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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. Mike S

    You are an idiot.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  2. Your Neighbor

    The reaction of conservative christians is yet more proof that religion is more about social power structures than it is about any sense of morality or ethics. Morality need not be tied to mysticism, spirituality or religion. Who needs god to be good? What does "faith" have to say about whether it is moral to commit violence against another human being, as in this case? Do we really need to credit some postulated omnipotent father figure for our Humanity and empathetic code of morality? Sorry, I do not.

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

    The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on nothing; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing

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

      You seem to know a whole lot about nothing, brother

      November 12, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Religion=Sheep

      *Exactly* When someone says they are going to a religious school or becoming a pastor, I say to them "why don't you study magik or perhaps alchemy?" They have the same basis in fact (none).

      November 12, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Andrew

      Wow, i had no idea that billions of people throughout history have swirled around religion for thousands of years and you've surpassed them all in your supreme knowledge by stating that it is in fact "nothing". You must be one smart Sunuva monkey!

      November 13, 2011 at 12:05 am |
  4. Sandra

    I was shocked to see a scandal like Penn State happen outside the Catholic Church.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  5. Buddy

    Thanks for pointing out the glaring GOP hypocrisy. Good article.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  6. Jim Rousch

    Would a Christian nation involve itself with genocide and slavery?
    Would a Christian nation side with the rapist?
    Would a Christian nation starve the poor without giving them access to work that pays a living wage?
    Would a Christian nation cut the budgets of services that disabled people need in the name of tax cuts for the rich?
    Would a Christian nation go to war on false pretenses?

    Any Christian nation which would do these things is a dead nation that is beyond redemption.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • Jim Rousch

      Did Jesus Christ ever ask the blind man of Bethsaida for his HMO card or did He just heal him?

      Since Jesus healed people for free, why do Republicans (who force Christianity upon the rest of us every chance they get!) want people to go into debt in order to be healed?

      Jesus Christ INVENTED the public option!

      November 12, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      jesus did not heal anyone – if he actually existed, he was merely a con-man with a few good parlor tricks. Current day magicians have even better gags, without the supernatural crap.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:44 am |
    • Mirosal

      When this jesus, or "god" can visibly cure ... say ... an amputee veteran, then we'll see what's what.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:51 am |
  7. Moe Smith

    The "good" and "moral" Christian... oh wait, are they the ones who have priests raping little boys and then hiding behind their God? Ahh yes, that's right. Gotcha. Yes! Upright standards we should all live by!!!

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

      Really? You dont see any holes in the logic of that post? REALLY? I knew atheist's were dumb, i just didnt realize it had gotten this bad. lol

      November 13, 2011 at 12:35 am |
  8. habakuq

    You are throwing Cain into the same bucket of swill that contains a child rapist. Really!

    November 12, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Jim Rousch

      If the pizza cooks, eat it.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  9. Brent

    Even if Jesus, or God did exist, it sure as heck wouldn't be concerned with Cain, Joe Pa or any of the other much more horrible things going on in the world.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  10. Dood

    Stephen Prothero is a retard!

    November 12, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Religion=Sheep

      I think we know who the retard here is, dood.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  11. LonelyLoner

    Seriously, this article is just stupid. You make it sound like people who aren't religious are the problem. I'd be willing to bet a whole lot of money that majority of these idiots out protesting and rioting would call themselves Christians.

    It's not lack of religion that's the problem, it's the lack of morality. In fact, history shows that Religion is the major cause of a great deal of suffering because idiots think they are right and everyone else is wrong.

    I wish this world was religion-free.

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

      Hip Hip Hoooooray!! Well said!

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

      Actually, he's calling a very significant chunk of self-professed U.S. Christians hypocrites, he's not advocating for more religion.

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

      I think you are missing the point of what Prothero is trying to say here. He means that we tend to be a nation which identifies itself as Christian, which I think demographically still holds true today. Yet some of the response to these issues have not necessarily reflected how Christian teachings would teach us to react in these situations, especially in terms of showing love and kindness to those who have been oppressed or put down. He isn't trying to say that because of this reaction, it just goes to show that a lot of people aren't Christian and therefore immoral. Instead, he means that many of the people who are identifying themselves as Christian are not living like C
      hrist, and are putting societal issues and other things in higher regard than truly empathizing for those who need it.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • BC

      You missed the point. He said that for a bunch of Christians, we pick the wrong side of the argument more times than not. Then we go criticize other religions for doing the same. Some of that is justified because they, like Christians, make mistakes. Some of it is not. But if everyone in all religions actually practiced what is preached, the world would be a lot better off.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  12. Dood

    Religion is nothing but a vessel to control the weak minded people. Down with Christianity and all religions!

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

      lol, ok ummm dood? Mayhap you oughta explain why I am a weak minded person?

      November 13, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  13. joey

    poooop shooting children, how much more christian can you get ?

    November 12, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  14. saylorscreek

    I am a woman and I have been harassed, but I am having a hard time with these women and their allegations. The definition of harassment is a legal one and the Department of Justice will investigate these for free. Why did these women wait until NOW if it was that offensive? Didn't THEY have a duty to their fellow women to report this stuff? Besides, this is a country of law, and neither of these men have received their right to have these things investigated and answer charges. I don't respect people who do not follow the law–and I do not respect the news media for putting uninvestigated or untried charges to the public as though they were fact–yiou are disregarding these men's right.

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

      You were harassed? Did you report it at the time? If the guy that harassed you was running for president would you report it then? Grow a brain.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  15. Ancient Curse

    Has the author been asleep for the last several decades? The incomprehensible reactions to Cain and Penn State are exactly what I've come to expect from our so-called Christian nation. They have an emotional reaction rather than a logical one, and the emotion that usually shows up is anger.

    Christ sounds like an amazing guy. He really does. But a lot of the people who say they follow him don't really seem to know much of what he actually said. You talk to them about love, compassion, helping the less-fortunate... they'll come down on you harder than a hammer hitting a nail placed over the palm of your hand. It's really amazing to me.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  16. Mike in SA

    When a lawyer says, "You should take a look at and evaluate one person's actions in their totality instead of on a case by case basis" and then less than a day later turns right around and says "You should not look at or evaluate my own client's actions in their totality, but instead should do that on a case by case basis", people generally will smell a rat. People want fairness and what the lawyer proposes is anything but fair.

    The women we know about don't need things about them "dug up" and scrutinized. Their actions are laid right out there for the world to see and simply put two and two together. Apparently taking Stephen's lead, that's something which the press so far have felt much less than compelled to do.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  17. LuisWu

    ALL religions = ancient mythology. Period.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  18. Dood

    CNN censors comments!

    November 12, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • Mike in SA

      Agreed I commented earlier, it was never posted, then when I tried to re-post, I got a message saying that it was a duplicate.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • LuisWu

      Nah, it's just a glitch in their system. I tried replying to a post several times and it didn't show up. Then I tried again and it was there. It's just that they have a crappy, poorly written comment program.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • Mike in SA

      My original post was an hour and a half ago. It's not a delay.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  19. BlackYowe

    Money is the god to which too many bow down today in America.. Jesus would have us feel compassion for the women and the fetus and for the wealthy man and and the unborn fetus. This article shows obvious bias against people of faith.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  20. DD

    Haha. PS. Those claiming to speak for any god, do not.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:58 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.