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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. Johnny 5

    If this was a Christian nation and we all followed the bible 100% of the way...we would all be dead or you would wish you were.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • truthfl1

      So you admit to reading the bible, heh Lil Johnny? LOL.!

      November 12, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Passive Aggresive

      I wish I was dead.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • godisnotreal

      What a joke. Way to live your life according to a bunch of stories.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  2. Fedupwithla

    I really don't see what this has to do with Christianity. It is just youth on a rampage, as usual. In the absence of war, it just gives our youth something to do besides studying the books, which should be the reason why they are at university anyway. As a professor friend has reminded me, which tends to be true with every new generation, "Youth is wasted on the young." Exhibit A: what has been going on at Penn State recently. Finals, anyone? Are you ready for those?

    November 12, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  3. Wm. Pomeroy

    The universe is far greater and mysterious than any ridiculous story humans could come up with and call religion. I don't know why CNN always pushes these stories with a religious bent, but they only serve to fan the flames of a world out of touch with their true selves. There are a couple main things that tie humans together in this world. True love, and the ability to understand right and wrong. There are some good people in this world and some bad, but until we take religion out of the equation, we will never be able to truly investigate humanity in broad daylight with simple rational logic. Live your life, enjoy it, and speak up if you see something you see as morally wrong, that seems pretty simple to me.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Bob

      Wm. Pomeroy, thanks for the great and thoughtful post.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • Passive Aggresive

      Thank you Wm. Pomeroy.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • jb47

      Thanks William for your post. This is not that complicated. What ever you call yourself, you have to have a moral center. I don't even listen to the so called "christians" anymore. They chose who is right by their polital affiliation. If you are a Republican in trouble than we must learn to forgive, if you are a democrat in trouble then down with those liberal nonbelievers.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  4. John

    There is one thing that is absolute.

    It is the absolutists, moralists, on both sides of the aisle, who vote, act, write and speak, about one issue that they hold up above all others, that makes this nation LESS.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  5. Shaneeda Quit

    If the US were to become a christian nation, you'd have an Amendment 26 in every state. No thanks.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  6. Wendius

    It seems to me that this comes a lot from the influence of the leaders of this "Free" country and the lack of civility that exists and is highlighted by the media. This country has lost a lot of its formal or conservative atmosphere in general. Start by paying attention to the atmosphere of our businesses. When you have people showing up to work in blue jeans and shorts you lost a lot of respect, both for the self and the customer. I believe that too much liberalism leads to too much familiarity which leads to a more "giveme" atmosphere and less respect for all involved. Just a personal opinion from 40 plus years in the business world.

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

      the typical words of an old out of touch white guy. wearing blue jeans to work is not what is hurting this country. it is the lack of a middle class, lack of health care and the rich not paying enough taxes to the system they're cashing in on. might be time for wendius to be taken to the old folks home...

      November 12, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      So blue jeans are to blame!

      Strict work environments do not a moral nation make.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  7. amac

    The answer is that Jesus would be standing alongside all parties involved. Jesus condemns moral sins but he does not condemn moral sinners.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • DN3

      Amen to that.

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

      A mythological being can't condemn anything.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Bob

      Jesus is long dead and rotted away. Get over your dead-guy-on-sticks delusions and join the modern world.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • Mesa Mick

      Except of course if your a doctor who provides women reproductive health services – Then it's OK to blow thier brains out when they are in church – even a chirstian one...Is this the "christian nation" we should all be forced to live in if you and your kind had their christian dominionist ways?

      November 12, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  8. total nonsense

    a nation should not be defined by religion. as *ALL* religion have never contributed nything positive to the hyman race, since they creation. the best exemple is Islam, not far behind is the pedophile organisation know as christians

    November 12, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  9. jb47

    This article is dead on. Where does your heart incline? This is not about legal or not, believe it all or not. It is about where do your intentions and actions go? To children who have now testified as adults, as observers who are adults: it is about any of our moral (or church affiliation) values. I believe our christian book, states it would be better to have a mill stone put around the neck and be thrown in the ocean than to hurt children.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  10. jewisholiday

    Yes, this nation is mostly Christian just as our bodies are mostly water. And so also most of our law breakers, misfits, liars, cheats,bullies, killers, abusers, etc. are Christians. When in the goodness of your heart you go out to do your holiday shopping, don't forget to lock your car, because that is what kind of nation this is.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  11. Nican

    what is a christian anyway?

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

      A person who rejects logic and reason and blindly accepts ancient mythology as fact.

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

      a person who doesnt think for themselves

      November 12, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • auguron

      A miserable pile of lies?

      November 12, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • lali

      luiswu you hit it on the head. why are all the most ignorant people trying to make decisions for everyone?

