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. One one

    I shall now pray. Dear heavenly Father, I pray for you to bring harmony between Christians and atheists. Help me understand why godless trash, who deserve to burn in hell, are offended by those of us who are holy, pious, and god’s favorite people.

    Help the unsaved filth understand that by judging and condemning them I am trying to save them from your vengeful & vicious wrath, of which they deserve, AND I APPROVE, as long as they refuse to believe what I believe. Amen.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Greyman

      I call Poe's Law.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • Snow

      Troll.. or an idiot.. take your pick

      May 3, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      God was angry at the gays so he hit those towers.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • ormaybeitsjust

      well said!

      May 3, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
  2. HerMtnMan

    Depends on whether or not you want the prayer answered. If not, any god will do.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Blasphemy


      I get it now.

      It is like playing roulette.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  3. gingerroels

    Steve (blog writer) Somehow, in all this, don't you think we've gotten a bit sidetracked? I could go into theologies, religions, apologizing for apologetics as well as atheism but what good would it do? The United States allows for freedom of speech, which is why either of us can write anything today, as well as freedom of religion.

    If you live in the United States and you have freedom to choose if you believe in God and how you believe in God and how you ought to pray, if at all, then consider everyone has that same freedom. Today, I am grateful I get to make a choice and you get to make a choice about whether or not you pray. Let's be thankful because not everyone gets to do that.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  4. New York

    Non-believers should be put in concentration camps to be done with them, or should move to China or North Korea. They have nothing to do with this religious nation.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      I probably banged your daughter too.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • eric hicks

      Wow, your hate is just dripping off of you.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      How very religious of you! You just proved how sick religion is.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • Brett the Atheist

      Thank you for showing your true self.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
    • Mopery

      Nice, well at least you're honest in your insanity. You do realize that the majority of our top scientists and engineers are non-believers, so you'd be digging yourself a trench back to the dark ages.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • Snow

      Worst part is, people like this newyork guy have children and pass down those idiot genes .. pity that child.. or 20 if he is catholic

      May 3, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • Salty Bob

      Sorry pal but this nation wasnt founded on religion of any type.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
  5. Salty Bob

    The Spanish Inquisition: The Original Faith-based Initiative and all "Christian" alive and well.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • Mopery

      I wasn't expecting the Spanish Inquisition...

      May 3, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  6. Salty Bob

    The Spanish Inquisition: The Original Faith-based Initiative and all "Christian"

    May 3, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      T- shirts?

      May 3, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  7. Everett Wallace

    There are 5 billion children of GOD and 2 billion children of the devil. In the Holy Bible in the book of john HE speaks of the children of the devil. So no we all do not pray to the same GOD. The word christians is Not a group of people it is a way of life, in other words be yourself GOD THE FATHER knows who HIS children are, what HE say, HE knew you Before you were born and knows the number of hairs on each one of HIS childrens head. So which number do you like. It is easier to live for HIM than to serve the devil, there is no life in evil.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • Snow

      last poll puts the number of christians world wide at about 2 billion.. gasp.. are you saying christians are the children of devil? 🙂

      May 3, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  8. God

    Stop all the noise down there. You're giving me a headache.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  9. Deist

    The God in which George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Payne all trusted – the One Eternal God of the Deists!

    May 3, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • Mopery


      May 3, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • Snow

      Nope.. its Zeus..

      or is it Thor.. hmm

      May 3, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
  10. onestarman

    When Jesus was asked what the the Greatest Commandment was – He began his reply (as Recorded in the book of Mark) "Hear Oh Israel – The Lord Thy God the Lord is One" – He went on to say that we should Love God and Each Other fully. Muslims begin Prayer by Proclaiming "There is No God – but God" Essentially the same thing as the Jewish Shema proclaimed by the Christ. There Is No christian god or Muslim god or Jewish god or Hindu god. There is Only GOD.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Prove it, please.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  11. God Bless America

    USA is a Christian nation since its foundation... please read the declaration of indepdence. It should be a crime to deny it.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      You are so wrong it hurts!

