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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. Michelle

    Well said. This stance of the new Christians is why I have stopped calling myself Christian and instead have taken on the label of "Jesus Follwer". I think Jesus would handle most things differently than the loud Christian right would have us believe and it was time to get off that bandwagon.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • Aletheya

      Good for you. The loud-mouthed hypocrites that pass as "christians" turn my stomach.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • greg

      Christians forget as you have forgotten that we are sinners one and all, covered head to toe in Sin, We have to forgive, We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, You in your statement are implying that you have forgotten this basic fact of Christianity,

      November 12, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • RightTurnClyde

      You are not alone in that differentiation. Many (myself included) do not affiliate with a denomination and most denominations have gross doctrinal errors. Many of us say (and do). "I belong to the same church Jesus belonged to" and leave it at that. We can all read so we do not need a preacher to explain it. Sacraments are a hoax; we do not need a priest .. just be a Jesus Follower..

      November 12, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Gordon

      Excellent comment. It is very sad though. What happend with the "they will know we are Christian's by our love"

      November 12, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  2. On my knees for God's pleasure

    I am not sure why people think that the creator of the universe would care much for the status of a nation state in relation to officially acknowledging him anyway.

    Would Jesus care about the individual, or would he care about the artificial boundaries that man has fabricated (like god himself) into modern nation-states that weren't conceived 500 years ago?

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

      Only problem is that the people who want to do away with national boundaries are communists .. and they want that so they can take over and distribute your food to everyone else. In 1917 they did that with a number of nations and impoverished them. Then their leader caused 50,000,000 to be killed in Gulags if the dissented. Finally impoverished to food-less-ness the USSR dissolved and now they prosper and have food.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  3. james

    We are becoming a nation that listens to carnal desires instead of what is right. We are heading out of the light and into the dark. The devil is among us and we will be consumed if we do not rebuke the paths we are following and renew our faith in God.

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

      I deluded people like you who cause these problems. There is no devil except for the one in your personality.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • RightTurnClyde

      An Irish fellow enjoyed his nightly beer and his wife nagged him to stop (but he would not). So she took a sheet and hid in the woods like Casper the ghost. As he came home mellow through the woods she ran out and tried to scare him "whooooo" and he exclaimed "Jesus, Mary and Joseph who it is??" and she said "the Divil d.a.m..n you Patrick; I'll haunt you to stop that drinkin'" and he said "the Divil .. oh I was frightened .. but come home with me .. I am married to your sister..."

      November 12, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  4. RichM

    This article is utter nonsense. The questions posed are questions of evidence and logic, not questions of empathy. The article seems to suggest that if someone in power is accused of an abuse, we should condemn them by default until they prove thier innocence.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Aletheya

      Nice try at rationalizing. You missed the point of the article. FAIL.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • RichM

      Have I missed the point? If there is a different point to this article please sum it up for me.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  5. Kelly

    Not being Christian, does not = lack of morals, or family values. I am NOT Christian. I am Pagan, a practicing Wiccan, and I Immediately thought of the young victims when news of the PSU scandal broke. One does not need any particular religion, or even ANY religion to be a moral and good person. An it harm none, do as you will.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Amistavia

      Aren't you aware that you are an evil person unless you're willing to give up all reason and have faith in a vengeful, petty middle eastern god?

      November 12, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  6. Reality

    Prothero noted:

    "In the abortion debate, do you identify with the woman who wants an abortion or with the fetus? "

    The ID is with the growing baby aka fetus of the "mother and father" and how they got into this situation to begin with.

    WARNING!!! WARNING!!! WARNING!!!

    To all overse-xed h-o-mo-sapiens:

    : The failures of the widely used birth "control" methods i.e. the Pill ( 8.7% failure rate) and male con-dom (17.4% failure rate) have led to the large rate of abortions and S-TDs in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or co-ndoms properly and/or use safer methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.- Failure rate statistics provided by the Gut-tmacher Inst-itute.

    Christianity "ain't" got nothing to do with the basic human conduct rule of "Do No Harm"!

