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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. Bill Ball

    Just pray to God,why screw it up with adjectives..

    May 3, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • scoobypoo

      Just pray to my invisible pink unicorn. Oh, sorry (darn adjectives)... just pray to my unicorn.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  2. Water into beer

    As a small lad I recall cutting my teeth on the back of the pew and tasting the varnish. The women wore these great hats with plastic fruit and sequins and feathers. The fans next to the hymnals advertised some funeral parlor and showed a painting of a bunch of cherubs with saxophones. There didn't seem to be baseball up there so I opted out early, dozing off when the word Deuteronomy was uttered and palming that collection plate dime to buy a Popsicle later that day. Don't really remember praying much, just checking out the legs on some babe in the row in front when we all were supposed to bow heads. I guess I'm doomed to the eternal bar-b-que, but I have the feeling Leo the Lip is down there (the umps always suggested he go there) and I need to ask him why Ernie Banks didn't bat third.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Ha!

      May 3, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
  3. n8263

    This article failed to mention that including atheists and agnostics nearly 20% of Americans are non-religious and this segment is growing much faster than any religious segment.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
  4. moshe

    Never reason with an atheist, they claim their's no G-d, so G-d takes away their capabilities used for thinking

    May 3, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Prove their is a god or shut the f up!

      May 3, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • Think about it...

      "I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."...Stephen F Roberts

      My apologies to whoever posted this on another blog, but I found it very eloquent so I copied and pasted it here.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
    • wordclock

      Never reason with a christian. They claim there is a god which nobody can see, touch or hear. Might as well pray to the magic pink fairies from the moon while you're at it.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • Fish Flakes

      That is just stupid.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • Hitchens

      You are right moshe

      May 3, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Moshe will be praying all further comments to us because science is wrong and zombie jew is right.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • John

      Hey I have a giant invisible rabbit that walks next to me all the time and calls himself Harvey. He protects me when I am crossing the street or when someone tries to do something bad to me.. but the last time I asked him if he wanted mt to call him God he just looked at me and wiggled his nose.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
  5. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things..

    May 3, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • scoobypoo

      Yes, prayer changes your brain to mush.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • David McCreary

      There is NO proof at all that prayer changes anything, has any effect whatsoever. The Templeton foundation funded a huge study out of Harvard... and found to their chagrin what they did not want to find. That talking to your imaginary friend is utterly useless. See http://web.med.harvard.edu/sites/RELEASES/html/3_31STEP.html

      As for the writer here who noted that his 20 years of sobriety were proof of God... No. It's not. But it's better than you think. God did not help you. Jesus did not help you. The former doesn't exist, the latter was a failed apolcalyptic prophet.

      You did it yourself. You cured yourself of alcoholism. You yourself. Rejoice in that. That's a far better and more enobling fact that putting it all off on some delusional nonsense. Take pride in your own self worth, and congratulations. You did it.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  6. BostonSteve

    The fact that I am sober 20 years is proof enough to me there is a god.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Really?

      May 3, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
    • Ralph The Wonder Llama

      By that logic, no atheist could ever get sober. Statistics prove otherwise.

      Did you know that the Higher Power 12-step approach has a 99.6% fail rate at 20 years? I mean, a huge congratulations to you, but you are 1 in 300. That means "God would and could if he were sought" is a lie.

      Congrats to you, but the reality is that you chose it, and have deceived yourself into thinking that it was God. It was nothing more than you choosing not to drink.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • BostonSteve

      Ralph.....you're way too serious dude, lighten up and let people believe what they want. Live and Let Live Mofo

      May 3, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • Ned

      LOL! I guess that is what it takes to "believe."

      May 3, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  7. Reemo

    Who said that NDP has to have only one way to pray? Why can't everyone pray or meditate or reflect as they see fit? This author is really trying to create a problem that isn't there. Next, he'll declare that "Freedom of Religion" means that we must have only one religion that we can freely follow. Which will it be?

    May 3, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
  8. Don

    I find it funny that when an athiest has a loved one in critical condition in the hopital or suffering from a horrific car crash, that the first thing they do is ask for prayers....or pray themselves. Sorry, but us 96% believers are not going to give in to you 4%'ers.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      So, you know this for a fact?

