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. DonJuan1943

    "We have so much for which to be thankful. Yet we want more." It is a disease of our spirit. We resolve the symptoms of our disease by taking more.

    Your servant,

    Don Juan, the world's greatest lover.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  2. Granger

    This guy isn't a soldier of Christ. He's a soldier for the liberal ideology. What a smuck insinuating and comparing Cain's situation to the Penn State issue.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Karen

      Liberals are more in line with Christ in that they want to help those in need verses help the rich get richer. They are a voice for those that are unable or can't afford a defense. Christians are not tolerant of others trials and tribulations.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • Light In The Dark

      Hey Granger.
      Open a dictionary, and look up two words.
      Conservative and liberal.
      The definitions may surprise you.

      Give me a "liberal" everyday of the week, and twice on Sundays.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  3. Henry

    Even those of faith prefer to construct their own realities rather than evaluate whether their actions are compatible to their beliefs.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  4. Solitairedog

    Thank you Daniel, for your well considered comment.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  5. tldixon

    we are not in fact a nation of Christians-we have become a nation of self-aggrandizing, holier-than-thou hypocrites more interested in making money and making gods of atheletes

    November 12, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Patrick Williams

      I agree with this....thus, a pagan culture, mind-set for MOST of the population (even those who profess to be Christians)

      November 12, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  6. Patrick Williams

    Christianity is a lifestyle...nit just some mental beliefs only. People may believe in Jesus as their savior but their actions belie their beliefs. Maybe 1% of the population (if that) actually LIVES the life that Christianity requires.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  7. 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 |
  8. CC

    Ah, once again the atheists jump on the "Christian-bashing" wagon with joy and zeal. You are all so transparent. To use these examples as a benchmark as to whether our country is Christian or not is ridiculous. There are many Christians in our country whose good deeds and moral lives go unnoticed everyday, so to choose these two situations as indicative of morality in our country is simply dumb. There are many religions in our country at this time and many people living good and decent lives. There will always be those who choose to live according to their own rules and desires regardless of how it affects others. One can call oneself just about anything, but how one lives and behaves is a true demonstration of ones beliefs.

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

      ALL religions are nothing more than ancient mythology. Anyone with a brain can see that. I don't hate Christians or members of any other religion. I hate RELIGIONS, all of them. They keep people ignorant and stifle progress. Belief in an invisible, supernatural being in the sky isn't healthy. Religious people live in a fairytale world.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  9. LMC

    Some excellent points raised in this opinion piece!

    November 12, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  10. Patrick Williams

    I am A Christian....America is NOT a Christian nation...not even close...very pagan...

    November 12, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • tldixon

      this pagan donates to many charities and has chosen a carreer in helping my brothers and sisters-I know a few Christian people who actually walk the walk but they are few and far between

      November 12, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Patrick Williams

      I see, so you did not "Turn the other cheek" to my post? Didn't Jesus teach us that?

      btw, I did not say the people were pagan (but they mostly are) but the CULTURE is predominately PAGAN – which it is.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  11. Grnrambler

    I think that this author doesn't have a good view of the "personal choice" aspect of the Christian religion. He views "Christians" as a group. Each Christian has a personal relationship with Christ. We are not defined by our church group. When it comes right down to it we stand alone before our God. Jesus said to help the poor – he did not mandate that governments help the poor. We are are given this time on earth for our own redemption.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • Light In The Dark

      *** Jesus said to help the poor – he did not mandate that governments help the poor.

      But the government is supposed to work for the people, so good Christians
      would want the government to help the less fortunate.
      I doubt Jesus would be a Republican.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  12. sam

    Is empathy and propaganda taught hand in hand?

    November 12, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  13. Wesley S Abney

    What an incredibly black-and-white/right-and-wrong, presumptuous and silly article. I'm disappointed, Prothero has seemed to move away from his more academic study and feels more like a theologian of late.

    And, we have not ever been a "Christian nation".

