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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. Dood

    CNN is gay!

    November 12, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  2. GauisCaesar

    What??? This story is ridiculous. Before this story, CNN misrepresented the settlements involving Cain as indicative of guilt without mentioning the term "umbrella policy," and now they are trying to inflame passions by saying we aren't Christian because we wont jump to conclusions and presume guilt before any trials have taken place. (Yes, this is the same news media that inflamed everyone about the death penalty cases, where guilt in court has already been established.) This is why CNN wont be #1 anytime soon. BTW, i think it is funny CNN tries to say we should take the side of the alleged victim in the cases against the rich republican... I for one am still in shock these women didn't file criminal proceedings. Some took money to shut up, and others didnt tell anyone and now they are screaming for Justice. Justice comes from filing a report, not trying to crucify someone in the public square.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  3. Exasperated

    "I am talking about where are hearts instinctively go in these situations."

    You know, if a person can't even demonstrate a basic command of the English language (or, at the very least, journalistic protocol), I personally find it very hard to take seriously what they are saying.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  4. Matt

    Let's consider a Bible principle before we go any further. The Mosiac law required 2 witnesses. In both cases as Christians we should hold to principles like these even though we are no longer under Mosiac Law. In all the articles I have read about both the cases over the past week, supposed and alleged keep showing up. Where is the proof. Grand jury investigations are to determine if there is enough evidence to go forth with a trail, but the trial that follows determines guilt or innocence. I think everyone has jumped the gun here with all these firings and assuming guilt. Remember OJ was innocent.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  5. Redacted

    Christian fundamentalist frighten me.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • Ted

      Left-wing hateful Liberals frighten me.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Cheerful liberals into international folk dancing frighten me!

      November 12, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Even scarier? Happy midwestern Lutherans heading off to this week's pot luck dinner.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  6. sturm

    god this article is completely terrible.

    1) who cares if this is a christian nation or not, get off your high horse because who the hell gets to decide if christianity is the correct religion or not, certainly not the author.
    2) this article says we only have one choice, feeling bad for paterno or the children who were brutally attacked, yet completely ignores the fact a person could choose to sympathize with both parties at the same time.

    i hope you read this comment stephen prothero, maybe it will enlighten you and prevent such trash as this article is from bein written again

    November 12, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • Fracuss

      "i hope you read this comment stephen prothero, maybe it will enlighten you and prevent such trash as this article is from bein written again"
      It will? Damn you are full of yourself.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • John Richardson

      I'm sure Prothero will read little and take nothing to heart. He is full of his own pseudo-enlightenment.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  7. Gerardo

    Jesus would forgive if the person(s) involved in this tragic event truly were remorseful. Not by their words nor their actions, but by a true change in heart. But the law of the land still prevails. What awaits all who were part of these acts will be determined by investigation, the rule of law, and by decisions made by people. But what awaits those in terms of their eternal fate, well that belongs to God. Romans 13 discusses this in regards that all Christians are bound by the law of their land but their heart is bound by the belief in Christ.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  8. Colin

    Dear Christians:

    God here.

    First, I do not exist. The concept of a 13,700,00,000 year old being, capable of creating the entire Universe and its billions of galaxies, monitoring simultaneously the thoughts and actions of the 7 billion human beings on this planet is ludicrous.

    Second, if I did, I would have left you a book a little more consistent, timeless and independently verifiable than the collection of Iron Age Middle Eastern mythology you call the Bible. Hell, I bet you cannot tell me one thing about any of its authors or how and why it was edited over the Centuries, yet you cite them for the most extraordinary of claims.

    Thirdly, when I sent my “son” (whatever that means, given that I am god and do not mate) to Earth, he would have visited the Chinese, Ja.panese, Europeans, Russians, sub-Saharan Africans, Australian Aboriginals, Mongolians, Polynesians, Micronesians, Indonesians and native Americans, not just a few Jews. He would also have exhibited a knowledge of something outside of the Iron Age Middle East.

    Fourthly, I would not spend my time hiding, refusing to give any tangible evidence of my existence, and then punish those who are smart enough to draw the natural conclusion that I do not exist by burning them forever. That would make no sense to me, given that I am the one who withheld evidence of my existence in the first place.

