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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. Pope Leo X

    I morn my Atheist Brethren. R.I.P He's in th Mulitverse now

    November 12, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • GodPot

      It;s mourn, not morn, ya moron.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  2. Dave

    Last I checked this country had "Freedom of Religion" that means we can choose weather to follow God or not. Unlike some nations we don't force people to follow a religion by the edge of a sword.

    There will always be people who say they are Christians and make people drink kool-aid, and there will always be people who truly are Christians and follow God's will for their lives.

    As for Cain what ever happened to innocent until proven guilty? Why isn't the media digging into the background of these accusers like they did Bill Clintons accusers? This whole thing smells like racism to me. These white people would rather have a half white President than a full black one.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  3. Rich

    Carm.....look to Perry and Bachman for bad grammar....oh yea bro Cain also

    November 12, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  4. Joe

    Did anybody really need the examples of Cain and PSU to deduce that this country has lost it's Christian values, or however you want to term it. So many other examples. How about the fact that our President listened to a preacher for twenty years who took the Lord's name in vain from the pulpit? And yes, Cain has had nothing proven against him so far.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  5. Cricket

    @Colleen Martin. People who overuse the word "stupid" do so because they are.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • GodPot

      Try some of these "stupid" synonyms to make yourself sound less, well, stupid... brainless, dazed, deficient, dense, dim, doltish, dopey, dull, dumb, dummy, foolish, futile, gullible, half-baked, half-witted, idiotic, ill-advised, imbecilic, inane, indiscreet, insensate, irrelevant, laughable, loser, ludicrous, meaningless, mindless, moronic, naive, nonsensical, obtuse, out to lunch, pointless, puerile, rash, senseless, shortsighted, simple, simpleminded, slow, sluggish, stolid, stupefied, thick, thick-headed, trivial, unintelligent, unthinking, witless

      November 12, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  6. steve

    As a nation, we have continually taken GOD out of everything. So why should we be surprised when things like this happen. AMERICA isn't getting any better but worse. We are not a CHRISTIAN nation anymore. Most people that I know don't even go to church or even try to have any spiritual influece at all in there lives. This country is all about having fun and whats in it for me. GOD is totally forgotten. GOD HELP THIS NATION!!!!!

    November 12, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • Bob

      News for you steve: there's no god. So quite your preaching about 'im. And the founding fathers were actually quite anti-Christian, for the most part.

      For example: "Experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, supersti-tion, bigotry and persecution." James Madison, 1785

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

      The sooner we forget about god, the better. The wounds from the evils of Christianity, unfortunately, will take a long time to heal.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • GodPot

      "we have continually taken GOD out of everything." Why was God inserted into everything in a country that was founded on the principle of not establishing any government backed religion? Things are only now getting better as we slowly pull Babylon the Great out of our country, slavery was abolished and civil rights have been passed, human rights for all people regardless of religion, equal rights for women instead of being subjugated as your religions command. We will only be free of your religious tyranny when the last vestiges of your God are removed from America.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • John Richardson

      Once again, Christian stupidity on display. Time was when abuse of women and children wasn't considered an issue at all. You know, back when all those fine Christian gentlemen ran the world according to their whims.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  7. jim

    Jesus is not a Penn State football fan. He's dead.

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

      Jesus is like the 10 year old, Catholics are Sandusky, and Christianity in general is like Penn State.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  8. AGuest9

    There are two iss.ues here: Cain is sli.me. JoePa didn't do what was right.

    That is diff.erent from doing wrong, but the cap.tain of the ship is resp.onsible for all that hap.pens under him. It's no diff.erent here. It's sad for those boys that not.hing was done to stop that mon.ster. It's also sad that JoePa's entire 60 year career was dest.royed over the sli.me.ball under him, and JoePa's inac.tion.

    In Rome, it is diff.erent. The church knew for deca.des what was happ.ening. People (the aver.age church-goer) knew it was wrong to not let these men mar.ry, so even.tually (in the past 20 years) the only ones that the church could attract were ped.ophiles, hom.ose.xuals and dev.iants.

    The pro.blem with Amer.ican politics is that the elect.orate will do any.thing to rid itself of Obama, who is doing no worse than McCain would have been able to do in the wake of the Bush admin.istration. So, the elec.torate will put any idi.ot into off/ice to run the cou.ntry into a dit.ch, just so long as the per.son in the Oval Office isn't Obama. You get what you deserve.

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

      Do you honestly believe that allowing a pedophile to get married will reform him?

      November 12, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • AGuest9

      No, but the church will be able to attract more than just the deviants.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  9. Illuminati

    Qu'ils mangent de la brioche! Government of the rich for the people. Media owned by the rich with an agenda. The dumbing down of America.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  10. CelticHunter

    Notice the student carrying JoePa around by the crotch area.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  11. Ruff Locks

    Just know that you will not be judged by whose ideas and follies you follow, being caught up in the mistakes of another sinner as you. You will be accounting for your own actions and inactions.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  12. steveareno

    I think that is important to recognize that this article is merely more political propaganda from CNN (Censored News Network) in order to influence opinion & voters outcome. It seems as though they will always continue to do so & will never simply report news unbiasedly. We do not have to allow them the power of controlling our thoughts & opinion. Let's see how long they will allow this post to stand.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  13. A wintess

    I think that Jesus would have said what he actually said when the crowd was about to stone the woman for adultry. First, let those who are without sin, cast the first stone, second, is there no one here who will condemn you, third, I will not condemn you, go and sin no more. You should forgive not 7 times or 7 times 7 but 70 times 7. That is the essence of Christianity. It is NOT a vengeful religion, it is a forgiving religion.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • Amistavia

      Right...what with the damnation and all...very forgiving.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  14. Michael Doyle

    As an American Jew, I find the assumptions pungent through this entire post thoroughly insulting. "In God We Trust" is this country's official motto–it doesn't say one word about Jesus.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  15. Rich

    Amen Scoto............phony christian nation...Jesus would be real sad or not

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

      Jesus is God. He is God Incarnate. God in the Flesh. There is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Got That?

      November 12, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • HotAirAce

      There are no gods. The jesus story is a myth. Got that?

      Now that we've cleared that up, I hope the mythical jesus would have compassion and forgiveness for all involved. Isn't that one of the foundations of his mythical ministry?

      November 12, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  16. Amistavia

    It sounds like a very Christian nation, what with the child abuse and mistreatment of women. Very Christian indeed.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • Samuel Jennings

      Love your comment!

      November 12, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • AGuest9

      Sadly, sounds more like the Middle East.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  17. JohnnyGenius

    Wow, this article really seems willing to make extremely broad generalities about the whole of the American population based on the actions of two very small groups of people. That hardly seems "Christian".

    November 12, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  18. Godfrey

    Congrats, Mr. Prothero, on a simplistic article filled with muddled points.

    Must be Saturday.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  19. HisNoodlyAppendage

    Exactly! Prothero hits the nail on the head on this one.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • John Richardson

      He did? You accept the premise that feeling empathy to the abuse victims is the "Christian" thing to do? Last I checked, a whole lot of non-Christians were doing exactly that.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  20. Colleen Martin

    Stephen Prothero <<< You are so stupid .... American were going to over sea to kill so many people... destroy their country... .. is Pres. Bush a Christian? Is Pres. Obama a Christian? stupid people always say something to someone they dont like.... Americans are so stupid,.... and stupid people are running the country

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

      Colleen, you are stupid also. Look at your bad grammar!

      November 12, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • AGuest9

      A country of the people, for the people, by the people. Since this is who the people are, I don't have much hope.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:58 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.