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. JNdluli

    My, my, my what a lot of intolerant comments!
    Never mind a Day of Prayer.... whatever happened to freedom of belief, of association etc? If you don't dig religion man, go watch a movie or something else similarly entertaining. Are you atheists so bored, that you got to frequent these posts and dis the believers?

    May 6, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  2. Linda

    Just do whatever brings you peace on the National Day of Prayer unless hurting others brings you peace. CNN asks the question and does so with a headline guaranteed to anger some people and appease others in order to fill space with yet another story.

    May 6, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  3. Jason

    I do not think prayer day is just for Christians, it is for all people who cannot think for themselves!

    May 6, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • whybs

      What happened to Ra day? 🙂

      May 6, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  4. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things. .

    May 6, 2012 at 6:27 am |
  5. blessedgeek

    This is how you should pray

    The platter in our kitchen
    Hello what's your name
    May our steak be well-done
    With earth on General So's chicken
    Lead us straight into temptation
    But deliver us from microwaved evils
    For fine should be the cuisine
    For better or for worse

    May 6, 2012 at 12:33 am |
  6. Prayer changes things

    Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things
    Need proof?
    Read some so called "atheist" posts

    May 5, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • Prayer changes nothing

      Need proof?
      Read some of these crazy zealot post!!

      May 5, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
  7. Denise


    May 5, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • LucretiusC

      Great postings Denise. I enjoy warching those videos. I recommend you read Bertrand Russell when you have some time. Don't worry too much about arguing with Christians, let them live with their imaginary friend for the rest of their lives.

      May 5, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  8. Buffalo, NY


    May 5, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Denise


      May 5, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • LucretiusC

      These posts were far more interesting the first day this article was published on CNN. Now I see an inundation of uneducated impressionable Christians all over the place. You dudes are Christian because you were born in a Christian family. Hopefully one day you will achieve higher education, and actually do something useful for mankind.

      May 5, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  9. One one

    "“There is, in fact, no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer: the creator of the universe takes an interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after death; my current beliefs, drawn from scripture, will remain the best statement of truth until the end of the world; everyone who disagrees with me will spend eternity in hell… An average Christian, in an average church, listening to an average Sunday sermon has achieved a level of arrogance simply unimaginable in scientific discourse — and there have been some extraordinarily arrogant scientists.”- Sam Harris

    I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.

    – Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Vol. 1 Chapter 2

    May 5, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • LucretiusC

      You deserve huge kudos for that.

      May 5, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • ElmerGantry

      Well stated!

      May 5, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Eichman

      You are applauding the words of a liar. Hitler was an atheist.

      May 5, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      @elmer g
      Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      May 5, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  10. I believe in the gospel of Jesus

    @ momoya and all unbelievers -the burden of proof. This is my witness – it is not the burden of a Christian to prove anything to anyone, God has already done that through his beloved Son, Jesus. A Christian is a witness to the fact that they believe the gospel of the kingdom of God is truth and that they have accepted his invitation to be forgiven of their sins through the sacrifice of his Son Jesus.

    May 5, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • earl

      In Deuteronomy 18:18-19, God said that He will send a prophet like Moses. The prophet’s task is to speak the words God has put in his mouth and to reveal His true Name. God commanded us to listen to this prophet only. This prophet is Mr. Eraño Evangelista. Read the messages that God revealed to him in the Bible for our generation in this site : thename.ph
      Know if Jesus did really accomplish his mission from God and the Real Name of God
      Thank you.

      May 5, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • mandarax

      "Witness" is such a dishonest word to use in this context.

      wit·ness/ Noun:A person who sees an event, typically a crime or accident, take place. Verb: See (an event, typically a crime or accident) take place.

      You have not seen anything at all, you have only thought things. If you think obsessively about something and frame everything that comes along in reference to that thought, that still doesn't indicate that it is real. And it certainly does not indicate you are a witness to it. I am willing to bet that you have not witnessed crap, other than people having the same kinds of thoughts that you are.