      May 3, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      I never prayed when my dad died.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Funny how believers go to a hospital and get immunizations instead of praying themselves better. Oh wait you said dying in a hospital? Shouldn't it be in a church where you can pray them better? Oh ya, deep down even you know it's a load of bull.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • jetman

      Show me a study that says only 4% don't believe. Do you believe this to be true because you read in this one article? Do a few google searches on 'religion extinction' and you'll see whats really happening.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • Poppa

      If it makes the relative feel some sense of comfort why not?

      May 3, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • n8263

      Don, your statistic is way off. About 20% of Americans are non-religious and growing quickly.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  9. Jim456

    Politics and religion do not mix. I want to see results, not prayers

    May 3, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      That should be carved in a stone and placed in the White House.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  10. Blasphemy

    When someone starts "god blessing" me it is a reflex to check my pocket to be sure my wallet is still there.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • One one

      Also, "bless you" frequently means "f#%k you"

      May 3, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  11. Voice of Reason

    Questioning one's belief is sobering when you realize the truth that there was no god, there is no god and there will never be a god. It is liberating beyond your imagination. It is being reborn!

    May 3, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      The ability to break the bonds of indoctrination to be a good moral, ethical, caring & loving human being without the threat of eternal hellfire is true freedom. It's not easy to break those bonds but once you do you'll never go back and it's worth the effort.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  12. Maa Durga

    LOVE.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  13. Blasphemy

    The existence of GOD requires no proof, only faith.

    Which works out pretty well for the exploiters.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  14. Ryan

    To all the people who believe in God, I thank you.You make it easier to spot the mentally challenged.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • fred

      1. Get church attendee list with phone numbers, sure to be gullible people.
      2. Telemarket anything to them and take their money.
      3. PROFIT!!!

      OR replace 2 with preaching to them and taking their money, just like Billy Grabber Graham did.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • Blasphemy

      Rush Limbaugh helps with that task quite a bit.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • Ralph The Wonder Llama

      Been done many times, fred. Christians have been some of the biggest suckers ever in American history. All a grifter has to do is sprinkle a lot of God and Jesus into their speech, and they will invariably fleece the flock. Prayer don't protect the rubes, prayer don't get the money back, prayer don't get them out of the economic mess that a bit of critical thinking would have saved them from.

      The problem is that religious people are inherently gullible.

      Google "con artist church" and see how common it is.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:18 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 and lying to yourself might be the worst possible way to try to find meaning in your life.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • Brandon Brown

      I believe in Christ Jesus as savior and God because he has me and he wont let me go. It has nothing to do with being "afraid of the unkown". Jesus wont let me stop believing in him.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      @Brandon Brown

      Have you tried tickling him?

      May 3, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • n8263

      I doubt that even you believe that deep down.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • jim

      The problem with your recommendation is that you are talking to intellectual cripples, people who can't face life without their god delusion. It's like telling a paraplegic just to get up and walk to you.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • Brandon Brown

      Hey Jim,

      I actually have a degree in physics and I'm going to grad school for aerospace engineering.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • n8263

      It has far more to do with psychology than intelligence.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
  16. arlojones

    We're not telepathic. Prayer is pointless other than whatever placebo effect it has on a person. The only danger is it perpetuates their delusion.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      It has the same effect as meditation or hypnosis. Nothing mystical about it.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • Lover of Jesus and his message, not his fan club. I like Buddha and the Jewish concept of "return" too. I like to look at many sources of spiritual wisdom and allow them to enrich me without irrational paranoia and fear...yet spiritually aware....because

      MAIN COMMENT: you do not need to pick a religion to pray. Comment to arlojones and others of same persuasion: prayer does have an effect, as shown by science. And you do not need to know if, for example, you are in the hospital being prayed for, that you are being prayed for.

      You may "know" that much religious thinking is "wrong," and I agree. However, spirituality and wisdom are real, and your mental conclusions from rejecting this or that are just as faulty. That's why I like the doctrine of illusion and the PRACTICE of cultivating non-judging awareness. It won't trip you up with childish lies, but it will get you somewhere worthwhile. And give you insight and ability to recognize and receive and realize wisdom, in its various expressions, and lo! There it is in standard issue religion, "hiding" out, enduring.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  17. widow

    pretty funny the atheists are storming this... only what 4% or so are atheists... you are soooo stupid and soooooo stubborn... truth is you don't have a clue if there is or isn't a God.. I don't either... but why fret... why try to bash others hopes and dreams? All that really matter is being a good person and helping others... if you manage to do that things will work themselves out for all major religions that is the center of there teachings. The reason I HATE extreme Atheists is they try to ruin someones day for personal gratification... to try and disprove God and Prove they are right by hating on others... If you are a normal atheist that doesn't believe in god without forcing that approach on others.. Then you are totally golden... the rest of you are like the Mormons that go door to door trying to convert people and force there will on others.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      You are so righteous it disturbing!

