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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. CrazyOwlLady

    How ironic that the self-proclaimed party of Jesus - the GOP - is by and large totally lacking in a shred of empathy for anyone other than the well-off. They are more like the Pharisees than they are like Jesus. Good article.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  2. system You

    I was just thinking about this the other day.
    The only Christians I know are a couple neighbors.
    None of my friends are Christians either....but we're a
    darn nice bunch of humans!

    November 12, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  3. jm

    I totally agree with Andrea. I believe Christians, especially the right wing Christians are the most hypocritical people in the world. I work hard to be a believer but when I see how truly evil many Christians really are, they are selfish, wanting everything to benefit them and to hell with the less fortunate, they espouse how they are the only people deserving and the rest of us are lazy, good for nothing bums, I don't want anything to do with the way they are. There are of course exceptions on both sides, but it seems like the more powerful they get the more selfish they are, and believe the world was created just for them and the poor are a pain in the butt. God bless the world, it's not going to change but we have to keep struggling and realize that we are every bit as important as the rich and powerful. I fortunately am on the borderline, not wealthy, not going without necessities. I think the best thing we can all do is hold heads up in dignity, keep fighting for equality and not let the rich get us down. Go to the polls at election time, remember who is not thinking about you, but totally self serving.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • CrazyOwlLady

      Well said.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • richunix

      Though I'm a Athiest, your comments are well written, thanks

      November 12, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Jake

      JM, good comments, but I have to ask, why would you "work hard to be a believer"? I'm not sure I even understand what you mean, but it seems like if you have to "work" to believe something, you don't really believe it. Not to be rude, but "working to believe" sounds as if you're going out of your way to ignore what your brain is telling you.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  4. Tessa

    If you polled the people supporting the powerful over the victims, I'm certain the vast majority identify themselves as Christians.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  5. Nadine

    Those women who are accusing Cain of wrong doing are hypocrites and opportunist money grabbers. They were given money to remain silent and now they want more. No sympathy from me.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • Atheist 1#

      I bet the KKK loves their token Black Guy

      November 12, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • CrazyOwlLady

      Really? The first one to come out in public, Bialek, who didn't file anything nor receive anything, is a money-grubber? Way to go, support the oppressor and spit on the victim.

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

      Do you have any idea what courage it took for those women to come forward? Of course, one of them wants protection, so she calls Gloria Alred. I am so sad about Penn State, but can't help to consider the parallels about things being swept under the rug. Why don't women matter.....they are mothers trying to raise their kids....and yet they have to deal with powerful men who don't respect them. It's sad, as women, you want to think these men want you to perform well, to help the organization, to contribute to the overall good, and it is humiliating when you find out, they just want one thing. Cain and Gingerich and their arrogance are sending terrible messages to our young women.....that is, don't speak up...you will be revictimized.

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

      They didn't exactly get big bucks from their employers to remain silent. I don't know their salaries, but am assuming they weren't significant since the maximum number I heard was $44 K. It probably just covered the time it would take to find another job. Employers buy employees silence, so they don't have to do the RIGHT thing and get rid of the boss. Since many people live paycheck-to-paycheck, they don't have a lot of options. Another example of the powerful lording over the poor.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  6. mandingo694u

    THE U.S. IS NOT A CHRISTIAN NATION. ESPECIALLY THE REPUBES, THERE IS NOTHING CHRISTIAN ABOUT THEM.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • AA

      We are the result of a Christian heritage and values, believe it or not. (Actually Catholic). Western civilization is the absolut result of Christianity in the world. Heretic movements die, but heretics ideas survive in one form or another.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • Jake

      We are not the result of a Christian heritage and values, believe it or not. (Especially Catholic). Western civilization is not the absolut result of Christianity in the world.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  7. Atheist 1#

    Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, 'atheist' is a term that should not ever exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a 'non astrologer' or a 'non-alchemist'. We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs. An atheist is simply a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87 percent of the population) claiming to 'never doubt the existence of God' should be obliged to present evidence for his existence-and, indeed, for his BENEVOLENCE, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day

    November 12, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • CrazyOwlLady

      As a non-Xtian, I don't care if they have evidence or not.... unless they try to make their religion part of public policy and insist that it be taught in public schools in science class (i.e., "intelligent design"). Then they better have proof.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • ben

      The problem with atheists is that they always want to blame a God they don't believe in for all the atrocities in the world. The worlds problem isn't God's fault no more than it is a parents fault that their child won't clean up their room when asked. Free will is a great blessing given to us from God because of his desire for real love from his creation. The problem has always been man being irresponsible with their own free will.

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

      Does your trailer park manager know your using his computer again and PLEASE take your meds.....jezzzzz

      November 12, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  8. Dustin

    As a Christian, it's upsetting to see many of the comments here and their obvious lack of understanding for my religion. I feel that many people just want to look at the dark side of religion in general and never all the good it does- and certainly I'm not just talking about Christianity at this point. Unfortunately, in today's Internet society it's "cool" to be atheist and "cool" to persecute Christians and people of faith and openly mock them.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Amistavia

      If you didn't hace such delusional beliefs, there would be nothing to mock. If you act like a fool, expect to be treated like one.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Andrew

      While I'm an atheist and I do sometimes mock religion, I will say that I personally see the massive amount of GOOD that individual churches in the US do to help the poor and give to charities. If religion were to pass, I would hope that we would see a resurgence in community organizations to continue giving.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • ben

      amistavia...the fool in his heart says there is no God. When I see a constructed object like a house, i don't think, 'wow, amazing how that all came together and built itself by chance'. Instead, like any logical person I think, 'I wonder who the architect was?' I do not need to know who the architect is to believe that there is one. It would only be foolish to think the house built itself.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Jake

