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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. Dave

    I am SOOOOOOOOO tired of this Prayer / Christian / Bible dialog it is not funny. I think all these people with their FAITH on their sleeve need to shut up, focus internally on what they believe and let others do the same thing. I grew up in a small town in the Northeast...I knew lots of people there and I did not knew or care anything about their faith. I knew them as people, I liked 'em or I didn't and I didn't push my nose or my faith into their faces. Now I live in the South and I am SOOOOOO tired of meeting people who are pushing their version of "Faith" on me I could throw up. Same as the way Rick Santorum wanted to throw up about some faith based issue. Same sick feeling in my stomach that he said he had. Why can't people see this issue and JUST SHUT UP about what they believe.

    I have faith and I follow it in my daily dealings with people. I don't ask people where they go to church, I don't try to elect people that see faith based issues the way I see them. I JUST MIND MY OWN BUSINESS on this issue. IMHO this country would be a better place if folks focused on making themselves better not "improving" others by force feeding one or another belief set onto the other folks!!!!

    May 3, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • TruthDetector

      I'm feeling force-fed by your passionate call to stop talking about faith. If you hate hearing about it, why are you on CNNs Belief Blog to begin with?

      May 3, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Chuck

      Freedom of Religion, if you dont like it, try China or North Korea, they have lots of room for God Deniers

      May 3, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • StatingtheObvious

      Thankfully freedom of religion *is* freedom from religion.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • Chuck

      Freedom of religion means Freedom of religion, now shut up and go home

      May 3, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  2. KEVIN Stewart

    The Bible states, It is a fearfull thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.' My friends the grave yard is not the end of the story.The fact of the matter is mankind does not want to be held acountable for his actions. Like that old gospel song sez; payday is coming afterwhile.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • StatingtheObvious

      Many religions claim to have knowledge of an afterlife. As informed spiritual shopper, I'd like to hear your sales pitch as to why you think you have the answers. Oh and don't use Pascal's wager; it's just a fallacy.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  3. get a life

    I'm not sure why all the Atheists are complaining about The National Day of Prayer, I mean they have there own national holiday too, April 1st.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
  4. Believers are stupid!!

    Atheists are people that believe in reason, logic, evidence and facts. They are "rationalists". The word atheist just refers to one very minor specific area of their thinking. Referring to those people as "atheists" is like saying that a tail wags the dog.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • Mike

      You are a fool!!!

      May 3, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • StatingtheObvious

      I'm not sure you understand what atheism is. It's not "believing" in logic. Being an atheist just means you choose not to take a leap of faith and believe in God. You're not better or worse than a theist because of that stance. I'm not in favor of theists who feel the need to use rational lines of inquiry to attempt to "prove" something that is by definition not provable (nor should it be), but I'm also not in favor atheists who deny the possible value people draw from having faith.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • sortakinda

      Besides being atheists, I understand that some brush their, shower and get ready NOT to go to church, temple or synogoue. They are sooooo multi-faceted. Oh yes, they spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how foolish believers are, and they never miss an opportunity to remind themselves how smart THEY are. God bless em.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Believers are stupid!!

      Stating the obvious – you are dumb. As I said, the disbelief in religion and god is base on sound reasoning. It's a rational conclusion, nothing else.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Reason Able

      I believe in reason, facts and evidence. That is why I am a Christian. Anything else is credulity.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • StatingtheObvious

      I agree that faith isn't rational. I'm not sure why you think that matters. You seem to be making the claim that it must therefore have no value. Faith brings peace to many people. Sometimes it can also bring pain and suffering. Your problem is with how it's used and communicated. There's nothing particularly wrong with faith by itself.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  5. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • Cason Snow

      Like an otherwise healthy emotional state, sure.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:37 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 6:37 pm |
    • Believers are stupid!!

