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. Jim M

    It's ok to have a reaction, an opinion, etc... But I agree that many in the US claim to be a Christian yet want to judge & confict based on news reports. It's easy to be negative and to be in the majority, especially when someone has done something so awful. But those people need our prayers more than any. If someone in our family did something so bad, would we be ok with the world lining up to throw rocks. People did bad things, and they will be punished. But any Christian who sits in church or reads the Bible shoudl truly absorb what they hear or read. Love one another, not just the good people because then we wouldn't love anyone.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Passive Aggresive

      That is all very lovely but there is no God and I say kill the fukr – in a humane way of course.,

      November 12, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  2. Alex

    Why does Christianity get to claim "empathy for the least" as its own... as if the lack of this sort of empathy defines a non-believer? I'm an atheist and I empathize with the alleged child abuse victims much more than the coach. So, by the author's logic, maybe this nation is a "not so atheist nation."

    November 12, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Passive Aggresive

      Child molesters should be put to death. It has nothing to do with morals. They are disgusting sick fuks and they should die.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • kluvalab

      His pointt was the reactions of Americans do not mimic Christian values It was Jesus Christ who said, "Whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do on to me" as he advocated for the marginalized. Just because you do not believe in Jesus Christ does not imply you are not able to empathize. Siding with the oppressers over the opressed is not a Christian response.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • Alex

      The author's argument is based on the following parts: (1) misplaced empathy = non-Christian, (2) our nation has responded with misplaced empathy; (3) Therefore (conclusion), our nation is non-christian. That could be a valid argument. The problem with it is, based on part number 1, it leaves the reader to assume that non-Christians (Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, agnostics, and atheists) are responsible for all of the misplaced empathy. It perpetuates religious warfare. Maybe a more accurate argument would be as follows: (1) misplaced empathy = thoughtlessness, (2) our nation has responded with misplaced empathy; (3) Therefore (conclusion), or nation is filled with people who are thoughtless. My point is, it isn't about religion. It's about people's ability to be thoughtful. No religion can claim the market on that.

      November 12, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
  3. Religion is for FOOLS.

    Oh, yeah!

    November 12, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Atheist 1#

      Reputation is what men and women think of us; character is what God and angels know of us.

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

      The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph

      November 12, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  4. MATTY13

    And John Edwards (Christian) and Elliot Spitzer (Jewish) and Bernie Maddof (Jewish)

    November 12, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  5. Atheist 1#

    My country is the world, and my religion is to do good..

    November 12, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  6. marissastar

    WWJD? Both. He would love unconditionally and forgive JoePa and Cain and offer solace and healing to the victims of both men. Period.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • vbscript2

      If, indeed Cain actually had any victims, which seems dubious at best.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • kluvalab

      To love is not to condone. Jesus preached forgiveness. Jesus loved the unlovable. Yes we are to empathize with the Icon of Penn State's fall from Grace. We are called to pick him up and mourn with him through this loss and the losses felt by the entire community of Penn State University. But there are consequenses or our actions. Just ask those abuses children.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  7. Scott Andrew

    Simply, this is a dumb article

    November 12, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  8. Yenta

    The right wing conservative Christians put their empathy in the wrong place–as in whatever politician espouses their right wing agenda. Then they call it "Christian". What they want is to stuff their religious agenda down the rest of our throats. I, for one, want nothing to do with them and their hypocritical "Christian" values. They do not want freedom of religion at all. The want the US to be a nation of true believers.

    What these right wing Christians are is not Christian. They are fascists.

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

      Well ... you might want to do a little research into this ...

      Take for instance ... the US Supreme Court ... what is and has been its makeup?

      Since 1789 there have been 112 Justices ... 111 of them were of a Mainline Faith Belief in God ... there was only one who stated that he had no religious affiliation.

      How come there are no agnostics or atheist on the court? No humanist?

