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. Jim

    This was a poor article for multiple reasons. It was clearly written with the preconception that Christians are bad. It was clearly written with the preconception that Herman Cain is guilty and that Joe Paterno is guilty. It was clearly written with the preconception that all successful and/or wealthy people are bad and that all less successful poor people are good.

    Is the U.S. a Christian nation? That woul depend on your definition of "Christian Nation". Was the U.S. established using the imperatives of the Christian Bible, hence, the Word of God? Well, that is a fact. A non-debatable one. I believe that God has blessed this nation tremendously byt, like any parent, will bless and with hold blessing in order to teach us valuabe lessons.

    As for Cain and the female accusers and Paterno and the rioters...well, nobody knows if Cain is guilty of ANYTHING and, based on one female being a "serial plaintiff", one must give him the benefit of a doubt until some actual evidence comes out. If you don't, then you are just being political. It appears there are more facts in the Paterno case though I haven't followed it as closely. The rioters are just being ridiculous regardless of Paterno's innocense or guilt.

    As for Propthero, he needs to learn more about what he speaks (spiritually AND scholastically). God, as He states in His word, has nothing against success, wealth or power. All can be used for good. God rewarded Solomon greatly for his good heart. When He did that, God did not inflict sin on him. He blessed him to reward good behavior and hoping Solomon would use the riches appropriately and enjoy the blessing.

    Prothero asks where our hearts were when the situations arose implying that if we sided with Cain or Paterno we were inherently un-Christia. He forgets that God is a god of JUSTICE. God will side with Cain and Paterno and against the accusers if they are lying. That the accusers CLAIM to be wronged is irrelevant.

    In the end, only God knows who is a true Christian of the heart. Since we allf ail at times, only he knows.


    November 12, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Ricky L

      This article was written with the perception that many Americans do not live up to Christian ideals......not that Christianity is bad.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • MC

      try reading the article on its own terms and not as you want it to read. Besides – if you simply accept that god does not exist, this becomes a simple question of morality and ethics, which many are failing in their reaction to these public cases.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Yuri Pelham

      Sol turned out to be a disappointment and so God destroyed his temple. Most people look to the Bible for a value driven life. Otheres look to Shakespeare. Some to Freud, some to Marx. Those I run into it's people magazine and Fox News. They have different Bibles

      November 12, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  2. MC

    Paterno says he's Catholic – but then again the Mafia is a Catholic group as well. Heck, Priests are Catholic and we all know where their "hearts incline." It's all bunk. Time to move beyond the fairytales and own our own morality. We CAN do it, we can be good without the cosmic rewarder/punisher.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  3. GodPot


    Morality comes from the bottom up, not the top down as seen in every wold religion. Most of us are moral because we have empathy, and those without empathy (about 5% of us) are like the sharks in a bait ball. But because we can't tell the difference visibly they can swim among us feeding at will with no remorse or guilt.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  4. Carlin123

    Cain lied and Paterno could have done more. Now what else do you want to know? Oh, religion is pure horse pucky.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Ricky L

      It depends on what your religion is.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  5. cpeters

    Witch hunt. Mob psychology. Pile on. It all sounds familiar, you've got Paterno where you want him. Now let's have all you opinionated journalists throw another stone. Guess what? Sandusky pleaded INNOCENT. That means he goes ON TRIAL. After which, if he is found guilty, he goes to prison. But you people have already tried Paterno and PSU according to your own standards of moral decency. C'mon people, wake up! The Board of Trustees are inept. They panicked and smeared PSU and Paterno way beyond what was needed. What was needed was a cool headed approach that let the Sandusky trial play out, let Paterno finish his career, let PSU show it has a rational set of leaders. Instead – PANIC and chaos. The Board should resign.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • eif

      I agree with you 100%. The board made matters worst by firing Paterno. An employee for over 50 years, help raised millions for the school was thrown out by the board after he already said he was going to retire. I understand why the students rioted because if I was there, I would have been with them. If the board cares so little for Joe, you you think they really care about the students or the victums in this case? They only care about keeping the pipeline of graduates moving so that the industries they represent have a large pool to hire from, keeping wages low when and if they hire in the future.

