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. Tigg

    "would he (Jesus) be laying flowers at the front door of Paterno’s house"... "Would he be standing alongside Cain’s lawyer"...
    He would be doing both. He would be laying flowers hoping that Paterno would confess his sins and seek him out for help. He would also be standing with Cain's lawyer hoping the same.
    In the bible, there are several times that Jesus was with sinners. It is those sinners who cause damage to other people, and if he can help stop the sinners before they cause more damage, that's what his goal is.
    And that's the goal of Christians is to seek out sinners to help them seek Jesus. So to help these sinners to stop sinning before they cause more damage.
    Unfortunately, we are human, and are all sinners.
    But still the goal is to be Christ like, and try to stop all sinning. And to not sin in the process of doing so.

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

      Yeah, but he wouldn't be leaving the alleged victims alone either.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Fozzyspeak

      Or totally missing the point of the article. These Christians have blinders on. They are selectively editing what does and does not get on their moral radars.

      November 12, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  2. myklds

    To those who have faith, NO explanation is necessary. While, to those who don't have (faith), NO explaination would be enough to satisfy its necessity.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Real Deal


      An omniscient "God" would know *precisely* what explanation would satisfy each and every individual non-believer. An omnipotent one could provide it. An omnibenevolent one would provide it.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • BNB42

      God made me an atheist.... Who are you to argue with his logic!

      November 12, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • myklds

      @Real Deal

      The challenge is NOT with God's omnipotence but rather with Men's *impotence* to grasp what is in front. That's why they refuse to believe.


      Your claim is quite illogical, hope you noticed it. However, it's your opinion. No argument is necessary.

      May God Bless both of you, with FAITH.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  3. Vote with your life, not merely a ballot

    Unfortunately, this article is too loaded politically to respond objectively, so I will instead be honest and admit I am sharing my personal views in hopes of encouraging the author to do the same.

    VIew # 1
    According to Christian teaching, Jesus is in heaven at the right hand of the father and the Holy Spirit would be with both victims and accusers rather than one or the other. Acts 1

    View # 2
    I do not believe God is a United State citizen, nor a republican or democrat, therefore to suggest he would be for a certain socialist, capitalist, communist etc. position grossly misses out on what God did and is doing throughout the world to date. Jn 18: 33-38 (for starters).

    View # 3
    I tend to believe that if agape was inserted into any of the above mentioned political systems, they would work. The problem is society has not stop believing in God, but rather simply replaced God with political theories and figures, all of which fall short as they lack agape. (1 Jn 4:7-21)

    In the end, i appreciate those who are honest with their faith or lack of faith than those who portray themselves as men of God.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  4. Scholar

    Empathy, Christianity, ethics? Of these, all we should consider is the ethical behavior of individuals and none of the other concepts. People confuse Christianity with morality, our empathic feelings for people with ethical rules. The individuals in the middle of these issues know the truth of it to themselves. What we are really discussing in these articles is our own evaluation of how we would act, ethically, in such situations, now discussing our sense of religion or our emotions about the issues but really the black and white of how we ourselves would have handled things.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  5. Colin

    10 Signs You Are a Christian.

    1. There is about a 65% chance that you honestly believe, despite everything we have been taught by cosmology, astronomy, geology, biology, history, paleontology and archeology, that the World began about 6,000 years ago with one man, one woman and a magic talking snake. You have no evidence to support you, but your unmatched ability to ignore inconvenient facts and bury your head allows you to maintain this silly mythology into the 21st Century.

    2. You think that, despite Jesus getting it wrong, despite the apostles getting it wrong and despite every single time it was said to be “about to happen” over the last 2,000 years being wrong, the Second Coming is imminent. You fail to see that believing that the “end is neigh” is generally recognized by psychologists as a basic human reaction to one perceiving themselves as a failure in life.

    3. You accept the “leap of faith” as a valid basis for believing in god in the absence of evidence, but fail to see that this makes you a pantheist, because you have to accept that the same leap can be made to any god with equal validity.

    4. You consider simple thoughts like lust and mast.urbation a sin, but have no issue with the disgusting, degenerate way your Bible treats women and $exual minorities.

    5. You likely deny global warming for no other reason than it makes you uncomfortable and hold science to the impossibly high standard of having to explain every conceivable mystery about the natural World before you will accept it, but some moron at a pulpit doing magic hand signals of a Sunday is enough to convince you he is communicating with some sky-god and turning grocery store bread and wine into flesh and blood.