    Fifth, I would not care who you do or how you “do it”. I really wouldn’t. This would be of no interest to me, given that I can create Universes. Oh, the egos.

    Sixth, I would have smited all evangelicals and fundamentalists long before this. You people drive me nuts. You are so small minded and yet you speak with such false authority. Many of you still believe in the talking snake nonsense from Genesis. I would kill all of you for that alone and burn you for an afternoon (burning forever is way too barbaric for me to even contemplate).

    Seventh, the whole idea of members of one species on one planet surviving their own physical deaths to “be with me” is utter, mind-numbing nonsense. Grow up. You will die. Get over it. I did. Hell, at least you had a life. I never even existed in the first place.

    Eighth, I do not read your minds, or “hear your prayers” as you euphemistically call it. There are 7 billion of you. Even if only 10% prayed once a day, that is 700,000,000 prayers. This works out at 8,000 prayers a second – every second of every day. Meanwhile I have to process the 100,000 of you who die every day between heaven and hell. Dwell on the sheer absurdity of that for a moment.

    Finally, the only reason you even consider believing in me is because of where you were born. Had you been born in India, you would likely believe in the Hindu gods, if born in Tibet, you would be a Buddhist. Every culture that has ever existed has had its own god(s) and they always seem to favor that particular culture, its hopes, dreams and prejudices. What, do you think we all exist? If not, why only yours?

    Look, let’s be honest with ourselves. There is no god. Believing in me was fine when you thought the World was young, flat and simple. Now we know how enormous, old and complex the Universe is.

    Move on – get over me. I did.

    God

    November 12, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Ted

      I'm Agnostic, and still repect people for their beliefs, whatever they may be. I think you're a disrespectful idiot. You've been watching too much Bill Maher. Go crawl back under your rock, and stay there loser.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • EatYouAlive

      Ignore Ted. Ted is an idiot. :-p

      November 12, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Fracuss

      Your book could have be shorter, and more to the point. After all, what did you need other than the Ten Commandments?
      Beyond that. you provided a lot of contradictions and rhetoric. Nobody could take your book literally...oh, that's right, some fools do. Well there you go with that free will stuff again. You gave us a bunch of commandments, and then screwed it up with free will. I say, free Willy.
      I think you tried to allow Lincoln to help us. What was it he said, "you can fool most of the people all of the time"?

      November 12, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Gordon

      This is too logical for most christians to grasp.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • Fracuss

      Ted, Ted, Ted.
      Calling yourself an agnostic is a cope out.
      Get yourself a belief.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • Gerardo

      Can you explain to me how the universe was created? Please started at the point mass and the moment that the point mass reached a crticial condition that caused it to explode and rapidly expand? And into what did it expand into? And why did this matter, after 0.0000001 seconds after these event, was the matter opaque? When did it become "clear"? What was the first element and how were the first elements form? and if gravity is so strong, why did these explosion make one large galaxy? Why do we have billions of galaxies. There must be a simple, atheist, explanation for all of these.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • Real Deal

      Ted,

      Sorry, it sure doesn't sound like you are respecting Colin for his beliefs here.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Smith

      Very well written and thought out. The only problem with it is that I can dismiss the entire thing with:

      "No one knows for sure... and you won't know until you die."

      November 12, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • BradB99

      Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!

      That people continue to believe in this craziness is beyond comprehension. If I told someone that I believed there was a little man in the shag carpet who controls the universe, I would be put away. But if I believe that there's someone up in the sky somewhere, looking down on us with a long white beard, they would probably suggest I become a priest. We create religion to explain the things we do not understand. As we understand more and more, religion becomes more apparent for what it is. Trust in mankind, and each other. Not in something that isn't real, no matter how comforting it might be for you.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Colin

      No Geraldo I can't. Now let me guess, that means YOU can right? And the answer is your god, right?

      November 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • John Richardson

      @Geraldo Why should any explanation be simple? Do you have an explanation? "God did it" isn't an explanation. To count as an explanation, we need some account of what the attributes of this god is and how this god actually accomplished this feat.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • John Richardson

      @Smith What are we going to know when we die? How are we going to know it? If there IS an afterlife, we will know that when we die. If there isn't, we won't. Meanwhile, the mere fact of an afterlife leaves a zillion questions unanswered.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • A Believer

      Thank You...you just proved that HE does exist. Why would you go to such trouble to do that? You are a fool....a very sad fool. Remember it's about choice. You choose not to believe, fine.

