?

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

      Im not an atheist but go on.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  18. Seriously now

    The article is about the hijacking of religion for political purposes.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  19. Dear God

    Seems like people pray when they are up against men that are so bad that there's really no place left to go. More like giving it up. Here god, its in your hands now. I can't take it anymore. Over my head.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  20. matt

    I'm gonna just keep on praying the way the Bible taught us to pray, with the words of The Lords Prayer!

    May 3, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • s~

      you go right ahead, Matt

      May 3, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
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