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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. Red

    Thanks for calling out the Roman Catholic Church at the end...that had as much class as the Comments section usually does around here. It's also good to see that you're taking your prayer cues, for both obligation and format, from the internet. Thanks for granting the NDP Task Force their power, by suggesting they set the standard for something as uncontrollable as prayer.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  2. keith

    GOD couldn’t save JUNIOR SEAU huh that doesn’t seem CHRISTIAN does it!!!! It should have one of these selfish politicians.. Wait Hi my name is DIMWITT ROMNEY I am VERY RELIGIOUS you give me money and I will buy a huge house, drive a car that has an elevator and live the lavish life for you idiots that gave money to me for church and for my running to make AMERICA my AMERICA my RELIGION my LIE cause I do the GOD way think only of myself and commit lies to succeed..

    May 3, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • Sortakinda

      You have God confused with a personal genii who grants your every wish and desire.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  3. Mazzata

    Whatever works for you.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  4. Rauche

    How do the Shamans pray?

    May 3, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      Different shamans recognize their diety (s) in different ways in the Amazon they would use mushrooms and chemical agents to "travel" to the gods and seek counsel through this, Native Americans used to go on vision quests in which they were food and sleep deprived through dance to contact the gods. In any case they chant, sing, speak their wishes or concerns in a variety of positions, states of mind, rituals etc....

      May 3, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  5. John

    When CNN attempts to be an authority on God you know you're in for a laugh. Actually, when CNN attempts to be an authority on anything....

    May 3, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • logan5

      When anyone attempts to be an authority on the potential supernatural force that created our universe its laughable. And that includes Christians, Muslims, Jews...etc etc.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Red

      When anyone attempts to be the authority on humanity, it's laughable. I would throw criticizing religion or lack thereof in that same boat.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Hey red, keep hacking at those baby genitals.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Sortakinda

      It is better to laugh than to curse in the personal darkness of CNN and the 1.6 per cent.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  6. frank johns

    A universal prayer offends everyone . I would rather hear 10 different prayers of different beliefs that is uttered with sincere conviction then one watered down, man appeasing universal prayer. If a prayer cannot be made in spirit and in truth as you believe it then don`t do it.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      I disagree I am offended my most specific prayers because they tend to drill down to much. I would rather hear 1 universal prayer.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  7. If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

    I pray to the giant Stegasaurus orbiting Neptune using my CB radio. I'm more likely to get a response since both Pluto and Stegs have been proven to be real.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • n8263

      That is just as likely to be true as talking snakes and donkeys, and I respect it because it is faith, and all faith, no matter how totally insane, must be respected because technically you can not disprove it.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      n8263 ... I respect your respect .. but you do not need to respect all that cannot be disproven. There are a lot of beliefs, faiths as you put it, in a psychiatric hospital but we don't respect their faith .. we try to cure it.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  8. enrique Clunie

    This article intends to be so cute and political correct, but it fails at doing so. It is just another person who doesn't really believe in God trying to find an excuse for his lack of faith. So sad – so poor and so sad....

    May 3, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • logan5

      A lack of faith in the Christian god is not based on excuses but REASON and EVIDENCE or the lack thereof.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • FoodForThought

      What's your excuse for your lack of faith in Vishnu or Allah?

      May 3, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  9. jfletch

    Before we get too deeply into this question, we would all do well to read Jon Meacham's "American Gospel". The whole point is that we are FREE to pray to whom or whatever we choose to be our God. Let's not delude ourselves–atheists have a god–it is just very different from the Hindu or Budhist or Christian or Jewish or Muslim God. It may be reason or freedom or icecream for all I know, but there is one overarching principle that informs all that they think and do. Fortunately the Founding Fathers were wise enough to insist on our freedom to pray to whatever God helps us keep our lives in some kind of perspective but at the same time insist on there being something that we hold true above all else that we don't create.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • Eric G

      Sorry, you are deluded. Atheism is a lack of belief in a god or gods. Your claims carry a burden of proof that require verifiable evidencial support, which you have not provided.

      Sorry, no points this round.
      Please try harder next time.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  10. jsmith89

    Why do we have a national day of prayer when there is supposed to be separation of church and state?

    May 3, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • n8263

      Because we do not have a true separation of church and state.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • Saby

      National Day of Prayer is an expression of freedom of religion. If you have a problem with that move to a communist country.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • Ralph

      National Day of Stupidity was established before atheists could say anything without being beated by thugs. Same reason there is religious quotes on government buildings.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.
      -Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814

      May 3, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Josh

      Separation of church and state was a phrase in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists ensuring them that they would be protected from the government, not the government from them.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  11. billy

    Ok I think I get it. So God'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.

    Is that about right?

