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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. Gpenn

    I'm sure certain Christians might have empathy for the scandal at Happy Valley, but not everyone is a Catholic. For the last time. We are not a Christian Nation. We may have a lot of Christians in this country, but we are not a Christian Nation.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Aroses999

      Thanks for bringing this up. We are not a christian nation. We are not theocratic nation.....

      November 12, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  2. Aroses999

    God & Country are an unbeatable team; they break all records for oppression and bloodshed.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • LuisWu

      God and country? You mean like Iran and Islam.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • BNB42

      Yes! Zues and Country make an unbeatable team....

      You did mean the god Zues, right? there are so many.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Aroses999

      God as all Gods in world history & Country as all countries in the world.... are an unbeatable team; they break all records for oppression and bloodshed.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • GAW

      Is Aroses999 making a Troll Face now?

      November 12, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Aroses999

      Definitely not a Believer Troll face 🙂

      November 12, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Chad

      Aroses999 "God & Country are an unbeatable team; they break all records for oppression and bloodshed."

      UTTER NONSENSE

      "In their Encyclopedia of Wars,[2] authors Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod attempt a comprehensive listing of wars in history. They doc ument 1763 wars overall, of which 123 (7%) have been classified to involve a religious conflict." – Axelrod, Alan & Phillips, Charles Encyclopedia of Wars, Facts on File, November 2004, ISBN 978-0816028511

      November 13, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  3. JC

    You are measuring Christian values from what you see in the mainstream media?
    What kind of professor are you? Your take, my supposedly well-learned professor, is plain idiotic.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Fracuss

      Thank you for checking in with your opinion, Jesus.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Two high-profile example of hypocrisy that has been rampant at all levels of the Christian population. The last Christian died on the cross and there are might few people really trying hard to be real Christians. Apparently it is quite easy to interpret the bible in any way you wish. As far as I can tell rich men are marching into heaven in a fast moving line, four across. Nothing difficult about it whatsoever.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  4. Nicole

    I'm an atheist. The idea that the religious are (or should be) more empathetic than me is insulting.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Aroses999

      I cannot agree with you more. Overall Religion is a threat to civilization.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Fracuss

      I'm an atheist and the fact that the majority of Christians are not more emphatic than me is disgusting, and proof of their hypocrisy or ignorance.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Pokydoke

      For the most part religiously indoctrinated people view Atheists as amoral because we don't fall for the unsupportable fantasy's they do.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Russell

      This was not a comparative article, Nicole.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Aroses999

      I find it ironic when christians cherry and pick scriptures and redefined their values. Bible talks about slavery and annihilation of other nations.... and no christian wants to talk about it. I despise Religion period.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • John Richardson

      It kinda was. If the reactions to Penn State and Cain means we are less Christian, then what are we?

      In any event, where outside State College PA are people rioting in support of Joe Paterno? And is Cain really getting all that much support from the nation.

      Prothero regularly writes some of the worst "thought" piece you can find anywhere. He is a true numbskull, and it IS a travesty that he holds a professorship.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Chad

      @ Nicole "I'm an atheist. The idea that the religious are (or should be) more empathetic than me is insulting."

      =>if you find it insulting, you should encourage your fellow atheists to give more.Christians are the world wide leaders in humanitarian aid.

      In WHO REALLY CARES, Arthur C. Brooks finds that religious conservatives are far more charitable than secular liberals, and that those who support the idea that government should redistribute income are among the least likely to dig into their own wallets to help others."–Chronicle of Philanthropy (11/23/06)

      Religious people are statistically more likely to give than secularists (91% to 66%), and give more of their money (3.5 times more than secularists), are more likely to volunteer their time (67% to 44%), and volunteer more of their time (almost twice as much).

      November 12, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  5. government cheese

    The women have lawyers, Cain doesn't. Check out Obama's 2004 US Senate election bid. Hull (D) and Ryan (R) were both accused of scandals and both were later proved to be false after they dropped out. David Axelrod was Obama's spin master then also.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  6. Dan

    Maybe it's just because they believe in forgivene-AHAHAHAHAHAHA.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  7. Dusty K

    Thank you for writing this, it is something that has been troubling me for quite some time. If I were to bring this up to one of these "Christians" the reaction to me is swift and violent in it's rhetoric. Which makes my point, but these Xtains don't seem to get it.

    Kind of like blaming Americans, whose jobs were outsourced for their unemployment. Does any one think before they speak?

    November 12, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Aroses999

      When you are a fundamentalist, you don't take the time to informed or read. Fundamentalists actually read or hear what they want to hear.... I would give religion two more generations before evaporates.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  8. Don

    What about Clinton with Monica? What about Obama bowing to foreign dictators? The Liberals have absolutely no morals or ethics. You can't use the words Liberals and Christianity in the same statement.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Fracuss

      Apropos what?

      November 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Now you wish to compare individuals to represent entire groups? OK, do we start with the fallen evangelists, right-wing politicians or the Catholic church. There is plenty to paint all of Christianity with the same brush.

