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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. Supra

    I pray to all Gods/Goddesses., from the past to the present to any that might exist in the future. We need all the help we can get!

    May 3, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Fritz Murmeltiertag

      Penelope Cruz is a goddes, but I don't expect her to help with anything. Especially not after the whole restraining order situation.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  2. joe jones

    Pray all you want. Doesn't make a darn bit of difference. Praying people fare no better than non-praying people.

    Whatever God you're praying to still hides and still does nothing.

    The only thing you accomplish by praying is joining our ancient, primitive and ignorant ancestors in a belief that there's some human like figure causing events on earth.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  3. Matt

    National Day of Prayer... What? I thought that it was just the National Day of Reason? lol

    May 3, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Peter

      You people are so screwed! God made faith in his son the criteria for your deliverance from the grave, and you are all following human philosophers with their messages of rationalism, doing what for you. Saving you? Good luck with that one. You all have to be big, I mean really big, gamblers.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • crazypete

      @peter: Well, you are also a gambler. What if the Muslims or Hindus are correct? Then where are you? Of course you are better off than an atheist since they have no chance of winning...

      May 3, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  4. JesusisGod

    Atheists have their own special day too. It's called April Fool's Day. The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.-Psalm 14:1

    May 3, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Astra Navigo

      That's called circular logic – but I wouldn't expect less from a True Believer....

      May 3, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • We know the truth...

      Atheists don't need 'special' days like religious zealots... We just use the same common sense and logic every day to live far more productive lives than 'believers'... Time for you to grow up and accept reality.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • ReligionIsBS

      "Only a fool beleives something without evidence" – not a bronze aged middle eastern goat herder

      May 3, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • G

      So true...

      May 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Get Real

      JesusisGod,

      A quite old and sometimes effective tactic – declaring that those who do not believe your story are 'fools'. Nobody wants to be considered 'dumb' for not seeing the Emperor's new clothes, or a 'bas.tard' for not seeing the Sultan's new turban, or a 'cuckold' for not being able to see the Miller's gold thumb.

      Even Joseph Smith used it when he gathered his 'witnesses' to his golden plates. He told them that only those with 'true faith' would be able to 'see' them.

      The ancient, primitive Hebrews who originated those Bible stories were quite adept at manipulative mind-games.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • JesusisGod

      ReligionisBS-That's My Point! Prove He doesn't exist. I have to respect Atheists, because it takes more faith to believe there is no God than to be a Christian.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • JesusisGod

      Oh! One more thing! Ask any person with real brains and they will tell you that something or someone with high intelligence created the earth.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • We know the truth...

      Jesusisgod – Congratulations. You officially have zero common sense... It's impossible to prove something doesn't exist, and irrelevant anyway... You're the one making a claim as to his existence, so the burden of proof is on you. And you can't use the bible as proof since it's been proven to be a work of pure fiction... Good luck.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Get Real

      JesusisGod

      "Ask any person with real brains and they will tell you that something or someone with high intelligence created the earth."

      That is ONE possibility out of many others regarding how the Earth and the universe got here. We just don't know (yet, if ever). The god of the Middle Eastern Hebrew desert tribes is highly unlikely to exist. I'll bet that you don't trust much of what comes out of that area of the world today... why trust what those folks fantasized about thousands of years ago?

      May 3, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Those darn typos

      ..Just what Jesus would have said... you're sooooo christian, so loving, soo representative...
      Oh dog, my stomach is turning.. must be the bones I feasted on this morning.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • AnotherView

      Since you like Psalms, here's one back at you: Psalms 137:9: Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

      Looks like you pick and choose what you want to see, hear and read. Careful now. There are plenty of atheists who have been former christians and have plenty of bible knowledge.

      May 3, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  5. Albert Einstein, New York Times, 19 April 1955

    I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own - a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotisms.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  6. Kris Rhen

    Stephen Prothero I'm not sure what you're asking God about tax rates. Jesus said to render unto God what is his and render unto Caesar (government) what is theirs. Sounds to me like He's leaving that up to the governments to decide, which are here reprerentatives of the people.

