My Take: Reactions to Cain, Paterno point to a not-so-Christian nation
Penn State students rally around a cut-out of football coach Joe Paterno after he was fired.
November 12th, 2011
05:00 AM ET

My Take: Reactions to Cain, Paterno point to a not-so-Christian nation

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

In the never-ending debate over whether the United States is a Christian nation, recent events support the nay-sayers. I am referring to the troubles of Herman Cain and Joe Paterno.

How we respond to ethical conundrums often boils down to empathy. In the abortion debate, do you identify with the woman who wants an abortion or with the fetus? Concerning the federal deficit, do you identify with the wealthy person who might see his taxes rise or with the poor person who might see her unemployment benefits extended?

One purpose of the world's great religions is to widen our circle of empathy beyond ourselves and our families to others in our community, and in the wider world. Christianity, for example, has long taught that we should empathize with “the least of these,” and particularly with the poor and oppressed (see Luke 4:18).

The morality plays we are now witnessing—the sexual harassment allegations swirling around Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain and the sexual assault charges swirling around the Penn State football program headed by former coach Joe Paterno — provide an opportunity to assess just where our collective empathy lies.

When we look as a nation at the Herman Cain campaign, do our hearts go out to the wealthy businessman and White House contender or do they go out to the women who are accusing him of sexual improprieties? In pondering this case, and trying to determine where we stand, how do we approach the evidence? To whom do we give the benefit of the doubt? To the “least of these”? Or to the most powerful?

When we turn our gaze to Penn State, do our hearts go out to the boys, some as young as 10, who were allegedly sodomized or otherwise sexually assaulted by a former assistant coach under Paterno? Or do we empathize with Paterno, the closest State College, Pennsylvania, gets to a graven image?

I know there are many unanswered questions in both cases. So I am not commenting here on whether Cain is telling the truth or whether Paterno did all that he was obligated to do when he first heard allegations of a sexual assault in his locker room.

I am talking about where are hearts instinctively go in these situations.

When I turn on the television and see “family values” conservatives jumping to Cain’s defense within hours of the first charges surfacing, or Penn State students rioting over the decision of their university’s Board of Trustees to fire Paterno, I have to ask myself, “What has happened to this supposedly Christian nation"?

I know that in the United States defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty. But I am not talking about the law here. I am talking about where our hearts incline, and whether they incline in a Christian direction.

I do not know whether Jesus is a Penn State football fan. He may well be. But if he were here today, would he be laying flowers at the front door of Paterno’s house (as many students have done), or would he be seeking out the boys whose lives have allegedly been so irreparably damaged?

Would he be standing alongside Cain’s lawyer as he issues not-so-veiled threats against accusers who have not yet gone public with their stories, or would he be standing by their side?

In your heart of hearts, I think you know the answer.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Christianity • Herman Cain • Pennsylvania • Politics • Sexuality

soundoff (2,118 Responses)
  1. Kelly Hoben

    It's sad to see Christianity continually used to measure the souls of people whose plights have been exploited. Of course it seems fair to conjecture that if, in the impossible event that a man famous for his loving message and healing powers who lived 2000 years ago were alive today, he would comfort victims, but it does not seem fair to leave out the rest of Jesus's message: forgiveness. A true healer would help the boy's afflicted by the long-time assistant coach at Penn State as well as the man afflicted with the unstoppable desire to abuse them. The Jesus who loved and forgave all would extend his forgiveness and healing to both the women who suffered Herman Cain's advances, and to Herman Cain himself. To make Jesus pick sides, even in your own imagination or in your own column, is as misguided as the defensive stance that some Christians are taking in these issues.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • Angel


      November 12, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  2. george h

    with a heavenly father pulling the strings, who are we to take it upon ourselves to act like adults?