      We are a long way from it being "cool" to be atheist. Sadly, much of the country still sees atheism / thinking as a bad thing. And I'd like to ask, what good has religion brought to the world? I honestly can't think of anything. It's certainly possible that some religious people did some good things at some point in time, but that good could have been done with or without religion.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • Dustin

      To be honest, just because you have to rely on something other then your 5 senses doesn't mean you are delusional. Sometimes you just have to open up. A lot of atheists, in my mind, just lack the ability to open beyond their 5 senses, and if they can't see it, smell it, etc. it's automatically untrue. A lot of the blame for that lies within science.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • Jake

      Dustin, I would counter that religious people are the ones who tend to lack imagination. The general concept of open-minded thinking is definitely not something I'd associate with religion.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  9. RealityCheck

    Prothero will do anything to sell his irrelevant book. And CNN is a crackho that will rent itself out to every book huckster around. No wonder CNN is laying off its employees. They're going extinct because of this kind of irrelevant crap.

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

      Well said..

      November 12, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • Joe

      I bet you are a good "christian".

      November 12, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  10. beth

    As a non-Christian understand what the author is saying here and think in part it is positive. In part it isn't because it is saying anything good = Christian and anything not good (even things Christians are doing) = not Christian. I think you are not going to cure the bad things that people of your religion do until you accept the fact that Christians, like people of other world religions as well, all can and do wrong at times. If you distance the crimes of Christians from Christianity you are not dealing with reality. Who were the ones who had the Inquisition? Who were the Crusaders? Who committed pogroms across Europe? Who were the Nazis? (They certainly weren't buddhist or Muslim or Jews-they were Christians). Who were the slave owners of the south? Who were the priests who molested children? These were all Christians. Christianity owns some of the best and some of the worst of human behavior and you must OWN that in my opinion, not pass the negative behavior off as 'not Christian'. I'm not Christian and I dedicate my life to helping others. One doesn't have to be Christian to do this and one can be any religion and do wrong and hurt others. This is NOT a Christian nation. I live here. I 'm not Christian. Most all my friends are Christian. But I'm still here and am as American as you so this is not a Christian nation. I think the acts of those supporting these two speaks more about HUMANS than anything, though.

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

      Good post.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  11. fpga

    For people to think that jesus was a scape-goat and torture victim for their sins makes them immoral. I'm glad that our justice system attempts to find the guilt instead of randomly torturing and killing people. If there were a god to condone this system, he would be inherently immoral.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • Atheist 1#

      Jesus` last words on the cross, `My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?` hardly seem like the words of a man who planned it that way. It doesn`t take Sherlock Holmes to figure there is something wrong here.

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

      Atheist 1...you really need to learn more before you assume things. When you do something wrong to someone you love, you temperarily cause a division between you and the one you love. You feel this in your spirit. The greater the wrong, the greater the division you create b/w you and the other party. Although Christ did no wrong, he became sin willingly, taking the place of you, to provide a way for true balance, justice, and righteousness to rule again in the eyes of a Holy God. In this moment, Jesus called out to his Father because that was the moment the sacrifice He was making for us, was creating the greatest division b/w He and God.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  12. Dana

    I just feel so sick each time the media talks about the debates and they show Cain like he is some sort of hero and not a horrible, horrible man. He shouldn't be allowed to participate in the debates. If the media had any courage, they would stop with these stupid debates when we have to stare at people like Cain and Gingerich....neither of whom have ANY respect for women. It's disgusting.....these kind of men think they get away with anything!

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

      ...but I bet you were a big Clinton fan...hypocrite!!

      November 12, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  13. gj2001

    what makes religions 'great' ?
    Is it the constant conflicts have been seen throughout history?
    has capitalism become the 'great' global religion ?

    November 12, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  14. fpga

    This guy defines christianity to good, and ignores the facts that it, like all religion, is morally ambiguous at best, and genocidal at worst. If you don't know what I'm talking about, read the bible from beginning to end. The beginning defends the mass murder of hundreds of thousands that happen to live in the place the Jews vacated. The end defends the torture and mass murder of every single human that does not subscribe to the idea that a specific mythical Jew was tortured and killed.

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

      Exactly. Read Numbers: 31. Thousands of women and children murdered. Oh...except for the ones that hadn't "known a man", they were kept as slaves.

      And punishment for being raised in any other faith is being tortured forever, burning and screaming throughout all eternity. Nice guy the Christian god.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  15. Lisa

    The best view is from sitting atop the fence, where I can see both sides. Developing an understanding of the suffering (obvious or not) of others contributes much more to humanity than does forming a strong judgmental "Chrisitan-like" opinion.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  16. lopaa

    Students who protest against Paterno firing are gays who were abused themselves. The only difference between them and the victims is that the rioters liked the abuse. They loved the big Joe member.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  17. Barbra & Jack Donachy

    In the back of the minds of many Christians (and Jews, and Muslims, etc.) is the nonsensical notion that "god will sort everything out," and so therefore they don't have to take action–or even think. Imagine a world free from religion, where intelligent people looked in the mirror and understood that it was up to them to act with integrity, honor and empathy.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  18. baboo

    America is a christian nation by name; we don't follow Jesus's teachings. Starting 2 wars in less than a decade should have given you a clue Einstein

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

    By the way, it should be *our hearts not 'are hearts'.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  20. RedSonja

    Bravo.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:31 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.