    Now if you're tilting toward the windmill of charity, then you should understand that Christians are meant to be charitable and give as they are led (which should be sacrificially), but in that, to give freely and out of a desire to do what is right and help those less fortunate. Problem is in our materialistic world, we don't give like we should (selfishness is the root of all evil, not money – and no the Bible doesn't say that, it says the LOVE of Money, which equals selfishness).

    However, having the government take our money and redistribute is NOT charity. Again, I'm not absolving the united states of its poor charity over selfishness situation, but I will say that taxation has nothing to do with that.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Jesse from KC

      Well, reading this certainly explains why people ARE relgious in the first place. You obviously don't understand what you read.

      He's making a point. His questions about that are rhetorical and implying exactly the point you made. Dem's and Repub's pray to God and act on behalf of God (should be air-quoted), but he's trying to make the point that God shouldn't/wouldn't care.

      Of course, I don't think there IS a God, let alone the Christian God, but that's just me.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Kris Rhen

      Actually I understood that perfectly. I was however simply using the forum to present my perspective on taxation in the current paradigm (religion) just as Stephen had... you did understand that he was using this as a chance to promote his perspective on taxation right?

      May 3, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  7. erik

    Satan created religion to ensure there would never be peace.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  8. Bob

    I stopped believing in imaginary friends when I became an adult.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • n8263

      One day that will be the norm. We are slowly getting there.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  9. blahblahblah

    Funny how the author in his "prayer" talks about how people use God for their own agenda then proceeds to bring up issues like tax rates for the rich. Ahh the hypocrisy.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Sparki

      Just a hint, this article is tongue-in-cheek. Also known as satirical.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  10. Captain Moroni

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true church upon the earth that is led by God's prophet. Christians expect to be hated for the Lord's sake while His work moves forward throughout the world. We know it is difficult for many to understand that there is a second writing of scripture (Book of Mormon) that testifies that Jesus is the Christ. This writing goes hand in hand with the Bible and gives a history of people in North America. Don't you think that other people of this world saw God? Of course so – it wasn't just the people in the old world. Please read a section of this book for yourself to know if it is true.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • erik

      Why do you not act like your lord then?

      May 3, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • plucky

      I know it is not true. Next.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • We know the truth...

      You sound like a delusional six-year-old... Time to grow up??

      May 3, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Astra Navigo

      Hey.

      When I was 19, I undertook to read all of the world's most commonly-accepted 'holy' books, as well as some of the lesser ones. This included the Book of Mormon.

      Conclusion: All of them are compendiums of earlier myths and legends. There are some kernels of sound philosophy – along with a whole lot of nutbaggery and insanity. Read at your own peril.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Unitarian

      @ Astra Navigo: Reading isn't the peril; believing without question is the problem.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  11. 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 god's sake, please stop lying to yourself.

    Deluding yourself in religion does not change reality.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • serveJBR

      "for gods sake"? Interesting choice of words. To merely blow off centuries of belief by extraordinary thinkers may indeed, after all, be a safe "reality based" conclusion. Many, however, find evidence abounds that God is real, and that one religion or another is worthy for worshiping a creator. Again, you may be right, no way to prove it one way or the other, the universe is vast and we know so little and yet so much. How to explain it all indeed. Religion is of course man-made and very fallible. This does not, however, have any logical bearing on whether God is real, rather only indicates things, good and bad about us. Go work in a psych hospital for a while if you'd like more accurate info on what it really means to be "delusional". There is philosophical speculation and debate, and then there is delusion, and of course everything in between that any individual or group can come up with.
      The author of this article raises some great questions that might lead some all-knowing genius to think it's all crazy, fair enough, a lot of it is crazy. But many have benefited eternally from religion, "knowing" God and knowing the peace that comes from coming to some conclusions so as to move on in courage and enjoy knowing we cannot know for sure, that that is at the heart of what it means to love, to have faith and to sacrifice selflessly.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  12. Astra Navigo

    Hey.