      What you are looking at is a judiciary that is influenced by their faith in God … why would you not allow Christians to enter into the discussion? Does that make any sense?

      November 12, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  9. MikeSanJose

    What I dont understand, in this great nation, where we claim to uphold the great civil liberties, we have reverted back to 17th century Salem. Someone has been accused, and we want all those associated to be burned, without even giving ppl a chance to defend themselves. In Herman Cains case, its likely that he is guilty, but we listen to the accuser, with waiting ears, accepting every word without even hearing the other side. In Joe Paterno's case, he did everything he was suppose to within the system. He reported it, but yet because the nation and media are on such a witch hunt, everyone associated MUST be covering it up. Whatever happened to due process? Is this nation going to devolve into a bunch of accusers, because the accused are punished and condemned before they have their due process?

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

      Herman Cain settled with the women for differing sums of money. That says to me: Where there was smoke there was fire. If he was innocent he would not have settled–and there are a number of these women with similar complaints.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • MikeSanJose

      Ok, that may be true. Herman cain has alleged to give them money for some reason. It actually happens more then you would think in society. I dont like herman cain, and as I said, he is probably guilty. But because of the witch hunts that go on, he was condemned and said to be guilty before he had a chance to defend himself.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • tifoso

      Somehow, your timing is off. None of those you name have been charged with an offense. No one has been tried in a court of law. No one has been convicted. This is a very early stage of due process. There is evidence that something happened that *might* involve criminal conduct. We have, at this stage, a duty to inquire. It is simply human to weigh what believe to be the evidence and decide provisionally what may have happened. We cannot hide our eyes.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  10. LuisWu

    Which 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 1:44 pm |
    • Scott


      November 12, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • kluvalab

      From which view does one's "logic and reason" initiate is his point. Christians, followers of Jesus, immediately empathize with the marginalized; like Jesus who always sided with the oppressed. One's experiences (culture) and emotions (heart) play a part in one's response (rreason). We are constantly influenced by our surroundings. Like it or not. That childhood "brain washing" influenced even how you drew your "logical" conclusion. Death to a icon or death to the innocence of a child. Where is the ethical debate here? Christianity – the advocy of the marginalized – has lost its dominance.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  11. Charlie

    The argument and its premise don't hold up under scrutiny. We are not a"christian" nation – our nation is made up of people practicing many different religions – christian, jewish, buddist, hindu, and many others. The reaction of a realtively few Penn State/Joe Paterno supporters and Republicans supporting Cain are neither reflective of the majority of people in this country nor representative of our national consciousness – if there even is such a thing in such a diverse country.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • April


      November 12, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Passive Aggresive

      None of the articles have to hold up under scrutiny. They are opinions. And as long as they keep you coming back to CNN and viewing their advertising, CNN wins.

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

    Christianity (surrendering your life to Jesus Christ and following and obeying him as a personal relationship) is not a religion. Jesus is extremely clear about this if only people would open their bibles and read it instead of have it sit and collect dust.

    ALL Religion is man's attempt to get to God which is all false clearly stated by God. Not one of us can get to God through good thoughts or works or deeds. We all fall short of the glory of God we all have sinned against God. For God's standards are perfect. All of us have violated His Law (The Ten Commandments) in our thoughts and actions. That is why He came to earth as Jesus Christ to teach us how to live and to have hope in Him and only Him. He is the only person live a sinless life and his death and resurrection paid for our sins but we MUST repent of our sins and surrender our lives to him to escape eternal darkness (Hell). We all will have eternal life either with God or without. Stop thinking you are smarter than God who created you and stop listening to the devil who rules the earth trying to deceive you.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Earthling

      Correct, Christianity is not a religion. It is a group of religions. If you would stop reading your bible long enough to pick up a dictionary, you could easily confirm that.

      "ALL Religion is ... false" - Also correct.

