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. Reason & Logic

    To some of you who question the author's reference to a Christian nation, I'm sure he was not espousing the fact that this is a Christian nation but in fact, that many conservative Christians who do say that this is a Christian nation hypocritically rally to the oppressors and denounce the oppressed, in direct opposition to Christ's teachings.

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

      People who think this is a Christian Nation consider themselves Christian, and anyone that's not like them isn't American. It's more about being a self centered egotist than any real path of logic to come to their conclusions.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • greg

      Christians are sinners too, we make mistakes same as you, you dont believe in God yet you use Gods laws to beat Christians over the head for sins you yourself commit.

      But to you thats ok that your a sinner, your ok with it, your just not ok with Christians being sinners, How very strange a path your following.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • GodPot

      @greg – "your a sinner, your ok with it, your just not ok with Christians being sinners, How very strange a path your following."

      First everyone has to agree on what a sin is for your statement to be true. We all agree that what Sandusky did was, in religious terms, a sin, and in non-religious terms, a crime. You seem to be claiming that the non-religious either don't have morals or laws that we live by, which means you are misinformed, misguided or know it's not true but regurgitate it anyway because you hate us so much, or that the non-religious have morals but choose to go against them because we are "bad" people that haven't accepted your God as their own yet. The real answer is that you are a small minded bigot that likes to lay blame on anyone that doesn't look like you, talk like you and go to your same Church.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  2. brianlee00

    I'm not a Cain supporter...
    But I'm sickened by the thinly-veiled politicism here that is attempting to liken Cain to Sandusky. Yes, this is an opinion column, but I wish CNN would return to being a NEWS network.

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

      The liberal press tells the news to benefit the Liberal Agenda, Foxs does the same for the Conservative agenda, It isnt necessarily the truth, You need to realize this because Thats just the way it is these days, And how can it ever be fixed, where will this lack of truth lead, Because its obviously going somewhere, Somewhere Im very much afraid to go.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  3. Joe

    The teachings of Jesus are about empathy, community and justice. And many other things that

    Evangelicans have left behind some time ago.

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

      Christians are changing, the press of the worlds disbelief is changing the belief in Christ, morphing it into a something else and since Jesus is the same from the beginning to the end he is being left behind in this new Christian faith, There are still those of us who believe in the true Christ, as Written in the Bible, we are just getting fewer and fewer.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  4. Uthor

    Spirituality is one thing. Ethics and morals are other things. Religion does not automatically bring any of these things.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • looking Glass

      Uthor, so you think, You can't have one with out the other, The Holispirit is not disfunctional. Period.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • GodPot

      Religion has 0 to do with making anyone moral. Morality is inside 95% of us and the other 5% without it cause 95% of the grief since they simply do not and cannot care. It's called Oxytocin. http://www.wimp.com/trustmorality/

      November 12, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • greg

      Organized religion is the devil, Because it is run by man and men are sinners covered head to toe, Men filled with a self imposed belief in Godly righteousness are the worst. But dont let that stop you from believing in the One true God, He gave us free will, free will to run a Church into the ground, Free will to follow our lusts, without regard to the pain of others. He wont stop you, He wont impose his will on you, You are allowed to follow your own path, But he want you to follow his path, you dont need a church for that just belief in God!

      November 12, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  5. Dcm5150

    This article fails to address the fact the we are quick to condemn people for actions we would have most likely done in the same scenario. Let's say you are having a party at your house and towards the end a neighbor who you've know for a a little while and comes up and says "I say Paul hit is kid." Paul is a good friend of yours (for a long time) and you've never seen Paul be anything but a great Dad. What is your first reaction? How many of us would call the police immediately? I would guess very few. Most would probably say that they would talk to Paul and his kid and see what's going on. Let's say you do that and it is denied by both Paul and his kid. How many would then call the police? Would you stop being friends with Paul at that point and never see him again? These are hard questions that can't be answered until you are put in a situation and you never want to believe the worst of a friend. Sure, in the Paterno case there may be more information, but knowing what we know, I truly believe that almost everyone would have acted the same way.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • kardiac

      I don't think. I believe that I would sopped what was going on if I witnessed it happenning and would insist on a vigorous investigation if informed of these acts. Do not put me into your group.

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

      Sorry... it should be I don't think SO and sTopped.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • looking Glass

      No, you ask God for direction beyond your flesh. And pray in the strength that what's done in the dark, will soon come into the light . . . "The light of truth" We are all capable of the most unthinkable. This is why we need to continue to hold on to Jesus unchanging hands. Period.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • greg

      You see folks are filled with righteous indignation and cant picture themselves doing anything else but what should have been done now that it has been done wrong.. Its a weakness of ourselves most cant overcome.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  6. twiddly

    I hope Paterno goes to prison.
    It is nothing short of criminal to be told of child molestation and do nothing to stop it.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • Dcm5150

      But he did do something about it. It is the people he told that did nothing about it.

