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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. carlmor85

    What a great article, I have to agree with this article one hundred percent. I was just thinking the same thing. God is perfectly just and merciful. The question is who deserves his justice and who deserves his mercy? I'm not one to judge but one to observe, and from what I observed, I worry about where our hearts lie as a country.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • BeamMeUpScotty

      Which "God" is yours?

      Can you answer this question: WTH is "God"?

      If you can't answer this question with an answer that makes logical sense, well then, you know poop about your "God"! And if you don't even have logical thought about your "God", then means, your "God" does not exist!

      "God" is just a meaningless label given to the *arrogance of ignorance*.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  2. Atheist 1#

    The real Atheist smiles in trouble, gathers strength from distress, and grows brave by reflection.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • gsperson

      Sounds like more than just "not believing in God" there. It sound's like a way of life. Kind of like a religion. Best of luck with your atheist religion.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • MARIVS_MARIVS

      Atheist: Amen.

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

      Atheism is no more a religion than bald is a hair color.

      Atheism is no more a religion than not collecting stams is a hobby.

      (attributed to Dawkins and others)

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

      *stamps*

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

      Bob – To use your bald example, my point is that no bald person claims that a real bald person "smiles in trouble, gathers strength from distress, and grows brave by reflection".

      November 12, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  3. BeamMeUpScotty

    This author blames the lack of Christianity as the reason for America's moral decline. Which is absolutely absurd!

    When the heck did being "Christian" make you a better person or nation?

    Why should we reward those who based their standards on magical make-believe Jewish superheros?

    November 12, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  4. Colin

    I will not only kill people who do not believe what I say in various ways, such as drowning, stabbing, and horrid diseases, but I also torture them for all eternity. Who am I?

    (a) Adolph Hitler
    (b) Joseph Stalin
    (c) Satan; or
    (d) Our loving god

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

      All of the above.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  5. A Skeptic

    The Author offers a false set of alternatives. His either or choices reveal an agenda and not an attempt to help search for truth. One can have compassion for the victims and compassion for the accused. Only when Due Process has had its chance will we be better able to assess the situation. Agenda driven authors such as Prothero only want to drive home their slanted views. He appears to have little interest in actually promoting constructive values and discussion.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • steve19

      Well-stated

      November 12, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • bennyjey

      That is a good analysis of the article-the author uses a slanted argument to present his agenda. One thing that is seems to be common among such articles is that it is judges christianity in light of actions and beliefs of "Christians". Anyone that has properly studied christianity, which incidently in my opinion is something a credible an author should do before sitting in judgement, would know that the Bible teaches that EVERY human is prone to "SIN". We see that in the life of every human in the BIble that chose to follow God-Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Apostle Peter-everyone commited "Sin", some of them more extreme than others. Which is true to of humans of our time. It is of no surprise that public figures of our time "fail" in our eyes-irregardless of whether they are Christians or not. That does not mean Christianity preaches indifference to sin. What it does is to show us that we, humans need the grace of "God" because we are prone to be "Sinners". We need God to be right with Him, to be right with ourselves and to be right with each other. It shows us the concept of "grace" which is to give or receive something that the reciepint does nor "earn" or "deserve". Christ extended and showed "grace" to humanity by dying just as he asks his followers to show or extend grace to fellow humans.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  6. pat

    Founded on some Christian principles but loosely or hardly being Followed by the ones in charge now. In the Old Testament Israel claimed to be following God and as we can see from their History, God thought otherwise. Jesus made a whip for the money changers on the Temple Mount, what we he do on Wall Street?

    November 12, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  7. gsperson

    In my heart – I know that Prothero is the classic example of liberals trying to turn Christianity into a political movement. Christ never asked that we choose one person over another, let alone choosing between the accuser and the accused. That's just absolutely ridiculous of Prothero to suggest that. Christ asked us to love everybody. Regarding the Paterno case, that means we should also love the man accused of molesting those children! I wonder how Prothero forgot that very basic Christian idea? Could it be that it didn't fit his political agenda?