    6. You will regularly be ripped off and cheated by charismatic “preachers” who are obviously crooks to everybody but you. Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggard, Eddie Long, and the other dozen or so who have ripped you off are not enough to convince you that you are a mindless sheep that is regularly being fleeced.

    7. You spout off about the importance of charity and generosity as Biblical principles, but likely support movements like the tea party that promote the evisceration of social policies.

    8. You fail to see that, given your personality, the only reason you are not a fundamentalist Jew, Hindu or Muslim is an accident of where you were born. Had you been born in Iran, you would be one of those bearded half-wits that burns American flags.

    9. You will defend the Bible, an Iron Age collection of Middle Eastern mythology, despite it being indisputable wrong and literally infested with outdated morality, contradictions and barbaric cruelty.

    10. You believe that anybody who does not accept your silly faith will burn in hell. You don’t have to kill, you don’t have to rob, hell, you don’t even have to litter. All you have to do is reject a belief in the Christian god and he will inflict a punishment upon you an infinite times worse than the death penalty….and he loves you. You see no contradiction in using the same sky-fairy as both the carrot and the stick.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • BNB42

      Pressing "like" button repeatedly

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

      Pretty much said it all. Thumbs up

      November 12, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • R Burns

      Your statements only reflect what you THINK Christians believe, based on what you're reading in the media. Much of that comes from some very un-Christian "Christians" or from the reactions to them. Nothing in Jesus teachings had anything to do with the age of the earth (Genesis speaks of eras as "days" and didn't mean literally earth days. Peter addressed that question in the New Testament, but people don't pay attention.) There is a huge difference between educating yourself on what Christ taught and listening to men in power tell you what to believe. Unfortunately, what is most visible from the Christian community can be a big deterrent to anyone who hasn't heard the real message. I'd suggest getting a copy of the New Testament and read it for yourself. Then compare that with what "Christians" are practising today. But don't spout off your reactions to them until you know where they – and you – really stand in comparison with God's message given to us by Christ. Jesus put it best: many who think they are going to heaven for the wrong reasons will find themselves outside the walls. Your instinct that these folks are off base is entirely correct, but that doesn't make you any better. I'll pray for you.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Joshua1

      And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the LORD shall be delivered: for in mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall be deliverance, as the LORD hath said, and in the remnant whom the LORD shall call." (Joel 2:32)

      John 3:15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
      John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him."


      There is still hope for you

      November 12, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Shayna

      You are singing my song! I will never understand how people can think blind faith is a greater good than proof, evidence & reason.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • I see what you are getting at...

      Well, not really, in fact the first stories from the Bible are late bronze age but whatever. I wonder what made you so angry? I think you mean indisputibly, not indisputable, but what is wrong? I suppose you are refering to the historical accuracy? Literally filled with outdated morallity? Like, love your neighbor, take care of the poor and the widow? I suppose you mean the things that say what you do with your body are not just your business. I understand the sentiment, if you assume that you belong to God and not yourself the way that you handle your body changes. I wonder, to use your test, how many socialist/communist dictators have to kill millions before you give them the credit that they deserve? Okay so lets to the tally God, 2 million, including those who practice child sacrifice, fair enough that number is not good. Okay lets through in the Inquisition prehaps 10,000. Salem with trials, somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 people. Now Hitler what 8 or 9 million? The sick part is that you think that numbers mean something but only look at one side. I would argue that real Christians look at mistakes and feel shame and work to fix them. Where is the contrition from the other side? Aww well, I suppose the value you put on life and altruism just came from no where and not that outdated, barbaric Bible or anything. I do admire your passion though.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • BNB42

      Joshua1.... Your absolutely right! I'm the newest Evangalical preacher on the religious channel and if you send me all your money I will see to it that 'Colin' is saved (Or burnt in H@ll... your choice!)

      November 12, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • Mac

      Your view of what it means to be a Christian is narrow and uses common stereotypes that do not fit the reality of what it means to be one. Christianity is quite diverse, and people have chosen certain beliefs despite despite what the scriptures teach. Your view of what few depict Christianity to be doesn't work for everyone, and therefore is skewed. Therefore your stereotypical ideas of Christianity do not work in describing and defining what it means to be a Christian. Instead, your comment only delineates to your misguided understanding on the subject.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  6. Jerry

    Steve, my take on your take. We certainly can see where your heart is inclined. The evil rich in fear of rising taxes is a "he" and the poor in fear of loosing unemployment payments is a "She". What stereo-typical political correctness.

