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. mema

    If 1.6% of Americans are atheist then 85%of those atheists spend their every waken moment on CNNs faith blog spreading their hate and intollerence. Something they claim to despise. Hypocrites!!!!

    May 3, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Believers are stupid!!

      What does hate and intolerance have to do with atheism? Nothing.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  2. johnfrichardson

    2012 – 61 = 1951. National Prayer Day is yet another example of post-WW2 religious yahooism. Can we officially rescind the 1950s?

    May 3, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Ralph The Wonder Llama

      The reason we had the hippy/radical left 60s was that we had the repressed uptight 50s before it.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • Don Avestruz

      And while dismissing the 1950's, perhaps we can forget the civil war when 600,000+ killed each other over "ideas".

      May 3, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  3. brutus

    This is such an asinine article...

    Regardless, though...The people on this blog who keep making pompus statements like "God is imaginary" are complete wingnuts...

    Wake up people over 96% of the world affirms some kind of deity, Obama is a believer, Ron Paul is a believer, and all these atheists still probably support one of these two candidates, and would not call them idiots...

    Stop using your backwater beliefs to be boisterous on the web. The majority of the world has, does and will believe in Theism, because it is the most probable. If you don't like it deal with it.

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

      so if I understand, lots of people believe in some sort of God or Gods, so they must all be right? Which is it – one God? Two? An Elephant God?

      Lots of people once believed the world was flat – how did that work out?

      May 3, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • Believers are stupid!!

      It's not any more probable than a toilet orbiting the moon.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  4. Desiree

    Screw religion.. Why is everyone so hung up on it? Who cares what god who believes in as long as they are using it for good. Religion was created to confuse and control people, and those people that don't see it... well its because you have been programmed your whole damn life by the people who are suppose to be leading us.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  5. Believers are stupid!!

    "However, to say there's no Spirit of the Universe or something, is to say that Life (my life, their life, all of nature, etc) came from nothing, means nothing, and is going nowhere. That's not even close to logical."

    It is locical. All other animals are not too worried about it. Why should you?

    May 3, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  6. Blasphemy

    The funny thing is that conflicting religious sects can see that the other sects are deluded.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  7. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    May 3, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Jesus

      -Prayer doesn’t not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!~

      May 3, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • Believers are stupid!!

      Prayer changes nothing. But you can keep trying!

      May 3, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  8. Ralph The Wonder Llama

    Tomorrow is National Day For Sea Bass With Fricking Lasers On Their Heads

    It's a stupid day too.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  9. jetman

    78% and dropping fast. If a blind poll was taken asking “Do you believe Jesus Christ is our savior and will one day return to earth” ? I bet the % would be below 50. Belief is plummeting all over the world and it has nothing to do with the Satan. The internet makes it harder to brainwash people.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • sybaris


      It's not some supernatural boogey man that turns people away from religion, it's simple education and critical thinking that exposes religions flaws.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Believers are stupid!!

      We must start with educating the children about the fraudulent and controlling gist of religion.If successful, religon will die.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Don Avestruz

      jetman, it appears that you are running low on fuel, a relationship with the only true God does not reguire thought; but a higher brain function called faith.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • sybaris

      Don Avestruz, you're wrong.

      If you were born and raised in Thailand you would most likely be having a "relationship" with Buddah. If you had been born in Egypt 5000 years ago your "relationship" would have been with Ra.

      There's no higher brain function to attribute your delusion to nor or is it a pedestal on which to set your self-righteous a$$. Your faith is simple indoctrination, brainwashing if you will, nothing more.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • Don Avestruz

      Thank you for the encouragement, but I was born in Thailand, and did "believe" in a false god, but nothing "good" came from that form of brainwashing (images of stone, jade or gold can not bring inner peace).

      May 3, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • sybaris

      Don, don't lie, it's a sin.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • Don Avestruz

      Sybaris, ต้องการดูสูติบัตรของฉัน (what to see my birth certificate? (or do you speak Thai as well?)

      May 3, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
  10. chosen2

    Free will of man doctrine is a delusion. Belief in the True God is a gift for sinners chosen before the foundation of the world, I trust in the Lord jesus Christ because He chose me to trust in Him. Christ has chosen2salvation.net a few sinners to proclaim His truth. 1 Timothy 1:15 This a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Time for your meds.

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

    Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings. Can we please stop acting like terrorists in the middle east who love mixing politics and religion, and instead act like Americans who cherish separation of church and state?

    May 3, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  12. abece

    religion is politics not by lawyers but gifted psychiatrists BUT god is one and a good one. you communicate with the language you know he'll communicate in your own language. no need of special knowladge. you may write this one as means of letting out or income, good for you. But god and religion are not the same. they all work so hard not for god but to convince more people to pay them for what they don't do.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  13. JT

    Talking to yourself is a sign of loneliness.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  14. ug

    There is only one god...but the non believers don't know that.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      All hail Zeus!!!

      May 3, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • Blasphemy

      Neither do you.

      The difference is in the knowing that one does not know.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • sybaris

      which god?

      Funny thing is if you had been born in central america centuries ago your god would be Quezaocotl

      May 3, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Sadie Boyd

      Show me proof...and not that silly rewritten over and over again book that has so many holes in it, you can drive a truck through the lack of consistency, context and commitment. Show me God! If you can't, then show me that there is not two of whatever you think God is.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  15. sybaris

    Religion is a filthy, disgusting disease of the mind.