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

      No. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever should believe in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. God doesn't need our worship. We need Him to live and we live by his love.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • Snap

      This is what I will pray on National Prayer Day. Lord cleanse me with napalm. Maybe if enough of us pray that prayer we can end this nonsense and start living our next life. I don't know about you, but it seems like the J-man won 2000 years ago on a cross, I just can't figure out why we're still here. Oh yeah tests, got to pass your tests. Can't go to heaven until you score a passing grade. Oh wait I thought it was about faith and love, I'm so confused now.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  12. BVN

    The hubris of mankind knows no bounds.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • BVI Is Nicer

      You got that right! To think that the most powerful creator being of all the universe is their personal buddy, WOW! That is hubris beyond words!

      May 3, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      but, but ... God made me in his image, and this is the center of the universe!! I think a little hubris is warranted at this point.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  13. n8263

    Religion, because the best way to find meaning in your life is to lie to yourself.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Saby

      I hope you include yourself in this criticism, because by thinking life is a product of random chance, you are lying to yourself.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • Eric G

      Random chance? Someone did not pay attention in science class.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • Josh

      Atheism, because the best way to lose meaning in life is to lie to yourself.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  14. Tina

    I am a lifelong Catholic and I believe in prayer. As the article states, 78% of Americans profess to be Christians. If we are still a democratic society, in which the majority rules, then we Christians should be able to celebrate a National Day of Prayer. For those who are not believers, just don't pray!–It is your choice. If you choose not to pray that's fine with me. I won't ram my religion down your throat if you don't ram your lack of religion down mine. In my city we have a prayer breakfast on this day. No one is making anyone attend. And by the way, I'll bet most nonbelievers give and receive gifts at Christmas. Thank you for the opportunity to speak my opinion.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • plucky

      Since when is giving or receiving a gift at christmas part of your catholic religion such that I am considered a hypocrite (as you are suggesting)?

      May 3, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • F..Religion

      Tina,

      Religious beliefs = delusional fixations. Although you might be just fine with your delusions, who to say the next guy is/will be? Will he use his delusions to fly planes into buildings? Or will he use them to commit some other irrational act? Delusions are dangerous. The sooner we rid the world of the religious cancers the better of we will be.

      No personal offense intended.

      Kind Regards. K.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • Snap

      Your post makes me laugh. Are you sure you are a Christian?

      May 3, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Yeah, what's a little violation of the Establishment Clause and some tyranny by majority between friends? LOL

      May 3, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • jetman

      December 25 th is not actually Christ’s birthday, it is just one of many things Christianity borrowed from other religions. I implore you to research this. Humans have created thousands of religions in every pocket of the globe. The global colonization of Western Europe is the reason for Christianities success today.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  15. moose4u2

    i have never seen a athiest dying in a accident not calling out to god for forgiveness !!!

    May 3, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      Then you've never seen an Atheist dying in an accident.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • O.S. Bird

      You've seen a lot of people die, have you? And while dying, you ask them if they have any religious beliefs? Before you answer, try to remember your Ten Commandments.

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

      How many accidents did you see where people died? and what do you do that is continuously giving you opportunities to see such accidents? you scare me, dude..

      May 3, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Maggie Mae

      Just how many atheists have you watched die in car wrecks? Is it enough to give believe stats given the margin of error and how did you verify they were in fact atheists BEFORE said wreck? Seriously this is a fallacy that a lot of evangelicals promote. The truth is that many atheists breath their last breath knowingly without ever calling out to any god. Even if they did, do you really want that to be your "sell" line...We're the eternal safety net...not sure if there is life after this. Claim a religion before death just to be on the safe side..can't hurt *winks* By the way I am NOT an atheist. I spent many years very involved in an uber conservative Christian church. I consider myself a Spiritual person though no longer a Religious person as I believe all religions have an element of truth covered in a WHOLE bunch of socially/economically motivated propaganda that supported the position of the leaders at the time "Doctrine" was declared. Bottom line for me is live and let live. But throwing out false claims to support your position only weakens it in the end.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • Ralph

      Moosey DOES know that! He speaks the truth! That's the last words they said as he stood over them with the roaring bloody chainsaw screaming "Say you love Jesus or I start sawing!!!"

      May 3, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  16. Tr1Xen

    Let me SHOW you the power of TALOS!! 😉

    May 3, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  17. 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 5:53 pm |
    • Snap

      I totally agree, and think national prayer day should be called by its honest name, "National Delusion Day"

      May 3, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Sortakinda

      Oh wise one, you must have many followers among the one point six per cent! Waste not your time on these lowly believers who live and hope for reward for their good works! Your bitterness is it's own reward.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Snap

      I do hope the 1.6% are the group that are self-aware enough to stop lying to themselves for comfort. It's kind of like being in the 98th percentile of intelligence in the world. Thank you America for making it so easy to appear as if I'm a genius.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  18. Alex

    I'm going to be praying to the only real god – the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

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

      I saw him in real life. More then I can say of any other god.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Snow

      no.. obbvioussly, the real god is the invisible pink unicorn.. you better get your act straight and pray to the only real pink god or it is unicorn up your a$$ for eternity..

