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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. IN GOD WE TRUST

    Few 100% true Reasons why Atheism is TERRIBLE and unhealthy for our children and living things:..

    † Atheism is a religion that makes you angry, stupid, brainwashed, ignorant & blind.
    † Atheism is a disease that needs to be treated.
    † Atheism makes you post stupid things (90% of silly comments here on CNN blogs are posted by closet Atheists)
    † Atheist are satanic and have gothic lifestyle.
    † Atheists causes problem in our religious society.
    † Atheists are mentally ill, that's why they have no faith.
    † Atheism won't take you to kingdom of heaven and paradise.
    † Atheism making you agree with Stalin, Hitler (Denied his faith later), Mao, Pol Pot & other terrible mass murder leaders.
    † No traditional family lifestyle, no holidays, no culture, boring and feeling 'outsider'
    † Atheists are angry, drug additcted and committ the most crime.
    † Atheist try to convert people over internet because they feel "safer" behind closet.
    † Atheists do not really exist, they just pretend that they don't believe in God and argue with religious people.
    † Atheists have had terrible life experience, bad childhood and not being loved.
    † Most Atheists are uneducated... No Atheists could run for presidency.
    † Atheism brought upon the French Revolution, one of the most evil events of all of history.
    † Atheism cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists.
    † All atheists believe in evolution, which means they don't believe in morality and think we should all act like animals.
    † The Bible says atheism is wrong, and the Bible is always right (see: Genesis 1:1, Psalms 14:1, Psalms 19:1, Romans 1:19-20)
    † Countries where Atheism is prevalent has the highest Suicide rate & Communist countries = Atheism!
    **Only 2-3% of the U.S. are Atheists/Agnostics VS. over 90% who believe in God (80% Christians) in the U.S.**

    † † Our Prayers goes to Atheists to be mentally healthy and seek their creator † †

    PS! the USA is a Christian nation and will always be.
    http://rightremedy.org/tracts/7

    May 3, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • trueblue42

      Poor troll. You have my pity.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Christian nation? Never was and you know it.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • Blasphemy

      Oh I must repent!

      Well, maybe tomorrow.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
    • RAM

      Hmmmm, I know this hardly merits a response, but I just can't help myself.
      1. Im not in the slightest bit angry at anything. Very highly educated – I would warrant a great deal more than you judging from your disturbing world-view
      2. Ha. That is amusing. I wonder which of our beliefs more resemble a lunatic?? The guy who relies on empirical evidence to have the universe revealed for him, or the guy who believes in an all-knowing spy-in-the-sky who eavesdrops simultaneously on billions of thoughts and cares who wins the super bowl or gets elected
      3. Great stat. Have you read YOUR post?
      4. Most definitely NOT Satanic, as we don't believe in Satan. Duh.
      5. Religion causes problems in religious society. Atheists dont really pay attention to nonesense, except when it is being shoved down our throats.
      6. You already said that.
      7. True. Phew!
      8. Probably the most ridiculous and shockingly common claim of fundies when attacking those who disagree. Anyone not like me must be evil and exactly like the worst monsters humanity ever dredged up. Yikes. Well, I guess you'll believe anything...
      9. Happily married, awesome friends, idyllic childhood, love life. Oops – there's goes that theory.
      10. Never done drugs, never committed a crime (a do speed once in a while, I must admit)
      11. Don't really care either way. I think one's beliefs are their own business. I prefer to be left to mine, and you are welcome to yours.
      12. Its true, your inane ranting has baited me into arguing with you, but I assure you I can count hundreds if not thousands of things I would rather be doing.
      13. Again, incredible childhood and awesome family and friends. Pretty much every atheist I know is like that.
      14. I am highly educated, as are the majority of atheists. I daresay it is the ignorant who are most at risk to indoctrination and the inability to think for oneself. I agree though, unlikely to be elected president. But I would wager a few have been closet doubters...
      15. Really? That's the best you got? What about crusades? The hundreds and hundreds of holy wars that have been waged in the name of one god or another and accomplish almost nothing? I guess those are ok.
      16. Give it time.
      17. Yes, we do. We also believe in gravity. Morals, as you call them, are nothing more than evolved responses to community. As a species we would never have made it had it not become a part of our nature to cooperate, to aide others and benefit from our contributions.
      18. The bible was written by men, from between several decades to several hundreds of years after the date in question, depending which book. And then rewritten countless times to suit various rulers or remove absurd anachronisms. Not the most reliable of sources, I'm afraid.
      19. Countries where atheism is prevalent are widely known to have the safest, happiest, highest quality of life. Lowest crime rates by far. Highest literacy rates by far. The US is way way way down the pack in those ratings.

      Actually – Atheism is the third largest group in the world, not far behind Islam in numbers and growing steadily in this wonderful age of information and reason. And it is much more than the 2% of the US that you quote.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
    • Apatheist

      Trolling should be reserved to fishing...

      May 3, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • Salty Bob

      Wow are you full of sh** you and your imaginay god can seek the mental health service you need @ getgodgone.youranidiot.com. as for me and the 30 million Atheists were doing just fine trying to stop people like you from turning this non Christian nation into another flat earth witch killing putting womankind as second class and everyone else as slaves to your imaginary god. Sorry but you and yours are totaly delusional and if you hvent noticed on the way out.