      Not so! Atheists are people that believe in reason, logic, evidence and facts. They are "rationalists". The word atheist just refers to one very minor specific area of their thinking. Referring to those people as "atheists" is like saying that a tail wags the dog.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  6. ThunderGut

    Content aside, what a terribly written article! (Terribly, article written?)

    May 3, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  7. Salty Bob

    Wonder if we can put a athieist in office clear this mess up.

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

      are you kidding, the white house is full of athiests

      May 3, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  8. Mat

    I'm proud and glad I live in a nation where our fundamental principles were founded on Christianity. Through God, our founding fathers created a, whether or not it is now, a very successful, prosperous nation. Other religions, do your thing, whatever is right and just, I wont push my faith on yours. Im very proud to be an 18 year old Christian, a Catholic, and an American.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • Believers are stupid!!

      You got it wrong. The founding fathers, being compassionate people, allowed the religious s freakazoids to be left alone with their idiotic beliefs, as long as they don't interfere with the government. That's why the separation of religion and state.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • Jack

      I think you are confused. Do some research on what beliefs our founding fathers held (hint: they were mostly atheist.)

      May 3, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • Ralph The Wonder Llama

      Failed history, did you? Drank the "Christian Nation" propaganda bathwater, did you?

      Here's a hint – the people who told you that are liars. They are not true historians. They are Christians with an agenda. They are liars.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • jetman

      Christian Principles? Most religions have many of the same principles. Furthermore, I don’t need a 2000 year old man-written book to tell me to be a good person. I’m sorry if you do.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • Blasphemy

      How did you choose to be Catholic?

      !8 years old?

      I bet Mom and Dad chose for you.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
  9. NarratedByJrMartinez

    The non-religious comprise ~16% of the United States.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  10. NarratedByJrMartinez

    How about the non-religious?

    May 3, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • Ralph The Wonder Llama

      Concentration camps. They are having the plumbing put in for real lakes of fire for us. It's because they love us.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  11. Believers are stupid!!

    Religion is fraud. The world will be a better place when people can actually think clearly.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  12. stu

    I wish we could at least call it the Day of Ganesha. Now there's a God I can get behind. Riding a mouse and all...

    May 3, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  13. windrider2

    Judging by all the responses here, it seems to me that the small evangelical group that speaks loudest and claims to speak for most, doesn't speak for many of us at all.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • Michael

      The Church does way more for people around the world than you will ever realize and is reported on. Unlike our VP who givs 1.5 percent to Charity. Talk about greedy...

      May 3, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • Cason Snow

      Like the spread of AIDs, because of the discouragement of contraceptives in Africa? If you ask me, religion is a very inefficient form of charity.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  14. Blasphemy

    I have known a couple of Christians in my lifetime. I found out that they were Christians by accident.

    I have encountered many con artists in my life. Every one of them told me what great Christians they were immediately.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  15. Godoflunaticscreation

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9izVu_TtAE

    May 3, 2012 at 6:27 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 might be the worst possible way to try to find meaning in your life.

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

      hmm...
      how do you explain:
      1. origin of the universe
      2. origin of life on this planet
      3. empty tomb

      May 3, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • Lilith

      Chad ... how do you?
      God is a non answer since there is no proof or even a lick of evidence to support the God story.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Empty tomb!! HAHAHAHAHA

      May 3, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      I guess he also believes in Vampires.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • TruthDetector

      Chad, when you debate with atheists you have to remember that they think they own the definition of science. They simply say, as has been said above, "God can't be the answer." And then they dismiss evidence you provide because they don't see it as able to fit into their self-constructed defintions.

      Every building has a builder. But since you can't see the builder, do you doubt he exists?