    November 12, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  7. B

    First off America should a religion neutral country. Not Christian, Jewish, Pagan, or Musim country. That's the whole point of the separation between Church and state! Knowing the different between what is right and what isn't should have nothing to do with Religion although it does help when the lines are blurred. As for the two examples, its pretty simple, Herman Cain shouldn't run for President period and Paterno should be fired. People don't always have all the information and tend to make snap judgements. Also each of these people were looked up too in one fashion or another and the news of thier faults are sometimes harder to believe and in fact some people don't want to believe it because they want someone to believe in. Regardless of religion is that wrong? Eventually people tend to come around to what's right, at least most of the time.

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

      The cons.t.i.t.u..t.i.o.n requires it and there actually is an effort to be neutral. But that does make a story or an argument. So there is a tendency from college professors warehouse workers to to allege that ALL (them) do such and such. You see every day (the Walmart shoppers .. never the K-Mart because the unions do not like Walmart ) .. and ALL the hippies di X and all the gun owners do Y and all the Republicans this and all the Democrats do that. So it is with religions.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  8. Dewayne Allday

    A well written article, and very thought out ideas, but when we refer to Jesus, we can't clearly pin Him down to who's side he will be on, as we don't know what truth is unless they confess.

    We do know how Jesus felt about the abuse of the little children...

    Matthew 18:6
    New International Version (NIV)
    6 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

    But, to which extent do we see Him "playing the siding game"? He spoke the truth, but I can't remember Him calling out specific names. The only time I can remember Him actively pursuing sinners was when he overturned the money changers tables at the temple.

    Obviously, judgement will come, in the afterlife, but as Paul said until the end everyone has to work out their own salvation with "fear and trembling"...

    As far as our country being Christian... It was founded by Christians, the majority of those involved in the formation of this country were Christian and abided by Christian principles. That is certainly not the case today, and the old testament was full of stories of what happened when the people got "off track", destruction would hit the people until they came back to God, but the best analogy is what happens when people are speaking the same language and all of a sudden they all are speaking different lanquages such as the tower of Babel story... at first, they accomplished much to the point they were arrogant and could do anything, but when they quit talking alike, they all gave up and went about seperate ways... apathy, not empathy... and an unfinished, abandoned building, and that is exactly what has happened.... noone is speaking the same lanquage any more...

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

      Love they Neighbors as you would yourself and believe in the one true God, That is what Jesus would say and in that statement we would hold our tounge on condemnation until the court of Law convicted the men, not the court of public opinion.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  9. RightTurnClyde

    We have become a nation of 300,000,000 individual. We admire the "rugged" individual. not all Christians think alike (few think alike). not all Jews or Muslims think alike. Not all judges, lawyers, doctors, journalists, think alike. Because it is inconvenient (to say the least) to sample 300,000,000 opinions and synthesize them census counters categorize "cohorts" and then suggest what is believed (not known) to be common characteristics of various groupings. Exceptions are not seen as individuality but rather as anomaly. But actually the error is to assume all cohorts think alike.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • Steve

      Touche.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  10. Sasha Grey

    Two nuns cycling down a cobbled street. The first one says "I've never come
    this way before"; the second one replies "Must be the cobbles"

    November 12, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  11. Dcm5150

    Joe Paterno did not molest kids. As far as we know at this point, the only thing he did wrong was not follow up more. Should he have? Probably most certainly. But while people were calling for Joe's head, the person who witnessed the act and did as much or less than Joe was left alone. We always want to bring down the famous – that is the kind of nation we are. Why can't I have empathy for Joe and the children. I'm sure there is a lot more to the story, but it won't matter because people have already judged based on very little information.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • John Richardson

      The sequence of events way back in '98 and '99 suggest that a lot more was known about Sandusky by the higher ups in the program, including the head coach, than is being let on. Let's let the investigation take its course. At the very least, the fact that Sandusky had an office in the AD building and emeritus status for as long as he did after apparently multiple alleged incidents does make one wonder to what extent Sandusky was promised a cover up in exchange for ???

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

      You are right. There is no requirement in law to help a drowning man; but if you do then you are liable if you do it negligently. it is a legitimate choice to not get involved (and we see that every day). Catherine Genovese for example. Add to this the nightmare of calling 911 and dealing with the government m.o.r.a.s.s. .. Most of us have learned to see no evil. Speak no evil (don't be a witness0. hear no evil 9avoid jury duty).