      May 5, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • sam stone

      the burden of proof is on the people making the claim. your subjective feelings do not qualify as truth anymore than someone reading tea leaves

      May 5, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • Kris

      Actually, it is your burden of proof. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Saying it does not make it so, neither does a mere belief.

      May 5, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • momoya

      You don't have to do anything about your "burden of proof," as long as you don't make your claims to other people and expect them to be taken seriously.. If you're fine sharing your faith and having that faith mocked and cast aside with no consideration, then your shirking of the burden of proof is entirely your own 'faith.'. Of course, this will mean that you only do exactly what most god believers do (muslims/hindus/etc)and have reasons for your own personal faith but can give no reasons why anyone else should share your faith.

      If you'd like your claims to have any weight then you not only have to recognize that you do have the burden of proof (since you are the claimant of a positive statement), but you also have to supply that proof to any you would wish to consider your beliefs as valid.

      May 5, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • LucretiusC

      When you have achieve higher education, so that you can prove to me that you are not an uneducated impressionable individual I will argue with you. But not now. It will be a waste of my time. However, once you have achieved that level I am talking about, we won't have to argue, you will see by yourself what a sham religion is. Later, Talk to you again when you have both an MD and a PhD. Period.

      May 5, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  11. Prayer changes things

    Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things..

    May 5, 2012 at 7:14 am |
  12. PRISM 1234

    He is our God and the Rock on which we stand, we have found our place in His arms of grace , and HE is our God.
    Yet those who reject Him think they are free... But no man is truly free until he finds his place with the One who crated him. This song speaks to a heart that longs to find Him, but those who are full of themselves, will go away empty. This is the wisdom of our God, and no man can comprehend it until he humbles himself before Him. To Christ Jeus who loved us and gave Himslef for us that we may live with Him eternaly, to Him be glory, honor, praise and majesty,for ever and ever – Amen!

    May 5, 2012 at 12:49 am |
    • Etalan

      Hello crazy man, I see accepting Jesus have turn you insane base on your post. I hope you would free your mind and accept the fact the bible is mixture of story of different religion that got combine to make the bible. The fact that Most pegan religion have similar story to your bible, but a better understand of the world.

      May 5, 2012 at 6:11 am |
    • sam stone

      PRISM: Wow, very powerful and convincing. To people who already believe it.

      May 5, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • Tony

      Awesome video! Thanks for sharing.

      May 5, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • Ally Gorey


      May 6, 2012 at 2:03 am |
  13. Reality


    Steve, Steve, Steve,

    There is only one prayer needed for the Christian folk i.e.

    The Apostles' Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (References used are available upon request.)

    With respect to the budget and taxes, apparently you missed this:

    How much money would the following save the US taxpayers ?: And how many “souls” would be saved?

    Saving 1.5 billion lost Muslims:
    There never were and never will be any angels i.e. no Gabriel, no Islam and therefore no more koranic-driven acts of horror and terror LIKE 9/11.

    – One trillion dollars over the next several years as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will end.

    – Eighteen billion dollars/yr to Pakistan will stop.

    – Four billion dollars/yr to Egypt will end.

    Saving 2 billion lost Christians including the Mormons:
    There were never any bodily resurrections and there will never be any bodily resurrections i.e. No Easter, no Christianity!!!

    – The Mormon empire will now become taxable as will all Christian "religions" and evangelical non-profits since there is no longer any claim to being a tax-exempt religion.

    – Saving 15.5 million Orthodox followers of Judaism:
    Abraham and Moses never existed.

    – Four billion dollars/yr to Israel saved.

    – All Jewish sects and non-profits will no longer be tax exempt.


    May 5, 2012 at 12:37 am |
  14. b4bigbang

    No problema momoya, we could all be better off discussing ideas rather than dredging up old battles, but i really was curious as to what kind of town could be so dangerous to live in here in the USA.
    I still think it would have to be a very small rural town, the kind where everybody knows each other.

    May 4, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • momoya

      Success is dependent on two factors: What you know and who you know.. Sometimes a person can attain status in a community and be respected and then discarded easily once it becomes too uncomfortable to face the facts of the situation.. I'm not blaming anyone or trying to play the victim card, but I was genuinely surprised.. That's why I bring it up sometimes.