      I am mystified as to why, after clearly stating your (correct) belief that all religion is false, you then blather on about reading the (fictional) bible, surrendering to a centuries-dead carpenter to avoid an eternity in a nonexistent hell, and imaginary gods and devils and whatnot. You are a confused person.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Steve

      It's rabid little arrogant liars like you that woke me up to the fraud of religion and the realization that it is nothing more than fascism at the age of 13. Thanks for helping me live a free, intelligent life not enslaved by nonsense dogma. The bible is nonsense.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Erik, you are a liar and a deceiver. Well, you're a liar. I guess you can't be consider a true deceiver if no one falls for your malarkey.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Passive Aggresive

      There is not God, hence there is no Devil so we can all relax now.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • Real Deal

      Erik: "surrendering your life to Jesus Christ and following and obeying him as a personal relationship"

      So, Jesus talks to you? What does he say? Anything that you don't already know - or that you couldn't dream up using your imagination? One heart palpitation for 'yes' and two for 'no'? What?

      I have asked believers this question hundreds of times - never an answer.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • Erik

      Out of nothing but love I pray that God reveals this truth to you that when you die you will stand before God and confess that Jesus is Lord. Just because you don't believe it doesn't mean it isn't the truth. I talk with Jesus through the Holy Spirit constantly as all true believers do. This is where my words come from I speak to you now.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  13. April

    I wonder if the author of the story knows that Christians are not the majority in the country or the world so it is not a Christian Nation.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Passive Aggresive

      How dare you.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Clif

      He probably doesn't know that since it isn't true. Most recent statistics indicate that 76% of Americans claim to be Christian. This number is shrinking, but as of now, Christians ARE the majority. Doesn't change anything regarding it NOT being a Christian Nation, I sure wish it were. People would understand that our failures are the very thing that make Christianity pertinent and necessary. We are unable to go without sin and are in need of a Savior. It is no surprise to see a Christian fail, he is most capable of seeing his need for Jesus.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
  14. kyrunner

    here they go again on the "we must destroy Christianity" yellow journalism kick

    November 12, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Passive Aggresive

      I don't think we must destroy it, but maybe a little ti tty twister and a kick to the nads.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  15. government cheese

    CNN just had a big lay off of workers on Friday. With stories like this, there will be a lot more.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  16. BNB42

    "The Government of the United States is in no sense founded on the Christian religion." John Adams

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

      "Don't believe everything you read on the internet."-Abraham Lincoln

      November 12, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  17. janine

    we don't have to be christians to have empathy

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

      You're missing his point. Christians naturally should emulate the empathy Jesus Christ taught. "what so ever you do to the the least of my brothers... you do to me" is evidence of Jesus' stance on fighting for the marginalized. When our country is able to empathize with the opressors rather than the oppressed we are not responding via Christian values. Hence the US is not a Christian counry anymore. Unfortuantely then the powerful continue to rule the marginalized. We still have not moved beyond our slavery days.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  18. mike

    We are Christian when it is convenient and fits our agenda. The morals and messages of Jesus have been cherry-picked and applied in ways that are shameful to what Jesus taught and lived by example.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Real Deal

      mike: "what Jesus taught and lived by example."

      Or whatever five first century evangelists *said* that he taught and did, and what early church councils decided to include in the NT. It was cherry-picked before it was cherry-picked before it was cherry-picked.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  19. truthfl1

    The idol worshipers with their life size cut-out of Paterno makes me puke. A pathetic crowd worshipping their God, Joe Pa.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  20. Atheist 1#

    I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

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


      November 12, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Chris

      I have to laugh when you atheists talk of justice and mercy. The reality is that when atheists have gained absolute power they revert to dictatorship, limits on freedom, persecution of any religion, and deaths of millions. Look at the 20th century atheist systems of the Soviet Union, Communist Easter Europe, Mao in China, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Kim in Korea, even the atheist French Revolution ended in dictatorship. Atheism offers no solutions only despair.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:53 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.