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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. AK

    Our 'hearts' used to go automatically out to the 'victims' until we had a good multi-event dose of politically motivated or gold-digging – sometimes both – sham.

    Now many of us are jaded and coiled to strike at any attack on 'our guy' no matter how credible or incredible the charges. In the case of Cain's accusers, there are enough 'why now, after al these years' and other questions related to my points above that make Mr. Prothero's last-ditch appeal to 'our Christianity' seem puerile and at worst, manipulative.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • truthfl1

      Agreed.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  2. Nick

    Religion is fake.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • ktisis

      Absolutely...but the evidence of a super intellect Creator is undeniable.
      Religion is merely man's attempt to get to God, whereas the truth is that God came down to us and for us in the person of Jesus Christ. Religion is man made, the truth is God-revealed.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  3. Mike Mortensen

    There's a line in Matthew's Gospel that offers insight to where our hearts go. That line is, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." When ambition and outward signs of success are what we treasure then it is no wonder that people like Herman Cain and Joe Paterno get so much sympathy.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  4. Jake

    In my mind, and in the stream of Christianity I was brought up with, the answer to Mr. Prothero's central question is quite obvious - Jesus's heart would go out to BOTH. I was taught to hate the sin but love the sinner. Sadly, Mr. Prothero twists the issue into an either/or, one side gets Jesus's love the other gets eternal damnation argument.

    We should strive to understand that all humans being deserve God's love, comfort and forgiveness. I wish this article had given some credence to that more all-encompassing definition of what it means to be a Christian.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  5. Charles

    Yes I have a problem with Mr.Cain: What does he have to hide ? If he did nothing wrong by pay off to keep there mouth shut ? And can not vote for someone that hides this kind of stuff. Ask Penn State ? Poor Joe did not do anything wrong and got fired.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • truthfl1

      Read AK's post. It defines you and 'your' guy.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  6. Light In The Dark

    *** ANGRY CHRISTIAN RESPONSE ********

    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 12:28 pm |
  7. Disappointed in the Media

    I regret clicking on this link. How do you equate Cain with Paterno? I think you meant to point out that there is apparently apathy in the media and their followers toward Sandusky. The media has turned its back on the victims and ignored the true alleged criminal because tearing down an American icon sells better.

    I agree that Jesus would support the needy. As far as sinners go, I think you should consider John 8:7 – "[Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone]".

    November 12, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Light In The Dark

      The "media" is made up of "people"
      so you are casting stones.
      better stop or you will burn in hell.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  8. MashaSobaka

    My question is when Christianity can stop being called a religion based on empathy when so few of its followers actually practice that empathy. Religions are what their followers are; if Christians are bigoted, coldhearted misogynists, then that is what Christianity represents. Luckily there are plenty of Christians who are not like that. I'm just wondering how long that's going to last.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • wonderful

      you got it backwards. Christianity DOES NOT represent its people. Are you retarded? Christians try to be living examples of Christianity, it's not the other way around. That's why they're called "followers", not God's other "Only sons". And followers SHOULD be what they're religions/beliefs are. Unfortunately, those 'of Islam' ran planes into the Twin Towers, 'christian' Hitler massacred nations – etc. For all I know Hitler could have been an atheist but besides that there are fools and hypocrites in every race, culture, belief system, etc. because these people claim to be a part of something they do not know.
      First you say, "so few of its followers actually follow that empathy" and then, "Luckily there are plenty of Christians who are not like that ". - What are you on?

      November 12, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  9. Doug

    good read. Totally agree. This is about Morals, religious or not, left wing, right wing, doesn't matter... the point is to look at things in a non-biased, matter of fact way. Using common sense and your heart... unfortunately, I don't think most people will understand what the author is trying to say.

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

    If I eat at MacDonalds does that make me a hamburger? Likewise, just because someone goes to Church and said a prayer to "ask Jesus in you heart" and that is as far as it goes, that DOES NOT make them a Christian.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  11. steve42

    As humans we are creatues of emotion and as such our hearts instinctively lead us to a judgement. Although it is not necessarily the logical or objective view, it is who or what we are. Perfection is beyond the reach of all of us. Just accept it and try to move towards perfection which is unattainable.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  12. carol abaray

    Mr. Williams maybe close to hitting the core of what is wrong with our society. We profess Christian ideals, but we do not always Live like Christians. However, I think that we forget that this earthly existence which we humans all share is nothing more that a "testing ground" in what is most likely a steppingstone in one's spiritual evolution. Religion is a tool which should encourage us to want to be a better person. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  13. KT88

    Karl Marx wrote that "religion is the opiate of the people." Well he was wrong – in 21st century America, professional sports is the opiate of the people.

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

      Spot on!