    November 12, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  3. cronewinter

    As a total and complete pagan I think I have more compassion in one finger than the entire Republican party, They need to admit that the object of their worship is a dollar bill not the Christ.It's very sad but it is true.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  4. Harry Erbst

    Are you not asserting that we as a nation are religious. DO YOU FAIL TO REMEMBER THAT WE HAVE A SEPERATION OF CHURCH AND STATE! Well here is a perfect example of this liberal divide. When we do not teach these values to children from birth to young adults we must cram it all in at the Freshman orientation and review each semester in the dorm setting at peer to peer training ( and at what true level are the upper class student trainers capable themselves). Joe Paterno was not and is not the ultimate leader of Penn State rather he was the Head COACH; HE WAS UNDER THE DIRECTION OF THE THE ATHLETIC DIRECTOR. Who in turn reports to the VP of Finance who reports to the President who is accountable to the Board of Trustees. There is a long string of people who knew even the govoner of Pennsylvania. If you are cleaning house there are about 30 – 40 more people that must go as well if your theory applies. So far it seems that the "Administration B of T" has only dusted and ignored the large dirty spot on the carpet. As for the students I do not see where they errored, they acknowledged
    that young boys were allegedly abused. But they too (the Penn State students) lost a Coach who followed the letter of the law as written by the PA legislature. What does that teach? Do right and still be punished because now the Administration uses a level of why they think the law says to error on their side. So to reply to your article no we are not a Christian Nation we are a country of Cover Your Ass citizens. This is ti recent us from the same!

    November 12, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  5. Rich

    Religion is hoping Perry will get in and cut education funding so they can rake in more money and at the same time Perry can
    widen his base.No education is a win win for the right

    November 12, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  6. John

    I think perhaps Mr. Prothero is addressing those who call themselves christian and assert that they follow the teachings of Jesus as told to them by their peers. Within that group, the ideal of christian life IS "good." That ideal is an aspiration that is rarely attained. Mr. Prothero is calling this to the attention of those who think that their public assertion of being christian is more important than the inner evil that controlls their minds.
    Being an atheist, I am seldom suprised by the disconnect between espouced values and behavior. However, this is not because they are christians. Other religions as well as lack of them can produce the same results. What is annoying to me, and I think others outside of the religious community, is the loudly proclaimed judgment by some "religious" people that those not sharing their "beliefs" are not merely wrong, but inherently evil.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  7. Kevin

    Yo Steve – Judge not lest ye be judged. If you are intelligent, I would have to assume that you understand this concept and its value to those of the Christian faith. Hence, your content can be consumed in one or two ways to the viewing public.

    1. "At face value" or
    2. "As bait to the many, many groups that CNN prefers to demonize on a regular basis."

    If taken at face value, the inconsistencies in your article as it applies to the Christian faith are far too great to merit a detailed reply pointing them out. In short, you would have HAD to use a very broad brush as would dictate your goal to determine exactly what god is from the 8 religions of the world... 8, 9, 10 – whatever. You either "know" the one, or you "don't". That simple. Be you kneeling in church of chlling in Nepal with the "lama".

    So, you can't possibly be that ignorant to draft such an article as this based on your 'authority', which leads me to:

    2. "As bait to the many, many groups that CNN prefers to demonize on a regular basis."
    Well, I am not taking your bait. I consider myself a Christian and as such I have expressed in item 1 above; that you are lacking in knowledge but are quite capable in obtaining it for your own. This is one of the most critical components of the Christian faith from where I sit. If you care to use this platform to make the very, very, VERY ignorant assessment as to calling the US a "not-so-Christian nation", you need only look into the mirror to confirm that. YOU are the one who defines that. YOU are the one who can demonstrate it. Getting published, and having your picture online grants you no more authority to make that determination that ANYONE would have in this "not-so-Christian nation". Take it a step further and following the Christian route, "preaching" makes you no less of a sinner that anyone else. Your actions will grant you salvation.
    Bait – no, I have still not taken it. My guess is you are simply "stirring the pudding" in hopes that people who "claim to be Christians" start calling you names which have no value for growth (ignorance is a state of mind that can be changed, not an end all/be all). Your article resides in the profane world, so I will not assume the opposite and consider it sacred. You should be ashamed of yourself in cherry-picking examples (most notably the Penn State issue) if you truly are attempting to "stir the pudding" in both how people reply to you, and to others who may post here.

    If you want to find god, do so.
    Bless us all.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  8. Nick bitter

    I`m a better Christian then most on here ( I`m just joking) My point is I was raised in a so called Christian home and saw much Apocracy. Now in my 40 somethings. I think people are funny to think this country was ever a Christian nation. One would have to be deaf, dumb and blind to beleve this.

    This country was built on greed end of story and what have we done thats so great. This article lays out a good point on how we treat the victims in this crazy country of ours. Remember our founding fathers took this country then came slavery then woman had no voice I mean really fokes. What part is Christian. I say close all churches and turn them in to safe homes for the poor.

