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. JoeinMN

    I am a Christian, but I also require proof before convicting someone. A settlement with an organization is not "proof" of anything other than that organization's decision to not fight the matter. Sorry, but I will not judge Cain, but I will continue to have doubts until Cain takes a lie detector test. Paterno is basically the same thing. Again, you are asking us to judge and convict someone without all of the facts. I do have my doubts, but again, I am unwilling to "convict" him on this.

    Bottom line, I do not believe it's "Christian" to judge and convict someone based on guesses and accusations.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  2. JC

    The most vocal "Christians" are unChristians. They are the self-righteous, those that Christ would condemn. My take? We have strayed because we let the unChristians hijack Christianity. It's time we fight back...it's time to "Occupy" Christianity.

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

      The history of organized religion is that it has been constantly hijacked.

      It has always been the preferred strategy to control people's minds.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  3. Liberty Queen

    Both Stephen Paterno and Stephen Prothero: just shut the f... up and quit your sniveling. You are not Christians by any stretch of the imagination.

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

      He's not a Christian because he's questioning our morals? My guess is that you didn't make it past the 12th grade.

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

      Are you?

      November 12, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  4. keats5

    If you were perpetuating a falsehood, would you want to know about it?


    November 12, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      Computerized stress analysis is, for the moment, junk science and would not be admissible in court.

      Consider this: if you were a boor and regularly insulted women by your behavior, would YOU be more stressed in the situation YOU inflicted, or would the women?

      You can be a huge jerk and think everything's just fine. You would not be stressed. But the people around you are another matter entirely.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  5. DnR

    I hate every article like this, as they further purport that their even is a debate or argument to begin with. This is a secular nation, always has been and always will be, with principle foundations being freedom of religion, the desire to escape religious persecution and the abandonment of theocracy. And in terms of the nation having (or being founded on) Christian values, how unbelievably, incredibly selfish of Christians to claim such nonsense. Since when were treating others with the respect they deserve and having empathy for the less fortunate strictly Christian values? I wasn't aware of when Christianity patented them as their own. Well, guess what, you don't have to be Christian to have these values, and you clearly can be Christian and not have these values. So please, end this absurd "argument', as it is completely and totally baseless.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • George Hung

      Thanks DNR. My thoughts exactly. I couldn't have said it any better.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  6. dabble53

    Religion deals with morality and is where morality lives. It is how you live your own life. Ethics is not religion, and exists outside of religion. It is how you treat your fellow beings. You can be ethical without being religious. You cannot truly be moral without being religious.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  7. Debutopia

    Your views mirror my own. I wrote a piece about the words of Jesus concerning the "second mile" and the injustice that Penn State allowed to occur. Reporting child abuse and standing on the side of a child does not take much by way of brains or courage but those seem to be in short supply right now. Thanks for writing about this important topic! My piece is called "Going The Second Mile" on "Debutopia" at Blogspot.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  8. Rick

    In the USA at least the worship of celebrity and money has surpassed the worship of anything else, even common sense. Clearly the charges against Cain are legitimate coming from 4 separate women, yet his supporters try to present him as being unjustly treated and the accusers as liars and give him even more money.

    Paterno could have stopped the abuse of children but did the minimum yet is still revered. It all points to a near complete lack of morality in the USA. The majority of Christians these days are fakes frankly.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  9. Lisa G

    For me, the answer is simple. We'll never know the full truth. The media contorts the story and prevents that from being a possibility. Pain exists on both sides of the street. Jesus would empathize with Cain and his alleged victims. He would empathize with Paterno and Sandusky's alleged victims. He would empathize with Sandusky, too. Why? Because everyone is suffering and needs compassion and empathy. Deserve it? Nobody can know for sure. It is a rare person who can find compassion for even the darkest of souls.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • Rick

      The media tells the story, the truth will come out in court, just the fact you claim it to be contorting shows you have next to no impartiality.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Atheist 1#

      I Bet your both Republican

      November 12, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  10. John

    We have become a nation of athiests and sodomites. We are lost and Obama is making things much worse

    November 12, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • sleepy time

      It would be great if we really were becoming a nation of atheists, it would no doubt solve a lot of problems. Unfortunately, religious believers continue to be the overwhelming majority here so the dream of a region free America is still a long way off.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • Jon

      What does religion have to do with the country being lost? As science evolves, religion will inevitably lose. As facts come out to disprove the bible, more and more people will switch their views. You can't blame atheism. The problem is people aren't smart. It's as simple as that. There's a good correlation between China being one of the strongest countries in the world and the fact they are 60-70% atheist.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • Joe

      Never crossed you mind that we may have become the nation of christian sodomites?

      November 12, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  11. Mighty7

    Up until a week ago I was an agnostic with mostly Atheist tendencies. Then an epiphany of pure intellectual nature happened. Not a major crisis, not a death...out of the blue, without even intent from my part, while reading an essay about astrophysics....just like that, The Question became less of one and more of The Answer.

    Now, I still think all religions are -for the most- misguided and probably wrong, but after last week....I have no longer doubt.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Atheist 1#

      One foot in, one foot out

      November 12, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • Mighty7

      No, just not bound by dogma like you.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  12. Schoolgirl

    Christians do not have the corner on empathy; quoting the great Mahatma Gandhi "A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members."

