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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 Blackadder

    Sure they are Christian reactions. It's just that a lot of self-styled "Christians" are mean-minded and nasty. Blame it on their pastors, who emphasize that non-believers (members of other Protestant sects, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, etc) are doomed and damned, and who preach hatred from the pulpit instead of Christian forgiveness.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  2. Darth Cheney

    Christianity, and world religions in general, hardly have a monopoly on morals. Indeed, many of the world's most fervent believers have been among the worst people in world history, and hundreds of millions of so-called believers have been nothing more than abject moral hypocrites. Religion per se has very little to do with faith or morality, and very much to do with social organization and control. Our native Indians, for example, showed far greater morality than their so-called Christian English and Spanish conquerors.
    Also, don't paint Cain and Paterno with the same brush. Cain is a perp, Paterno is neither a perp nor a witness, thus two quantum levels removed. That doesn't make his actions (his inactions, more precisely) admirable by a long shot, but dealing with hearsay is a lot different than committing acts yourself.
    Finally, please refresh my memory, who was it again who said, "Judge not, lest ye be judged?"

    November 12, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  3. Brooke

    Christianity has never had anything to do with what Jesus taught. Churches have taken the place of the moneychangers-in-the-temple. Christianity represents everything Jesus loathed. Christians do not pay heed to most, if not all, of what Jesus taught. For one thing, I do not know any Christian who has sold all of their belongings, which Jesus expected of his followers. Jesus frowned on material wealth and those that clung to it. It's amazing how such a popular religion can ignore the teachings of the person it is based on, turning Jesus into nothing more than a saintly stained glass image to decorate churches with.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • malibu123

      Why don't you generalize a little more?

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

      Wow, you really got me there, Malibu ...

      November 12, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  4. Daniel

    No, America is not now, nor has it been, nor should it ever be a Christian nation. But if "Christian" in truth meant tolerance, compassion and hesitation to rush to judgement and condemnation, then I might have some use for the faith. But the Christian position has been staked out by the hard-line, conservative, hellfire-&-brimstone Right, and the rest of the faith has not bothered to stop is, so I can only conclude that THAT is what they wish to stand for. No, we aren't a Christian nation. And until Christianity can put its own house in order and stand up for what it claims it does, I want nothing to do with it.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • malibu123

      Not too much of a scholar in American history, are we?

      November 12, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Brooke

      Malibu, you are the one who needs to brush up on history. You are making a fool out of yourself.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  5. Craig

    Nice to hear Stephan that you can predict how Jesus would react and what side he would take. Please.....

    November 12, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • dabble53

      All the preachers, neo-cons, televangelists, etc. seem to know (and say) WJWD, so why not Stephen? I would say his implied view of WWJD is closer to a loving god than all the right wingnuts and supposed xtian preachers.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  6. NewsOrGossip

    Questioning whether or not the USA is a Christian Nation? Uh, did the KKK using the Christian Bible to justify thier terrorism and hate crimes not give you a clue....why are you questioning it now?

    November 12, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  7. Dcm5150

    davo – No matter what you say or even want to make yourself believe, you would have done the same thing.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  8. CJG

    This is the most infuriating article I've read in a long time. Religion does not equal ethical superiority. I'm an atheist and am perfectly capable of siding with the people this idiotic journalist thinks I should side with.

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

    For once, I agree with a CNN reporter, at least partially. Herman Cain? The Assn. already paid cash damages on his behalf, so anyone with half a brain knows he did SOMETHING to warrant it. Paterno's firing was a complete overreation and may well have legal ramifications of its own once the smoke clears. Before the pitchfork-wielding mob of 'child protectors' skewers me, they might want to remember the McMartin mess. Christian? Oh please! These moral midgets who are now so loudly 'appalled' would bed down with a Borgia for a new refi!

    November 12, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  10. JP

    Sadly the major issue has become the "image" of the university and the football program, etc. The driving force then is money, since it is assumed that the university is worried about the university supporters that keep the money coming in....

    Moral values that this country is based upon are based on Jesus Christ, not on atheists and agnostics and their grey area opinions about what is right or wrong.

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

      This is a secular country, that's how our founding fathers hoped it would stay. Moral values change with time and social acceptance. We can't govern a secular country by a particular religion's moral values – true religious freedom is only achieved through a secular system.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  11. Papi

    Christianity might have many adherents who have interpret it as a peaceful, forgiving and loving philosophy based on the sacrifice of the believer but simultaneously many other believers have interpreted christianity as a righteous ideology that should use violence, humiliation and force to convert nonbelievers or eliminate nonbelievers of the this faith. Mr. Prothero's article is way too simplistic in its supposition that somehow christianity in the USA has always been a foundation of forgiveness and or somehow progressivism when applied to economic fairness or equality or in determining what is morally ok or wrong. Any philosophy that allows for people who have lived their lives without following societies established moral codes and then right before death can ask for the "christ's" forgiveness and be forgiven regardless of what they might have done in the past has some serious structural and moral problems. Christianity in the USA is actually part of the reason people aren't reacting the way Mr. Prothero's would expect. In the USA is ok for some people to have it all while others starve to death and that is just OK with secular capitalism as well as with protestantism.

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

      Yep. Three words:

      Westboro Baptist Church.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • malibu123

      Christianity is a religious ideology that uses violence to convert non-believers.....really? Maybe you could put down your crack pipe for a few minutes and site some actual examples. Jeez, where do people like you come up with this stuff?