    You're correct in one thing, however. This is not a "Christian" nation. Used to be but no longer - which is why we are on an irreversible skid to the dung heap.

    Luke 4:18; of course. See Hebrews 12:29

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

      Being no expert on religion and lacking the certainty that seems endemic in religious circles, I have a question for you, Jerry. If this is not a Christian nation and is going to Hell, then when was it a Christian nation and heading in the other direction? Would that have been the mid-1700s, when we brought forth a Christian nation that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person? Or the late 1800s, when the rich controlled the country, there was no middle class and the poor worked 12-hour days seven days a week for a pittance? And when will we become Christian again? When the right has eliminated unions, completely fouled air, land and water; solidified its one-dollar-one-vote electoral system and banned rights for minorities and women because of some obscure biblical quote?

      November 12, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Scholar

      Bring back the morality of the Bible. Genesis 19:34-38

      November 12, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  7. BNB42

    If you are right to believe that religious faith offers the only real basis for morality, then atheists should be less moral than believers. In fact, they should be utterly immoral. Are they? Do members of atheist organizations in the United States commit more than their fair share of violent crimes? Do the members of the National Academy of Sciences, 93 percent of whom do not accept the idea of God, lie and cheat and steal with abandon? We can be reasonably confident that these groups are at least as well behaved as the general population. And yet, athiests are the most reviled minority in the United States.

    SAM HARRIS.. from: Letters to a Christian Nation

    November 12, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  8. James Taylor

    Undoubtly one of the most pointless and empty opinions I've ever read on CNN.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Scholar

      Reads like something one would read on the site owned by those phone hackers that calls itself fair and balanced.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  9. Gotcha

    @Light In The Dark,
    sounds like your light went out, now you are the one in the dark, and man is it ever dark for you, darkest dark

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

      Are you speaking muppet?

      November 12, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  10. democrat12

    It looks like those who loudly declare their Christianity e.g Tea Partiers,values voters,moral conservatives show the least compassion for the state of the earth, the animal kingdom(both at jeopardy with the profits and victimized children. at any cost mentality.
    Now we have the win at any cost mentality at Penn State with Repubs at the center i.e Paterno,Sandusky and the students protesting the pursuit of justice.
    On the other hand, the OWS, which does not proclaim itself to have one particular religious affiliation.(Some have none) displaying charity and bold advocacy for the 99%. actually carrying out the principles of Jesus but charity and compassion are part of all the major religions. The OWS is also better reflecting the spirit of the Founding Fathers and the original Patriots.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  11. servantofTHEWORD

    Ask for forgiveness...repent...give God praise.Vengeance belongs to the Lord.We are to judge not.

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

      delusional much?

      November 12, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Passive Aggresive

      I have passed judegment on the child molesters. Kill them.

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


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

      And your not judging someone by telling them they need to repent?

      November 12, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • AKKGFK

      Nowhere in the bible does it say we are not to judge.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Corbin

      @AKKGFK “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

      Matthew 7:1


      You need to actually read your bible.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  12. Ed

    They say that they are Christians but they all seem to be following Ayn Rand these days.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  13. Colin

    Which of the following is the most barbaric act imaginable, that only a sick psychopath would condone?

    (a) Cutting off the hand of a thief
    (b) Hanging a convicted killer
    (c) torturing and burning a woman as a witch; or
    (d) burning somebody for all eternity, simply because they do not believe something you could easily prove to them, but choose not to?

    November 12, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  14. rl

    I'm sorry that the author of this article thinks that Christianity, or any other religion for that matter, is the measure of empathy. That saddens me. For one, it is clear from the history of Christianity that empathy has NOT been a defining characteristic of the religion. Second, I am not a Christian and I am offended that I am counted among those who would not understand the needs of the less fortunate, or that I would be labeled as immoral because of my lack of religion.

    If you ask me, this country would do well to have LESS Christians and MORE people who simply have a heart.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      As you claim that the article is saying that unless you are a Christian you have no empathy are you doing the same to say that being Christian is to not have a heart?