    November 12, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Mighty7

      Nobody does.

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

    We care about the children whose lives were destroyed by the all the perps at PERP State: Jerry Sandusky, Mike McQueary, Joe Paterno, Tim Curley, Gary Schultz, and counsel for BOTH Penn St and Second Mile, Wendell Courtney, Second Mile, Campus Police, Local Police, Child Protective Serivces, District Attorney at the time. Stephen Paterno, you can put it where the sun doesn't shine because that's exactly what your father, Joe did. Joe Paterno is a perpetrator of crimes against children and he and all of the above officials turned a blind eye to the child se... x.. ual assaults for money and prestige. Well, well, where's your prestige now, boys? In the toilet where you put it because you put money and prestige before children. You, dear Perps, are the only non-Christians here.

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

      Lets not forget to blame the Parents for not teaching their kids to be open and let them know when someone is doing these awful things to them. Lets blame you and all the bystanders (myself included) for not preaching in the streets against all that is evil. It feels good to play the blame game.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  14. Christian

    When we were a Christian nation... school prayer..etc.. our country was thriving. Families were strong. Divorce
    was rare. Now our society has rejected Christian values.. 1 in 8 are on food stamps and families are split apart.
    Strong families equal a strong economy . If we are strong as a people we can not be easily manipulated.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Atheist 1#

      I am treated as evil by people who claim that they are being oppressed because they are not allowed to force me to practice what they do

      November 12, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • dabble53

      A better case is that when the corporations (and their political supporters) were weak politically, the people thrived.
      Now that corporations control the government (and the politicians), people are reduced to slaves.
      Your argument fails. It's not religion, or the lack of it (in school prayer and such), it's greed and power – an I'm willing to bet that over 90% of those with the money/greed/power would all classify themselves as "christian."

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

      You are not "christian" and you are manipulated. Never crossed your mind?

      November 12, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • Mighty7

      Atheist: You are being treated like evil because you are a pedantic d-bag with no manners. Nothing to do with religion.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      """When we were a Christian nation... school prayer..etc.. our country was thriving. Families were strong. Divorce was rare."""

      History was apparently not one of your better subjects. Would it shock you to know that general violence as a whole has actually diminished in the American society over our history?

      And as for prayer, congress has been praying before their sessions for hundreds of years and look at where we are now. He-l-l, Christians have been praying for 2000 years(!) – and what exactly has THAT accomplished?

      November 12, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  15. orangeboy

    Stupid article. The accused have the benefit of the doubt until proven guilty. That's not a biblical idea, I know, but it's the right thing to do.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Rick

      Your comment makes the authors case perfectly. Sandusky, not so well known thus believed to be guilty. Cain, rich and successful thus believed innocent. The rich have all the cards, even in perceived morality.As I said earlier, it's all due to the money/celebrity worshiping nature of most Americans. Pathetic.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  16. Joe

    I agree with the premise of your article.

    The first reaction should have been on the side of kids and woman, because they are the obvious victims. I can't imagine otherwise. Unfortunately, for too many people, supposedly having "moral values" this was not the case. One doesn't have to be "Christian" to have moral values, and I am afraid that we are heading in direction where being a "christian" and having moral values are two different things.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  17. MK54

    Victims deserve support and empathy, criminals do not, but all accused deserve an opportunity to defend themselves. The court of public opinion seems a bIt too swift and powerful, to me.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Rob

      How should the first reaction have been on the side of the students and women? I'm defending supposed actions of the accused, but this is the United States of America, innocent until proven guilty, not give the benefit of the doubt to the accuser, people have been burned at stakes, beheaded, dunked in boiling oil, and drowned, based entirely on accusations, all because people gave someone the benefit of the doubt and played on the emotions of others. Sandusky deserves a day in court as a citizen, no matter what he's accused of doing.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  18. Okonkwo

    There is a story, which is fairly well known, about when the missionaries came to Africa. They had the Bible and we, the natives, had the land. They said "Let us pray," and we dutifully shut our eyes. When we opened them, why, they now had the land and we had the Bible

    November 12, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  19. Beth

    Is there enough evidence to prove we are a Christian Nation?it might be hard to find. The response to the Penn State scandal and the Herman Cain allegations are just the latest in a long history of bad behavior. Our history is littered with actions that go against the teaching of Jesus. We started out by stealing land from and murdering the people we found here. Several of our founding fathers were slave owner and the law backed the rights of owners over those of the slaves. We now know our government ran experiments that exposed people to venereal disease without their knowledge and stood by while doctors allowed people to suffer and die when the means were there to cure them. More recently, during the debates we saw the crowds cheer Rick Perry's death penalty record and call for the uninsured to die if they cannot afford medical care. This is just a small portion of the things this "Christian" nation has done. We need to get honest about our actions and beliefs.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  20. full metal jacket

    I refuse to prove that I exist" says God, "for proof denies faith, and without faith, I am nothing." "Oh," says man, "but the Babel Fish is a dead give-away, isn't it? It proves You exist, and so therefore You don't. Q.E.D." "Oh, I hadn't thought of that," says God, who promptly vanishes in a puff of logic

    November 12, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      What the heck does this mean?

      November 12, 2011 at 11:01 am |
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