      November 12, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Ed From Madison

      @malibu123 are you insane? I'm a lifelong Christian, but you have to admit that throughout history (Inquisition, Crusades, Reformation and counter-reformation, Conquest of the Americas, exploitation of Africa to name some of the bigger ones), a huge amount of harm has been done in God's name by Christians. So much good has also been done by Christians, but to deny the facts of history makes you look stupid.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  12. Ralph Henson

    It seems that most of us forget, God is on the side of right, not power, wealth, or lack thereof. If the ladies lied, Cain is right, if not, Cain is wrong.
    if Penn state is covering up, they are wrong. Social ills do not enter into what God does, it is right or wrong. He cannot stand wrong so we should not expect Him to do it, as much as we would like Him to.

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

      You don't know Joe, you don't know the victims, stfu. You're not religiious but you talk about Christianity and morality. You're lower the Sandusky.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • Andy Anderson

      Your god was on the side of genocide and child sacrifice – 1 Samuel 15:2-3 and Judges 11:29-40. See "evil bible dot com" for more information regarding the true 'moral' nature of your supposed deity.

      It's time to join the rest of us in 2011.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  13. ZZeyn

    My heart goes out and defends the ones in need because I can reason – not because I fear God.

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

      who then provides your reasoning?

      November 12, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • ZZeyn

      What do you mean? I can't reason unless I subscribe to a religion?

      November 12, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  14. Nancy

    Well, my heart goes out to children who have been violated and to women who have endured the exploitation of the powerful. But I would not characterize myself as a Christian believer. I get the point of the article, though. Do we identify with the powerful and privileged or with the powerless. Seems to me, the American Dream has always been about transforming from one to the other–a journey that isn't usually good for the soul.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  15. Carrie

    Christians are for everyone, the sinner and the sinned against. I can feel pain and empathy for the epic tragedy of Joe Paterno's lost legacy AND feel pain and empathy and the desire to help the abused at the same time.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  16. Charles

    A very good thought proviking article. Let me start and say that we should not measure the heart of a nation by a vocal few who claim to represent us. We have allowed others to define who we should believe, what is right, and how to vote. As you know, a nation is not Christian, so to judge a nation as Christian is interesting.
    While I totally agree that empathy is a core value, and we are to have compassion on our fellow man, it is not the purpose of Christianity. Even unbelievers have the capacity for these traits so I do not think empathy is the message of the gospel. The purpose is for us to recognize and accept we need a Jesus. When we accept Him and allow Him to work in our lives then true empathy and compassion will come out of our heart. He wants to change lives. Empathy and compassion alone will not change our lives or bring us the salvation as is the core message oif Christianity. He wants us to be comformed to His image.
    Now you ask where would Jesus be? In the same light where would we be? I am angered and upset at those who committed the acts and covered them up – deliberately or not. But Jesus would comfort the victim and He would seek out the perpetrators as well. He came to heal the brokenhearted and to seek out the lost and restore to a relationship with God. Our reaction is to crucify those responsibie for these vile acts.
    He came for the sinner and the lost and we all fit in that category. So pray for the victims and pray for Paterno and Sandusky and for all the others that their eyes would be enlightened to know the hope of His calling.
    Yes I know this is easy as I am not a victim nor the parent of a victim, but it is the message a Christian nation should be preaching. For do we follow what man has told us is Christain or what the Christ has told us is the way the truth adn the life?

    November 12, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  17. popcorn

    I wish America is TEMPLE MOUNT'S GOD NATION. GOD RULE THE WORLD. I want him. I want God to take control over the world after 2013. Sick of wars, crimes, etc.

    Can't hardly wait for God's 2012 to rock the world with earthquakes.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • full metal jacket

      You can not convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it is based on a deep-seated need to believe.

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

      Are the cartoons all reruns this morning?

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

      No offense meant, but study the Bible, study ancient history, seriously look at the messes that have always been, man against man, suffer the children, animals killed for sport,,, etc,,, since the beginning,,, the peoples of the world need to wake up to the truth that "God" no matter how God is perceived, does not micro-manage the world, nor anything in it. People need to make better choices.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  18. full metal jacket

    To sit alone with my conscience will be judgment enough for me

    November 12, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  19. John

    The right wing politicians, mostly Republicans, use Christian rhetoric to promote themselves when in fact their policies are anti-Christian in many cases. Helping the rich at the expense of the poor, judging others without proof, being self-serving at the expense of our society and destroying the Earth that they claim God created for greed. These are just some of the examples of why we are not a 'Christian' nation nor are most of the right wing policies espoused by those who use the Christian mantle truly Christian. They are purely hypocrites.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Yeah...not like G.W. helped to push the Faith Based initiatives and Federal funds were not made available to churches that helped in the communities. Such as the ones during Katrina.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  20. Andrea M

    Why do we need Jesus to figure this out? I'm pretty non-religious but I'm still perfectly capable of doing the "christian" thing and I assume most non-religious people are the same. Anybody who is a child rapist in my book is lower than some classes of murderer. People who shelter and protect rapists are no better than the rapist themselves. I found it sickening to see Penn State kids rioting in support of a man who sheltered a child rapist. Christianity and morality aren't exactly intertwined. As we can see in politics, there are loads of "Christians" who would rather let people die than help them. It's much more about raising your kids to have good moral compasses no matter what religion is involved. If you're determined to raise a christian kid though, I really suggest teaching only about things Jesus did rather than the whole bible. The man was a pretty cool dude, his followers...not so much.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • Chris Maurice

      Andrea, your opinions are admirable, but have you ever heard of? – "Innocent until proven guilty." But yes, I concur. Jesus was an extremely cool dude. And this is one aspect of Jesus, even the faithful don't get it.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:51 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.