      May 4, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  2. Be one of us

    If you're not with us your against us. All you have to do is accept Jesus into your body and you will be cleansed of all your dirty sins. Christianity is the voice of reason and truth. I pray for all the Athiests and non-believers out there that they can be shown the truth and converted so they may avoid the wrath of God. Christianity has stood for thousands of years and it will stand forever.

    May 3, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • trueblue42

      Then we're against you. By extension, you're against the laws of the United States of America as regard freedom of (and from) religion. Leave America and take your mythology with you.

      Or, you could rise to our level, and actually acknowledge the human rights of those who think differently to you; just a thought.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • Ronin

      Sadly, it is easier to be stupid than to actually learn something. Which is why religion is quite popular still.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • Salty Bob

      This is to much the Religious nut jobs are out in force and I for one have better things to do, they are on the way out and it couldnt be soon enough. Glad you came "NOT" Very happy to see ya go. "YEA"

      May 4, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  3. Dr. Steve

    Why is it that atheists are known for being angry, upset, depressed, lonely, covered with tattooes, piercings etc.?!

    May 3, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • Brett the Atheist

      I don't know any atheists like that. That's a stereotype in your mind implanted by the Church to keep you scared.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • n8263

      I have never heard that stereotype either. I know many more Christians with tattoos than atheists.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • Ronin

      The problem is, Atheists get very annoyed by the stupidity of many religious people. It's very tiring dealing with people who think Evolution is a trick of the devil and that the entire universe revolves around them. To think Jesus wants to come back one day and save only his believers out of all people on this Earth is simply arrogant and selfish.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • Dr. Steve

      I'm Jewish and go to synagogue, not church!

      May 3, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • IN GOD WE TRUST

      Ronin then convert to Christianity to be saved!

      May 3, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
    • ormaybeitsjust

      Funny. My stereotype of an athiest is an educated man or woman, likely with an advanced degree. More the type that wears khakis and button downs. Someone with real compassion and true humility, someone that lives their life with real morality and true altruism, to the best of their ability.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • RAM

      This is the most absurd thing I've heard anyone say. I'm atheist, but I'm also highly educated, not a single tattoo, happily married, loving family, great friends of both religious and NON-religious persuasion, open minded, tolerant, kind, moral, charitable, and even tolerant of fanatics occasionally, though they do irritate me.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
  4. Kuiken

    Christianity is the world's largest religion, therefore the only truly religion. All others are fake.

    May 3, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
    • sortakinda

      For a while there may have been more Communists–PRC, USSR, No Korea, No Viet Nam--numbers don't tell the WHOLE story.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • trueblue42

      It is today; have you seen the increasing numbers of Islamic adherents?

      May 3, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  5. Maggie

    I'm grandma to 12 kids and I'm afraids towards secularism.... it's unhealthy for our children and grandchildren moving towards gothic, devil and evil lifestyle nonbelievers tries to push us into. This is worse than cancer!

    May 3, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Then move to Iran.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
    • Kuiken

      Iran has Sharia law.... Christians don't have that.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Ya the Christians have things that go by different names. Thanks for pointing that out.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • Apatheist

      @Kuiken

      Not yet......

      May 3, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Not yet? Christians have done worse and continue to do worse.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  6. Brett the Atheist

    300 million pairs hands clasped in prayer still can't do more than a single pair of hands hard at work.

    May 3, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
    • sortakinda

      Believers are not idle. Some pray WHILE working. Now you know their secret.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
  7. Const.itution law = Christian law (Obey, shut up or leave!)

    Atheists needs to obey our law or else they should be put in concentration camp

    May 3, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Sounds like something Jesus said before he sucked off all 12 apostles.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • David Hill, Jr,

      wow, I would hate to be you

      May 3, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
  8. akmac64

    There is a difference between spirituality and religion. Assuming there is a Creator (I happen to believe in one), there is no need to filter contact through the dogma of man-made religion.

    May 3, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  9. sortakinda

    To all the non-believers: Please know that many believers pray for you every day. I will tonight–and get this–you can't stop us. As for the power of prayer, read a secular account of the role of John Paukl II in the fall of the Iron Curtain, just for laughs. God bless us, one and all.

    May 3, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • Apatheist

      We don't care if you pray for us, we just think your time could be better spent being productive.... by sleeping, for instance.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  10. Const.itution law = Christian law (Obey, shut up or leave!)

    I love having God in our money 🙂

    May 3, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      I know. Thor is pleased.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
    • David Hill, Jr,

      Islam=convert or we will kill you

      May 3, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
  11. Godfearingchristian

    If you don't believe in God you're going straight to hell when you die. You have to accept Christ as your savior or else pay the price. If you don't understand what "God" means you should be tortured till the end of time. If it wasn't for our God there wouldn't be this world you're living in so just be thankful and bow down and worship Him.

    May 3, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • akmac64

      Are you for real? You might read a few of the things directly attributed to your savior, not the Roman propaganda written later.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • Apatheist

      Yes, god's time is better served torturing me for me eternity than saving the starving children...

