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. yoyo

    Some of the remarks posted here indicate the results of this world's morality decline. God tended to abandon those nations that left Him out of their lives. America is well on that road now. I do so fear for the U.S.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • Colin

      Ahh, there are tousands of gods people believe in. If your sky-fairy were real and deserted the USA, I'm sure people would invent another to step in.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • EatYouAlive

      I dub the new God of America to be named Frank. He is a bit of a lout, but not as much as that other guy.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • LuisWu

      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.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Atheist 1#

      I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours

      November 12, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • meemee

      So "God" took his marbles and went away? Here is the fundamentally telling aspect of Judeo-Christian thought; If you don't mind what the "knowing ones" tell you are God's commands and conditions for "salvation" you are condemned. However, the most "Godly" people have been seen to suffer just as much or more than the "ungodly." That any superior being would have the emotional maturity of a self-centered adolescent is what makes the entire religious proposition of Judeo-Christianity ridiculous. This controlling being once was" known" to reside in the clouds (the heavens), but now must exist in some dimension beyond our best and most modern scientific abilities to detect. Lack of a positive does not prove a negative. Anyway, the recent world wars must be seen to provide final proof of the absence of any "God." But the religious pedlars would have us forget all of that, and as they always have, play on the ignorant and fearful elements of human existence.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  2. fpga

    In philosophy, christianity is "easy credit". And just like with the big banks, the long term consequences of "easy credit" is human suffering. In this metaphor, preachers and "christian philosophers" like Prothero think they are working to reduce human suffering with their little compassion, but they are really just conditioning the masses to be screwed. Priests didding the flock, televangelists taking money from idiots, old people who think jesus is working for their 401k only to see it siphoned off to Goldman Sachs, or generals looking for American bodies to throw at failed foreign policy. They all benefit from religion's move to eliminate critical thinking.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • EatYouAlive

      well said.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  3. EatYouAlive

    May the light of the easterbunny shine upon you as the lord zeus guides us to freedom and enlightenment under the bosom of athena

    November 12, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  4. meemee

    All "pagan" means is "one who lives on the land." Expanded it means "one who lives on and of the land." It became a term for defining anyone who practiced non-Christian religions n Europe. It became a term of derision the same way that "redneck" has in our time. As the royal courts and cities converted to Christianity, those people who tended to convert (through command or force usually) were living more remote, or not included in the court where religion was nearly as fashionable as new clothes are today (exp. Rome). So the "pagan" were viewed as backward, out of step, and deserving of that derision and later persecutions that lasted over a thousand years.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  5. billtomlinson

    I don't understand why these comment areas are not more civil. Is it because most people don't know how to disagree without namecalling?

    November 12, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  6. Becky

    I love this article. You sum up our countries ideologies perfectly, the ones that we try so hard to pretend are not real.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  7. Rocafella

    We're all hyprocrites and sinners–some worse than others–anyone who does not believe they are is a fool.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • LuisWu

      So, anyone that doesn't agree with your beliefs is a fool. Typical.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  8. EatYouAlive

    Nice, so you need religion to have empathy for others. what a load of bull

    November 12, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • ThinkAgain

      I agree. The only requisite is a heart, soul and mind, all of which can exist without religion.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • jumpinjezebel

      Right on!!! Religion is the cause of most of the ills and wars in the history of the world. (Of course it's only 2000 years old.) People who are the "Sunday Fundies" are the biggest hypocrites of all. Go to church on Sunday (IT'S DRESS UP DAY) and then listen to the spewing of vile seditionists on HATE RADIO all week.

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

    When someone is accused of something awful like this, they get a black spot on their reputation regardless of their guilt.

    They're going to be "that guy in the se.x scandal?" "yeah that guy."

    November 12, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  10. Philly guy

    This is a completely useless and pointless article.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  11. James

    Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit attrocities

    November 12, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  12. Tom

    I challenge those of you who are atheist (or not atheist) to actually read the 1st 4 books of the New Testament. Jesus Christ is a person you can get to know by reading his teachings (how many other people do you know of whose essence can be expressed in literature?). Many of the things the compassionate people among us do to improve the human condition originate with Him. The problem isn't God, or Christ, but those who claim Him but know nothing of Him. And atheists are no better, as they call Christians narrow-minded yet bring edicts down on Christ without ever taking the time to read about Him. You see, being narrow-minded goes both ways. Besides, if you read, you might just find your world a whole lot bigger and truly richer. Some, of course, are afraid.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Atheist 1#

      "The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness

      November 12, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Atheist 1#

      The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness

      November 12, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • EatYouAlive

      We bring no edicts, only logic and love. Sorry to burst your judgement bubble.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • LuisWu

      I've read the bible from cover to cover, both the old and new testaments. Found it to be interesting, with some good moral values here and there, but it's obviously nothing more than ancient mythology, written thousands of years ago by members of a primitive culture.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • ThinkAgain

      The Bible was written and re-written by men, often with a political agenda. What is important is not that you are Christian, but that you are a compassionate, loving, forgiving, moral, ethical person, living your life to the best of your ability so that you leave this world a better place having been here, helping those less fortunate. Whether you believe in Christ to do this is irrelevant; what matters is the destination, not how you get there.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • nimitta

      Tom, those of us who've studied the 4 Gospels more than you – who've translated them from the Greek and done comparative textual and historical analysis – know that they are the narratives of generations long past the life of Jesus, altered to accommodate evolving cultures and political realities as well as be integrated with the Hebrew canon, to which they bear only a tenuous relationship. Study the Gospels, get to know a bit more about Jesus, and you'll realize that there was no immaculate conception; no virgin birth; no stars, angels or Magi; no resurrection; and, no post-crucifixion encounters with Jesus. These are all relatively transparent, culturally condoned add-ons which have unfortunately become critical elements in post-Paul 'Christianity'. No one has to accept any of these miracles to receive Jesus' most profound and beneficial teachings, nor will they be contaminated by the study of other great teachers of wisdom like the Buddha and Laozi. Don't stop now, my friend!