      Works both ways. If you argue one, then argue both.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Steve

      You are an idiot

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

      @Don, you are absolutely incorrect. Bill Clinton is not the only politician to ever have an affair and/or lie about it. I could mention several names of not only Republicans that have done the same thing, but also many that are in higher religious positions as well. All that is required there is a narcissistic personality. And as far as political stereotypes, democrats supposedly have more sympathy and empathy for the underdog than republicans. Please, put all the hate to rest for once and for all.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  9. Fracuss

    Too bad for humanity, that the Romans did not have more lions.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Gaven

      LOL

      November 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Dusty K

      We are the new Rome and, we like them, have destroyed ourselves from the inside out.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Jackson

      To Dusty K It was so much more complex than that,and they were monotheistic until the last ruler.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Fracuss

      Dusty K
      What about "too big to fail"?
      Don't you think Gawd will bail us out?

      November 12, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  10. GauisCaesar

    Just from simply reading the name of this author's book, I can tell he has NO clue about what Christianity is all about. "God is not one" sounds to me like he is "in step" with Oprah in trying to bring about a new religion, a hodge-podge of whatever that person wants to believe in. Take a bit of this religion, and a bit of this one, and then make up your own story. Here's a great idea CNN, don't get nonChristian to write an article on how "Christian" someone is...when they have already admitted they don't understand what Christianity is.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Dusty K

      >>>Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar .<<<<

      Being a religious scholar means you have to actually study the religion and understand the belief system as well as what was happening historically, sociological and economically at the time of the writing of the texts. That is what a scholar is.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  11. John J. Puccio

    For thousands of years now people have belonged to organized religions, and for thousands of years they have been killing and subjugating one another. It's not surprising to see hypocrites in any religion. So it's not surprising to find self-confessed "Christians" doing very un-Christian-like things, like murdering abortion doctors because they believe in "the right to life."

    November 12, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  12. GAW

    Shouldn't this article be more about media ethics? It's the media that sets the tone and gives the facts (At least I think)

    November 12, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • melvin Orwin

      no.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Not really, its about people's ability to only hear what they want to hear. That is why most people who heard the same media reports understood that this is about the victims. Yet many could only focus on how it affected their idols.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • GAW

      Not everyone can critically read a media article and ask where the focus should lie. I'm sure the movers and shakers in the world of the media are well aware of this. And yes ultimately the ethic lies in balance with the author and the reader alike.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      1. Never count on the media to get the facts straight. They never do. (That is not an exaggeration)
      2. The various media are private organizations. They have opinions. Always have.
      3. It is an individuals responsibility to make decisions based on facts, not hearsay.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  13. Chad

    "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"?"

    We have elevated power and prestige above our duty to take care of those that cant take care of themselves. Sad but true.

    Actually, I dont know if we can lay this at the feet of the problems associated with an increasingly secularized government.

    The real problem lies in all of us, you, me, everyone. We are all sinful, we have all fallen short of the glory of God. Is Paris Hilton the problem, or is it more likely that the problem is with a public that idolizes here and provides her with a platform upon which to stand. Is Joe Paterno, Herman Cain, Bill Clinton, Silvio Berlusconi the problem? Or is with us that elect, equip with power and enable their behavior?

    WE are the problem. The only solution is to recognize the true source of the problem, ask God for forgiveness and seek repentance (a change of direction).

    November 12, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Atheist 1#

      As an Atheist I try to be like More Jesus

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

      This has nothing to do with what religion you are. It has to do with what kind of person you are. Its just interesting to note the extreme level of hypocrisy practiced by so many "Christians".

      November 12, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • crazyvermont

      Chris,
      You points are right on and our country can not continue unpunished if we continue down the road we are going. The only trouble I see with your thoughts is one we know absolutely happened and the Cain topic(at this point) is only unsubstantiated rumors. I'm not defending Cain nor a Cain fan, but had some small association with the man while he was President at NRA and accusations don't fit the man I knew.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Bob

      Chad, check your history. Your "supposed Christian nation" never was a Christian nation, and hopefully never will be, despite the annoying efforts of aggressive folk like you trying to foist your sick supersti-tions on the rest of us.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • LuisWu

      I work with a lot of people from India. They are MUCH better people than Americans. They're likeable, polite, always cheerful. Very caring people. Unlike most Americans. Maybe we should all become Hindus.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Chad

      Christian: a person who believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
      Hypocrisy: the state of pretending to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that one does not actually have.
      Hubris: excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance.

      Given that virtually everyone believes that they have good reason to do what they are doing(Even Al Capone thought he was right), I suspect in most cases these high profile moral/ethical failures are a result of hubris, not hypocrisy.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Chad

      LuisWu "I work with a lot of people from India. They are MUCH better people than Americans. They're likeable, polite, always cheerful. Very caring people. Unlike most Americans. Maybe we should all become Hindus."

      =>you have never been to India to witness first hand the horror of the accepted caste system

      November 12, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Steve

      Al Capone was wrong?

      November 12, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Real Deal

      Chad,

      "WE are the problem. The only solution is to recognize the true source of the problem, ask God for forgiveness and seek repentance (a change of direction)."