    Just think of all the money people put in there offering plates on sunday so they feel better and so the paster can drive a caddy and live large. Thats how it was in my church .

    November 12, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  9. edgy33

    A "Christian nation"? Let us hope not. This country is greater than any single religion or culture or race.
    Stop using polarizing terms to define us.
    On Cain and Paterno: Show me a place in the world where people don't jump to pre-judge people and situations. No such place exists because that is what people do naturally.
    In both cases the truth will out.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  10. Frank

    I understand the point the author is making - we lose sight of the anonomous victim and empathize with the public figures. But it is a little muddled. I think Jesus would actually focus on the sinner - not because the sinner is somehow a victim, not because the sinner should somehow be excused under the law - but because that is who Jesus came to save. Jesus would want each of us to look at ourselves, and ask if we are free from sin, before we condemn others. Not that we have done anything as bad as molesting a child, but we are all sinners in some way. And Jesus would have compassion for everyone - vicitm, sinner, those of us who are judgmental or misguided - everyone.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • cronewinter

      Once again the christian hugs the sinner and ignores the sinned against..messed up religion.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  11. Franklin

    I believe that God "allow" these ugly things being exposed one by one in a faster speed than ever.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  12. Jon

    Jesus also said "thou shalt not judge". We don't even know the details of what Joe Paterno knew, and the public has already judged him so much, that the Board of Trustees has fired him. THAT is not Christian. Even the old testament had due process to FIND OUT whether someone is guilty before judging. And Jesus went even further and said not to judge. Stephen, my friend, YOU are the example of non-christianity in the U.S. You make me absolutely sick.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  13. SCOTO

    This is a "church attending" nation. Not a christian one. If Jesus looked at the follllowing actions of our "christians' what do you think he would think?

    1. Wealthy mega churches
    2. Blaming the poor for their own condition (or just simply ignoring them)
    3. Putting people to death (for any purpose)
    4. General worship of wealth.
    5. Invading countries and starting wars.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • AtheistDude

      Amen Brother or Sister

      November 12, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • jackp

      "A church attending nation".....As a conservative Christian I agree with that statement 100%.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • joco

      Jesus had the first mega church service at the sermon on the mount.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • cronewinter

      Right you are Scoto. Right indeed.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  14. Bill

    The matter is that in the time we have taken to comment and debate scores of people in this world have just died from hunger. Died from hunger in a world that has enough to feed everyone. The question is, "What have I done today to make a difference in the life of someone else?"

    November 12, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  15. AtheistDude

    What is this idiot author talking about?? my heart doesn't go anywhere sir! my heart pumps blood to my vital organs that's what it does!!

    November 12, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • Ray

      You are giving atheists a bad name. Is belief in God a prerequisite to compassion?

      November 12, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • WhatEver

      Dude, if your an atheist then what are you reading a Christian blog/opinon for? Just to start crap...thats bs man.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  16. notdatty

    "...not commenting here on whether Cain is telling the truth or... Paterno"
    Yes You Are , Stephen Prothero. Your bias is all over this piece of dung.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  17. Brad S

    This is one of the dumbest editorials ever. Most people's hearts are with the kids. Herman Cain's allegations have yet to be proven. I think most of the nation thinks logically like I do. Making this broad rationalization about the extent of our 'Christian' status as a nation based on the reactions of a few idiots is moronic.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  18. Michael M.

    This nation was never meant to be a Christian one. The Founding Fathers were fleeing religious persecution, and even if they were Christian, they made it very clear that Christianity – any religion – should be clear and separate from the government so that the government could back the freedoms of the United States without bias.

    Those who try to force the viewpoint of the United States being a Christian Nation do so out of fear. Fear of "the Enemy" – whatever that may be; Germans, Nazis, Communists, Socialists, Islam, Immigrants, Officials, Political Parties, etc. Fear that they made a bad choice in life somewhere along the line and now "have to be right!" when it comes to Heaven. Fear that they won't or can't adapt to the change being implemented in other areas of the United States.

    So they find other people who are afraid and turn into fear-mongers themselves. After that, it's simply a matter of cherry-picking verses of the Bible to support their cause and become more Conservative now that they've found a community to do so.