      Sounds like you and the writer have much in common.

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

      Christian is a group and Jesus never said to be chrisitians. And uh your sense of morality and judgement came from the foundation this country was founded on, as its core doctrines you were taught from, were created with them in thought. Nobody can deny the 10 commandments are the corner stone to morality and where they did they come from.... Saddens me to see people only see the tree in front of them and not the entire forest and bash the very basis and all the goodness that came from it. I bet you like to have your 1st 2nd etc amendments, but your too prideful and egotistical to give glory to something greater than yourself. All you fence riders and lefties are lost in a safer and more prosperous world than what would have been under any other idea of society yet you bash it Its only since the looney's took over has this country been systematically falling apart.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  15. rk

    Hmm, Sandusky's name wasn't mentioned once in this article and he's the one who committed the actual crime. Once again, the media trying to deviate from the real criminal.

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

      But Paterno covered it up. He knew about it and didn't report it until months later.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      The Media's job is to target those on the top of the pedestal and knock them down. If it was not the winning'est coach in College football of all time...this story would not have made it out of the state of Pennsylvania.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  16. Atheist 1#

    Those who want to reap the benefits of this great nation must bear the fatigue of supporting it.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  17. astutemind

    This country being saturated with PERVERTED so called Christians fundamentalists (especially evangelicals) was painfully obvious during the Bush admin where they so called conservative Christians showed an insatiable desire for the sadism in the form of the dark art of torture. They kept exclaiming the benefits and virtues of torture...almost as though Christ Himself had ordained it. They pervert scripture

    They base support of Israel on a misinterpretation/perversion of scripture – Geneis12:3 where God was having a conversation with one man Abraham and He told Abraham He'd bless those that bless him and curse those that curse him.
    They then perverted that scripture by extrapolating and ascribing the promise to Abraham by God to persons who it didn't apply to, and who didn't even exist at the time when the promise was given – Jacob/Israel. In scripture God is very specific and if He meant Abraham AND his descendants He would have included that clause in His statement to Abraham as He has done on other occasions.
    So not only do they now have a perverted interpretation of a conversation that took place between two persons, but on top of that they also pervert the meaning of the term "blessing" to include "enabling criminal activity" i.e. activity we would stop and actually have intervened when others (except Israel) do it.
    In the meantime they act in standing violation of a DIRECT COMMANDMENT (which overrides any interpretation of conversation) of "love all others as you love yourself" (i.e. hold all others to account equally and under the same standards as well as yourself), by enabling and allowing Israel to get away with actions we actually punish others for doing ( i.e. not holding all to account equally.)
    So basically they use a perverted interpretation of scripture to violate a direct commandment (which demonstrates that said interpretation is wrong by definition) and as such show a perverted loyalty to Israel. Basically they show more loyalty to Israel than they do to God, and the Zionists are milking it for all it's worth.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  18. Colin

    Who, if one believes the Bible, has been responsible for burning, killing, drowning and generally exterminating more innocent people than all of the dictators and tyrants in human history combined?

    (a) Herod
    (b) Judas
    (c) Satan; or
    (d) Our loving god

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

      I'll take god for $1000 alex

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

      Logic – and you would be correct. total number of people killed by god in the bible – just over 2 million; total killed by satan – 4.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • AKKGFK

      Actually, if you read just the 1st few chapters of the bible, you would know Satan killed all of mankind. So don't pretend to be clever.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • michael

      logic is one of satan's most powerful temptations! Get thee behind me, Colin and all others who trust their God-given mental facultiies. trust only in what is said from the pulpit in the name of God.

      November 12, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  19. bobcat2u

    Are we a christian nation ? I can answer that with a big resounding NO. Although there are really some true christians ( yes I have actually met some ) out there, the majority who "claim" to be christian are that in name only. When they are in their groups, they are the most christian thing you could ever see. But once they're in their own world, you see the true person come out. It's like they claim christianity because it's the chic thing to do.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  20. victims first

    What a stupid article. Typical high horse christian crapola

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

      If you don't like the articles on this site don't read them, dipstick.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • sogooden

      The point is who do you consider is the victim. In Penn State's case, too many people are more conserned with their football then the lives of these children. Unless its their children, then it's a different matter. The entire line from the pathetic grad student to the president should have been fired and brough up on charges. Pathetic, immoral cowards the whole lot.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:16 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.