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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. John

    Face it... it has nothing to do with [any] religion, it's about "winning!" Americans love their winning teams, and... the coaches that enable those winning programs. It's the old "not in my backyard" posture, i.e., "morals and ethics are great... as long as they don't endanger my winning football or basketball program!"

    November 12, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • bajadelmar

      Exactly, which IMO means that most xians really don't "believe" what they say they do. They lie in order to avoid the problems that rejecting dog would create in their lives.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  2. Naomi

    How did the author link these two cases together? Sandusky was caught red-handed raping a child! Not quite the same as supposedly hitting on a woman – with no evidence to back it up. Shame on you, Prothero, for even putting these two cases in the same sentence.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • Fracuss

      Obviously, he "linked" them together because they both illustrate his point.
      Who are you protecting...Paterno or Cain?

      November 12, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • stars

      I understand what you are saying. In most people's mind, the Sandusky stuff is absolutely horrific! But I think what he is saying do we have more compassion for victims, or more hate towards those who commit the acts. He then further states that Jesus would have compassion for criminals as such if they repent. But, I think, many people have even more problems with such people because they often deny the fact, continue it, or are misleading of what their responsibility in the situation truly is.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  3. ken mcintosh

    By your 2nd paragraph use of the terms "his" for rich and "hers" for poor it is obvious you are drivin by political correctness.
    so I stopped reading.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  4. Jake

    Prothero offers a false choice: Either we feel empathy for Sandusky's victims or we feel empathy for Paterno. We can feel empathy for both. The facts, regarding Paterno's knowledge of, and actions in response to, Sanduskys' alleged crime are not fully known. Testimony under oath and cross-examination of witnesses is needed before I'll lose empathy for a man who has just lost a reputation built over 58 years.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Motar

      Agreed, Jake. Christ sympathizes with both. He cannot empathize with either because He does not sin. Genuine Christians however can and do empathize with both because our spiritual condition apart from Christ is no better.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • Will

      Motar, there are no True Scotsmen. Research that.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Motar

      Will: As I do not regard human logic as a god, I do not consider "No True Scotsmen" or any other logical fallacy to be the final word on any subject. Grace and peace, Friend.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:06 pm |
  5. hippypoet

    i posted this on page 8 but i keep seeing people say things about how this IS a christian or just a religious nation!!!! well i can't stand for such ignorance... so here –

    the first line in this article is a complete showing of how ignorant our country has become... was this country founded by religious people – yes and no... some were and some weren't...the first settlers came here to be "their" type of religious rather then stay in england and be Henry the 8th's version of belief... so in the sense, yes this country is started by nut jobs, but this country is not yet a country at this point – its a colony of England. The founding fathers put into the const!tution a separation of church and state, so there is a very clear difference between the colonists and the founders... This is in my opinion beyond clear that our country was founded not as a christian nation, not even a religious nation, but one that allows for any belief but has laws that are not bound to any dogma – they are instead voted in and changed by vote over time as to stay up to date for the times. The fact that some morons have the "10" commandments outside a house of justice is sad and @ssbackwards... So with the first sentence of this article – "In the never-ending debate over whether the United States is a Christian nation" we the people show our ignorance of our own land and founders – thats insulting to the core. I wish people if they are going to talk, let them please at least try to know half of what they are talking about! All i am asking for is half, but apparently thats asking too much!

    Sad and further insulting as i am a citizen of this nation!

    November 12, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • Todd Warren

      Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out towards Cuba. Hippy Poet!

      November 12, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • Motar

      Agreed, Hippy. There is no such thing as a Christian nation. Genuine Christianity is an individual reality.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • tadpole

      I am a christian and I agree!

      November 12, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  6. Ron

    The truth of the matter is that Jesus would be there for each and every victim...and would be waiting for each perpetrator to repent and then would embrace them as well. Christianity is often twisted and people who tout themselves as Christians (but are not) often push more people away from the faith. Even Ghandi once said, "If I ever met a true follower of Jesus Christ, I would be a follower." Ghandi said that because most people do not display the same love that Christ and his apostles showed.