      May 3, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • have you read the declaration of Independence?

      where does it say the christian god in the declaration of Independence, also the founding fathers were christian.. true story

      May 3, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • Deist

      Please review your history and then get back to us – what religion did a majority of the founders espouse?

      May 3, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Sure thing...and the T1tanic landed on the moon.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • Snow

      well, who needs to care about history or facts when you have the awesome smug coveralls of blind faith..

      May 3, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  12. One one

    Religious tolerance is OK (even though Jesus didn't believe in it). If someone wants to worship a telephone pole, that is OK. But when believers push their fantasies into the public space and preach that if the rest of us don't buy into their beliefs, their invisible, all powerful god will send us to hell to be tortured forever, that's not OK. Even more offensive is that they believe eternal damnation for non-believers is perfectly justifiable.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
  13. OK

    All atheists will burn in hell one day.... life is short. Guaranteed!

    May 3, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      But I do have a blast nailing your Christian daughters while on Earth.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • Mopery

      I'm curious, where exactly is this "hell" place, anyhow? If I'm dead, my physical body will already have been cremated here on Earth, so there will really be nothing left to burn. So how exactly will I burn if my body has already been turned to ash?

      May 3, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • Salty Bob

      Not your Idea of hell were in all ready with lunitics like you.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
  14. M1k3L

    My personal prayer:

    "Dear Lord, I deny your existence.
    Dear Jesus, I deny you are divine (to your credit you never said that you were)
    Dear Holy Spirit, (both English translations of the Bible and Abrahamic religions), poor you, the least understood; you are nothing.
    But if you do exist, could you please make an appearance again (or a first appearance) to clear this mess up? Lots of good people dying and saying conflicting things about you and it does not look like that is going to change nor end anytime soon."

    That would be my prayer, if I was a praying man.

    However, I do not belittle others for their personal beliefs nor do I think I know better than my neighbor. I never try to take away or change another person's mind regarding religion. I respect everyone's right to their own beliefs and opinions.
    I just wish they would/could extend me the same curtiosity.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  15. Voice of Reason

    We really need to have a "Reason Off", sort of like what the rappers do. The atheists would lop the heads off the christians with reason and logic. Hands-down.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
  16. MUST WATCH!!!!


    May 3, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • Another good one


      May 3, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • One more, just for fun


      May 3, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • And the king of the all . . .


      May 3, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • Salty Bob

      Got that about right worship or suffer and die hmm what a choice. thats god for ya folks.

      May 3, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
  17. prose53

    Read your history. Most "Christian" holidays were stolen from the early Northern European pagans, who worshipped Mother Earth. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. The so-called "Christian" religion was established through bloodshed, burnings, sacrifices, and armies. Nothing I want a part of. I worship n my own way, through the Old Gods and Goddesses. Through Mother Earth. I am sick and tired of these religious right wingbuts hijacking an ancient holiday.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • Doobie Doobie Doo

      History 101. Just because one thing is similar to another , doesn't mean it came from it.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
  18. Joseph

    All atheists knows which God we refer to..... CHRISTIAN GOD!
    Stop being arrogants

    May 3, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • Woof

      Nice English. Might work on your plurals a bit more.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation


      May 3, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Andrew

      Atheists, like myself, deny any and all gods, that includes the Hindu gods, Shinto gods, Jains gods, and yes, the abrahamic gods too. How is it arrogant to say "you know, there are a lot of other gods out there that people believe in, other than just the Christian god"?

      Isn't the arrogance on the side of the people who impose their faith as the only god who should be worshipped? What makes your god any more real than Shiva?

      May 3, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
  19. Greyman

    What about those who don't bother praying to anything? Who instead try to MAKE things happens instead of wishing some cosmic space fairy magically does stuff for them?

    May 3, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  20. the Flying Spaghetti Monster

    I am the one true deity, all of your arguments are invalid..

    May 3, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
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