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

      Empathy for Joe? Are you nuts?
      Let's say a neighbor saw your kid being molested, did nothing, but told another neighbor, and that neighbor also did nothing.
      You surely would be upset with neighbor #1, but according to your logic you would feel empathy for neighbor #2.
      That's just crazy. Forget about Joe being a coach. He was told about child molestation and did nothing. He deserves prison.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • vfr800cr250

      Why can't you have empathy for Joe and the children? Simple, because one had the knowledge and the power to stop an evil yet they chose not to bother. No better than the people that walked by the little girl dying in the street in China. Bet you were one of many talking about what a terrible place China is when that happened.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  12. tim scott

    The more "Christian" they preach, it seems the less "Christian" they behave. Just look at the religious right in the Republican Party. They look out for the rich, not the poor. Tax breaks for the rich while we cut services for the poor. Not very Jesus like at all.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • Aletheya

      Amen, brother. 🙂

      November 12, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • greg

      Nowhere in teh good book are we told to be Jesus, Because that is impossible, We are to love our neighbors as we would ourselves and believe in the one true God, Pretty basic, Were gonna fail but Jesus will forgive us,

      November 12, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • Time.ToThink

      As a person who had a family member falsely accused of a serious crime because of jealously and the accuser wanting to ruin this person's life, I believe anyone who is judgmental to either side of these stories is not an indicator of their Chrsitian beliefs or not, it is an indicator of self-centered bias. This should not be judged in the court of public opinion.

      I do find it ironic that some say Cain is not fit to be president because of this. But it was ok for two democrat presidents to be womanizers and cheat on their respective wives. Today both are admired.

      It is sad to see this country be split by disingenuous rhetoric, political posturing, and blatant bigotry. As Lincoln had warned: "America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves." Class warfare for political power is bringing us there. Both political parties and the press are complicit in encouraging hatred and division.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  13. On my knees for God's pleasure

    Luckily the US was not founded on Christian law or the bible. Praise someones imaginary friend for that 🙂

    November 12, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  14. Joe

    The observations in this article have more to do with human nature than Christianity. Of course, people are going to sympathize more with individuals they know and trust (Paterno and Cain) than with people they don't know who are accusing them of wrongdoing. For better or worse, it's hard to feel for nameless and faceless people. All that means is that society responded the way that social creatures tend to respond and it says nothing about Christianity.

    Furthermore, does Mr. Prothero really think that Jesus doesn't want fairness and justice for both the accused and the accuser?

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

      You are very wrong. It does reflect on your human emotions and values, which are at the core of your religious beliefs.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • Joe

      Let me explain more clearly. The author implies that if someone feels sympathy for or defends Paterno and/or Cain then this means they aren't acting in a Christian manner. My first response is that this reaction is human nature and has little to do with a person's religion. My second response is that sympathies for both the accused and the accuser are not mutually exclusive and that if Christians are supposed to love those around them, then this means both Paterno/Cain and the alleged victims.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • greg

      Correct the Author is wondering why Christians are still supporting Cain, when he has been convicted of hmm im not sure of what yet but still convicted in the Liberal press of something horrible, Why does the Christian right still support him, its because we are useing our moral compass and we feel something is askew in the method used to condem him and are waiting for the proof, until its proven Cain is no more a sinner then everyone else on this forum.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  15. rainlady9

    A Christian nation? No. Our Founding Fathers were nominally Christian, and they decidedly did NOT want this to be a theocracy-that's why we have Separation of Church and State. We are a Nation of Christians and Jews and Muslims and Atheists and Buddhists and Whatnots. We are, thankfully not at (Choose religion of choice) Nation.

    And the one person we should empathize with is Lady Justice and not try JoPa or Cain or anyone else in the media, but in Courts of Law.

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

      here ya go.... 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 10:28 am |
  16. sybaris

    Prothero is offering a false scenario in which you have to be christian to be moral.

    Sorry bud, by your logic every non-christian region or nation would be in chaos and that is simply not the case

    Typical christian bigotry.

