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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. austin I

    Most of the responders here seem not to have a clue. The conundrum is this.....do you feed the starving or the well fed? Do you feel more sympathy for the downtrodden or for those who have far more than they need? Christ, at least the Christ I know, would have no problem here. Why do so many others seem to?

    November 12, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • wisdom4u2

      Because they love the 'darkness' and cannot see the 'Light'.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • Martin

      sorry austin, but you, as most Christians don't have a clue as to what is in the so called bible. "Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it." Matthew 10:34-39
      the bible promotes slavery, abuse of women and children and ultimately calls for religious genocide. The dictator (via Jesus) rule of earth is Christianity's goal. Lucifer is a far more heroic bible character than Jehovah or Jesus.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • wisdom4u2

      @ Martin ~~~~ ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

      November 12, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  2. wisdom4u2

    Wonderful article....I've pondered the same questions....and my opinion is.... 'Not-so-Christian-nation'. But, God is still on His throne!

    November 12, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • Martin

      still longing for a King? the ancient desire to be in bed with a benevolent dictator is deeply woven into the human subconscious. "Fall down and worship oh ye children, my sheep."
      Why is the almighty nothing more than a voyure when when young boys are being reamed by a Sandusky in the shower?

      November 12, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      @ Martin ~~~ zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!

      November 12, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  3. Granger

    WOW ! Is this guy an example of our college elites. What ignorant diatribe. He has questions throughout, but pitting apples and oranges. "In the never-ending debate over whether the United States is a Christian nation..." First, this wasn't really a debate until the last few decades. He pits Herman Cain and his accusers with a child abuser...like this is a comparable analogy. He's lame. His analogy is lame, but this is what we get with CNN. Just more liberal propaganda. He has Cain guilty in the court of public opinion.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  4. BNB42

    Religion:
    It gives people hope in a world torn apart by Religion.

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

      bravo! BNB42

      November 12, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  5. Cruchot

    What a poorly written article, with the wrong choice of questions. Do not waste your time with this.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  6. Tim

    What a poorly written junk story,l how can you compare Cains conduct to a man that attacked 7 young boys? You are just another far left wing person wanting to run down religion in America.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • Jon

      If only that was possible.

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

      If the religion lost it's way, why not?

      November 12, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  7. Atheist 1#

    I'm proud to be an atheist – it helps me stand for so much more and fall for so much less

    November 12, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  8. UglyTruth

    Christianity is not moral.
    The RCC undying support of child-abuse, of the organization is the same as the support for Penn State football.
    The organization is more important than concern for the victim.
    The people have a relationship with the organization.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  9. cbmcleod

    The VERY FIRST

    November 12, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • David

      Only a tree huggin' biased, liberal reporter would connect the b.s. allegations against Cain with the cold hard facts of Penn St. Shame on your B.S.!!!!! And you probably consider yourself a christian.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • jack austin

      Were not a christian nation because religion is ridiculous. All religion has given this world is war,death, and despair. Religion is a divider of people and has no place in the modern world. People are finally seeing religion for what it really is, a sham.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  10. Greg

    It is disappointing that an educated, sophisticated, "thought leader" should be so stuck in the old dualistic mind-set. You have to pick one or the other – the school or the victims, Christian (however he defines that) or non-Christian. Unfortunately, the author stifles the discussion and narrows the expression of the Christian faith by making people pick sides instead of enabling them to see multiple sides of the issue and developing a more integrated approach to the situation.

    CNN should choose a commentator with a broader world view, unless the only purpose is to provoke comment – then mission accomplished.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • Gabe

      CNN's intention with these "faith-based" articles is always to provoke. Controversy drives visits drives ad revenue. Not a shred of actual journalism here.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Atheist 1#

      But who prays for Satan? Who, in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most

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

    In today's world with the benefit of historical record, scientific discovery and rapid global communication, isn't it time that articles like this in the mainstream media were viewed as distasteful? Depending on which religious texts you read and how you interpret them, the behavior of the two men cited as examples may not have even done anything wrong. Stop telling us how much better you are while covering for your failure and the failure of your belief system to produce the results you claim.

    You aren't better than us and in many cases you're not even close.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  12. Jesus

    Hey all,

    The bible is full of sanctioned child abuse and genocide in the name of the lord. Hell, I even damned a whole village to eternal suffering for not believing in my miracles. Look it up, its true. So America is a very Christian nation as long as we let Priests get away with raping children, start pre-emptive wars, and allow the ruling class to enslave most of us.

    Enjoy Christians!

    November 12, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • Atheist 1#

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_ZWTx-QUj4&feature=player_detailpage

      November 12, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • AA

      Blah, blah, blah...

      November 12, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Martin

      hey Jesus....at least you're honest about your ruthlessness and quest for rule as world dictator....I wish your followers would read you and your Dad's complete manifesto. Have a nice holiday season. (PS I hope you loaded up on gold, for those streets you promised, as the gold market has soared.)

      November 12, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  13. Joe

    Tell me quickly what's the story
    Who saw what and why and where
    Let him give a full description
    Let him answer to Javert!