      Don't you dare try to choose for others....THAT'S OUR GOD GIVEN RIGHT.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • Mark

      Oh Colin,

      So much could be said about your little tantrum. But the only thing that matters is that you do not Know anything. Believers don't Know either (except in there hearts) they do have Faith, however. While you undoubtedly place no value in that (makes me wonder what you do value, probably only yourself) your opinion is of no more value than their faith, perhaps less value since the concept of hope escapes you. If God did not create the universe (perhaps in a big bang) then prove how it was created. As for the rest of your non sequitur comments you can talk all you want, but you don't know.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • Colin

      A believer – and how did I prove your god exists?

      November 12, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • Colin

      Once again, Mark – I cannot give you an iron clad explanation for the begining of the Universe, but I do know that invoking a magic act by an Iron Age Middle Eastern god is not the answer. It is a cop out, a shrug of the sholders. An "I dunno". All you have done is put a halo on a question mark and walked away from the challange.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  9. Digitalautuer

    So many so called Christians are anything but, they use the popular religion to use as their own sword and shield, they speak bible quotes but do not truly believe it themselves, for a candidate it's a way to get votes, for a public figure a way to earn money. They use our natural empathy and pervert it for their own uses. When these stories broke my natural reaction was one of empathy for the victims, especially the Penn state scandal and I was horrified at the out pouring of love and hate and not a word about the innocent victims.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  10. wonderful

    ... are plenty of Christians who are not like that ". - What are you on?

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

      The fact that there are ANY (let alone the large numbers we see on a daily basis) tells us that we do not need religion (including Christianity) to be decent, moral human beings. If anything, religion encourages divisiveness, self-righteousness, and cruelty to others. It may have some decent moral precepts (love thy neighbor) but also encourages/commands enormous amounts of violence, cruelty, and suffering. We have outgrown the need for fairytales; what we need now is for little children to be left alone and not indoctrinated into this nonsense-give it a generation or two and religion will be breathing its last gasps. Peace.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • LuisWu

      Maybe one or two... let's see... um... Mother Theresa? Um.....uh.... hmmm, oh well.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  11. EatYouAlive

    Help me
    Save me
    I've just crossed the line where reason might betray me

    If the religious right take over, reason will be against the law. Dio was right. 🙂

    November 12, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  12. Albert

    The Bible accurately describes the The United States as "The False Prophet" It claims to be Christian, but its fruits are far removed from what the Bible teaches.

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

      Say what?

      November 12, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  13. Jim J

    If God isn't real, how did he create man in his own image?

    Checkmate, atheists!

    November 12, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • EatYouAlive

      ROFL. Using the bible as point of logic = LOSE

      November 12, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • LuisWu

      How utterly stupid.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Real Deal

      Jim J,

      What makes you think that man is the "image" of anything?

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

      You've got that backwards! Study history and you'll discover that man created god in his own image.

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

      That's your proof??????

      If man isn't real, how did we create god in our own image?

      November 12, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • Finis

      Jim J. Wow, you are a genius! These boards can just shut down now... no further discussion is necessary. Be ready for the throngs of people who just want to touch the hem of your magic cloak.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Sandra

      Actually, we created the gods in our image.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Fracuss

      Wow, that is a stunner.
      You expect an atheist to believe there is a God because he created us in his own image.
      Now that is brilliant.
      Normally I go to a book of non-fiction when I am searching for the truth.
      Unbelievable!

      November 12, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • truthfl1

      Why are the non-believers so filled with hate and anger? Prove is responses below. They are in desperate need of something to believe in. lol.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  14. Bonita

    "...know this that in the last days perilous times will come. For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to their parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, dispisers of good, traitors, headstong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, ...." II Timothy 3:14

    Written thousands of years ago. Scoff if you will, its your choice.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • truthfl1

      Not a bible reader but that reminds me of all the religion hater and atheists' so quick to post their hate, criticism in defense of non-believers. Suggest they try Buddhism, they are in desperate need of something to soften their anger. Might improve their lives and make them more tolerant of others, otherwise they could return as dogs or pigs in their next life. lol.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  15. Dixie AZ

    Cain says that the accusations against him don't matter. And he claims to be a Christian. This puzzles me. What would he say if his wife or other females in his family were being harassed at work?