      Class of 83

      November 12, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  6. Craven

    The purpose – and only purpose – of any organized religion is control, period. There is nothing spiritual about organized religion at all. Organized religion encourages ignorance and hatred, and is responsible for far more atrocities in this world than Hitler and Stalin combined. We are quick to consume the media and condemn Sandusky and Penn State without all the facts, but routinely turn a blind eye to hundreds of years of child molestation condoned and covered up by the Catholic Church. Most of our problems are directly due to the fact that we do live in a Chirstian society Stephen, with all the hatred and hypocrisy that comes with it. When will we wake up and ascend beyond it? That's what you should be concerned about.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  7. Christian Hearted Atheist

    This article is right on!! I have been thinking about this exact same thing for a long time.

    Christians always follow, they can't think on their own. Otherwise they would not be Christian.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Ricky L

      Who did the first Christian follow?

      November 12, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  8. mark

    it's mostly 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, the point of freedom of religion is that we don't have to label ourselves any particular religion. it's too bad that religion, or the invention of such a fantasy only serves to divide people, it would be great if it didn't exist at all, but people have great imaginations and delusions, so there will always be many religions.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  9. Ryan

    Come on, CNN, just report the news. That's why I've always liked you so much in the past. Now, yesterday you ran a column about racism (in a place where there WASN'T racism, but you ran the stupid column anyway) and today you're running a column about religion. None of this is news. If I wanted peoples' goofy opinions and beliefs, I'd watch FOX. You, CNN, are destroying your own credibility, one column at a time.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Light In The Dark

      So getting people to think, and to talk about a subject is a bad thing ?
      Your going to decide for the rest of us what we are going to read ?
      Ignorant !

      November 12, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Ricky L

      Lighten up, Ryan.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  10. OU812IC

    Sure religion preaches reach out help the hurting, less fortunate, needy people
    Yet the religions are the richest corporations in the world namely the Catholic Religion
    They rake in billions, they contribute millions to politicians to pass their agenda's(hence no seperation of church and state)
    They pay no taxes. They hide & cover up missdeeds by their own. How much do they really contribute monetarily to help these same people they say need help. Instead of just giving some of their billions to help, they start clothes drives, food drives, etc.etc. and guess who is helping and donating most of the time, effort, money, and materials, the less fortunate and middle class people, while the church and the rich just hoard more wealth

    November 12, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  11. BHH

    Yawn. If anyone who thinks they are actually in the know and really knows anything will come to the conclusion that Christ Himself said that his kingdom is not of this earth. As well, those who follow Christ are taught that they are in this world but not of this world. So no nation here, on this earth, can be called a Christian nation...... no matter how hard we/they try.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  12. SickofReligion

    Uh, you're talking about a country founded through the worst genocide in recorded history, built on the most abusive form of human bondage ever conceived, and empowered and enriched through the quite literal slavery of the poorest people in the world and a hellish military industrial complex stocked to the gills with daisy cutter bombs that are known for killing civilians and depleted uranium that causes birth defects and radiation sickness years after warfare ends. In the meantime, thousands of our own citizens die every year due to a lack of basic medical care. At least a quarter of our children live below the povery line – many are homeless. We collectively yawn as services are cut to the most vulnerable among us – the mentally ill, the addicted, disabled vets.

    I think that it is time to admit that our religion has NEVER been "christianity" – though it's fun to give that idea lip service, isn't it? No, the true religion of america – it's heart and soul – is consumerism. Slice the skin of this country, and it bleeds green.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:27 am |

    Well clearly there is a Christain right and a Christain left, I belong to the later one. The Christain right seems to 'skip' over the parts of the bible that they don't like. You don't get to 'pick and choose' not the way it works. Can't wait to see them burn.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • ben

      there is no christian left or right. there is only christianity. your comment of wanting to see them 'burn' would indicate you probably aren't so much a christian yourself.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  14. See what is real

    I don't want this country to be a Christian nation any more than I want it to be a Muslim one. Learn from history- the Inquisition, the Crusades... evil perpetrated in the name of God (any God) is simply humans justifying their actions with a fabricated set of rules, invented solely for this purpose and as a means of controlling the populace. . "... People of a theological bent are chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they'd like to be true" (Dawkins). Ethics, logic, and common sense (not morals), is what is needed.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Chris

      This will never b e a "muslim nation". You will be purged from this land before that happens. I don't believe in Jesus or Mo, and I will destroy anyone who puts Sharia law in the place of any of our laws.

