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. Yaa

    Evangelicals are like fungus infecting your wounds for this country. If there were no politics surrounding these mofos in last 50 some years we would have been united.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  2. Katherine Miller

    Matthew 6:5 WHEN you pray,,,,,,jesus says...not IF you pray. Jesus expects us to pray.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Please tell jesus to go take a hike.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • ThisGuy

      I'm sure jesus also expected you to be jewish and not warp his religion into something that set back humanity a couple hundred years (dark ages).

      May 3, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  3. Rhetoric the Viking

    How can you be forced to "believe" anything? Seriously, that argument befuddles me. If I don't believe something no amount of pressure will force me to change my belief or lack thereof. I know you think they are trying to force you into following their religion, but again I ask how? Do you really feel threatened because "In God we trust" is printed on money? Do you really feel violated because the ten commandements are on a courthaouse lawn. I don't feel threatened if I see the Star of David in a window or a copy of the Muslim Bible in a library. Why are you really angry at religion? Christianity in particular? I don't hear a lot of complaints about Buddhism or Hinduism. A hatemonger is a hatemonger regardless of the mask they wear.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Athiest1

      But you would if I wanted satans book printed on courthouse lawns. Equal representation or none at all. every religion in existence no matter how small must be represented in government or none at all, PERIOD!!

      May 3, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • I'll tell you why

      Because my daughter (who is part jewish) was called a jesus killer in her 1st and 2nd grade classes in a Texas elementary school. So anytime I see these things creaping into public areas, it gives the christion bullies more cover to do their hurtful things.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  4. TruthHurts

    Well our writer needs to do some real research to relaize that there is more then 3-4% of our nations population who are athiests and agnostics. Its actually estimated that about 15% of the population subscribes in one way or another with those ideologies. It has been accepted for years that the way we determine peoples religious preference is skewed because of personal bias, fear and confusion. Just thought I would point that out.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  5. Milliaman

    I agree with a lot of other's comments on here about how religion is wishful thinking, believers are afraid of death being the end all, and that it's better to try to make something happen instead of begging something else to take care of it. At the same time you can't expect anyone to be open minded to anything you have to say when you call them idiots and kooks. It will be a very long time before there is a majority of the world's population share's this view so in the mean time, respect other's beliefs. I am a social worker in the south and it seems everyone I work with hails jesus, and I don't look down on them for that, because it's humanity I am interested in and the freedom to believe what you want without infringing on the rights of others.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  6. ThisGuy

    Religion is for the weak.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  7. Deist1

    "And less than a third of those that claim to be Christian actually base their life decisions on their religion. Most just go to church (usually, if its convenient) and some of them pray before meals (at least on Christmas and Easter). Etc. Etc.

    Reality is that religion has lost its force in our culture and those that gained their power through it are fighting back. Problem is that they just do not have the real support of their purported followers. Maybe 25 to 35% are true believers (BTW, most of them are still hypocrites in constant need of forgiveness)"
    I agree with this. Well put.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  8. CitizenJP

    Dear Steve,
    Just as a FYI, Hindus believe in One God – not many Gods. Often it is misconstrued by others that Hinduism is a polytheistic religion – it is NOT. The Vedant which outlines the Hindu philosophy gives the definition of God as "Truth or Exitence, Consciousness, and Bliss" and calls it Brahman (not Brahma of Hindu trinity – it is just the creative aspect). Brahman is the only thing that exists; it is Consciousness, and its fundamental nature is Bliss. Brahman is beyond quality, time & space. The Hindu Brahman is neither good nor bad – Brahman is attributeless. However, often Hindus pray to various aspects of Bramhan (qualitative) which is miscontrued by others as polytheism.

    As far as prayer day is concerned, it should not offend anyone as long as people are not forced to pray or worship a particular idea God but there is perfect freedom as there is to either pray an idea God of their choice or a God who is beyond all ideas. This would also cover those who are atheists.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  9. Rob

    An no the nuns are doing the right thing carrying for those who have no one and no way of fending for themselves. I am catholic, but Catholics follow Jesus not the Pope. I am of Irish decent and last year the Irish closed their embassy in the Vatican. You can be Catholic and not follow the Pope.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Why do you have to be anything?

      May 3, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  10. Deist1

    What he said ^^^^ I agree!

    May 3, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  11. Proud Atheist

    I prayed to god to make me intelligent and to be an atheist.