    November 12, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Jon Samuel

      Cain never said the accusations against him don't matter. He acknowledges that the lies and smears have hurt him politically. The charges are all bogus. do some research and you will see these people are connected to democrat operatives. The democrats cannot allow a Republican black man to become President because it destroys their lies that Republicans are racists..

      November 12, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  16. Ted

    Who are you to question the faith of anyone who supports Cain or Paterno? Two things that Christians believe is that we all have faults, and we all should have the power of forgiveness. I can't believe the things that CNN is putting on their website these days. Stick to reporting the news.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  17. Rocafella

    "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality" - JFK

    November 12, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  18. Phil in Oregon

    One of my fave editorial cartoons shows Uncle Sam sitting at a desk in an old one-room schoolhouse reading a report card and saying, "Maybe we SHOLDN'T have taken prayer out of the schools." To take the God out of society is to produce a godless society. Simple math.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  19. Mastodonrocks

    It should be a nation of "humans" period. I AM NOT A CHRISTIAN AND DO NOT CHOOSE TO BE. I stopped believe in fairy tales when I was a child. This being a so called "christiain nation" causes more strife and suffering than it supposedly helps.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • Phil in Oregon

      It's SO obvious when people who don't know Jesus start talking about Him.

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

      Liar. I am sure you still celebrate Christmas & Easter (which are pagan and not Christian btw), but fairytales nonetheless.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Ted

      There's nothing wrong with being Agnostic, if that's what you believe, that's what makes this country great..but there's no reason to disrespect people of faith. I think you've been watching too much of Bill Mahar.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Mark

      While the works of some proclaiming to be religous (E.G. Christian) have been evil to be sure. The vast majority of the religous (E.G. Christian) are caring people who do a great amount of the good in this world. Are the perfect? No, and very few would say they were. My point is you might want to look into all the good that is done by people and organizations of faith because without those people, the world would be a whole lot darker. I'm sure you understand dark.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • A Believer

      I would like to inform you, It's not a fairy tale.... And I was once an atheist and dabbled in witchcraft. True Christianity is about having a relationship with GOD. Many people call themselves a Christian and don't really have a clue of what it honestly means to be one. I found that out. The outward appearances of so called Christianity, is what religion is based upon. Religion vs. Relationship. There is a difference and unfortunately too many people claim it, but don't really live it. I know this will probably anger some non-believers and believers alike...but oh well.

      But, it is your choice to believe or not. True Christianity doesn't force itself on people, you have to willingly come.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Real Deal

      A Believer: "True Christianity is about having a relationship with GOD."

      So, "God" talks to you? What exactly does he say? Anything that you don't already know - or that you couldn't dream up using your imagination? What?

      November 12, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • A Believer

      Real Deal.....Stop trying to figure everything out. Your comments – hmmm, I used to say that type of stuff. You're not arguing with someone who has not already been down the other path. Once again, it is not a fairy tale. And yes it's about a relationship. Done. And it is a choice. You don't believe...fine; that is your choice. Have a nice day.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • Real Deal

      Believer,

      Look, you are not talking to someone who has never been 'down that trail'. I was a believer for many, many years. I remember the thrills and chills of thinking that I was communicating with the divine. There is no-one there. You are talking to yourself. Enjoy your fantasy, but do not proclaim that it is real.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • A Believer

      Real Deal....I feel sorry for you. If no one is there for you. Then too bad for you. But HE is there for me at all times.
      Your choice to not believe...is YOUR choice. NOT MINE.
      Conversation....DONE.
      Have a nice day.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  20. Ray

    As Christians,we recognize we all are sinners and should not judge but have empathy for both victim and perpetrator,plus give thanks to God we do not have to wrestle with the same desires as a pedophile.

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

      Well said, thank you! So simple, so true, so radical, so hard (sometimes), so filled with love.

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

      Religions does not prevent evil, in fact it wraps it in religious reason, hence the priest raping little boys for centuries and getting away with it.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • truthfl1

      When it comes to the horrendous abuse of a child, my moral compass takes over, empathy for perpetrator is non-existent.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:32 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.