      November 12, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  12. jmarm

    What has helped to get me thru +70 yearas of life and I am a Christian, our the words expressed in the poem Abou Ben Adhem (google it). It applies to all faiths and if all else fails, what we have left is to be kind to one another. I see a certain amount of meaness that i have never witnessed before. My young adult grandchildre are a throwback to times when people practiced the social amenities and positive values in life. I am so prould of all 10 of them.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Atheist 1#

      Character is much easier kept than recovered

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

      So you spent your whole life cuddling the blanket of an obvious fairy tale. Good for you if it made you feel better, but the morals we base our lives on today have nothing to do with your religion, and actually never did. Keep the great sentiments, hope your grandchildren do well, but please lose the religious delusions. The evidence overwhelmingly contradicts your god stories.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  13. Esteban

    @ Stephen Prothero

    Try knotting. You might do better in it than writing.

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

      Try learning grammar.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  14. Fracuss

    Now what Penn State needs to do is sign Budda to a letter of intent to play nose guard for the Naughtny Lions.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  15. John

    The author is certainly learned enough to not fall for the illogical false choices he's presented of absolute polar arguments without areas of grey. It's a opinion piece lacking the necessary critical thinking beyond the either or type of argument.

    Perhaps we're a complex nation full of believers in Christianity, other world religions and non-believers as well. Does that make us a "Christian Nation?" Does it – by itself – make us not a Chritian nation. perhaps its the premise of the argument that's flawed, rather than the nation.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  16. Amy

    You hit the nail on the head. Its too much work for lazy,fast food lifestyle Americans to be genuine Christian examples. This shows what they really love,and it is not God. As for all those people that love to bash – there is no one perfect Jesus,and there is a desperate need for more of the living God who will change the willing heart from Glory to Glory, if He is sought with all our hearts. We still have time to take back our christian founded and established nation.

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

      Agreed! Fast food and Jesus LOL

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

      Amy, wow, you drank the koolaid and swallowed the bait, hook line and sinker. Look, once and for all, get this right: our nation was not founded as a Christian nation. The founding fathers were largely non-Christian deists, and some of them, such as James Madison, were very anti-Christian, for good reason.

      We will all lose when Christians continue to push their delusions on us. Push back hard and reason will win over supersti-tions like Christianity.

      http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/madison.htm

      November 12, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  17. Desert Dude

    In Jesus' time, the testimony of two witnesses was required to convict someone of a crime. I don't know if we have that in either of these cases. Each of these women is the only accuser of their specific charge and only one person claimed to have seen the coach at Penn State. Joe Paterno never saw anything and reported what he was told. If anything, he is being made the scapegoat here. Of course, that has a Biblical origin so perhaps this is a Christian nation, after all

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

      Scapegoats pre-date Christianity. The Christians stole the concept when they made their god and jesus stories up.

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

      So four different women only really count as 'one' because they happened at seperat time? Logic fail.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  18. sunblur

    In the poem "The Ballad Of Judas Iscariot" By: Teilhard de Chardin S.J. there is a lovely line that reads:

    “Twas the Bridegroom stood at the open door,
    And beckon’d, smiling sweet ;
    “Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
    Stole in, and fell at his feet.

    ‘The Holy Supper is spread within,
    And the many candles shine,
    And I have waited long for thee
    Before I poured the wine !’

    As for the question: are we or are we not a Christian Nation ... my and others anwser would be ... we are still in process ...

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

      Hopefully we will never be a Christian nation, despite the aggressive efforts of the salespeople of that particular god fraud.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  19. government cheese

    Victim-hood has become en vogue. I don't remember the same empathy for the gay men that accused Obama of belonging to their 'gentleman's club.'

    November 12, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  20. Colin

    Which of the following groups believes that an invisible being in the sky is watching their every move and will punish them if they are bad:

    (a) Small children, too young to know that is silly
    (b) Delusional schizophrenics
    (c) Christians; or
    (d) All of the above

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

      Well done!

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

      Any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child, cannot be true.

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

      WWJD? Look at what He has done in the past and in the present lives of those who believe and don't believe.
      Jesus did not flog or punish anyone for the sins they committed while on Earth, but told people to "sin no more" continue, and your sins will find you out and you will pay for them to the full if you don't repent and trust in Him. Some people use Christ's Grace as a license to sin and this is wrong and this is common in life in America. But Grace will run out when worn out and no change is found. If Americans don't change from their "wicked ways" it will be a hard path back to where we were. A Nation is made up of people, a Christian nation is made up of people, a church is made up of people, and "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." – Romans 3:23
      Don't forget it

      November 12, 2011 at 4:28 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.