      The first part of your statement is valid. As for the second part - ask "God" for stuff all day long - there is no evidence that a god has ever actually done anything. If meditating and concentrating help you to focus, fine; but expecting a supernatural being to change anything is fantasy.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Chad

      @Atheist 1# "As an Atheist I try to be like More Jesus"

      That's a phenomenally strange statement. As an atheist, you must think that Jesus was insane (as he claimed to be the Son of God).

      November 12, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Even insane people can exhibit behaviors worthy of emulation.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      As far as substantiation goes. Do you need a video? Several women have spoken out and they are not all anonymous.
      Also, do your really think you know people so well? How many people that met Sandusky could have imagined him in the locker room with a young boy?

      November 12, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  14. martin

    We've become a nation of strangers. We can't really empathize with anybody, not even the people who live right next to us, assuming we even know who they are. Apparently it's easier for a lot of people to feel more for a football program than for a bunch of severely abused kids. A football program like Penn State has and a lot of others (including U of Nebraska) takes on a momentum and a life of its own and everything, including educational goals and apparently even the lives of helpless kids seems to be pushed aside.

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

    Its quite ironic how so many atheists act more "Christian" than so many "Christians". When a Christian is being out-Christianed by atheists it is time for a bit of soul-searching.

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

      Excellent comment. But people must realize that so-called "Christians" are far removed from what the Bible actually teaches. Man as an inherent moral code which is why it can in fact be stated that some atheists have a better sense of morals, and a better more realistic view of life. Don't confuse religion with the Bible. They are distinctly separate. Take Christmas, Easter, Eternal Torment in Hell as punishment. These are not Bible teachings. They are based on pagan customs and Greek mythology. Yet. "Christians" teach them as Bible truths. Religion will and must be destroyed. It is evil.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • crazyvermont

      Perhaps you don't know any or enough real Christians. It's pretty easy to call your self anything. Not everyone that calls themselves christian or thanks the lord at the Grammy's even know what the word means. I'll agree there may also need to be people who do some soul searching

      November 12, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Chad

      In WHO REALLY CARES, Arthur C. Brooks finds that religious conservatives are far more charitable than secular liberals, and that those who support the idea that government should redistribute income are among the least likely to dig into their own wallets to help others."–Chronicle of Philanthropy (11/23/06)

      Religious people are statistically more likely to give than secularists (91% to 66%), and give more of their money (3.5 times more than secularists), are more likely to volunteer their time (67% to 44%), and volunteer more of their time (almost twice as much).

      November 12, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  16. Atheist 1#

    A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  17. Eric

    When the nation's hearts go out to Paterno and Cain, its because they are victims of the media who report these damaging allegations and create an embellished story around an event, which nobody knows the true facts about yet. Is it a Christian nation? Absolutely, yes.

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

      Wrong.

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

      As a result of a grand jury investigation evidence was produced that showed he aided and abetted a cover-up of a pedophile. This is not some kind of rumor, there are well researched facts involved.
      This "Christian" nation would do well to start trying to act like one. So far all they seem interested in is controlling other peoples lives, not helping those in need.

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

      Sorry Eric, looks like you've failed to read the facts, which at least, in the PSU case are established. The media simply reported the facts. Stop being an apologist, will you

      November 12, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Steve

      LOL that was very funny. Christianity is the false religion. Thats the irony of life. Its ok, you'll be fine...

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

      Yes, it would be far better not to have our horrible intrusive media. Then we, the public, wouldn't have to deal with these "allegations" and "stories" and could just go about our business. And the abusers could carry on their activities in dark corners with no fear of ever being found out. That would include politicians with their self-serving policies, as well as child abusers, spouse abusers, brutalizing police, and embezzlers and thieves.

      As a conservative Christian, I read the news and don't see much of my faith represented. Especially by Christians who believe the media are the source of evil, the military are our only protection against a scary world, and that politicians are to be taken at face value but those who disagree with them bear the burden of proof.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • JR

      Not even on paper, or in the hearts of those who are proclaiming to be. It only covers the trails of all the BS they want to push. I grew up a Christian and still attempt to follow the teachings of Jesus, but a long time ago I realized the true Christians do not have to proclaim what they are, everyone already knows.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  18. Skubala

    The nation is not empathetic. So, is it outside the circle? ?And how does one judge empathy (if that's the measure of a "fill-in-the-blank-religion nation)? Who cares? The fact that evil persists without check is proof that man is sinful. The fact that fans support their idols without discernment is proof of stupidity.

    The whole "christian nation" (lower case "c" intentional) nation thing is a red herring. You don't need Penn State and the presidential campaign to undercut any assertion the the USA is a christian anything!

    November 12, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  19. Majide

    It's funny how the foundation of this article is completely dismantled the True Scotsman Fallacy.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:08 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 1:06 pm |
    • Fefe

      Amen.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Phil

      Well said!

      November 12, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Bob

      LuisWu, 2 thumbs up. Great post.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • LCS

      Yes, by all means get rid of the writings of "ancient primitive people". Let's start with those arithmetic and astronomy texts.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:33 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.