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. Steve

    I'm an atheist, but still treasure many of Jesus' teachings and parables. About prayer, he said to do it in private and not make a show of it. Sounds like a good idea to me.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • JT

      What Jesus teaching and parables do you treasure? You know, he didn't invent the concept of treat others as you wish to be treated, right?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • Blasphemy

      Jesus had a lot of good advice. Even if he was not the first to offer it it is still valid advice.

      What I do not understand is how people can be so caught up in thinking that such advice was for "God's" benefit and must be shoved righteously down people's throat.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  2. To all the close-minded atheists that have all the answers

    Will someone please ask a well thought out question? I know....."why is God putting up with all this nonsense?" because he is slow to anger but the day of reckoning is near. Every knee will bow. So much for evolution. Mans wisdom is foolish and misleading. I know the Bible was written by man, but if God Himself wrote it with His almighty hand, some of you would still not believe. Yes some christians are hypocrites. My job is to win as many as I can and show them the truth

    May 3, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Blasphemy

      I god wrote it why are there so many conflicting versions?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Blasphemy

      A better question might be: Why are so many true believers unaware that there are many conflicting versions of the Bible.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Those used guys.

      And make more than a few dollar$ while you are doing it?

      May 3, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  3. Jon

    Hail Satan! Thank you for all that the greed,bloodshed, murder and genocide has provided us and made Us the greatest nation on earth. We will kill more brown people in your honor. Hail Satan.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  4. profart

    Who cares which deity you are praying to, or what you might call that deity? Or none at all? To celebrate and be grateful for the good things we have in life, and set to work to makes the lives of everyone better, that is the point of the day. It isn't like God cares what you call Him, so long as you are grateful and trying to do good in the world and be a good person. In fact, what kind of God would not know to speak to peoples all over the world in ways that appeal to their experiences and lives? The idea that the Divine would only speak to one people at one time in one language is so... limiting. And divisive. Seems entirely against the point of any religion I've ever studied.

    Religion is intended to create community, and a National Day of Prayer is intended to acknowledge that community. We shouldn't be bickering about which language someone else is speaking in their relationship with God. And if they had chosen not to have one... well, that is also between that person and God.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Religious sects

      The national day of prayer is a vote gathering exercise nothing more since anyone can pray anytime they want.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  5. Matthew

    Matthew 6:6. Nuff said

    May 3, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  6. Edward Baltimore

    It's a little too late for praying,it's Mrs.Clinton's call to be @ the helm;now,with her hubby Mr.Clinton as VP;and one of you out of all of you,need to tell Romney he's committed fraud,for leaving the Post of so-called gov.that theirs a 2yr.interval that must be met;the same fo Obama;whom is worst off then Bush Jr.then for none of you to have no Allegiance to be nothing but commander of thieves,since April 4th,1968 to presently;in the killing of Dr.King Jr.must still go under Oath to all you perjurers;that mustn't go unpunished to the array of charges I have stored up against each of yo on every job,on every public premise;that Obama didn't praywhen he lied to GOD ALMIGHTY in perjury;to have left the seat of sen.to jump to the office;knowing he hadn't a clue what to do;so he got Joe,which is Cheney all over;whom should of been out of public;and he knows that and all the fugitives,even in the Italian led court in DC;that will have to answer to what is {H.R.7152};and why they let Olsen for Bush Jr.waste the American's People's time,not to mention all the lives that's been lost;for the tyrannies since 1968 to presently has cost;Vote I,Edward Baltimore;to confirm I;Governor of DC;as of 2/16/12;cause DC;has been a State,already;and all you slaves from State to State;need to snap out of your peonage which is prohibited by Federal Laws;on anybody!!!!!!!

    May 3, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Ben

      How did you come to this conclusion from this article? I wasn't aware that the comment section was a platform for extremist nonsense....

      May 3, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  7. Religious sects

    When I get my wife to scream Oh God Oh God over and over is it still blasphemy?

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

      More like "fantasy".

      May 3, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Religious sects

      Yes Mavent, fantasy is part of our "ritual". How did you know 😉

      May 3, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • PulTab

      No, but when I do it is.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Blasphemy

      How do you do that?

      Call her from Jail?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Religious sects

      PulTab .... Touche'

      May 3, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  8. Ben

    This is a great article. What is even more amusing is that people feel like they have to defend their faith by leaving a comment... No one is attacking anyone here, just read and enjoy....

    May 3, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  9. JH1

    Let me get this straight. God creates Adam and Even with free will (along with all future humans who are guilty by genetic association) and gives them a virtual paradise to live in. They exercise free will and he takes their home. Later on, people don't like him so much so he kills them all with a global flood (through which an Egyptian dynasty miraculously survives). On and on throughout history, some people choose to believe in him, some don't (though most that do are simply indoctrinated by their parents). Some don't even know about him due to winning the unlucky geographical birth lottery.

    He is so upset that people exercise their god given free will in the forms of believing what they want that it basically boils down to: "Love you guys! Do what you want! (Better pick me or else wink wink!)"