    November 12, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  14. Liz

    Thank you for helping me to understand myself better with your blog. I was confused by the defense of the powerful by the not so powerful, the “students that support pedophilia at Penn are just young”, or “women defending Cain are of a generation who don’t know gender inequality”, who are these people? It is not about where we come from or where we are going. It is about who we are today. We are defined by what we defend and protect. Coming of age in the 70’s I for one am defending the powerless not the oppressors. Those who identify with the oppressors are naive to think that their oppressor masters would for a moment hesitate in making them or those they love, their next victim. Can I do better in my defense? Always is the answers!

    November 12, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  15. GodPot


    15 of the most informative minutes you will spend this decade if you wonder about why humans born in even the most remote parts of the world with a sense of morality. If morality was only driven in a top down fashion one might expect only those people with established religions that set moral guidelines to have a moral compass. But if morality comes from the ground up, meaning it is at the core of all humans and religion just set in stone those moral principles we were born with, then we do not "need" religion or God to be moral. We just need to understand how we can cultivate that morality within our children instead of abandoning it in favor of cold, rigid religious laws. Try eight hugs a day instead of rigid stoicism and Church on Sunday.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  16. Ralph in Orange Park, FL

    This country is "typically Christian". I do not mean this as a compliment.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  17. FutureNow

    This article assumes the common misconception that anything Christian assures good character qualities.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  18. Blurred Lines

    This is another event where EVERYONE is injured. Perhaps you should use your education in Religion, and your column to reach many as a conduit of healing rather than just another source that blurs the truth and adds insult to injury.

    To answer your question …the flowers on the doorstep…Jesus did it though the students. God Bless the students. Remember Joe Paterno told the students at His house to pray for the victims, their families, and their lives…Jesus did that too. God Bless Joe Paterno . The billions of prayers offered for the boys, that the media are unaware ever existed…Jesus did that too through the hearts of His faithful . God Bless the boys and their families. Oh yeah, the rich business man running for the White House whose innocent wife has become a victim of the media …Jesus did it…He sent some “family values” conservative Christians to stand by her side and strengthen him. God bless Herman Cain and family. The lawyers who defend Cain, Paterno, Sandusky, the affected boys, Penn State administration …Jesus is with them too.

    Don’t underestimate this being a Christian nation but rather underestimate you understanding of Christianity. There are no sides with Jesus— He loves every single one of us the same—completely as we are and perfectly as He is.

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

      Wrong everyone is not the "victim" here. Jesus did ID the oppressors and did point them out. And while he may have loved them, he did not tolerate them nor did or would he have brought them flowers. He would have said something along the lines of if the enablers of the pedophile truly repented they are my brothers. Did Perterno come out will a full now "lawyered" up story? Of course not he is still doing CYA. He has not repented and so open to judgement.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Blurred Lines

      I never said everyone is a victim, I wrote everyone is injured. Joe Paterno has been injured regardless of degree of guilt. So has his family, neighbors, and even his lawyer, because no one knew Paterno had any of this information. Jesus would not condone public judgment as we are seeing here. In fact he would write our own sins on the ground and state “He without sin cast the first stone”.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  19. Daniel Troppy

    America is far from being a Christian country in my opinion. I mean just look at this new congress we have tea-baggers that are full of fear and hate but that's typical from the right wingers. They consider themselves all Christians but act differently than what the faith teaches. Hypocrites is what I would call this group of people...

    November 12, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  20. Craig

    Cry baby libs. Tie this to religion? What do you know about faith? Go camp out, crap in public and demand a hand out...that is what you are smart about.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Patrick Williams

      see, this type of un-friendly talk (above) proves we are not a Christian nation.

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

      Here's one thing I know about faith...it isn't supported by any evidence. That would faith the embracing of the irrational.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • dcl

      The incident you refer to has been proven to be a set up. But don't let facts get in the way of your chosen world view.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • Lisa D.

      So many American Christians are "for show" or momentary glory, to prove their point. Liberal or Conservative, this type of "hate" speech is ridiculous and childish. This is not what life is about, we are called to LOVE, that's it.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Light In The Dark

      **** Craig

      Cry baby libs. Tie this to religion? What do you know about faith? Go camp out, crap in public and demand a hand out...that is what you are smart about.

      Raised from birth to hate liberals, yet Jesus was the most liberal in history.

      Happy birthday Craig, you just turned six i hear.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
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About this blog

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.