      May 3, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • Bob Lewis

      Only when he comes with garlic rolls!

      May 3, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
  19. Name*DJ

    Steve, your obviously part of the 1.6% and I'm part of the 24%, so I am going with the 24% that Christ gave the authority to when he told Peter that he was the Rock, and that upon this Rock He would build His Church, and that what Peter and the Church held bound on earth would also be bound in Heaven, and the power of hell would never prevail over His Church. I assure on the last day, when Christ assends from Heaven with the Powers of the Heavenly Host all will be on their knees praying for forgiveness and worshiping the God you and the other Aitheist and secular media love to mock and make fun of, including Catholics Christians,all other Christians, Jews, JW 's, Mormoms, Muslims, Buddhist, Hindus,and every other sects or nonbelievers...

    May 3, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • bla

      When you write hilarious garbage like this how could any reasonable person NOT mock you?

      May 3, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      Hahahah!! Awesome. Can you please tell us the story of the giant fish too. ... That one is one of my favorites. I also like when J-Man had a bet with Satan, and they totally ruined some guy named Job's life over a BET!! But don't worry dude, killed your wife? Here's some more. Killed your kids? No sweat, here are some more. Those others are pretty easy to forget, huh? And it was for a good cause, I just won a bet against that red guy standing over there with the pitchfork ... I also just saved a lot of money on my car insurance.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Snap

      I like the one where they manage to fit all the animals of the world into a single boat. It proves my infinite space invention can work. Reply if you want to donate, it will prove once and for all the bible is the greatest source of truth!

      May 3, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      @snap – that is a really good one too. Where the hell did he find penguins? And did he have to store salt-water or fresh-water fish? Because rain is freshwater, so it would imply he had to go catch sharks? ... And insects? And ... bacteria samples? And what did the lions eat? Actually, the lions would be easy to feed, but the elephants and the hippos? Just think about how much food a zoo goes through in one day. Let alone 370 of them. ... And who had to clean out the cages? Bilge duty would SUCK on that ship. But Noah was only 600 or so at the time, so I'm sure he got around just fine.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • Snap

      Well I'll give Noah one thing, he didn't have to put the dinosaurs on the boat because they were abominations created by demons and wicked men. That saved a lot of space.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  20. F..Religion

    Why do people who argue about religion always overlook the underlying issue?

    The problem with religion is the installation of a “God Based Reality” into a young child or adolescent mind which is not challenged over a significant period of time resulting in improbable, or nearly impossible rational judgment at later stages in life with respect to religious claims.

    That said, there is always born again Christians, who typically are some type fall under the recovery realm or dying realm.

    And to all of you who insist on pushing your religious beliefs on the rest of us, I have two words for you: F_CK OFF.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • thinker in the sun

      Hey, let's be civil, fellow atheists. Kindness and rationality are the way tinto other's thoughts.

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

      "And to all of you who insist on pushing your religious beliefs on the rest of us..."
      As F..Religion pushes his her religious beliefs off on us.
      Atheism is religion, you might ask? Yes. Random House College Dictionary: religion- a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      Civility would be nice but child abuse is unacceptable.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      John ... Atheism is not a "belief", try looking up Atheism instead of religion. A-theism is simple non belief in theism .. and I don't need an online dictionary to tell me that.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Snap

      How long did you have to look to find a dictionary that defined religion so narrowly that it would support your dumb argument that atheism is a religion. First definition I found:

      re·li·gion/riˈlijən/
      Noun:
      The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods.
      Details of belief as taught or discussed.

      So what superhuman or deity do atheists worship? Religion is at its core worship of a god. You can't be a religion without a god or deity. Otherwise being a vegetarian would be a religion because you believe it is better not to eat meat. Religious people are always trying to bend the definition of words. That is their primary tool of persuasion.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • Those used guys.

      My old mom used to drag us kids to church every Sunday and we had to listen to the usual bible stories in Sunday School. My dad would never go and when I got home (if there wasn't a football game on) I would tell him what I heard. His response, You shouldn't believe all that BS and if you do not want to go you don't have to. A well rounded religious education, so on National Prayer Day, if you do not want to pray, don't. Peace and love have nothing to do with religion; war and hate are the stock and trade of religions.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      Snap ... I think it's less a tool of pursuasion and more of the fact that they have lost the ability through indoctrination and fear to even conceive of being free of a contolling deity.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Josh

      I don't get this whole "don't push your religion on me" stuff. It's part of my faith to push my faith.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • Josh

      Peace and love have NOTHING to do with religion?! What about hospitals, shelters, and all the help that has been given to people in the name of God.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
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