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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. Patrick Williams

    Granger, I can read the Greek NT – how about you? Went to Seminary for a Masters degree – how about you?

    November 12, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • SCAtheist

      Who f'in cares if you read street Greek..

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

      Last i heard Greek's couldn't find jobs

      November 12, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Patrick Williams

      That was in response to his question if I had even "read the New testament". The answer is, hundreds of thousands of times.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  2. Cat MacLeod

    A well written spot light on hypocrites. A calm rational approach to the irrational side of people. Religion requires you not to question in exchange for easy answers. Those who read this article thoughtfully are the least likely to benefit from it but I suppose it's worth a try.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  3. tallulah13

    It's amazing how many christians on these boards defend Paterno, some going so far as to call him a hero. Whether or not Paterno's indifference was criminal, he knew there were allegations and did no more than his minimum legal responsibility. As head coach, he should have made every effort to discover the truth, not look the other way because the accused was a friend. As a result of his indifference, a pedophile to continue to abuse children. Anyone who can look at such inaction and call it virtue might be a good christian, but they are a bad human.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  4. Jim Ryan

    Morality is innate in our species or we wouldn't have arrived from evolution. Equating religion as a prerequisite for morality is moronic thinking and a totally flawed concept.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  5. truthfl1

    Federal deficit? Come on Stephen, the middle class is just as concerned, maybe more so than the wealthy, about seeing their taxes rise, the poor person who might see unemployment extended, not all poor and they've already been extended and ran out.
    The only ones not concerned about the deficit, are the ones who drain it, like the woman I saw struggling to get her food stamps card out of her wallet without breaking her newly applied 75$ false nails. lol

    November 12, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  6. Tom

    Empathy with a fetus is a stretch, as empathy means putting oneself in another's place, and a 2-cell organism would be hard to imagine oneself as (I imagine). As is empathy with a woman wanting an abortion who may be making the decision based soley on economics and the good of the prospective unborn child. This subject does tax our ethics, though, as near the end of gestation, a fetus is fully developed, lacking only breathing air, so some common sense, 21st century ideas are in order. How about we hold a national referendum ever so often and vote for at what point during gestation an abortion should become illegal? That way those who use abortion as an emotional tool for political gain would be stifled, and then maybe we as a people could move forward with REAL matters of empathy, like seeing to it that poor AMERICAN children don't go to bed hungry. Hey honey, I'm starving. Let's go down to Eddies Steak house. Empathy.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  7. stephen douglas

    Hat tip to George Carlin....

    When it comes to bu11 sh!t, big-time, major league bu11 sh!t, you have to stand in awe of the all-time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims, religion.

    No contest.

    Religion easily has the greatest bu11 sh!t story ever told. Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever 'til the end of time!

    But He loves you.

    He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money!

    He's all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, but somehow just can't handle money! Religion takes in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more.

    Now, you talk about a good bu11 sh!t story. Holy Sh!t...

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

      Mr. Carlin should be required reading in our troubled schools. If you follow Mr. Zakaria's line of thinking about education, then George Carlin would be at the forefront of the American education renaissance. Good work on reminding people of George Carlin's slant on religion.

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

      Sounds like you hate organized religion. Perhaps you need to realize that God and Jesus has nothing to do with organized religion (the wanting of money and all the other corruptions you mention). That is what man has made of spirituality.

      Are you saying that you think that treating people decently, helping those who need help, love, laughter, caring, respecting people and compassion is bu11 sh!t (as you so intelligently put it)? For that is what God, Jesus really wants for us.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Light In The Dark

      Great Stephen....

      Another one from Carlin,
      If God is so perfect, why does everything he creates .................DIES ?

      November 12, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • ktisis

      Emotional appeals and mocking characterizations do not prove or disprove any concept. Read up on the logical, scientific, and philosophical arguments for the reasonableness of faith in a Creator. Look up Anthony Flew, CS Lewis,Hoyle,Einstein, Josh Mcdowell, William Lane Craig, Plantinga. Many of them former atheists who finally examined the real evidence, rather than superficial characterizations of the evidence. Study DNA, big bang cosmology, self awareness,consciousnes, intelligence, and of universal fine tuning.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  8. mary

    I think Jesus would be empathetic to both sides. Especially in the the case of Joe Paterno, he is suffering just as much as the victims of the assistant coach. Cain on the other hand, yes, he is suffering, and I think Jesus would say that his suffering is just.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • SCAtheist

      Are you nuts?

      November 12, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Cain's suffering is "just" .... why do you feel so?

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

      Mary, do you really think Joe P is suffering as much as the victims? Geeez, I give up.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • tallulah13

      People like you disgust me, Mary. Paterno could have stopped Sandusky when he first heard the allegations, simply by doing a thorough investigation. Instead, he did the legal minimum to protect himself, and thanks to a corrupt police force and community, Sandusky remained free to molest children. Since when is indifference to crime an admirable trait?

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

      If JoePa knew children were being hurt and he did nothing to stop it. I believe that God/Jesus would feel overwhelming sadness for how he failed.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • Light In The Dark

      Mary..................
      You are out of your freaking mind !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      November 12, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  9. Solitairedog

    Sometimes embracing the irrational is not faith, just irrational. God gave us brains. Use 'em.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  10. John the Baptist

    Actually these rioters are more like christians than anything. The Pope covered up hundreds of molestations yet people still support him.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • SCAtheist

      Christians are what they do, not what a piece of the Bibla says, so you're right in my opinion.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      ...and the American military has killed how many innocents with drone strikes? ...and those are the ones we know about.... And yesterday I was waving my flag just as proudly supporting those who have served. I do not know what did or did not reach the Pope Benidict but if we went around society we will find many things in which would be defined as coverups.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  11. AA

    Not only America, but the world would be nothing without Christian values. Atheist or not.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Andy

      Christians do not have a monopoly on the Golden Rule. Probably hard for you to accept that fact.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • SCAtheist

      What Christian values?