    November 12, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • Atheist 1#

      There are matters in the Bible, said to be done by the express commandment of God, that are shocking to humanity and to every idea we have of moral justice.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • gsperson

      Atheist #1 – But to be fair, the "we" is most you, isn't it?

      November 12, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • BeamMeUpScotty

      Evangelicals are CONSERVATIVES, not LIBERALS! LOL

      November 12, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • Beth

      Love existed long before Christianity did. It's a great and wonderful thing, but can't be claimed by that religion.

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

      I completely agree. I can see after reading this article that Prothero completely misses the point of Christianity.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • gsperson

      Beammeupscotty – I understand that. But, I never said that conservatives don't use Christianity as a political movement. I said that Prothero is the classic example of liberals using Christianity as a political movement.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Bob

      gsperson,

      You may not be offended by the commandments purportedly by your god in your bible to do brutal things such as sacrifice and burn animals to please your god. (Yes, Jesus said those brutal commandments still apply.)

      You may not be bothered by your "loving" god's slaughter of whole peoples according to your bible.

      You may not be bothered that your god promises eternal painful torture for even minor transgressions in a short mortal life, such as even reasonable doubt.

      Personally, I am both horrified and offended by those things in your religion. I am also shocked and horrified that you seem to not be bothered by them.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Helen

      I guess you could say that love existed before Christianity, because God has always existed and love comes from Him. He did have Christ in mind though from the beginning so, actually, love wouldn't exist if it weren't for Christianity. We wouldn't either.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • gsperson

      Bob – No killing for you Bob? You would refused to have fought in WWII? You must be shocked at a lot of people then Bob.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • Bob

      Christian god sure seems like an ass-hole to me, not loving at all. Murders and tortures, wants animal sacrifice. No thanks. Keep your sick god-ass-hole, and don't try to claim love from him.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • Bob

      gsperson, do try to make your replies relevant. You haven't, so far.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • gsperson

      Bob – You seem upset. I'm sorry that I confounded you with that fighting in WWII thing.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  8. Les Best

    I'm completely baffled by this article. Is the author insinuating that were Jesus one of those 'family value' conservatives, that he would immediately remove his support from Herman Cain when accusations started flying, or perhaps he'd take a wait and see approach so that he didn't appear complicit. Our author is unaware of the cost of supporting someone, even in the face of accusations. This is called integrity. This is called courage. Herman Cain maintains his innocence. I will not 'judge' him guilty simply because he is accused. In the case of JoPa, I believe the students were outraged by what they perceived as a knee jerk reaction, made by a self-protecting administration. Straw men tend to be the authors strong suit. Unfortunately, we learn little when they are the basis for an agenda based argument.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  9. Lori Hall

    II agree with a previous poster...this IS a stupid article.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  10. JW

    It is anti-christ to call the U.S. a Christian nation. That is like saying give up your faith in the kingdom to come, with Christ's return, and instead start installing a theocracy here on Earth to wage holy wars and use the power of the sword to do God's will–Christ is taking too long, or isn't coming back. Not only that, but the hypocrites that call themselves Christians these days have never reflected what that word means, or whether their lives reflect that word. Now the Old Testament, well, that is full of theocracies and support for creating an Old Testament nation of God–a new Israel of sorts. And that is where they try to rationalize it.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  11. Atheist 1#

    The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • MARIVS_MARIVS

      Communism, promoting atheism, didn't show that formidable weapon. Since when atheist are the exlcusive owners of reason? You yourself sounds like a dogmatic and fatuous person.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  12. Cleo

    "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?"

    How anti-empathy can you be when you place all pregnant women who are considering abortions on the side of the powerful! How about a little empathy for the ones who must choose between their death and ending a pregnancy that is killing them? This "expert" should go spend six months working in a high-risk pregnancy clinic. But then to equate this issue to paying taxes? Is this author really so lacking in empathy and brains? I didn't read the rest of the article after this paragraph but I'm sure it is as black and white and stupid all over as this above paragraph.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  13. Aaron

    Yet another ignorant comment. The author has a point, and if Johnny really knew anything about Christianity, he'd know we all wouldn't "be dead."