      May 3, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • trueblue42

      Quite right. Since I have freedom of religion, I choose to pray to Buddha. Namu Amida Butsu!

      May 3, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
    • David Hill, Jr,

      again, not helpful. God's goodness leads men to repentance

      May 3, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  12. Voice of Reason

    Deliberating with the religious is like talking to a stick.

    May 3, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      They are fun to poke at through the cage and watch them bang their chests.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • sortakinda

      Not as rewarding as talking to the cat, I guess.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
  13. One one

    Believers can pray any time they want to. Why then do we need a national day of prayer? It's obviously a move to push a religious agenda into the public space.

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

      Move to North Korea or China your moron

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

      No more Mothers' Days, Fathers' Days, Maple Syrup Days, or any "special recognition" days? Let's just be bitter, sad, and nasty about anyone who disagrees with us. Now that's living in the USA–your way.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
  14. Crom

    What a bunch of crap! Prothero you silly little bug of a man, why don't you quit taking those pills and go into a detox center?
    Your article is pathetic. Putting this on the front page will not change the pathetic-ness of your article.
    You can do better. I've seen it. Pull your head out and concentrate. You write like a plaigerizing frat boy.

    May 3, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
  15. HerMtnMan

    BTW, the god in 'In God We Trust' was most likely not meant to mean the Judeo-Christian God. Our leadership and their behind the scenes supports/controllers suspected that it woul dbe assumed that that was the god being referred to. They had other gods in mind.

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

      False again. Now go and sleep your f00l

      May 3, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • RAM

      In God we Trust was not adopted until 1956. The founding fathers were actually secularists, deeply fearful of religion encroaching upon government, hence the separation bit.

      May 3, 2012 at 9:12 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. Lying to yourself is probably the worst possible way to try to find meaning in your life.

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

      Very well said.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • sortakinda

      n8263 is like a broken record. Repeating, repeating, repeating. Anyone remember what a "broken record is?" Not what Barry Bonds didn't do with Hank Aaron's HR total.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • trueblue42

      @sortakinda: And yet, you're completely unable to refute n8263's statement.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • Celtic

      So I guess Jerusalem and Bethlehem just made up their history because they had nothing better to do. Wow all those people lied.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
  17. Henry

    This forum is the result of 49 years of godless education!

    May 3, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      You sound upset. Go pray.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • akmac64

      Religious values come from the home, not from schools.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
  18. j

    We have all sinned and fallen short, and Jesus Christ died for those sins. He took the penalty that we deserve. Pray to Jesus Christ for forgiveness of sins, and ask Him to come into your life as Lord and Savior

    May 3, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  19. Iliam

    Freedom OF religion, not FROM!

    May 3, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Wrong.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • Fred M.

      From atheism.about.com:

      Response:
      This claim is common, but it rests on a misunderstanding of what real freedom of religion entails. The most important thing to remember is that freedom of religion, if it is going to apply to everyone, also requires freedom from religion. Why is that? You do not truly have the freedom to practice your religious beliefs if you are also required to adhere to any of the religious beliefs or rules of other religions.

      As an obvious example, could we really say that Jews and Muslims would have freedom of religion if they were required to show same respect to images of Jesus that Christians have? Would Christians and Muslims really have freedom of their religion if they were required to wear yarmulkes? Would Christians and Jews have freedom of religion if they were required to adhere to Muslim dietary restrictions?

      Simply pointing out that people have the freedom to pray however they wish is not enough. Forcing people to accept some particular idea or adhere to behavioral standards from someone else’s religion means that their religious freedom is being infringed upon.

      Freedom from religion does not mean, as some mistakenly seem to claim, being free from seeing religion in society. No one has the right not to see churches, religious expression, and other examples of religious belief in our nation — and those who advocate freedom of religion do not claim otherwise.

      What freedom from religion does mean, however, is the freedom from the rules and dogmas of other people’s religious beliefs so that we can be free to follow the demands of our own conscience, whether they take a religious form or not. Thus, we have both freedom of religion and freedom from religion because they are two sides of the same coin.

      Interestingly, the misunderstandings here can be found in many other myths, misconceptions and misunderstandings as well. Many people don’t realize — or don’t care — that real religious liberty must exist for everyone, not just for themselves. It’s no coincidence that people who object to the principle of “freedom from religion” are adherents of religious groups whose doctrines or standards would be the ones enforced by the state.

      Since they already voluntarily accept these doctrines or standards, they don’t expect to experience any conflicts with state enforcement or endorsement. What we have, then, is a failure of moral imagination: these people are unable to really imagine themselves in the shoes of religious minorities who don’t voluntarily accept these doctrines or standards and, hence, experience an infringement on their religious liberties through state enforcement or endorsement.

      That, or they simply don’t care what religious minorities experience because they think they have the One True Religion.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  20. Brett the Atheist

    Why is it necessary for there to be a "Creator" again?

    May 3, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • Iliam

      To save your a$$es from the devil

      May 3, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • Crom

      lol

      May 3, 2012 at 8:01 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.