    November 12, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  14. Henry

    Remember, an immoral society such as this, only serves as the foundation upon which wicked men build their evil empire.

    http://thecurseofalmightygod-hnrast.blogspot.com/2011/10/part-1_06.html?spref=tw

    November 12, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      """I believe the saying is "One nation under God". So, a while."""

      It doesn't say "one nation under Christ", so maybe not.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  15. Alan

    What a bunch of crap....Since when has the U.S. BEEN a Christian Nation ?

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

      good point, it's really only the europeans that brought Christianity/Catholicism, and the US is a mix of too many nations and cultures with various religions to ever consider itself a christian nation. and I say who cares? religion only serves to divide people, it would be great if it didn't exist at all.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Jon

      I believe the saying is "One nation under God". So, a while.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Martin

      America has always been imperialistic and materialistic...(native American Indians understand this well, just as the citizens of Saudi Arabia and all the other dictatorships we've proped up for our financial gain) all the religious stuff is just a smoke screen and fuel for holiday drum rolling. "I've come not to bring peace, but a sword, and to set family members against each other"..-Jesus The clear stated goal of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism is to rule the world. All organized religion is a scam. A very successful tax free scam. Wake up gulible humans.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      """I believe the saying is "One nation under God". So, a while."""

      Ummm, it doesn't say "one nation under Christ", so maybe not.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  16. Disgusted in PA.

    You do not have to follow a particular religion to show empathy. Morality and ethical behavior do not require adherence to a particular religious belief system. It does help sometimes but not always. You just have be a decent human being with some common sense and a heart. I don't associate with any religion, but I know right from wrong, I can listen to a story and reasonably come to conclusions based on what I hear, and my heart goes out to those the poor and oppressed regardless of what a book or anyone says. Forget about being this or that. Just use some common sense and you'll know what you should do or think in these situations.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Jute

      Good point neighbor.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  17. Ben

    This is a horribly written article that sets up straw man after straw man. Are you in favor of repealing the Bush tax cuts or do you like cannibalism of dead babies? Give me a break.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • bebekashmir

      Is there a group somewhere set up to exploit and critique the unbelievably bad writing on CNN.com? If not, can we start one?

      November 12, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • AmericanSam

      I really don't think it is a "horribly written article." However, I think you're probably a bad person. I'm sorry.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  18. Mario

    An I am guessing that the idea of innocent until proven guilty has never crossed the mind of the author, especially in regards to Cain. I may not be the most religious person but I have a feeling that Jesus would pass judgement after he knew all the facts and would not flock to the defense of the accuser just because they opened their mouth and SAID they were mistreated.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • ellipse...

      I don't remember what I knew I didn't do to anonymous accusers who I thought was the same height as my wife but was never paid any settlement that I agreed should be paid.

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

      If you are to believe the bible, than J would pass judgement immediately.....after all, if you are all knowing, then you already know all the facts.
      Cain demonstrates in his actions that he has little regard for women in general. While some of the accusations are likely to be exaggerated, I have little doubt he's guilty. Why pay a settlement otherwise? He certainly doesn't come across as someone that would just knuckle under if he was truly innocent.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  19. Lone Rider

    Amazing how all these stories are lumped into one. All are totally different and of different motives. But what do you expect from a University religion scholar what-a-be.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  20. abby

    Why do we have to take sides? I am a Christian, and I believe my religion tells me to have compassion and love for them all. I also believe that Jesus walks with both sinner and victim. He wants the sinner to turn from sin and ask forgiveness; "... there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." Luke 15:7. He also wants to save the victims (and everyone) from a gaining a hardened heart; "But I say, don't resist an evil person! If you are slapped on the right cheek, turn the other too" (Matt 6:39), "but I say, if you are angry with someone, you are subject to judgment!" (Matt 5:22). Being a true Christian is not the easiest thing in the world, but it was never meant to be. But I try, so I feel compassion, love, and forgiveness for all.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • katy

      yes, but forgiveness/compassion for all does not include rioting and putting flowers on the doorstep of the one who has done wrong...or applauding threatening statements. you can feel sorry for someone's mistakes, but not condone it.

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

      Nice sentiments, but yeah, you don't need religion for any of them. Christianity teaches some pretty cruel, bigoted things too, so why not live a good life with your good sentiments, without it?

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

      Sin = Self Imposed Nonesense

      November 12, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • danny

      Abby, those thoughts are right on. Katy, I don't think that is what Abby was saying. Nel, the Bible describes pure religion as looking after orphans and widows in their distress. This isn't the place to debate the "cruel, and bigoted things" you think Christianity teaches.....the point is, Jesus didn't teach those things.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • David Bell

      i say do not resist an evil person! Apply that to the boys in the Sandusky case and you are really sick!

      November 12, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Martin

      turn the other cheek didn't work for the Indians of n and s. America, nor would it appease a Hitler....turn the other cheek just emboldens bullies...turn the other cheek just creats masochists....most of the Jesus character advise is BS and the valuable stuff was plagarized from earlier cultures...

      November 12, 2011 at 11:58 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.