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

      Your logic is off. What Mr. Prothero is saying is that if you are Christian then you are moral. He's not saying that if you're not Christian then you're not moral. I personally don't think this article captures the idea of Christianity well at all, but you're addressing and condemning something that wasn't said at all.

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

      Better read the article again and pay attention this time. You missed the point.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • greg

      Typical human bigotry my friend you don't have to be a Christian to be a bigot you just have to be human.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  17. PaulieJ

    Did not read his while blog but I stopped at one particular line:
    "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"
    You don't need a belief in a higher power/deity for this. It starts simply with proper parenting at a young age so that a child can grow up with a sense that there's more to life and being a citizen of the world than just themselves.
    You as parents, have that power and more importantly, have that responsibility.
    Tolerance, acceptance and empathy towards others starts in the home.

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

      He didn't say you need belief in a higher power to be moral. He said that, if you call yourself christian, then your sympathies need to go with the weak and oppressed – otherwise you're a hypocrite.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • greg

      No we are not a hypocrite, We arnt perfect if we were then yes we would be a hypocrite, we are just human and a sinner like everyone else. We strive to be better but we fail, and will always fail, A non believer sees a Hypocrite a Christian sees a sinner, just like themselves.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  18. John

    The answer, Stephen, is that Jesus is reaching out to everyone touched by these sad events to meet them at their point of need, and in so doing, pointing to His sufficiency in all things. What he did on the cross is also sufficient to forgive your clear conviction, without evidence, of all followers of Christ. But you do have to recognize the sin, repent of it, and ask for His forgiveness, which He will freely give.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  19. Alex

    I remember when the priest pedophile scandals broke-out and all the Christian bashing on these boards. Now that we find that football coaches are also pedophiles, is there football bashing? Nope. More Christian bashing.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • On my knees for God's pleasure

      Isnt Christianity supposed to be the moral compass? football is amoral.

      The christian bashing should continue. It is filled with hypocrisy and is wicked.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • Aletheya

      He's only bashing the hypocrites who call themselves christian, but do not put into practice what Christ taught. Many call themselves christians but are not. The churches today are full of people who don't really have the least idea "what Jesus would do". If you're offended, you must be one of them.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • greg

      A very high percentage of Liberals have chosen not to believe in any God other then the God of Self, But no man can truly deny the Creator, deep down inside he knows the truth, But they have denied it, climbed up on there new mountain of righteous indignation and and screamed to the world there free!!! There not truly free though because there is this nagging doubt. and this creates lots of anger. They don't attack Islam, They don't attack Hindus or Buddhists, They go for the one's who represent the true God the one they have chosen to deny. It happens this way all the time If they can beat hard enough on Christians somehow this calms the fears they have of God, Makes the line they crossed when they denied him a little less uncomfortable.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  20. Sharon

    This is exactly what I have been trying to say. But you say it much better, Mr. Prothero. I am not a Christian and the incidents you discuss above are much of the reason why I reject this religion – the stunning hypocrisy of its adherents – among many other reasons, like the proselytizing, arrogance of belief that Christianity is the only "right" religion, ad nauseum. Thank you for your thoughtful article.

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

      Hypocrisy – exactly. The pastors of these megachurches that preach the "prosperity" doctrine, for example. That God wants you to be rich and have lots of material goods and fly around in Lear jets. Those people call themselves christian, but they are not. They practice the opposite of what Christ taught. He wouldn't recognize them.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • greg

      Of all the religions in the world only one is going to be right, Christians are following there God who said Iam the one and Only, That is just the way it is, Christians are human same as you and great sinners same as you yet you have thrown away God because of your dislike for Christians. I might dislike a glass but it doesn't mean i should pour out the water i need onto the ground. Ignore Christians and find your path to Christ, Remember no man can save you only Christ can save the spirit inside you craving for his love. when it comes down to your salvation and a chance for what the lord has planned for you it is only You and God that can make it happen, A Billion Christens, half, Christian in name only, can do nothing for you. The Holy spirit is out there, its real, Pray with a honest heart in Ernest to Christ and it will come.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:34 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.