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. Randall Bart

    At Penn State: Paterno and McQueary were part of a conspiracy to protect a child abuser. The only support they deserve is help learning to express contrition for their sins.

    Herman Cain is a victim. He is being attacked by women who can't substantiate their stories. Furthermore, their names are hidden from the public, so we can't see anything of their character. Stephen Prothero, have the courage of your own convictions: Support the victim, Herman Cain.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • PhilB

      The original women involved in this signed non-disclosures in exchange for not pressing charges. As for character and facts, their "proof" was enough for a non-profit organization AND their liability insurance company to pay off rather than fight. Ask any non-profit HR pro – these women had to present substantial, believable, and detailed evidence.

      And they remained private – these settlements were uncovered by a news organization.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Earthling

      You should have the courage to pursue the trail of available information to its conclusion before blindly jumping on the Cain bandwagon. Even in the absence of a conviction, it's generally pretty safe to assume that where there's that much smoke, there's bound to be at least a little fire.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  2. Marina

    From my own personal experience – service ( be it customer service/business mindset or altruistic mindset) brings in a lot of purpose, meaning and grounding to our whole being. Jesus being my compass- lived that kind of life, a servant God. When practiced in real life, it is actually very liberating and gives a lot of meaning and purpose to what we do everyday. As I have learned as a Christian, we are only vessels of the blessings that needs to be passed on to the people around us – blessings from the Holy and Glorious one. At it's best, that is a very baggage free life.....<

    November 12, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  3. Patrick Williams

    Granger, not trying to impress you. But your response PROVED my point that America is NOT a Christian nation.

    For example, you judged me ("have you even read the bible", "you're ignorant" and I am "a sheep in wolves clothing") and, yet, you are taught not to judge.

    You criticized me and, yet, you are taught to "love your enemies and bless those who curse you"

    You do not love me, as a matter of fact, you answer betrayed hate or anger towards me yet, you have been to this: "A new commandment I give unto you, to LOVE ONEANOTHER"

    You answer proved my point EXACTLY! NOT A CHRISTIAN NATION. Religious, somewhat – Christian, FAR, FAR from it.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • Nathan

      Not everyone is Jesus. Christians aren't perfect. If every action we perform is had to be exactly what Jesus would do, no one could be a christian. He is a human being trying to understand what our country as a whole celebrates, defends and empathizes. He is trying to be a christian. What are you trying to be?

      November 12, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • Patrick Williams

      Nathan, I would you could read this but you will probably never see it. Your response is half correct but belies a very shallow understanding of Christianity. You say Granger is trying to live it but how do you know? You do not even KNOW him. He does not know me either but within 10 seconds of my post he judged me and asked if i had even "read the bible"

      Was he trying to be a Christian by judging me within 10 – 20 seconds of my post? You be the judge.

      November 12, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
  4. Tom

    Odd that people can get all worked up about a fetus, which has no memory or past. Yet these same people have no problem wanting to divert money away from programs that help older Americans, many of whom can remember the day Kennedy was shot, many of whom have children and/or grandchildren who will miss them greatly when they're gone. Okay, so these people aren't all bad: they DO feel pity for the rich.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  5. Light In The Dark

    I love the picture up top.
    Idol worship at its best.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  6. mbal

    "I am talking about where are hearts instinctively go..."

    It's "our." Where OUR hearts instinctively go.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  7. JT

    May God Almighty have mercy on us – sinners each!

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

    Our lack of morality is BECAUSE we are a christian nation.When you have the majority of your citizens who have to distort the evidence that the earth and universe throw at us every day so that it fits into their belief system, that is a recipe for an semi moral society.

    Hell, christians even have to overlook theself contradicting passages of the bible in bible study. That is why preachers and bible studies are geared to cherry pick the bible rather look at the book as a whole.

    When your faith is based on contradictions then your life becomes a contracdiction.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  9. steve d

    Check your facts sir, the rioters were only 1,000 members of the 50,000+ university. They do not represent the school

    November 12, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  10. _.___

    Faith is believing without evidence. Why would anyone live their life based on faith and not facts/reason?

    November 12, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  11. David

    So the proper Christian response is to respond immediately, prior to the due process of investigation? This is the typical Protestant Liberal thinking that lead to lynch mobs in the deep-south. "We're sure this black guy did this, so let's get him." Patience, justice and love hang together in the Christian life, but media frenzy is more influential in the public sector.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • There are no gods!

      Just in case you were wondering. . . You ARE and idiot! Hope that clears up any confusion! : )

      November 12, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • republicrat

      i was raised by a christian family, they are the most intolerant people i know. very hateful. they blame libs for everything too. thats why im not religious nor republican. i find myself apologizing and embarrassed when around them... guess ill never be good enough to be unlike god as christians are..

      i am called jesus by some, was a joke at first but quickly caught on thanks to my help in teaching tolerance, for my love of everyone (even you) and my long hair. hows that for ironic.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  12. Kleeks

    I read earlier that the name of the Sandusky group for children, The Second Mile, is a quote from the bible....so creepy.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  13. Joshua

    As a Christian, I think I am required to love both sides. Even our enemies we are supposed to love, bless and do good to. As a Christian, I am also required to think the best of people. Christianity is not about choosing who we love more than someone else. Christianity is about loving all people.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:14 pm |

      Holy Cow, I thought everyone had a different version of Christ than the one I was taught. Glad someone else heard that 'Love the sinners' was Jesus' message. Maybe there is hope.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  14. Dave

