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. thirst4music

    I was loving this article until you cheapened it with what I hope was a poor attempt at humor: "I do not know whether Jesus is a Penn State football fan. He may well be." I can assure you that Jesus doesn't care who wins any sporting event.

    Re: Abby's comment: True, Jesus would have compassion for both. But the Bible makes it clear that Jesus would be standing with the victims while loudly rebuking the offenders, even though he would have compassion for both. He consistently saved his harshest words for those who prey on victims of any type.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  2. Marc Gauvin

    You can be moral without being christian and plenty of christians are dirtbags.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  3. John

    I though CNN was about news not some crappy writer commenting on his religious views. America is not a Christian nation never was. Great that the writer dosent feel the need to explain why he feel the nation is Christian. Why anyone would report this crap is beyond me.

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

    As an atheist I believe that Christians are just doing Jesus's job of judging and condemning until he comes back to take over where everyone left off. Isn't there something in the bible saying don't judge less you be judged? Obviously as a society we need are wisest and most educated in the law to make these decisions or at least to oversee a jury of our peers. I would suggest that we all keep our mouths zipped until all the details and facts come out in both these cases.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  5. 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. Pathetic!

    November 12, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  6. gratular

    Remember, most people are Christians/Catholics because of that sinner clause.. "Do whatever you want on this earth and you'll be forgiven later" is their motto..

    November 12, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  7. Sam

    I was raised in a strict Christian family, and saw the hypocrisy of it from all angles. The history of Christianity is full of hypocrisy and meanness. Christianity and politics is a lethal combination. Christianity and Capitalism are a match made in heaven. I find more love, peace and logic in the Eastern Philosophies like Hinduism and Buddhism. Hopefully, America is moving away from being a "Christian" nation. We be much better off without it!

    November 12, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  8. Jute

    We have become a self-centered nation and the progression is still in play.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  9. Jeannot

    Religion's first purpose is control. It does that through lies and fear, and sometimes against human nature.

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

    Christians pick and choose what passages in the Bible they will follow and what ones they will ignore. Despite being obviously hypocritical, they are blinded by their self righteous belief that they have the only truth, yet do not fully follow it, risking eternal damnation. How curious.

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

    This is not a Christian issue. CNN once again offends me with the idea that only Christians should be disgusted by Joe Paterno. I don't believe in Jesus, except that he was a really nice Jewish kid. But I do hope there is a hell for Joe Paterno to rot in. This is about selfish children, raised without learning the ability to feel empathy towards others. This is about a generation of kids who think college is the first time they get to have grown up fun without mommy and daddy – and without any parents we see what happens. These idiot males who support Joe pedofile, who raise him up as some kind of figure to worship, will be tomorrow's defendants. Once you start to believe that rules of decency don't apply to you, you stop living by them.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • Light In The Dark

      This is a Christian issue.
      You have several "Christians" running to be the GOP candidate, and they all want to gut
      social security, medicare, medicaid, ect.
      They have voted against extending unemployment benefits.

      Is this what Jesus would do ?

      November 12, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  12. Jason

    First of all, you're right that sympathy should lie with the alleged victims. However, it is also true that, in this day and age, many false accusations are made, meaning the accused can be the victim. The point is, it's hard to know WHO the victim is in a given situation unless you have all the facts. Sometimes there are multiple victims of varying degrees.

    Second, Christianity has nothing to do with it. As if Jews or Buddhists or Atheists aren't sympathetic to victims?! Was it "Christian" of the Catholic church to cover up for pedophile priests for centuries? Was it "Christian" of "God" to wipe out the world's entire population, except for Noah's family?

    Personally, I can only hope for the day this country becomes "not-so-Christian"!

    November 12, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  13. FRod

    Reading the comments above only supports Prothero’s statements in this article. The phrase action speaks louder than words is based in scripture “Faith without deeds is dead’. I agree that we cannot claim to be Christians yet live lives that do not reflect Christ.
    It shows ignorance in our American youth to fight for someone who kept silent or covered up the abuse of children. Is their schools record worth more than a life forever altered? Why would we “America” want a leader who lacks respect towards women? Why would his educational status or business prowess matter? He lacks integrity. Would we really place our nation in the hands of someone like this?
    If we have no empathy for those being abused and mistreated, I agree we aren’t the Christian nation we would like other nations to believe we are. We should check our pulse to see what stopped our hearts long before now.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  14. Hilikus00

    While the majority of people in this country identify themselves as Christian, it has not been practiced by the majority in some time.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  15. Edwin

    What a bunch of malarkey. Mr. Prothero asks whether we side with "the least of these," presumably the women accusing Mr. Cain of wrongdoing, or with the powerful, presumably Mr. Cain. Mr. Prothero knows well that the "least of these" women are an instrument of an opposition research team – either a GOP rival or more likely President Obama's. Mr. Cain's accusers are either anonymous or a woman who clearly enjoys the limelight and who hooked up with Gloria Allred. Looks like a bunch of people who are bearing false witness. I'll side with the victim of that smear campaign, thank you very much.

    Did Mr. Prothero side with the powerful President Clinton or with the "least of these" Paula Jones, Kathleen WIlley and Juanita Broaddrick?

    November 12, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  16. Steve

    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"?

    And when you turn on the television and don't see the thousands of students who gathered quietly in support of the victims (nothing newsworthy there – neither drunkenness nor violence) and when you don't hear from conservatives who wait to hear more before coming to a conclusion, do you think to wonder whether you are getting the whole story. Perhaps you are making generalizations based on what CNN find to be newsworthy?

    That doesn't even get into the question of why you suppose this is a Christian nation.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  17. KP

    Our soldiers are among the most highly respected of professions. They are nearly unanimously considered heroes. And they are trained to be mortal sinners. Religion only comes into play in the US to support nationalism and capitalism. The Christianity taught by Jesus to his followers died out long before our nation was even born.

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

      True dat.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  18. Rj

    The U. S has never been a Christian Nation, Christmas is Pagan, Easter is Pagan, Chritians do not go to war.its a Democracy not a Kingdom or Theoscracy which is a government under Christ ruling now from heaven and will distroy the U.S. and all nations. Dan.2:44 Wake up people. You probably cannot even tell me how many animals went into the Ark with Noah,if you said 2 your wrong ,read the Bible Genesis Ch 7

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

      "Chritians do not go to war". Umm, no they "crusade", right? Millions killed, but who's counting.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • Bill Bodker

      What a stupid statement. Christmas as well as Easter are not pagan-the way we celebrate them is definitely pagan. Look at all the commercialism surrounding Christmas, that is not the way it was intended. Do NOT confuse the two.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • wisdom4u2


      November 12, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  19. atroy

    There are millions of self-described Christians in the US. But as a child I was taught that to be a Christian meant to follow the example of Christ–to be Christ-like. My experience had been that those who profess to be Christians the loudest fall the furthest from that definition.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  20. Lenny Pincus

    I'm thrilled to hear that as many as 99 people enter Heaven "righteously" on a regular basis. From the look of these far right Christianists, I'd guess the number much lower. Since the meek inherit the earth, and those who are last shall be first, my guess is that all you "righteous" dudes and gals are gonna be pretty surprised, especially you rich ones with that eye of a needle test.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:15 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.