    When I was seven, my sister created an Imaginary Friend. This was cute for a while, but she began using this as a vehicle to get out of doing things which were necessary for her well-being (baths; chores; etc.) Finally, my parents sat her down and set things right.

    We've had people (Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, and others) who've tried to sit us down and sort us out from our hangup on an Imaginary Friend. Sadly, over 85% of the world's population doesn't want to listen. Instead, we have wars and other nonsense, largely created by or supported by religion and the whole Imaginary Friend belief-thingy.

    Rather than asking how to talk to an Imaginary Friend, isn't the greater question, "How do I stop?"

    May 3, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • crazypete

      You do realize that disbelief in something without evidence is just as illogical as belief in something without evidence?

      May 3, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  13. How to raise christian children

    You must spa-nk the child, steal their spirit. (spa-nking takes less time than talking to a child. Now you have more time to pray) Take them to church and call them a sinner, this is important – like the Taliban reduces their new recruits – Brainwashing techniques. Make sure you have happy music in church where people sing together and chant,, this is the most effective part of brainwashing.Then remind them of death and hell. You now have a child who will later identify with you, spa-nking their children.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  14. Prayers of the Rich and Famous

    Rev. Fred Phelps: "I pray that you, God, would hurry up and kill off all the faggots"

    Rev. Joel Osteen: I would pray that you keep churning out morons dumb enough to think that sending money to me gets you to listen to them. Then again, there seems to be plenty, so even if you don't exist, I have it made."

    Rev. Sean Harris: "I pray that you, God, would hurry up and kill off all the faggots"

    Mitt Romney: "Oh Great Moroni, I have my magic undies on, I have done my secret temple rituals, I have posthumously baptized Osama bin Laden and Saddan Hussein. Please let me be president, even though I give most Americans the creeps. And let me have more money."

    Rev. Billy Graham: "I pray that you, God, would hurry up and kill off all the faggots"

    All the cancer patients: "Dear God, please stop this! Put an end to this! It's getting worse. I am scared and it hurts. Why haven't you let a cure be found? Why did you even let there be cancer?"

    James Dobson: "God, I want more power. Lots more. I want people to obey. And I want more money. And hurry up and kill off all the faggots"

    May 3, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • serveJBR

      wow, really? I had no idea those people said those things. Does that prove they have some major issues? Or does that prove that Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa and millions and millions of other people who are not so fearful are morons? Nice fail in connecting the dots.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  15. G

    I pray to the only God there is, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit of the King James Bible. Everything else is false. I will not unite with anyone that believes otherwise.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Astra Navigo

      Good luck with your Imaginary Friend. He's caused the rest of us a lot of grief.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • OOO

      You pray to the only 3 gods there are, right?

      May 3, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • G

      Man causes his own problems.

      The Trinity are three, but also one. Imagine water, solid, liquid, gas... but its still H2O.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • joebofett

      I'm sure we're all completely crushed that you won't "unite" with us, crazy religious person. That's terrible. Religious people crack me up. It would be funny if so many of them didn't cause problems like, oh I don't know, wars.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Danno

      So science is false? You're on the internet, dude. God didn't invent that. You make yourself like silly, just stop already.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Unitarian

      It's okay, I wish you much luck and happiness with your trinity. I however would rather spend my time improving the human condition. You know, even starving children (born again Christians or not) are God's creatures too right? Oh wait according to people like you they don't really count.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  16. Nonimus

    something -> someone

    May 3, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  17. Templeton Foundation Prayer Study

    Results:
    Complications for those who did not know whether they were being prayed for occurred in 52% of patients who received prayer versus 51% who did not .
    Complications occurred in 59% of patients knowing they were receiving prayer compared with the 52% of those uncertain of receiving prayer.

    Conclusions:
    Prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery but certainty of receiving prayer showed a higher incidence of complications.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  18. james

    do atheist believe that there are evil people in the world?

