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. FritzfromPa

    What we've seen Christians do in this country is so far from anything supposedly Christian that it makes a mockery of Jesus' teachings. To cheer about leaving a poor dreadfully ill man to die because he has no health insurance and the audience agrees they don't care, to boo an American soldier because he is gay and yet willing to die for those ingrates who are booing him, to hoot and holler yahoo at the number of criminals put to death by a positively illiterate governor who ballyhoos his prowess as being the one with the most lethal injections to his score card, lays evidence that those who cheered, booed and hooted are no way in touch with their Bibles. Herman the Vermin and his rat lawyer have threatened any women that dares lay bare his immoral sins and in so doing might provoke another "Christian" to hunt down those women and murder them. The so called American ProLife murderers who shot down doctors all did it in the name of their ProLife gods.
    The Evangelical cults in this country are getting away with murder because their brethren justify every murder as coming from their god's voice. The only true Gods are power and wealth. All else falls away when stripped of its cover.

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

      A powerful post...with so much truth.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Lisa D.

      completely agree

      November 12, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Craig


      November 12, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Craig

      post from occupy zone.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Light In The Dark


      You are the man !!!!!!

      November 12, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  2. Mary Carter

    Some of us are trying to live in a nation under God. It looks like the majority of our country would prefer to live under evil and they are accomplishing that at an alarming rate. I am 73 and I long for the days when I was growing up and we had a moral, caring country with leadership that tried to keep it that way. We are doomed if we keep on this path and those who think they are God will soon find that they wish they had never been born. I am sick of this country and if I were younger I would be leaving for anywhere else that has not lost its conscience.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Amistavia

      Luckily you'll be dead soon and you won't have to worry about it. Good luck reaching that afterlife that doesn't exist.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • LuisWu

      Which god? Allah? Krishna? Buddha? Yahweh? Zoroaster? Manitou? Americans believe in a lot of invisible, supernatural beings in the sky. The number of gods worshiped since the beginning of history would fill 10 football stadiums. But of course YOURS is the only one that's real. Grow a brain.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Free

      Mary Carter
      "Some of us are trying to live in a nation under God."
      Sounds like what you really want is to live in a country of good people, or at least people who try to do their best. There are lots of good people in the USA, but they aren't found in any one religion. The real problem lies in people thinking that God condones whatever they do because they happen to believe in him, or that anything is justified for a supposedly good cause. That road the leads to hell, as they say. Some people think Cain in the White House, or a winning football team are good enough causes to excuse or do whatever actions are necessary, it seems.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • Marc Parella

      May I offer a dissenting point of view. I am 25 years your junior and I see a troubled country too. But I am boundless with my enthusiasm and optimism. Today despite our economic woes, we live is a safer country. There is about half as much violent crime today as there was in 1965. The problem is that the media elevates our awareness to violent crimes and sensationalizes stories that go beyond the nightly news. A story lingers in the media for days sometimes weeks and our collective conscience is warped by the continuation of these stories. The reason I am optimistic is because I see the light at the end of the tunnel, a country where individuals take greater responsibility for their lives – and believe it is already happening. There are over 29 million small businesses today – more than at any other time in our history. More people graduate from college and there is greater opportunity for women and minorities. Do you really want to go back to 1960 and live under the threat of the cold war? The greatest gift that was given to my generation was ending the cold war. How can we be so ungrateful. No sir, I put our history in perspective and despite our economic problems, we as a nation will come through this stronger, more determined and prouder.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Craig

      Thank you Mary, your age speaks to your wisdom. Too bad occupiers, the minority they are don't get it.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Craig

      amistavia, you disrepectful nothing...still waking up screaming, mommy, get your hands off of that? accept your issue and get help.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Light In The Dark

      Mary, stop voting republican,
      problem solved.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  3. Bob

    Generally speaking, Christians are less moral than non-Christians in my experience. I say this having grown up in a very religious community. The vast majority of Christians in the United States believe in some warped, watered-down, single-issue Christianity. I can count on one hand the number who actually LIVED life with Jesus as a model..sharing all they have, letting homeless people sleep on their couch, etc.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Craig

      bob got bobbed this morniing it seams

      November 12, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Light In The Dark

      Another christian reply.


      bob got bobbed this morniing it seams

      November 12, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  4. Elmo

    Do not pass Go. Do not collect 200$. Go back to seminary school.. The roots of your scholarly teaching are showing.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  5. Patrick Williams

    America is NOT a Christian nation...nor was it founded to be a Christian Republic.

    America is a materialistic, hedonistic and worldly-centered nation. Just look around you? Does is even look even a little Christian? NO.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Amistavia

      Refer to the Catholic Church and Megachurches. Then reconsider your claim.

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

      And yet we give away more money to help those in need and also donate more time to help others , both individually and as a nation, than any other people or nation on the planet. Interesting huh.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • LuisWu

      Exactly. Several of the founding fathers were Unitarian, not Christian, at least one was Jewish, some were agnostics. Benjamin Franklin had no use for ANY religion. Get your facts straight before you pull ignorant nonsense out of your posterior and post it here.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Free

      But we can afford to give a lot more, both individually and as a nation, and that too is interesting, huh?