      November 12, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  12. Dustin

    @ Jake, I respect of course your views. The whole "cool" thing is just from examining these comments and comments on most anything that remotely relates to religion on sites like this. To answer your last question: many of those people would not have acted as they did were there no God they believe in, regardless of whether he exists, their belief spurred them to do great things for the world. Of course, sometimes the belief spurred people to do horrible things (I'm looking at you, Crusades and many Middle Age popes), but my personal belief is that the good outweighs the bad.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Jake

      Dustin, obviously no one can prove that anyone did anything based on a belief in a god, but I don't believe that happens very often, if at all. When I do good, it has nothing to do with a belief in a god and I doubt it does for others.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  13. Goodguy1

    There are Christians that make war, revile poor people and old poor people. More and more people are leaving the churches because they have lost faith in the leadership. Too many Republican Christians like George W. Bush and Bachmann and Craig who was licking men in the airport, and the guy in Florida that liked young men.. Family Values for all.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  14. Patrick Williams

    God is LOVE. He does not hate "liberals" and love "conservatives" more...He is neither conservative nor liberal.

    God is not a member of the NRA nor is God a registered Republican. God would not call President Obama names even if He was issapointed with some of his actions.

    God would tell us to share with our neighbors and not cheat others. He would also tell us to quit chasing so hard after money.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Granger

      Obviously you haven't read the Bible. Christ called Peter, Satan. He called many in the crowd a bunch of vipers. We are to call as we see... it's not always lovey dubby stuff. That's the false gospel.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • Patrick Williams

      Granger, I can read the Greek NT – how about you? Went to Seminary for a Masters degree – how about you?

      America IS NOT Christian.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • LuisWu

      Which god? Krishna? Buddha? Manitou? Allah? Yahweh? Zoroaster? I get confused by all the invisible, supernatural men in the sky and lose track of them. All the gods that have been 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 12:10 pm |
    • Granger

      unimpressed, Pat. You're part of the problem – ignorants going to seminary and holding up a degree doesn't prove nothing but that you're a fool with a degree. You're a wolf in sheep' s clothing – that's all. Satan is a wolf as described in scripture...suppose you ignored that part.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  15. Ken

    No, MY heart goes out to a man NOT because he is "powerful" BUT because his accusers are obviously politically motivated to smear a good man. Whatever happened to "innocent until proven guilty"? "Where's the PROOF?

    November 12, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Ken

      And why NOW if it is not politically motivated???

      November 12, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Light In The Dark

      *** Whatever happened to "innocent until proven guilty"?

      That is for the court of law.
      Paterno was told about Sandusky raping a child
      but he kept him on his staff to win football games.

      GUILTY !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      November 12, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  16. Granger

    Whether this commentator thinks we're a Christian nation or not; the outside world considers us a Christian nation. Why? Because we've be the most generous and charitable nation ever. We're the first to arrive when national disaster occurs to other nations and we're the first to send missionaries to help the poor and helpless.....or has this commentator become this ignorant of our charitableness.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Liz

      coming from New Orleans, let me tell you the US government was not the first to help us out. Any number of other nations asked for the privilege to help. WalMart did everything they could to truck in ice and water, guess what, for free! Think again we help other nations because it is in our national interests to do so. And interests are defined as $$$$.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • Atheist 1#

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=Lm_XwakyHhY

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

      Sorry... but you are living in a dream world. The rest of the world most certainly does NOT see the USA as a Christian nation. We see you as arrogant, uneducated, irreligious, and violent. And pouring the money in that you steal from the poor countries that use slave labour to support your company doesn't rectify the situation, just shows how deluded you really are

      November 12, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  17. Pete Scobby

    More like a nation of sinners.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  18. Atheist 1#

    Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet

    November 12, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Granger

      go back to reading some of your idols of the atheist movement – Stalin; Mao, Pot – you know – those mass murderers.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Atheist 1#

      Watch bill Maher much? Science is still on our side History http://www.oddee.com/item_96537.aspx History is still on our side

      November 12, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Granger

      Bill Mahr??? HAaa! ha! ha! ha! ha ha ha ha – is that what you use for your education....LOL!!

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

      Why, Granger would you assume that atheists would idolize Mao, Pol Pot, etc? Atheism and mass murder are not synonymous except in the eyes of Christians like you that really don't understand. In our town there is a bumper sticker that says "God Hates Atheists". What a totally incomprehensible idea. I guess it's because we don't buy into the made up story about God and deserve to endure unbearable punishment for the next 30 trillion years because we won't suck up . . . sigh.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • Atheist 1#

      I'd rather have a mind opened by wonder than one closed by belief

      November 12, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  19. Lawrence

    Some valid observations on segments of our culture but you omit that the media had immediately convicted both Cain and Paterno without all the facts known. Both are at fault, but the media is tasked & defined to be objective and fact-based. That ain't the case and anyone with a brain can hear the media's bias. There is no objectivity and no basis for civil discourse as the media is not an objective mediator but places its editorial on the headline and Page One. Journalism is dead.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  20. Patrick Williams

    Christianity is not just believing in God, the devils do that as the epistle of James tells us.

    Christianity is LIVING a certain lifestyle of love and detachment from the love of this world....America is the anti-thesis to all that Chrsitians stand for.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
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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.