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

      What, you don't understand the concept of "metaphor" or "myth"?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • JT

      Yes, you are born a filthy sinner deserving of eternal torment in the flames in hell. You have a problem with that?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      Wait ... Keep doing the math. He supposedly created Adam and Eve. They got busy and had two boys. One of them killed the other. So, now we have three people left. Mommy, Daddy and Junior. ... Where did the rest of the people come from? Who is Cain nailing? Best case scenario is his mother or his little sister.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  10. jessix1

    Does freedom of religion mean freedom FROM religion? If so, where does the "National Day of Prayer" come from? I'm offended by this Day of Prayer.

    Have Americans lost the freedom Madeline Murray fought for almost 55 years ago? As I recall Americans were finally freed from mandatory school prayers every day. What about people who are uncomfortable when the world prays around them and they cannot relate to prayer?

    Is this National Prayer Day one of the "changes" Americans "can believe in?"

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

      No one is forcing you to pray. No one is even really asking you to. You are not required to participate in any way.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  11. Those used guys.

    Pray for more War, the military indusrial complex needs your prayers, Onward Christian Soldiers, you get the point, Dwight did.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  12. Imagine No Religion

    We already have a national day of prayer, every Sunday at the weekly casino of forgiveness. Isn't that MORE than enough?

    Stop the madness, try thinking freely for a change!

    May 3, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  13. bogalusa

    You can't see love but you know it exists.When God reveals His spirit to you...only a fool would deny it.

    Say no thanks if it ever comes your way but saying yes will change a heart and mind forever.

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

      We can measure the chemical interactions during different stages of "love," and identify who is in what stage by looking at their chemical production levels.

      Can we measure the body secretion your god produces? Or is that just called schizophrenia these days?

      You know, when they started treating mental disorders, werewolfism almost disappeared overnight. Guess this werewolf keeps on howling.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  14. Blasphemy

    What would one true God have to be jealous of?

    May 3, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  15. 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 5:41 pm |
    • rbsrs

      "You do not believe in religion because you honestly think it is true, you believe in it because you are afraid of the unknown" And you know this how? By faith?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  16. goddog

    Great! A National day of praying to the wrong gods! Thanks!

    May 3, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  17. To all the close-minded atheists that have all the answers

    I dont mind my own business because my job as a christian is to save as many as I can. How bout a hug? seriously. Dont be mad. I love you.

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

      This is why the FSM gave us restraining orders.

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

      No, your job is to keep your delusions to yourself and leave everyone else alone.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Ahab The Arab

      Well my God says I am to kill infidels like you, so that makes your murder every bit as legitimate as your shoving your religion down everyones throat, doesn't it?

      Choose the for of your destruction

      May 3, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • Tina

      I love your comment!

      May 3, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  18. DaveC

    Let's face it: the bottom line is that no one really knows for certain until you shuffle off this mortal coil. Then it's too late to tell anybody. At the end of the day it's all a matter of faith, or lack thereof.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • n8263

      Nobody knows for absolute certainty but that does not prevent approaching the topic with a rational mind.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      There are infinite things we don't believe in, why is this infinitely unlikely thing the one we should believe?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  19. Lillian

    I met my 1st Muslim, and I ?'d him, didn't I read where they thought they had found Muhammed's bones? and he enthusiastically answered "YES" and I answered , they can't find JESUS"S bones. He quit following me around the event we were attending, To show no disrespect for our misinformed "guest" I left him alone too. I say all that to say this,I believe in the one true GOD and his son JESUS. You can worship any other gods, you want to, but I prefer, the living one. The Bible also says, every knee shall bow, only time will tell what lies ahead for us after death, I'll go on faith and believe the Bible, however I will pray for you James. Everyone has the right to remain ignorant....just saying

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

      Because being "non-ignorant" means harassing the first Muslim you see by asking ridiculous questions, then avoiding them like the plague? And it includes admitting you know full well there are other gods, but that since you PREFER your own, "every knee will bow" to it? Do you even realize that EVERY religion has the same line in their holy text? "Once they're dead, they'll agree with us! You'll see!" Come on, Lillian. You have a brain. Try rubbing 2 brain cells together before you call other people ignorant... "just saying."

      May 3, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      Living implies walking, talking, eating, sleeping, etc. ... When and where, exactly, have you seen your god do this? Let's say I agreed with you that this Jesus person lived and walked the Earth, OK. Then he was killed. OK. Then, even if you believe he was raised from the dead, he then supposedly ascended to heaven. Which ... makes him dead again. Unless you believe that all of your ancestors are actually not dead, and are waiting for you alive in heaven. ... Then why do we even bother with death certificates? Shouldn't they just be change of address forms?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Patty

      Lillian, it's funny that you think that saying "they can't find JESUS"S bones" is clever and deep. Like it proves something? You call other people ignorant yet your beliefs are just as far fetched. You really need to read the bible, do some research and use some critical thinking skills. And stop making fun other's people silly beliefs when you believe virgins can give birth.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  20. willmass

    LOL I bet some of them Dems out there pry to Obama 🙂

    May 3, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Prolix Paul

      I bet you've got no more than a high school education, and maybe not even that.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • CP in FL

      In baseball terms you just swung and missed, strike one. Please try and not make yourself look so foolish next time.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
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