      November 12, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • Light In The Dark


      And yet we give away more money to help those in need and also donate more time to help others , both individually and as a nation, than any other people or nation on the planet. Interesting huh.

      Yup, write it off your taxes, than make sure you post it so everybody
      knows how generous you are.
      A true Christian and Republican.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Cats Eye Montana

      Regarding the comments about how generous we are - fact is we give less per capita and as a percentage of GDP than almost any other developed nation.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  6. SCAtheist

    Weak person = the ability to hold two inconsistent sets of ideas in your head at the same time.

    Christians are really good at that.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  7. thes33k3r

    Prothero delivers with more Christian-baiting.

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

      He wouldn't be able to bait them if they weren't so easily raised, right? The fact that there are so many things to justifiably criticize Christians for is why we are having these discussions in the first place. If they clean up their house then who could criticize?

      November 12, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  8. peick

    Empathy or no, you have to use your mind when considering these questions. Remember, Jesus also said "be wise as serpents." If someone is lying about another person and painting him/herself as the victim, should we automatically take the perceived victim's side? Maybe it's true, but maybe it's not. We have seen people express their hatred for those better off than they. So if we know that malice exists, why couldn't there also be deception? And to quote the Bible again, as you are fond of doing, Mr. Author, in the Proverbs it talks about not "perverting justice" to favor the poor. Have a look.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  9. DaveM

    I find it hard to feel sorry for anyone that waits 14 years to say anything! These incidences happened about 14 years ago to an adult and these adults didn't feel it was important to report this then. So why all of a sudden if these allegations are true, why would they wait so long to say anything? What it took them 14 years to get angry enough to say something or it took them 14 years to get over being embarrassed or maybe just maybe they are full of it? And doing something bad or wrong is not exclusive to non religious people, so called religious people have been killing, stealing and torturing in the name of religion for centuries and they where men of the cloth!

    November 12, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  10. Patrick Williams

    America is hedonistic, greedy and narcissistic as a culture. Christian? FAR, FAR from it.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • Amistavia

      The history of the Catholic church would tend to show your point is mistaken.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Atheist 1#


      November 12, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  11. John C.

    So, who's a "Christian"? Whe are we to call a "Christian"?

    November 12, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  12. R. George

    I would like to know what I can do to help those boys and their families. My heart lies with them.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  13. G D

    You don't have to be religious or Christian to know evil when you see it. Using a position of power & influence to sodomize children; it doesn't get more evil than that. The problem is obviously the lost morals of our "leaders" at Penn & the Catholic church. Disgust is too soft a word for this epidemic loss of morals & values by those that should be examples.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  14. Jake

    "One purpose of the world's great religions..." I'm sorry, what? Supposedly religions aren't created for a "purpose", they're just the way things are, right? I happen to agree with you that they were created by man to serve various purposes (such as controlling the weak-willed masses), but I'm pretty sure that's not what you meant to say.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  15. Ted N.

    The U.S. is not a Christian nation, which would imply theocracy. For an example of functioning theocracy, see Iran. The U.S. is a nation that includes Christians as its citizens, along with people who follow many other religions or no religion at all.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  16. Amistavia

    It certainly sounds like a Christian nation when your talking about child abuse and mistreating women- very Christian indeed.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • David

      A truly Christian nation would have murdered Sandusky... as well as the innocent victims... most likely by stoning. The most direct and relevant scripture is Leviticus 20:13, "If a man lies with a male as with a women, both of them shall be put to death for their abominable deed; they have forfeited their lives." We shouldn't faithfully (with unwielding ignorance) turn to ancient and violent story books as the source of our values of life-style. Sandusky will be tried by a secular court and punished for his crimes. I'm kind of glad we live in a not-so-Christian nation.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  17. SCAtheist

    Christians are as Christians do. You can make the Bible support anything.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  18. Atheist 1#


    November 12, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • ktisis

      Here is an entire page full of debates and other audio lectures establishing the reasonablenes of faith...

      Faith means TRUST or confidence. You exercise faith everytime you hit your brake pedal in your car. Why do you have faith in it? Because it has proven itself in the past. Similarly, to exercise faith in God is based on solid experience, logic, and rationality. DNA, big bang cosmology, universal fine tuning, consciousness, freedom, intelligence, abiogenesis, the fossil record, history, fulfilled prophecies, all point tonot just an inteligent designer, rather as eminent astrphysicist

      November 12, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  19. Maria Ashot

    Sports devotion has become a cult in America, and so - for some - has the Tea Party movement. Time for a long hard look at ourselves.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  20. Joe

    You can tell "conservative" by the response to the article.

    American conservatism has lost it's way completely. The "Light" has turn into blinking gold long time ago. Now all the effort is to how to make it sound "moral" and keep the flock fooled and under control.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:41 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.