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

      He might have done the minimum required legally, but ethically?
      Nope, he failed miserably and is in my opinion a miserable piece of trash.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Dav0

      Wrong Dcm5150, Paterno didn't do anything about it. He told the next person up and buried his head in the sand. He is as guilty as the next guy. Meanwhile this slimeball continued to harm children.

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

      DCM5150..Why did Paterno wait 48 hours before telling anyone? I think he asked legal counsel what was the least he could do to cover his behind and his friend Sandusky

      November 12, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  7. Eric Lose

    I did not think the author was "bashing Christians" in the least bit. He was bashing hyprocritical politicians that falsely spout Christian ideologies to garner some votes and those who spout their faith but never live it. I felt nothing bad about true Christians in this essay.
    Did you you whiners read the same article? Are you so insecure in your faith that you feel persecuted and can't look at the what the man was saying?

    November 12, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • twiddly

      You are correct.
      The Republicans, the mouthpiece of the christian evangelicals, espouse the least truly 'christian' values.
      They favor the rich, despise the poor, are intolerant and bigoted, the list goes on.
      What would Jesus do? Run away screaming from the Republicans.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  8. Joemmm

    Stephen Prothero Jesus never said religion was above Roman law but they were two different paths. One can be empathic to the boys and to Joe. For one to do what was necessary under the law and be canned for it seems not right. I know where I work their were people accused of creating a hostile work environment. The supervisor report it and then had to stand on the side lines so he wasn't seen on influencing the outcome one way or another. Think it through, if Joe had fired (I don't think he actually had the authority to hire and fire) the other coach right up front, the university and he could have had a lawsuit against filed against them. If he had been supportive of the guy he could have been accused of interfering with a criminal investigation. After he reported the incident he was obligated to let the process play out and let the prosecutor do their job.

    For Cain, would Jesus run out stand by the woman just on her word, I doubt it. Would he try to seek the truth? Yes.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • GodPot

      Wow. Hopefully you won't be the witness any abused child has to rely on to do the right thing. And having an eyewitness to a CRIME tell Joe what happened and then Joe forwards it on but does NOTHING else? This is far different than a workplace with a hostile work environment. And you are implying that Joe decided not to dig into the matter and possibly fire the abuser because he didn't want to get sued, which is beyond stupid because the right thing wasn't to just fire him when accused but to investigate the claims made and they should have only fired him after they had enough evidence to prove his guilt, but that should have happened 9 years ago!!

      November 12, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  9. BoldGeorge

    You got that right...we're are a not-so-christian nation as we use to be. It makes you wonder why the country is on a downward spiral in many aspects, especially the important ones. I am a Christian and I don't necessarily blame non-christians/unbelievers for this. I blame so called "Christians" who, in the name of God and Christ operate with craftiness and deceit. In the bible it states, that God will judge them personally.

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

      "It makes you wonder why the country is on a downward spiral in many aspects, especially the important ones."

      So at the top of the spiral when America was at it's most Christian the important things were all good, like being able to keep and breed your N e g r o s for the next harvest season, making sure the women stayed at home, pregnant without a vote, no regulation for the environment so you could just dump your toxic waste in any stream, lake or ocean, cause let's face it, God can fix it. Boy, really makes you yearn for the good old days doesn't it...

      November 12, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  10. Christian Nation???

    This is not a Christian nation. It is a diverse nation with individuals who have the freedom to practice any religion they see fit for their lives! So, my contention is: Who cares what Jesus would do or what Jesus would think! Every being of the age of reason knows right from wrong regardless of subscribing or practicing any faith. Certainly, religions provide guidelines for moral and ethical behavior, but so do parents who do not practice a religion. This article and the author who penned it is not entirely off base though. It is important to have empathy but not for one party over the other. Rather it is important for both parties involved.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • Dcm5150

      "very being of the age of reason knows right from wrong"

      Who's opinion of right and wrong do they know?

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

      Yes, people know right from wrong, even without religeous beliefs. But many times people choose to do wrong (Madoff, Sanduscky, Stalin, Bundy, Peterson, Nazi Germany, etc). Knowing is not enough.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • looking Glass

      This country was founded and built on Christian values. It's social and economic blue print is evident that God was very much involved, If one would just take the time to actually read the bible, they well find it so. Because of the evil that men do, we as a nation is so far from perfect. Man, seem to want to govern and be govern by the flesh and not the heart of Christ. So we find ourselves submersed in the abyss of wickedness, justified by a destained bitterness and resentful cloud of despair. So we blame and hate God and His Son, who have our best interest at heart. Period.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  11. Michael

    Too many Americans have little RESPECT for one another anymore. It is all about GREED .... how much money you make, how big of a house you can show off, how new of a car you have, etc. How many of you get caught up in consumerism and have to have the latest gadgets? People feel they have to cheat to get ahead in life or they take advantage of others to do so. Look at how politicians talk about one another; some don't even have respect for the office of the President!