    November 12, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  14. Drew

    This article is idiotic. It assumes that guilt and innocence have no affect on our feelings, but rather our poliical or sports leanings. Of course sympathy goes to the victims...in the Penn State case, that is fairly obvious; in the case of Herman Cain, it's not. And I won't suppose Jesus to be a Penn State fan or a Republican or anything other than Lord, which means His heart is extended to all people.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • MA Hiker

      No it is not idiotic, prcisely because most of the feedback has been sympahty for the wrong people. Many are sympathetic to Paterno, instead of the boys. And sympathetic to Cain instead of the women supposedly harrassed. Drew, don't you get it?

      November 12, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • Drew

      "Most"...really? Get your head out of the news.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  15. Are you kidding me?!

    Wow. The author is either floating down that lovely river in Egypt or is from another planet entirely. Stating that the national reaction to Cain's abuses and the Penn State scandal is because of we're "not so Christian" is not only wrong put hypocritical. We can thank both the fallen Evangelical leaders and the Catholic church for our lack of an empathetic reaction. These religious organizations and there leaders set the bar for abuse and scandal pretty high, and have gotten us used to a steady stream of these type of events where we no longer find it shocking. If you're looking for a scapegoat, try a mirror.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • Binghiman

      The author is spot on when he brings up the "religious right"'s usual positions and reactions to events such as these. What you got to be kidding me about is that people still buy the b.s that the "conservative" "religious right" is selling. Fact is, most of the so-called "christian" leaders (and followers for that matter) are complete hypocrites and have practically zero spiritual growth of any kind. Their whole schtick is basically political and just way off the mark. This goes all the way back to the "Puritans". What a bunch of twisted jerks! And that legacy has continued in many forms through the years. Even I know the purported words of Jesus in the bible that says not everyone who calls him "lord" and proclaims to be all about him is real, but "by their fruits you shall know them".

      November 12, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  16. jane fletcher

    come to me all you who labour and are heavy laden and i will give you rest and he that comes to me i will in no wise cast out.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  17. Light In The Dark

    ****** Please prove republicans do not practice Christianity.*****

    Pro death penalty.
    Pro war.
    Want to cut all programs that help the less fortunate.
    Tax cuts and breaks for the wealthy.
    Cut soldiers benefits.
    Dont want to extend unemployement.
    Want gays back in the closet.
    Want woman back in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant.
    Want blacks back to the end of the bus.
    Only care about babys (abortion) while in the womb, dont care what happens to them after.

    Just like Jesus, HUH ???

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

      You have some good points in there, but keep in mind Democrats have the far larger negative track record concerning military pay cuts and racial segregation.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • I see what you are getting at...

      But my push back to you would be to evaluate the charitable involvement of individual republicans vs. the notion that the government is the place where those in need find rest. If your point is that Jesus followed the government and believed they were responsible for the care of the poor, then you are wrong. If you are pointing out a broader social awareness that is a requirement of the faith then you are right. I am not saying social programs are right or wrong, but this is not a political issue, Christ is not a Dem or Rep, not even in favor of democracy. The only biblically endorsed form of government is monarchy. We just do the best we can with what we have.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  18. kebcarerra

    Moral garbage , this country full of so called christ believers has a history of enslaving and destroying others. If you want to see whats in the future study the past. Nothing here surprises me.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  19. jt

    Newsflash: You don't have to be Christian, hell, you don't even have to be religious to have morals, ethics, and a sense of fairness for your fellow human. It's true.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • vannShane

      It's true. Just look at Unitarian Universalists. They accept everyone as long as they are helpful and thoughtful.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  20. bieber23

    Empathizing with victims is about being ethical and not religious.And unfortunately, there are no takers for such ethics.Joe Pa should be sued for being part of the cover up. Cain should make the NRA docs public that detail the charges instead of hosting a website for re-targeting victims of his own harassment.

    November 12, 2011 at 1:47 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.