    My prayers were granted.


    May 3, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      Interesting comment in light of the recent study that shows fundamentalists use less of their brain's capabilities than do "mainstream" Church goers.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • richunix

      Here Here!

      Stephen F Roberts: “I contend that 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.”

      May 3, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  12. QS

    If I didn't know better, I'd almost think this was written as satire to illustrate the sheer inanity of praying in the first place.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  13. DK

    Prayer is a personal choice. Gaining knowledge of the teachings of God through his various Messengers is also a choice. Even believing that there is a "creator" at all is a personal choice. So, pray how you want, or don't... up to you.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      But the government specifically endorsing this, and let's be honest here, it's clear they are promoting evangelical Christianity is a clear violation of the establishment clause. Feel free to talk to your imaginary friend whenever and wherever you please, when the government sanctions it though it crosses the line.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  14. Focus

    If all of you started caring for one another and being less judgemental and letting everyone excersise the freedoms to live in their own way with as much energy as you have spent arguing on this comment board, maybe our lives would all improve.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  15. Jim

    I pray that God will open the eyes and hearts of unbelievers to allow them to know the truth.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Religious folks must have a really odd definition of 'truth'.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • OOO

      And if their eyes and hearts are not opened, it's now gods fault!

      May 3, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Jake

      I hope that you will open the only part of you that can actually know the truth – your mind. Thinking with your heart is the only way you can believe in religion...unfortunately, the heart doesn't think, it pumps blood.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • kat

      The truth is too heart-breaking for you to face- I was once there at a point in my life as well. I would be shocked to hear non-believers state that there are no gods, but I have finally stopped living in denial and accepted that every man/woman is indeed alone forever..

      May 3, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • sam stone

      Jim: Only if it your truth, eh?

      May 3, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  16. richunix

    This expains its all...its the truth...I swear it, cuz I wrote it down: http://www.collegehumor.com/video/6750136/the-last-supper-at-a-chain-restaurant

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

    May 3, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • MarylandBill

      I do not believe in religion because I fear the unkown, I have faith because I believe that there is reason and purpose to the Universe. I have Christian Faith because I believe that Jesus was who he said that he was and that it is easier to explain the behavior of his followers in the decades that immediately followed his death if he really did rise from the dead than the wishy washy explanations that are often offered by academics.

      It is, despite the fondest wish of some atheists, far from self evident that all religions are man made and that God is a delusion.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • Jackjames

      Why are atheist so bent on making others unbelievers? Relax, believe what you want ( or not believe), but let the believers alone.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • James PDX

      JackJames, why do religions have missionaries?

      May 3, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • Get Real

      Jackjames, "Relax, believe what you want ( or not believe), but let the believers alone."

      Fine, but when believers want to try to run the country according to their fantasy, enact laws and public policies, push for it to be taught in public schools, take a toll on taxes, and retard scientific progress, we need to speak up to keep things real.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  18. gager

    Your attempt to suck up to god will get you nowhere. He hates suckups.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  19. james

    Have you ever wonderend why most of the Greeks no longer believe in the Greek gods? The majority are now christians.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • OOO

      I think you don't have to wonder. There are plenty of good history books that describe how christianity spread over time.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      If you knew anything about history you'd know the answer to that question starts with Emperor Constantine. Christianity won it's dominance at the edge of a sword, not because it is correct.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • james

      Oh so we should believe all of those books from the past and say the bible is fictional?

      May 3, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • n2it

      Have you ever heard of Constantine? Have you ever studied any history? You would do well to enlighten yourself on the "why" of Christianity.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • james

      n2it is that story true about constantine?

      May 3, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • sam stone

      "Oh so we should believe all of those books from the past and say the bible is fictional?"

      Yet you have no problem believing the bible, which is a book from the past. In fact, it is not only a book from the past, it represents codification of edited, translated iron age hearsay

      May 3, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  20. Rob

    I pray and go to church so what? If people have an issue about what I do tough. That's their problem and not mine. It works for me it makes my week better and makes me feel good. Waking up getting dressed spending time with my family and friends and going out for pancakes for breakfast. People know you in your community. You hear the scoop of what's going on in people's lives. I guess some people don't like that sort of thing. Guess they have nothing better to do then go online and judge us who pray and go to church. Shame on you and grow up.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • outOfTheBlue

      At least you admit that you do these things, not because they are true, but because they make you feel better.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
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