    It is disgraceful the number of kids/adults abused every year! Likewise, it is disgraceful the number of animals abused every year as well as the number of animals in animal shelters killed every year because they have no home and are consider 'disposable'. How many of us have respect for our planet and understand we have a responsibility to protect it! There are too many so-called 'Christians' that use religion as an attempt to force their views on others, and too many attempt to interpret the 'bible' to their advantage! I abandoned organized religion decades ago because I don't believe in anything based on BLIND FAITH or FEAR!

    There are many people out there that are truly kind and generous, but unfortunately, there are too many people that are not!

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

      It's all George Bush and Joe Paterno's fault

      November 12, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  12. Brian Macker

    "When I turn on the television and see “family values” conservatives jumping to Cain’s defense within hours of the first charges surfacing, ...., I have to ask myself, “What has happened to this supposedly Christian nation"?"

    You think belief in "innocent until proven guilty" is a sign of a degradation of our society. These were anonymous allegations. Settlements are not proof of anything other than that it was cheaper for NRA to settle than to go to court. The amounts these women got were paltry, and it is becoming clear that some of them are serial claimants. One reason for wanting to remain anonymous is so one can avoid the exposure of motivations for making false charges. This is why our legal system mandates the ability to confront witnesses and victims who take the stand.

    Thou shall not bear false witness is as much a christian value as the ones you focus on.

    PS. I'm an atheist.

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

      The allegations were not anonymous on the parts of the accusers. Cain benefited from the National Resturant Association's "confidentiality" in the settlement that banned the women from speaking about it... a gag order. That's not very ethical to me.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • Tom

      Meridee: That still doesn't change the fact that some of the women were serial accusers. I'ved worked in an environment with women like that. They were constantly on the lookout for the slightest thing, anything, that they could successfully manipulate into a legal claim. Hit your thumb with a hammer and say the wrong thing in their presence and chances are you'd be reported. Try to help them at their workstation and put a hand on their shoulder and you'd be written up. They were experts at exploiting and manipulating the system to their advantage, in ways no man ever could or would. Their influence on moral was devastating. Everyone, workers and management, wanted them gone as quickly as possible without causing any legal consequences. In Cain's situation, by paying a small settlement the NRA probably found an expeditious way to be rid of a problem employee.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:53 am |

      So you SAY YOU ARE AN ATHIEST, WHY DON'T YOU ASK GOD IF HE'S REAL TO SHOW YOU, he will. He has done so much in my life I can't doubt him. You might read Gods word in Matthew,Ezekiel,Daniel and Revelations that speak of all the propecy that is coming true before our eyes. We are sinners and have all fallen short of the glory of God. Jesus died,shed his blood for us. If you confess to him that you are a sinner and ask him into your heart he PROMISES SALVATION AND ETERNAL LIFE. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life

      November 12, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • GodPot

      "He has done so much in my life I can't doubt him." Define "done". Done implies some active roll, a measurable effect. I can claim it is God who wakes me up each morning (i'm sure many of you Christians would argue that is true) but would not be able to prove it in any measurable way without having at least one morning without God to see what happens.

      "We are sinners and have all fallen short of the glory of God."
      Apparently the only measurable thing God has given you is an extra helping of guilt, so have fun with that. I'll be here helping others, loving my daughter and wife, enjoying the sunsets, walking on the beach, taking advantage of the time I have with my friends and family. Too bad you are to busy buying all the guilt and shame religion has to offer just so they can sell you salvation.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • Brian Macker


      Actually, no he won't. He also won't do any of the things claimed in the bible. It's a pack of lies, and the god described therein is an evil monster who does things such as selling the Jews into slavery four times only to murder the people he sold them to at a later date, and god also participates in all sorts of genocidal rampages.

      November 12, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  13. Paige

    For this article to carry value, it would have had to be about whether we are a moral, ethical nation, and any reference to religion (which is not the same as morals and ethics) would need to be removed. Religion doesn't make you ethical or moral, and this was NEVER a "Christian" nation, thankfully.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • looking Glass

      You are so wrong about this nation. Your words are tainted with anger and disappointment. But the light of truth is that this nation was founded on Christian values. But now, God is removing Himself due to our transgression. We are losing favor with the Lord and now we, as a nation, are reaping the wickedness of what happens when we give into the desires of the flesh, Greed, pride, selfishness and lust.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  14. Sherri