      May 4, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      I hear ya momoya, i've been fired and it sure does sting.
      I even had a boss threaten me with grievous bodily harm; thank God *his* boss fired me before he could carry out his threat.

      May 5, 2012 at 12:55 am |
  15. Etalan

    Real Christian rarely become scientist. People who pray waste huge amount of time, on their knee begging for an imagination creature to help him.

    May 4, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Hulk hate liar.

      May 4, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      @Etalan and others:
      Hey everybody, the scientific survey says that the younger top scientists are more likely to attend religious services than the older ones and the researcher thinks it could be a trend ind icating a future increase in religious top scientists!


      Right there – last paragraph.

      May 5, 2012 at 12:51 am |
    • Etalan

      You use a 2007 survey which is outdated. http://www.humanevents.com/article.php?id=37503 state that 85-93% of the world scientists are atheism. Survey was taken at 2010 with the people of national academy of sciences.

      May 5, 2012 at 6:06 am |
  16. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    prayer changes things. .

    May 4, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
    • Chad

      Yes it does 🙂

      May 4, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      If it did, the first post of this sort would have been the last.

      Try to figure out what that means, Chard.

      May 4, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer really changes things

      May 4, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      If it were "proven", you moron, you wouldn't need to post spam about it. That you do is evidence you're a liar.

      May 4, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things

      May 4, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • just sayin

      Prayer does change things ! Even the bitter Tom,Tom is drawn in ! God bless

      May 4, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Drawn in? Hardly; this is just a drive-by posting, you moronic dweeb. I pick and choose the idiocy to which I respond. This is the most egregious of the moment.

      Get a clue, dipsh!t.

      May 4, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
    • just sayin

      And yet you Tom,Tom are here. Drawn in by the thoughts expressed , the glorious thought of talking with God – prayer. God bless

      May 5, 2012 at 7:13 am |
  17. b4bigbang

    Hey Tom Tom how ya doin' buddy?!

    May 4, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Better than you in every way, 'buddy'.

      May 4, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      Excellent! Still a member of the Atheist Congregation?

      May 4, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Still? When did you stop beating your wife, dickwad?

      May 4, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Hey, bigfart, are you still retarded? It appears so.

      May 4, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
  18. achepotlex

    When is the National Day of Reason when our leaders act like adults and not children hanging their xmas stocking?

    May 4, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      You mean you guys don't have a national day of reason?
      Go out there and get it man!

      Btw, do you know your birthday food?


      May 4, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Do you ever stop posting and take time to actually think, bigfart?

      May 4, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
  19. Donna

    I guess I will never understand the complaint. No one forces anyone to pray. No one forces anyone to pray to a certain god. No one says IF you choose to pray, you must pray to MY god. This has just become another platform for atheists to try and darken the world with their own lack of belief. I pray when I want to..no one has to give me a certain day to do it.

    May 4, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
    • danielwalldammit

      Force is not the test for entanglement issues.

      May 5, 2012 at 1:44 am |
    • One one

      What is the motivation behind having a national day of prayer other than believers shoving their dogma in everyone else's face ?

      May 5, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  20. b4bigbang

    momoya: "Now I'm back in the closet and only express my opinions on line–NEVER in my own community."

    Where the heck *are* you? No, not asking for your personal info – I mean, are you living in the 'buckle' of the 'Bible Belt'? Some little rural town down south?

    Frankly, every time i read your drama about being persecuted here and there, it makes me shake my head in disbelief.

    Even Houston, Texas has a LARGE gay community (NOT saying you are gay), and we all know what those 'Bible-thumpers' down there think of gays right? Yet they've been doing fine down there for decades.

    I do believe you've lost a few jobs, but I'd bet that your employee files tell a whole different story than the martyr-tale you're spinning for us here.

    May 4, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      When you shake your head, bigfart, do you hear a rattle? Or is there just dead silence?

      May 4, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
    • momoya


      I appreciate that comment, b4.. I have been thinking that perhaps I should not be so open about my past, so I appreciate your honest advice.. Thanks. 🙂

      May 4, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
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About this blog

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.