    Thankfully for them, they're guaranteed the Right to Free Speech and have the ability to push their agenda. That's what this Country is – not a Christian one, but one that aims for a better civilization which caters to the most people. The fact that a religious agenda has not progressed beyond constant defeat in the court system signals that this really isn't a Christian nation.

    And you know what? That's OKAY. It doesn't have to be. It just has to let Christians practice what they love without letting things get out of controls. All that's asked is that they do the same in return.

    There, I just wrote a better article than this steaming pile of vapidness.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • mdh60613


      November 12, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • Neeneko

      Actually, they were not 'fleeing persecution'. Many of the sects that came to the US were in fact fleeing laws that stopped the from persecuting other groups. Their home nations were just too tolerant for them and they wanted to set up theocracies where they got to decide who could preach, what could be worshiped, and who could do things like own property.

      Though among the actual 'founding fathers', many had traveled enough that they got to see their own sects treatment in other colonies/states and wanted to protect their own, so they demanded the separation of church and state rules.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • TRH

      Excellent. I guess not many people know the meaning of the term "secular republic" which, as you state very nicely here, is what the founding fathers intended. Some were religious, some were deists such as Thomas Paine. In any case they knew what they were doing. No, we are NOT a Christian nation nor should we be.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Cheeseskreist

      "This nation was never meant to be a Christian one."

      –>That hasn't stopped Supers from successfully injecting their dogma into American society. Nowadays you can measure the gap between church and state in millimeters.

      "Those who try to force the viewpoint of the United States being a Christian Nation do so out of fear."

      –>How about fear of being marginalized that their numbers may drop? Safety in numbers keeps Supers going to church; billions of like-minded earthlings provide confidence that they are not making a mistake about their choice of god.

      "it's simply a matter of cherry-picking verses of the Bible to support their cause and become more Conservative now that they've found a community to do so."

      –>Exactly. The Bible is a wonderful resource for any side of an argument. Talk about conflicting messages!

      "The fact that a religious agenda has not progressed beyond constant defeat in the court system signals that this really isn't a Christian nation."

      –>Judges are our true saviors. Without their iron grip on the leash, our country would have long ago been overrun by roving packs of Supers.

      "...let Christians practice what they love without letting things get out of controls. All that's asked is that they do the same in return."

      –>How naive is that?! You forget that the mission of Supers is to 'deliver (and force feed if necessary) the word of [their] god to the heathen mass of unbelievers.' 'Defend your right to freedom of - and FROM - religion with the same ferocity and passion the Supers use to pursue their agenda. Otherwise, one day you'll find yourself on your knees begging for [their] god's mercy.

      "There, I just wrote a better article than this steaming pile of vapidness."

      –>Good boy. Now go out and do something about it.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  19. Rich

    What would Jesus do...Most Christians today haven't a clue...They just go with what the preacher tells them ...

    November 12, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • jackp

      I've raised my children to never ever blindly follow any man. Too many crazies in the world that'll lead you down the wrong path. Think for yourself!

      November 12, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  20. AtheistDude

    Don't fool your self people. The ONLY purpose of the world's great religions is to racket money and brainwash the weak and uneducated in the World. Religion was, is and will be the root of all evil unless we don't pay much attention to it and let it fade into oblivion and irrelevancy.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • flakko

      Religion in this country is dying a slow but inexorable death. I may not see it in my lifetime, but I have hope that my two young sons will see a society where religious belief is in the minority, if not an oddity and curiosity. I was years ago able to say the bible was literally true and "no governemt without God" with a straight face. If I can make that rational turn to atheism, then many others can and the world will be much better for it.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • jackp

      You sound like Vladimir Lenin, who was responsible for up to 30,000,000 deaths. Hard for any religion to top that!

      November 12, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • cronewinter

      jackp, Read the bible,God is the biggest mass murderer ever. His handbook of life is drenched in the blood and pain of thousand of people ordered slaughtered by this evil being for the sin of loving their own gods and goddesses. The christian god is a mass murderer and has been from the start. When he doesn't send an angel to do his dirty work (first born of Egypt) he sends his holy warriors (Joshua at Jericho) to do it for him.I'm pretty sure that Allah shares about the same reputation for pure evil. It is a mystery why people follow these blood soaked religions. Very hard to trust anyone who clings to these hurtful faiths.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:31 am |
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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.