    I think the US should NOT wish to be a Christian nation, at this point in time. Why? Those who tout their Christian faith, who use it both as a shield and as a weapon, fall short in the moral behavoir department. Conducting themselves in a selfish and self absorbed fashion, using , manipulating and just generally trampling the basic tenets of Christian teachings. In my experience, the most empathetic, giving, genuine , selfless folk are those not professing membership in any formal religion. They are just good people , who try to live good lives, and to the right thing. I, for one, am more than weary of the use of religious devotion as a free pass to be absolved of bad acts.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • looking Glass

      Don't confuse being a Christian with the actual word of God and being Christ like. Christian are not perfect and face the temptation of sin each and every second of their lives, no different from people in the world. The only and dividing factor is, they acknowledge the hand of God and believe that Jesus died on the cross. And now they are working towards salvation . . They don't have salvation but are working on changing and being delivered. Period.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  15. popcorn

    National Education Standard Passing Grade is 65.

    Football Coach and outside scored 55.3 failing or below failing score. Failing in Math, Algebra, Science, global history, etc. Must've cheated the class in order to get famous. Failed.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  16. Dsopinion

    Have you not figured out that American Christians are among the most hypocritical people on the planet? The fact that they profess to be christian is validation that they lack the ability to think critically, is anyone surprised that they don't see the irony in mourning for Paterno rather than the children? You imply that these people supporting Cain or Paterno are not christians or are not behaving in a christian manner, but statistically, at least 75% of them would call themselves christians. My question would be, why do we seek to align our nation with christianity when they so clearly set a poor example of what anyone should aspire to be?

    November 12, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • k5150

      This is the exact problem with Christians today. Some claim to be Christians but in fact, are not. Jesus encountered this with the Pharisees. They talked the talk and walked the walk of a religious person but their hearts were cold. This is also talked about in Revelations. Some will profess that they did all these good works in Jesus' name and Jesus will say I knew you not. Unfortunately, the Chrisitans bashers do not acknowledge that this is the case and jump all over all Christians when other "Christians" commit a sin. Yet, we are politically incorrect when we don't separate the Islamic terrorist from other Muslims. They are not considered the same by the Christians bashers. But then again, this is also talked about in the Bible. Christians will be increasingly persecuted in the end times.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • looking Glass

      And who are you Dsopinion, to criticize? Do you just sit on the fence? Judgement day, "all knees will bend and tongues will confess" Let's hope it's not too late for you. Period.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  17. VeryOldMan

    A big portion of our country is sick. We just worship the celebrate and celebrate can do no wrong. That's why so many of the 99% are supporting the 1%. With their money and power, most in the 1% can can change the laws to increase their wealth, hire a lawyer to cover their crime, and employ PR firms to promote their reputation/fame.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  18. Al

    Pious words might seem religious or christian; but actions and deeds are what people hear....

    November 12, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  19. good guy

    i think the writer is biased, this is not to say that the conduct of the penn state coach or that of herman cain is acceptable. America is a very hypocritical society in the sense that it encourages people to profit from other peoples misfortune and at the same time punish people for other people's mistake. with respect to the herman cain's issue, these ladies or some of them settled and now they want to bring the man down because he wants to be president. the options have always been opened to them to go to the police or pursue other civil remedies, they did not do so, therefore they should not be encouraged to bring him down based on those allegations. on the penn state side, i believe the senior coach also deserve some dignity after serving the school for so many years, this is not to say that his ommission is right or wrong. he was removed simply because he did not report to the police but he did report to his employers, however, the man who saw the whole episode and did not report to the police kept his job. please!!! this is very unfair on the old man...

    November 12, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • Cheryl Carter

      It's not important when these women decided to devulge the truth. What is important is that Herman Cain paid them money in an attempt to keep them silent. They have sacrificed their privacy and anonymity to come forward and tell the country what kind of man they are supporting for the next President of the United States. Personally, I am grateful. We had no compunctions crucifiying Clinton for the same actions. At least now we are forwarned. In regard to your comments concerning the coach, he may have done the right thing but he did not go far enough. The pedophile was his best friend and he knew for years what he was doing and did nothing to stop him. As a result this predator has victimize many, many more children. Where is your compassion and common sense?

      November 12, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  20. Rhonda

    Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Priorities are motivated by values. Values are made evident in what we say and do and are passionate about. When these things are put to the test sometimes it's difficult even to know if a believer is "Christian", let alone a nation. We are always a work in progress, and sometimes we have to move backwards from our first responses to what we begin to realize is the better direction. Thank you Mr. Prothero for reminding us to examine ourselves. I do not believe that America is a Christian nation; and there are so many reasons. Not least being that Christ is all about building a spiritual kingdom. I think what we see in the response of defenders of the accused is a little bit of sincere belief in their innocence, and a whole lot of self-justification for the investment that is in them to be winners. Those whose hearts are foremost with the victims are about winning something better; compassion, healing and justice. That , indeed, is the heart of Christ.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:34 am |
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