      November 12, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Light In The Dark

      ** Karl Marx wrote that "religion is the opiate of the people.**

      Stalin wrote :
      One death is a tragedy
      A million deaths is a statistic.............
      Sounds like a Christian Republican.
      Pro war
      Pro death penalty
      anti poor.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  14. Andre

    ignorant and incompetent republican politicians have made a mockery of christianity... that religion is a joke and i mock it too.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  15. Patrick Williams

    TRUE Christianity is not going to Church every Sunday but living like Christ through-out the week...Almost NO ONE does that in America (I am not even claiming I do)

    November 12, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  16. Marie

    Well, if you look at the statistics: http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0075.pdf

    Over half the U.S. population describes themselves as Christian. The US population is 312595229 according to the US population clock here. http://www.census.gov/main/www/popclock.html

    Christians are, as of the 2008 religion census data, 55% of the US population. To say this is a Christian nation is wishful thinking, at best. It's roughly equal to Christians vs. non-Christians (and that census data includes other religions, not just atheists).

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

      Your first link says American is about 75% Christian.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  17. LuisWu

    Christianity: The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own
    father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and
    telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove
    an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a
    rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.
    Otherwise you'll be tortured forever by an invisible red guy with horns.

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

      Pretty much all religions have foolish beliefs in them. It's up to the adherent to decide whether or not to take their religion literally, and if you are going to pick and choose beliefs in your religion, why call yourself a member of said religion? Why not just be honest and call yourself a spiritualist or agnostic or whatever?

      November 12, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Steve

      LuisWu, that is too funny, and I am a believer in God!

      November 12, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • San

      Take away any reference to Christianity or Jesus (I myself am not Christian). The article merely states that if we consider ourselves to be good, kind people, how do we knee-jerkedly defend the people who are accused of crimes that have seriously hurt others? Why do we not think of the victim who was hurt? That's all this article is about.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • Steve

      San, don't you think it is silly for people like you to be offended at the mention of Jesus, God, or Christianity when you do not even believe in them. If they don't exist, then they should not offend you. I don't believe in the Easter Bunny, but if you do I am not offended. Interestingly, the Bible states that Jesus will be considered offensive to some. I guess you are just fulfilling a Bible you don't believe in.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • Light In The Dark

      Luis.....
      Best post of the day !!

      November 12, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  18. Steve

    I echo the thoughts of Mr. Prothero. When I saw all the morally bankrupt "clowns" causing mayhem, my thoughts immediately went to the children who were victimized by Sandusky. How does this add to their feelings that it was their fault? How does this make them feel even more alone? It is true that Paterno was not the perpetrator, but he had knowledge of at least one child being assaulted. He should have been an advocate for that child. He should have pursued it as if the child were his own! I read an article yesterday on CNN that began to describe what the "intern" witnessed in the shower between Sandusky and what appeared to be a 10 year old boy. I literally gasped as I covered my mouth with my hands! I could not read any more of the article. It troubled me so much through out the day. What would all the protestors do if it were their very own cousin, nephew, brother, or son? What more would Paterno do if it were his own grandson? That is the problem. Not a single person did enough to help these children. They were all more concerned with their own success and reputations.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  19. Patrick Williams

    Granger, It is NOT a Christian Nation – trust me, I know, Rick Perry told me God told him! : – )

    November 12, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  20. Karen

    It Is so ironic that republicans preach Christianity but it's the liberals that practice it...help the needy and less fortunate.

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

      True.

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

      Help is not longer help when you're forced to do it.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • west

      So true, Karen!

      November 12, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • San

      Yes. When you live it, you don't need to thump your chest, it seems.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • CJ

      Exactly Karen! Perhaps most of those siding withe the accused consider themselves christian?
      I believe the accused consider themselves Christian. What does this say about Christianity?

      November 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • mj

      It is also ironic that progressives appear they believe they are intellectually and morally superior based on unsubstantiated facts without any connection to reality. Please prove republicans do not practice Christianity.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • Marty in MA

      True, Karen

      November 12, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • azahlman

      Liberals love to brag about all their help given to the needy and less fortunate, but it is never their hard work or money going to the poor, it's always something they took from someone else. There are three kinds of liberals, rich elite liberals who give a tiny, tiny fraction of what they make and make sure everyone knows about it and then point to their superior caring, dead-beat lazy losers who want a hand-out, free love and free drugs with no consequences, and the truly needy who have been duped to thinking the first two groups really care or offer any true solution to help them out of their situation. "Liberal" means I take money from others, dribble it out to poor people to build dependence on me, and then take credit for being so caring and generous. Until your Hollywood starlets, media hacks, and tenured professors start taking vows of poverty and giving all they have to the poor, you will continue to lack credibility. Christians, Jews, Muslims try to live by a code of conduct and sometimes fail. Liberals embrace a life without restraint and wear it as a badge of superiority that they have never failed to live a higher standard because they have debased themselves in a lower one. Have a great occupy day Karen, zip that tent up tight tonight.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:44 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.