    If you are a Christian and have the Holy Spirit inside you, you would be bothered by any and all sin....you also would want to forgive. Forgiveness is often the hardest thing because in this world it is easier to hate than it is to love.

    For those of you who are against Christianity, read the New Testament of the Bible. You will see how often the true message of Jesus Christ is twisted. True Christianity isn't about judging others-it's about love, forgiveness and grace.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Bob

      Not to mention animal sacrifice and mass murder. Yeah, Jesus said the OT still applies, so sharpen your knife and get that goat sacrifice done already so we can get on with buying the slaves that Jesus wants us to have.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • stars

      Bob: animal sacrifies were done in OT for repentance of sin, but since Jesus died on the cross for sins, people are saved through him. Jesus NEVER said in NT that animal sacrifies will save you, only the belief and love of His grace> It doesn't sound like you really understand the bible. And yes there were wars in Ot, but NT mainly discusses the life of Jesus, how to be saved, and some persecution of Christians. And, I hope you have a basic understanding of Revelations.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • Bob

      Nope, stars, you fail in bible comprehension 101. Jesus said the OT rules still apply, so get that knife out and get on that goat or you'll be behind in your killing quota.

      As usual, I have to ask, why did your god ever need sacrifice? Actually, your god is fiction, but all that scapegoat sacrifice stuff was stolen from earlier supersti-tions.

      Now get back on that goat.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  7. chris

    Don't forget, Stephen, that Jesus was executed on the Cross because people disliked him. He stood up for everyone, the poor AND the persecuted. You should have learned one thing from Jesus: presumption of innocence until proven guilty. You can ponder all day about the "ethics" of this country, but you clearly haven't studied the life of Jesus.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Bob

      Nonsense. Jesus is actually overstudied. Tales about him are force-fed to us from early childhood on. Try spending some time learning basic reasoning instead. That might get you past your Christian superst-itions.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • HellBent

      That's a pretty poor ana,logy given that jesus was given the equivalent of a trial and was convicted by Pontius Pilot. Perhaps the lesson should be that sometimes the system really screws you over – but that isn't exactly applicable here.

      The efforts by some to deflect from Paterno are sickening and appaling. I don't need a jury to tell me that Paterno failed to protect children. Theat he could have stopped a predator and turned a blind eye.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  8. Anan

    Child abuse and backing people is not about faith. Nor does the writer or most people understand the condition of man. I have traveled around the world Child abuse is more common than most people realize and more acceptable than most people realize. But what is also not understood is man's condition: One of Sin. Because we are born sinners we commit sins. We have been corrupted by sin an are now unable to control what we do we know something is wrong but we can not change without God's mercy. It is not out of ourselves that we can be freed from sin but from a daily contact and enjoyment of the Living God in whom there is no darkness. His person sustains us, supplies us and makes able to live out side of the realm of Sin. Without an intimate relationship with God we cannot ever escape Sin. Even just one day away we see we are not free. I am texting on at an airport as my plane boards this is short but I am tired of no one addressing the real issue SIN

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

      You sound weak and pathetic. Lose the faith and try some personal responsibility.

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

      Thank you.
      Seriously, thank you.
      That needed to be said.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  9. akwe asldkfj

    Just because someone is among the "least of these" doesn't automatically make them right. You have to treat everyone equally, rich or poor, powerful or weak. The weak and poor are just as capable of lying as the rich and powerful. It's not PC to point this out but it's true.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  10. BB

    We are only as Christian as we feel suits us.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • RLA

      That's your opinion and while accurate is some instances certainly not the norm

      November 12, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  11. Michelle

    Actually, you made your stance on these pretty clear in the options presented. And actually, while Christians should be sympathetic (to all sides) our decisions on how we think about these cases should NOT be about empathy, but about facts - something this country's journalists are sorely lacking in this new generation of journalism that relies SOLELY on getting an empathetic rouse out of its audience in order for them to root or crucify the target they've selected.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  12. Bob

    Ah religion, always walking the edge of the sword, always counting the number of angles on the head of a pin. Let us somehow measure morality by attempting to answer the question "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?"