      May 3, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      I guess this is above your head but the reason atheists are speaking out is not because they give a $h1t about how dumb you want to stay but because of the fact that it is being forced on people through politics and corruption of law. But go on.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • In Reason I Trust

      Magic babies, magic gardens, magic apples, magic canes, talking snakes, talking bushes, etc etc.

      This is not reality. This is clearly fiction. The only reason people believe this nonsense is their fear of death. Just because we don't know what happens after death, doesn't mean this nonsense is correct by default.

      Grow up, think like adults, and be face your fears.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      it = it's

      May 3, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      widow ... you attack Atheists and Mormons, how very christian of you. Thank you for being different and not trying to push your agenda on us by posting here ... wait?

      May 3, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • Lover of Jesus and his message, not his fan club. I like Buddha and the Jewish concept of "return" too. I like to look at many sources of spiritual wisdom and allow them to enrich me without irrational paranoia and fear...yet spiritually aware....because

      bash and hate...hmmm...

      May 3, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      "The"... hmm yes. Interesting. Sorry Im thinking in type.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • jay1979

      Yeah it's funny how these atheist react. I don't mind and i don't care them being atheist, it's their choice. But how come these people don't know how to mind their own business and respect other person's belief, these are insecure and unhappy people the way I see it on how they react. Just shut up guys if it does not concern you. In the first place weere you forced to pray?

      May 3, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      @jay1979

      Now tell me what you said is not disrespectful, moron!

      May 3, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
    • jay1979

      @ voice of reason:

      peace be with you. 🙂

      May 3, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  18. One one

    New study finds that religion is heading toward extinction. Among other things it concludes:
    "religion may become extinct in Australia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Canada, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Switzerland."
    "In 2008 those claiming no religion rose to 15 percent nationwide, with a maximum in Vermont at 34 percent,".
    "The study also found that "Americans without affiliation comprise the only religious group growing in all 50 states." foxnews, march 23, 2011

    May 3, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • jetman

      Seen the study, in many countries in Europe belief is below 50%. They must have faster internet! And they brought this stuff over here….thanks a lot.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  19. Really?

    Flat earth was endorsed...not sure by what percent.

    You want to prove to me (and the other 96% of us) that "God is flat" so to speak, I'm all ears. Until then, I'm content in my delusion! You be content (with the other 4%) that YOU'RE RIGHT and we're all (again, all 96% of us) are crazy!

    May 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • jetman

      If you believe 96% of people in this country still believe you are delusional.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
  20. karina

    having lived long enough to know there is more to life than meets the eye, yes, I believe in a divine spirit that is omnipotent and pure love. I also believe it is the same power that all world religions revere and call God, Allah, or whatever. It's just that the world religions are so mind controlled that man has mucked it up pretty good. Organized religion has become evil. I stay away from it. It doesn't stop me from thanking my Creator daily for the blessings I have. As Mahatma Ghandi once said "I like your Dhrist, but I don't like His followers.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • In Reason I Trust

      I think you just quoted Transformers with that, "more than meets the eye", lol.

      Humans are delusional apes (what do you think you do every single night with dreams), whatever magic you've seen is just a lack of your understanding of the world and how your brain processes information.

      There is no magic, there is no evidence of any god (especially a magic jewish baby). Grow up.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • Lover of Jesus and his message, not his fan club. I like Buddha and the Jewish concept of "return" too. I like to look at many sources of spiritual wisdom and allow them to enrich me without irrational paranoia and fear...yet spiritually aware....because

      Hi Karina, just want to have a laugh with you. You make sense. "In Reason I Trust," however, seems to think you quoted Transformers, which is hilarious, and matches his callow intellectual superiority like a bow on a present.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • In Reason I Trust

      "You make sense," right...the person who believes in invisible angels and demons and devils and gods and virgin births and magic apples, is the person who "makes sense"....

      May 3, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
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