      May 3, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      Chad – are you serious?
      1) I believe that the "origin" of the universe was the big bang. Y'know, the established theory that the rest of the smart people are going with?
      2) Life is theorized to result from a chemical reaction of proteins resulting in single-celled organisms. Take a biology class for further clarification.
      3) The "empty tomb" can be answered in several possible ways:
      A) was never in it
      B) went to the wrong place
      C) corpse was moved

      – but your answer is more fun: An omniscient, omnipotent being created all of this 4-6,000 years ago because he loves us. And all of those BILLIONS of stars are just for our entertainment at night. 🙂

      May 3, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • RH

      The fool says there is no God.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • mjardeen

      Chad? Seriously with something called reason.

      Universe started with Big Bang, no God needed. Life arose from organic molocules and evolution got us here.

      As for the empty tomb, which one? Who rolled away the stone? Was it there or rolled away when the visitors arrived. Who went there and whom did they tell about it. What day was Jesus cruicified? The ansers to those questions depends on which book of the Bible you read.

      Silly Christians...

      May 3, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • Chad

      @Mister Jones" I believe that the "origin" of the universe was the big bang. Y'know, the established theory that the rest of the smart people are going with?"
      @Chad "big bang is the term for the rapid expansion of the universe from the singularity.. what triggered that singularity? Are you going with the "everything was created from nothing" theory?

      ========
      @Mister Jones" Life is theorized to result from a chemical reaction of proteins resulting in single-celled organisms."
      @Chad "you dont know,, check.."

      ==========
      @Mister Jones" A) was never in it B) went to the wrong place C) corpse was moved
      @Chad: "hmm.. early Jewish authorities were relentlessly persecuting the early church as a heretical sect which was entirely based on the reality of a resurrected Christ and an empty tomb.

      A) was never in it? B) went to the wrong place: where did the body go upon death? Pretty easy for early authorities just to find that out and point to a dead body as refutation of the whole story.

      C) corpse was moved To where? by whom? not the disciples, as they were willing to go to their death proclaiming an empty tomb and resurrected Jesus.. no one dies for something that they know is a lie.

      it should be note that all of those explanations have been tried over the years, along with others .. "swoon theory" and such.. all discarded as inadequate years ago..
      The only real explanation is He rose from the dead.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
  17. billy

    Appease the majorities on the small stuff. They'll take it as a win, feel better about themselves and fight less on the bigger stuff. And trust me, this is the small stuff.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  18. Vern Sawyer

    There is no god.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • mema

      Enen the definition in the dictionary defines an atheist as one not believing in GOD. Ha ha. So even the very definition of the word atheist admits God exists!

      May 3, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • Lilith

      mema ... so now a dictionary proves God exists! Really stretching there.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Mema is like a walking joke. LOL

      May 3, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • Blasphemy

      Mema, the icon of religious logic.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • Mike

      you are dumb

      May 3, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • Reason Able

      The fool says in his heart, "There is no God."
      He even says it on this site.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  19. TheRationale

    Have the prayer read to Allah and see how far that gets.

    Hence the reason a National Day of Prayer is ridiculous.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • mema

      Allah means GOD. Wow uneducated atheist! Idiots!!!!

      May 3, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • Lilith

      Mema ... but it doesn't mean God / Allah is real hence still rediculous. Also, TheRationale did not say Allah wasn't God ... or that TR was Atheist. Try a little reading comprehension before attacking someone.

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

      @mema

      You think I don't know that? You missed the point entirely. The point is that it's not "God." How about if it said "Krishna" or "Ra"?

      Also, nice useless ad hominem.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • Ralph The Wonder Llama

      So mema, you think that when you pray to Jesus, it works just as well tif God is actually Allah? I've got news for you, infidel . . . .

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

      I miss nothing uneducated atheist! Your ignorance speaks loud an clear....Oh yes I believe a cat-dog-fish mated(butt) with a horse-cow-chicken and now us atheist exsist. Blahahaha

      May 3, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  20. Jill P.

    Only 4% of population are categorized as aetheists or agnostic! Ha that's sooooo slanted! Was the poll taken outside a church on Sunday morning? BTW: You cannot use snipets from your god to prove the existance of your god!

    May 3, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
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