    May 3, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      The Pope exists, so yes.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • franno

      yes...and they turn into worm food just like good people!

      May 3, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • OOO

      Athiests do not believe in supernatural gods.
      Every athiest might have a different answer about evil. The atheist lable does not cover that.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      I know there are evil people in the world ... so I'll bite. Why do you ask?

      May 3, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • James PDX

      I fail to see the point of your question. Perhaps because I'm agnostic or perhaps because it's irrelevent. Good and evil are based on the perception of the majority. Based on my perception, there are bad people, good people, and a whole lot of in-betweeners.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • james

      so you believe in Good vs. Evil

      May 3, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Nonimus

      ... depends on the definition of evil being used.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Astra Navigo

      Certainly we do. We just don't view religion or the belief in an Imaginary Friend to be the source of goodness.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • james

      So you judge people on whether they are Good or Evil?

      May 3, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • How to raise christian children

      atheist believe that childhood trauma is the #1 cause to chaos in society. These traumas cause a physical change in the brain and later complications for the adult. However religionist call these people sinners.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Luis Rubet

      Yes...it's called common sense . when you need help i'll help and hope that the day I need help you'll help those continuing our lives. The golden rule wasn't invented by the jewish god or any book of fables.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • OOO

      Athiests, don't bite on this question. An atheist is someone who does not believe a supernatural god exists. That's it!

      You can not expand that definition to cover good and evil. That is not part of the definition of an atheist.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Eric

      'Evil' is a copout for the weak minded. 'Evil' means now having to figure out why a person did what they did – we can just kill them. Understanding the economic, social, and political issues which allowed a Hitler to come to power gives us the ability to prevent the next – calling him 'Evil' accomplishes nothing.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • crazypete

      As stated before this depends on your definition of evil, since if you ask 10 people you will get ten different answers. So, James, how would you define evil? Answer that and we'll answer your question.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Ryan

      I don't think one atheist can speak for all atheists or agnostics – I believe that like anything, there are varying degrees of people and not simply the black and white of good and evil. History tells us that people have been pretty terrible to one another since the beginning of time.

      So are there people in the world who do horrible things, yes, are these horrible people – often times yes.

      Many of the worst things are also done in the name of God – while really it was because of human desire and impulse

      May 3, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • james

      So what I'm gathering is that each atheist has their own religion where they determine what Good and Evil is. You even have an atheist coach on here helping you to answer my questions named OOO. I wish you all the best and will help out if you need it. Remember each day is our opportunity to help the poor and needy.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • crazypete

      James: Even within a religion there are different opinion as to the definitions of good and evil. This is one reason a lot of bloody conflicts have been fought between different sects of the same religion (Catholics and Calvinists for instance). Even within contemporary protestant sects you have vastly different views. So of course athiests are the same: many different views of good and evil.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @james,
      "So what I'm gathering is that each atheist has their own religion where they determine what Good and Evil is. "

      So what I'm gathering is that you don't really understand the concept of "atheism" and your intent in asking the question had nothing to do with the answers you received. Here's a hint for future reference, atheism is not a religion.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  19. nookster

    There is no human on this earth since to beginning of humans who can provide proof they have seen or talked to god. NONE! They can only give regurgitated information some other human said or wrote. If they tell you they have, then they are suffering from psychosis. Defined as a lost of contact with reality. If not that, then while they may not be idiots they are definately ignorant.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Not that I disagree with your position in general, but technically just because something can't prove they had a chat with God doesn't mean they didn't.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Nonimus

      something – > someone

      May 3, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • crazypete

      Quote: "There is no human on this earth since to beginning of humans who can provide proof they have seen or talked to god. NONE! "
      How would you know that? Unless you yourself are God? You realize your logical flaw (not to mention irony)? You claim to "know" something that only an omniscient being could actually know. Pretty funny really.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  20. franno

    i bet you'll never hear back from god...

    May 3, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
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