    Parents should be fined for sending their agnostic children to VBS, Sunday School or any other perverse method to brainwash them into believing such nonsense.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Sadie Boyd

      "If you are going to pray, you need to choose a religion (and a god)." Why can't I pray without a codicil?

      May 3, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • Joe Peterson

      Yeh I guess Christianity should be wipped off the face of the earth. Lets set up camps where we can place the unrepentant Christians (I like that turn of phrase don't you?) and put them to work till they are crawling on hands knees begging to come into the welcoming hands of unbelievers. Ah I guess you long for the days of Stalin, Mao,Pot, and even shall I say it........

      PS There are many angry athiests and agnostics (Not all are angry;some come to their position by reason, built on particular presupositions) who claim that if it came to the above they would not participate but rebel against it. No doubt some might but most would follow the lead of their own teachings and anger. Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • sybaris

      The fallacy you promote is one that those people committed their crimes due to their alleged lack of faith in a deity. It's on an old lame argument used by your ilk that has no basis in truth after all, Bush was a man of faith and attacked a country, killed hundreds of thousands and for what? Cause his god told him to.

      Try again.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • Don Avestruz

      Christ (Jesus) stated that the present generation clamors for proof (or a sign from God), He stated that none would be given expect for "Jonah" And if we dismiss this as brainwashing, then certainly no other sign will be accepted.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:54 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 and lying to yourself is probably the worst possible way to try to find meaning in your life.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • GB

      I could not agree more that religion is a man made thing. Religion reigns by fear not love. "If you are not good you'll burn in hell for eternity." The Cruzaders killed thousands of innocent people in the name of Christianity, the Muslims killed and continue to kill innocent people in the name of jihad, yet in both the Kuran and the Bible it says : Thy shall not kill.
      The USA claims to be a country open to all religions, yet, when President Obama was running for office people came up with the thing that he's a Muslim and therefore shouldn't be elected. Amendment 1 of the United States Bill of Rights states that : "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ...."
      We, the United States of America, start wars under the pretext of freedom and civil liberties and then we turn around and do exactly the same in our own country.
      Catholics aren't any better. Look at all the child molestation because they prohibit priests from marrying and then they go and molest the choir boys.
      Religions are a way of controling people and most states and government like them because it saves said states and governments a lot of work in controling their citizens. Those religious people that go by the book commit less crimes (sometimes).
      Religion and prayer alienate the people and divert their attention from facts that the government doesn't want them to be aware of. They go hand in hand with soap operas and commercials on TV. While people are sitting in front of the TV watching commercials and soap operas they don't think about what is really wrong with this country such as the health care system, the homeless, the low standards of education. The rich just get richer and the poor just get poorer.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  17. Brad Ashtari

    Can't wait for the man stop talking to his imaginary friend in the sky. It won't happen in my life time but a man can dream... a man can dream.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • joanne smith

      i so agree. it's time people evolved a bit more. at the rate we're going, i'm surprised we're nor still tossing virgins into volcano pits.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • joanne smith

      i so agree. it's time people evolved a bit more. at the rate we're going, i'm surprised we're not still tossing virgins into volcano pits.

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

      Prayers harm you personally how?! If personal prayers cause you so much concern then you are not living as fullfilling life as you atheist would have us assume.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • Bill

      While I'm not very religious, I do not believe any sane person could actually be an Athiest. I'm pretty educated, and I know a lot of them claim to be of higher learning, but I doubt it. I'm not necessarily talking about the Christian God. However, to say there's no Spirit of the Universe or something, is to say that Life (my life, their life, all of nature, etc) came from nothing, means nothing, and is going nowhere. That's not even close to logical.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Mema, this is not about you praying in your house. Didn't you even bother to read the article?

      May 3, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • plucky

      I suppose it then is more logical that a supernatural being, who CAME FROM NOTHING, is responsible for everything? And, by the way, there is zero evidence! This is more logical?

      May 3, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • Cason Snow

      Does it need a "meaning"?

      May 3, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • Don Avestruz

      Brad, wake up from your nap, this is no "friend in the sky", He is a Holy and Just Creator and your sins have cost both you and I our lives. But there is hope, and you do not have to dream, just be still, ask for Him to change your heart.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  18. Eric G

    We need an atheist Presidential Candidate.

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

      Yeah, like Stalin, or Lennon, or Mau. They were great leaders, huh?

      May 3, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • Eric G

      No, they were not. They were not atheists either.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • Ralph The Wonder Llama

      Stalin, Lennon and Mau? That's hilarious!!!!!

      A communist dictator, a Beatle and an Egyptian type of cat?

      May 3, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Don Avestruz

      i thought we had one in office, already

      May 3, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  19. Joan Isenberg

    Maybe a little E.L.F. nearby will let you know.

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

      A small member of the Earth Liberation Front is going to contact me? Is there a code phrase I need to use, like "Herbie the tadpole has lost his way"?

      May 3, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  20. WHEELS

    Newsflash: God isnt real, religion is made up.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • Don Avestruz

      Friend, need to research the hard copy and perhaps retrain your editor in chief, there is a God (a Trinity), and in your soul you know this is true, you are just hoping that the Bible is fiction.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • sybaris

      and yet Don you still cannot provide evidence for your god.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:36 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.