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

      Chris, you completely missed the point.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  15. You Hypocrites

    From the new Republican Bible....

    "Poor people shall sell all of their belongings and give the money to a job creator."

    "The rich shall inherit the earth."

    "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a poor man to enter the kingdom of God."

    November 12, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  16. Cm

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

    p.s it is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA – meaning different cultures and religions and views.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Boulders

      The United States of America was formed off of religion. Eat it.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Dave

      The truth stings a little, doesn't it?

      November 12, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • AA

      Thomas Jefferson was a heretic also.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Ronald

      @Boulders Actually it wasn't. But that's cool if you want to believe that.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • Ricky L


      November 12, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  17. Allisa

    I resent the implication that I have to answer to a higher being to be considered "moral" or "have empathy." I'm horrified by the abuse scandal and Penn State's reaction to it. I'm sickened by the greed in America today and the treatment of our poorer communities. I do volunteer work. I donate blood 8 times a year and am a tissue and organ donor. I work hard to better my community and by all definitions I'm an atheist.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • sand

      I feel sorry for you.

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

      @sand Typical from a Christian I suppose. Feel sorry for those who "are lost souls". Grow up.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • LuisWu

      @sand – feel sorry for yourself for being so ignorant.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Bruce

      Allisa, did you notice that your post is all about you?

      November 12, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • Light In The Dark

      *** sand

      I feel sorry for you.
      Sand, i doubt you feel anything for anybody.
      You are sad.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • ben

      You should thank God you have those moral and ethical principles in you.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  18. LuisWu

    All religions are nothing more than ancient mythology. What religion you are is due to where you were raised, not the validity of the religion. If you were raised in India and brainwashed practically from birth to believe in Hinduism, then you're a Hindu and believe just as strongly that your religion is right, just as a Christian raised in America and brainwashed practically from birth that his religion is right. The human mind can't comprehend its own end. You can imagine not existing. So religions were invented to give comfort to people. Promising them life after death. But it's just ancient mythology and fairytale nonsense. Intelligent people have the ability so see through the nonsense using logic and reason.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • woeifljs

      Sounds like your woefully lost.

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

      And you sir, you are a heretic.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • LuisWu

      Sounds like you're woefully ignorant.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      woeifljs, Whooosh right over your head. And you will never know. Sad.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • Light In The Dark

      Luis is right.

      The whole messiah thing, with a virgin mother, crucified on a cross..
      Jesus was just one name, in a long history of the same story.
      You have been sold a story that goes further back into history
      than you realise.
      This time it stuck.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • mark

      well stated

      November 12, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • AA

      This debate is not new, took place many centuries ago.
      The fact that western civilization is the absolute result of Christian values,especifically Catholic, is no surprise.
      Heretic people like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin and others are examples that even though, Arianism was defeated 16 centuries ago, and failed miserably, supporters elitists still show up every once in society.
      Lets make sure to identify some of our founding fathers, that utilized most is not all of the Christian revelation, but rejected the parts they wanted to promote their own selfishness.
      T. Jefferson was part of the enlighted people of the time, that brought ideas from a Europe that was agash in problem and fighting the Church because of elitist feelings.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  19. Lila

    I remember my mother telling about priests and crazy uncle stories that Christian families and communities covered up in the past. Why is it shocking it still goes on? Reminds me of the man beating his daughter with a belt and people attacking her for recording it. Our society especially religious people blame victims and cover up abuse, it always has. The fact you are looking for morality through religion is naive. Religion promotes cover up and a following the herd mentality. Strong people who stand up to evil acts are a minority and their religious background is irrelevant. They are more likely to be ostracized by the group for speaking up.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • tree and bees

      Good will always prevail. there will be victims along the way but justice does happen either now or in the afterlife. Never give up in the struggle to survive, fight back, and live on.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  20. Steven

    I think the problem is not so much that we, as a nation, lack empathy for victims. I think the problem is that we are more interested in important people than in nameless ones. Many people have opinions about the relative guilt of Cain and Paterno, but I'll bet that not many of those even know the names of the alleged victims. And why should they? For most of us, these are just stories that divert us from our own personal dramas, which deserve much more of our attention.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:21 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.