    This doesn't mean Americans aren't Chrtistians, just that Republicans are evil cynics who use religion as a shield and a prop to claim they are moral. But really, they are the kinds of people who repeat the lies of rich men, hate, love violence (the south has the highest violence rates in America) and like using violent rhetoric, love guns, killing animals, etc. It is a culture of moral depravity who cheer for executions and boo gay soldiers. A vast swath of the public are juat plain bad. Rotten to the core.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  15. Solitairedog

    Lawrence, I'm not a big fan of the media either but for the opposite reason. I think they tend to try to find and air an opposite opinion no matter how silly. They love controversy. I don't think that good journalism is required to be totally neutral all the time. There is nothing wrong with stating the obvious... ie: "terrible tragedy" , " joyful reunion", "disgraceful behavior". There is no doubt that these men had knowlege that they did not share with the police, they admitted it. Do you expect people to just close their eyes and pretend the men didn't admit it untill the football game is over?

    November 12, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  16. chad

    What in the heck is this gibberish? Millions unemployed and you get paid to write this? WOW.

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

      "Oh look! A squirrel!"

      November 12, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • Teresa

      Guess we know which side of the line you fall on. You completely missed the point.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • Light In The Dark

      I would rather read his story, than your stupid comment.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • Earthling

      Perhaps if you actually read the article, you might have a more relevant response.

      On the other hand, in order for you to understand the content of the article, you would first have to acquire a certain basic piece of equipment. That would be a brain.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  17. steve19

    Mr. Prothero again demonstrates his confused understanding of morality. We should not be "identiying" with either side. That is bigotry. We should be seeking the truth in the situations of which he speaks. I don't know what happened in Herman Cain's situation, and, as Protherio states, neither does he. Cain could be guilty, or he could be being falsely accused. We should not be automatically inclined to take anyone's side in any of these situations because they are rich or poor, male or female, young or old, or because of their race, although we should take measures to protect potenitial victims in case the accusations prove to be true. We should be reserving judgement until we get sufficient facts to make one. And why can't we have sympathy for many people on all sides of some situations? Is not the Penn. St. situation a sad tragedy for all concerned?

    November 12, 2011 at 12:10 pm |


      November 12, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • MarkMInPDX

      Really? Identifying with aside is "bigotry"? Somebody needs to read a dictionary. And how is the Penn State situation a tragedy for "all concerned"? That implies that we should feel something for the perpetrators and perpetuators of the the assaults. You are right about one thing... we should reserve "judgment" until all the facts are in, but that's not the point of this essay. Innocence or guilt will be proven in court. The question is, given a story like this, where does your heart go?

      November 12, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • Anonymous

      "Is not the Penn. St. situation a sad tragedy for all concerned?"

      In fact, it is not. It is a tragedy only for those who were powerless. That doesn't include Paterno, et al. They had power, and chose to do the bare minimum with it–their *choice* to do nothing to protect those boys has consequences. Had they not been subject to dismissal, that would have been a tragedy. That it took so long for them to face consequences is tragic. But justice in the end, isn't tragic.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • Nathan

      No, it is not sad for "all" involved. The adults got their careers to make the wrong choice, look the other way, or abuse boys. The first people we should feel sad for are the victims. Pray for everyone involved by all means, but don't act like the victims and the adults who let this happen are deserving of the same sympathy. Children should be protected and cared for above all others-especially selfish, troubled adults who might prey on them or ignore the truth.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • steve19

      "Identifying" with a side before you know the facts is bigotry. In the Cain situation, only he and accusers know the truth. In the Penn. St. situation, as facts are coming to light, people are losing their jobs and some will probably go to jail. Hopefully, they will receive an appropriate punishment for their mistakes or crimes. Just because someone deserves to be punished, doesn't mean you shouldn't feel sadness about the destruction in their lives. Obviiously, the boys who are the victims are whom we should have by far the most sympathy for.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  18. cs

    With a sentence like: "I am talking about where are hearts instinctively go in these situations." He needs an editor!
    Poorly reflects on BU.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  19. truesoy

    To most people christianity is a feel good tool they hope will open the gates to heaven, or the keys to the White House or Congress. The majority belives out of fear that if they do not claim Jesus they won't go to heaven, and that is it.
    True christian values are an evasive concept that manifest itself in the individual's own definition of what is christianity, and therefore sometimes it is utilized to justify the means by which we reach a goal.

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

      It's true that many people use any religion for selfish reasons, but a true Christian does not and it's unlikely that you know the percentages of either.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Light In The Dark

      Gotta love when christians scream,
      god created Adam & Eve – not Adam & Steve,
      but dont understand that if the Adam & Eve story is real, we all come from incest.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
  20. Patrick Williams

    Studied Hebrew and Biblical Theology....America is, functionally, a pagan nation.

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

      Well then you should have figured out there is a contradiction on every page.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • Granger

      studied? Ummm, and this proves what? NOTHING. You're still a joke and certainly and a student of American history.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • meemee

      If you had also studied European pre-Christian religion your statement would read differently. There is an assumption carried in it that non-Christian, even non-Jewish "pagan" religions had no set of ethics and pagan means how many Romans acted in the period where things like lead poisoning had created a great deal of mental dementia. Your definition of "pagan" is faulty so how can you define America as a "largely pagan nation?" Especially when those who have revived the "Old Religion" must hide and watch their step?

      November 12, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • meemee

      So did you learn that Christianity is largely based on Pagan religion combined with patriarchal Judaism?

      November 12, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
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