      November 12, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • meemee

      Most atheists are people who were raised inside either Christianity or Judaism and having superior thought processing, were able to find the courage to challenge it's ridiculous claims and propositions. Christianity is a religion of fear, like Judaism and Islam. They enslave the human spirit. All the progress Western man has made has been due to defying this fear and control. I have read more than the Gospels, which by the way, show Jesus as a completely contradictory character. I request that you in turn read some real history from the period of the foundation of Christianity like the classic history of Gibbon' The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But don't stop there. Read theologian Bart Ehrman's books such as "Misquoting Jesus" about how the Gospels were largely altered or forged. Then read some details of social history in Europe and learn about how Christianity terrorized Europe for hundreds of years.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Atheist #2

      I couldn't agree more. Reading the bible is the only way one can see what an insane turncloak jesus was. Remember when he condemned a fig tree to death because it bore no fruit for him? Or when he turned his back on his mother and spoke to his apostles "You are my family now"? Yeah, he was a great guy and you all should follow him.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • meemee

      One may learn a great deal about Mark Twain from reading his works. You assume that Jesus even said what the Gospels claim he said. Scholars have demonstrated forensically that most of words attributed to Jesus are fabrications, forgeries created long after the first century. But as for Mark Twain, he said; "The cure for Christianity is actually reading the Bible."

      November 12, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Tom

      Many people get hung up on the weaknesses of the Bible. Much of this is the fault of established religion, as most of them insist that the book is literally, word-by-word perfect. But there is a different kind of perfect, like someone who picks a mate whose looks is much less than any Amanda Seyfried or Bradley Cooper but none-the-less is just right. "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." If this is true, then some day wars will end, hatred will greatly diminish, and as a side effect, children will stop dying of hunger. Now the guy who sees the future like THAT is the guy I can believe in.
      As for atheists, they could never deliver a world like the one I described above because they have no mission, no passion, just a "we are only animals and nothing more than natural instincts is expected of us". In following this philosophy, they will never be able to receive or participate in the great transformation that is to come. To be great, one must truly believe in great things.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  13. Seriously?

    Stephen Prothero is a retard!

    November 12, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Atheist 1#


      November 12, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • James

      Well thought out and planned argument, sir. Maybe you ought to be writing these articles.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Mike in SA

      Why beat around the bush?

      November 12, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  14. beijaflor

    American religious hypocrisy is as old as the country itself. All this is nothing new and hardly surprising.

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


    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.
    I went back and re-read Sans post over and over, and cant find anything about being offended by Christ.
    Do you have magic glassess ?

    November 12, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  16. Ronnie

    As much as I would question why people are not supporting the victims, I wonder why you would act as if any religion is capable of determining what is right and wrong. For "goodness sake" read the bible and you will see where the problem lies in your way of thinking.

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

      There is no "right." There is no "wrong." There is no "good." There is no "evil." There is only what is defined at the moment.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  17. Haysoos

    So - forgiveness and empathy are universally good things, huh.
    Walt Disney has a table reserved for you.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  18. billtomlinson

    It seems obvious what Jesus would do but not to all. I once asked my students if Jesus would be for the death penalty. I thought the answer was obvious, until I heard students take both sides

    November 12, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  19. Christine

    Is this perhaps a bit extreme in viewpoint? Why can't we empathize with both?

    November 12, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  20. LuisWu

    What religion you are is based almost entirely on where you were born.
    If you were born in the West, then you were brainwashed practically from birth to believe in Christianity. So you are probably a Christian
    If you were born in India, you were brainwashed practically from birth to believe in Hinduism, so you are probably a Hindu,
    Ditto for Buddhism
    Ditto for Islam
    Ditto for Shintoism
    Ditto for tribal religions
    Etc. etc. etc.
    An intelligent person looks a the Universe with logic and reason and decides for themselves what they believe. They throw off their cultural conditioning and try to understand things using their own brain, not the writings of ancient, primitive people.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Light In The Dark

      **** An intelligent person

      There is the catch.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Jackie

      Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. ... Rom. 1:22

      November 12, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • LuisWu

      @Jackie – I rest my case.

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

      @LuisWu - and your narrow rationalism - "An intelligent person looks a the Universe with logic and reason and decides for themselves what they believe." - is also a social construct and a culturally conditioned product; you're simply rehashing post-Enlightenment principles that's largely Western European. So that brings us to your original point, which gets us nowhere. Any more straws for your straw man?

      November 12, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • Nick

      You're going to get your morals, values and view of the world from somewhere. Seems the media does most of the brainwashing here in the west... and they certainly aren't Christian messages so you have nothing to worry about.
      Also, don’t forget that behind science are people. Working closely in the field I do get to see how things work within the scientific community and it isn't without its problems... even scientists are susceptible to primitive people problems such as making errors, fulfilling self-serving needs and corruption.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:22 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.