    Least v Most has nothing to do with it. Pure simple logic is the answer. Cain deserves no more or no less respect than the woman involved, up until there is a landslide of women with the same issue. The preponderance of the evidence says that Cain is guilty.

    By the tone of the note we are to feel more for the poor than the rich. Sorry but the original Top Ten List says "Tho shalt not steal" in addition to "Tho shalt love thy brother as thyself". You can't justify the forced transfer of wealth from one person to another as a matter on the basis of faith. Only that given from the heart shall ensure passage into heaven. Taking it from one person to give to another isn't a gift worth of heaven, it is theft.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  13. John Richardson

    Ok, Prothero, how do you account for all the non-Christians whose empathy extends instinctively to the abuse victims?

    November 12, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  14. RLA

    In my opinion there is no debate that we are a Christian nation and God would be finding ways to comfort and forgive the victims and the perpertators instead of stirring the pot with false premises.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  15. lastofall

    Sorry, but you are far from knowing the Lord Jesus Christ, He and His kingdom are not of this world. They of the world speak of the world, and the world hears them; but they who are of God hears God´s Words, not the world´s.

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

      They're from an imaginary kingdom.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Fracuss

      Enjoy your fantasies, while you can.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • stars

      Lastofall: I hear what you are saying, and that is biblical. Just ignore other's post of what you said. I never understand why those with beliefs of only humankind/self post on a belief blog.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  16. Bryan

    Stephen you took the words right out of my mouth. You hit the nail on the head. Every since I was a child I was always bothered by the good christian thing. The most disgusting people I new would hide behind that good christian saying. Growing up it became a joke to me and you pretty much sume it up.. Good job!

    November 12, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  17. Sash Grey

    Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.

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

      Well said.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  18. bajadelmar

    This guy is an actual writer for CNN and he is just figuring this out now??? I've known xians were more concerned about looking out for themselves than doing what is ethically and morally correct since I was 16. It doesn't take a genius to figure this out. Most Xians will tell you one thing and do another. Just look at some of the lavish temples and churches that most xian churches build in this country and abroad while many people here and more around the world suffer in poverty.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Fracuss

      He obviously is not just figuring this out. He is putting out there for those who have not.
      So obvious!

      November 12, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • bajadelmar

      The only thing "obvious" about this story is that Mr Prothero is a xian apologist.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • greg

      You judge a Christian so harshly, yet you accuse Christians of being Judgmental you hold Christians to such a high standard as if we are perfect then Howl that we fail, But we are just as covered in sin as you, The one difference is we are in th eyes of God forgiven, you are not,this makes you a natural man. but just because we are forgiven doesnt mean we dont sin, We are horrible sinners and we strive to do better but im afraid we will fail, It is the nature of man to sin, Its a common thing that natural man points to a saved man and cries look hes a sinner too, And for once the Natural man has it right!!! We too are sinners but Christ has forgiven us and we strive to do better, Where as natural man looks at the sky and curses God, Curses a God he doesnt even believe in, Since he gets no satisfaction in that he curses those who pitifully try to represent God,We are a big target because we are no more Godly then a soda pop can, and though it means nothing to the natural man we forgive you! In that act for a brief second we are as close to Godly as we are ever going to get.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • bajadelmar

      Wrong Greg, I'm only holding xians to their own standards which they have been miserably failing at for centuries.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  19. Kevin

    If you are reading this, can you please read my reply a few lines below. I do not want to make the mistake and not be able to educate Steve on the true value of being a Christian. Your replies to my post below would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  20. Peri Browner

    Americans like to wear their Christianity on their arm sleeves, but, they rarely follow the teachings of Jesus. They spout hellfire and brimstone. They are failed Jews.

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

      Surly there are Christians that forget they are sinners, that to our Lord Sin is sin so we are in gods eyes as guilty as the next man, But we have a country of laws and those laws must be upheld but first before we hang a man there must be evidence and a guilty verdict just because the liberal left has convicted a man in the press does not mean we Christians should hop on the Godless band wagan and cheer.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:29 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.