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)

    This is not a so called christian country. There is no christian country at all. There could be christian persons but not christian countries.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Atheist 1#

      Religion does three things quite effectively: Divides people, Controls people, Deludes people

      November 12, 2011 at 2:28 pm |

      There are many divisive elements.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • myklds

      A nation indivisible under God.

      In God We Trust.

      November 12, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • HotAirAce


      Neither of those phrases are in the USA constituition and would likely be declared illegal if challenged.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:24 am |
    • MAJORITY always WINS

      If so, why not challenge it then? Oh sorry I forgot, it has been challenged for more than half a century but to no avail. PITY!

      November 13, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • HotAirAce

      I stand corrected, but note:

      These acts of "ceremonial deism" are "protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content." LYNCH v. DONNELLY, 465 U.S. 668 (1984) U.S. Supreme Court

      I think that speaks volumes about the validity of using them to argue that the USA is a christian nation.

      November 14, 2011 at 2:07 am |
    • LOLlipoop

      No it didn't, It was just intended to pacify the babys to stop keep them from crying.

      November 14, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  2. matt

    We need to move beyond such simplistic explanations of the motives of the Penn State rioters. There are a lot of conflicting emotions surrounding this case for those who are closest to it. But not one of them condones the actions of Sandusky or the alleged behavior of the staff. Students are responding to what they perceive to be a premature carriage of justice. A grand jury indictment is an incomplete collection of the facts, and only those directly related to the arrest of Sandusky. Students simply want due process before such actions are taken by the board. For what it's worth, I think the board did the right thing... but I still understand the student response and do not vilify them for it.

    Also remember that Penn State has 45,000 students at the main campus, and even if a few thousand riot, more than 90 percent of the populace did not. How easily we forget that, and how quick we are to judge them. People are so quick to paint the campus in broad brush strokes. Would you like it if everyone assumed you were a tea party or occupy wall street sympathizer just because you were American?

    Right now students feel utterly powerless – first for the incidents themselves and now for the media spectacle and fallout. Students are grasping at whatever they can to reclaim some sense of control of the events. A small fraction have gotten carried away by their emotions. Destruction of property is not excusable. But let's lot be so sanctimonious about the whole thing.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  3. Julie P.

    MTV won, and God lost.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Pious Patty

      It is "God's" will.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  4. Gdelirium

    Religion is like a struggling species on a verge of extinction, fighting to stay relevant and alive. These Muslim and Christian morons are so brainwashed by their parents and culture that they can't even comprehend that religion is just a bunch of made up stories, kind of like Harry Potter.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • andy

      I was not brainwashed by anyone, brother. God came to me in my hour of need... I thought he was a fairy tale my whole life. Turns out I just wasn't looking. I grew up doubting, and will grow old knowing. Have a great life my friend.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  5. Julie P.

    Americans are evils

    November 12, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • Atheist 1#

      What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • Concerned Catholic

      First to generalize all Americans like that is wrong and inaccurate. There are a number of Americans trying to lead good lives and provide for their families. You are mistaken my friend. Some are caught up in evil ways that is true, but not all of us are. I encourage you to remember that.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  6. The Church looked the other way too

    Why is Christianity held in such high regard as if this nation, or any nation, should be Christian? Related to this whole incident, I seem to recall the Catholic Church looking the other way as hundreds of priests molested thousands of boys, making them complicit in perhaps the greatest crime someone can do to another human. If the Church can do that, why do we expect more of a University, a football program, or any one sick man like Sandusky? The Church and organized religion in general are bad, outdated jokes that have no place in this type of conversation.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • Ted

      This is irrelevant to the article. This article is not about whether religion is good or bad. He is addressing people who consider themselves Christians and asking if they really sympathize with the 'least of these," as Jesus said we should.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Concerned Catholic

      First the number of priests that abused boys is minute compared to the number of priests practicing their faith now. Was the church wrong in the way they handled the abuse absolutely. Are the priests that committed those acts evil yes without a doubt. Is the Church evil and corrupt as a whole NO. That my friend is simply not true. There are thousands of priests all over the world trying their best to lead their parish using the examples given to the by Jesus. To say that Catholicism is evil because of the actions of those priests is wrong. There are many good Catholics out there who share your views on how the Church handled the cases of abuse. But the Church as a whole is not evil. That is simply a FALSE statement.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:46 pm |

    In order for our country to get past this economic turmoil it will need to return to it's Christian roots. The more we rebel against God's kingdom the deeper we will dig a hole into this crisis.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • Atheist 1#

      With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion

      November 12, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • Concerned Catholic

      Atheist 1 That is false. Religion does not compel good people to do evil things. People are free to make choices in life. Regardless of whether or not they believe in a particular religion. People will do good and evil whether they believe in a religion or not. However, religion does not compel people to do evil.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  8. RichardSRussell

    Oh, please! The Bible is absolutely RIDDLED with instances of child ra-pe. Just look at any of the many massacres the Hebrews committed, during which they were commanded by Yahweh to kill every man, woman, boy, sheep, goat, ox, and ass, "but the young girls who have not known man you may keep for yourselves".
    The idea that all your sins can be forgiven is taken by true-believing perverts as a license to go and sin some more.
    I only WISH this were a not-so-Christian nation.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Atheist 1#

      The Bible is a book that has been read more, and examined less, than any book that ever existed.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • allareequal

      I don't agree with any of your statements. What you said are true but that doesn't mean that all Christians are hypocrites. Some actually practice what they preach. And no, the bible is not taken literally like most people say. People with regular bibles tend to misinterpret verses more than those with study bibles.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:14 am |
    • Get Real

      "People with regular bibles tend to misinterpret verses more than those with study bibles."

      If this book were truly the words of an omniscient "God", NO misinterpretation would be possible.... EVER.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:18 am |
    • HotAirAce

      If The Babble is the inerrant word of (some) god, why is there more than one and why is it so misunderstood?

      November 13, 2011 at 12:19 am |
    • allareequal

      There are many bibles because some are easier to understand, some are more literal, and some are thought-for-thought.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:27 am |
    • allareequal

      If this book was all about lies, then why have archaeologists found evidence for it?

      November 13, 2011 at 12:29 am |
    • HotAirAce

      A few geographic coincidences in no way support the supernatural claims of The Babble, or any other book of religious crap.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:39 am |
  9. bicameralman

    Sorry for my uncivil response, but poop on this. The author's is such a caricature of Christianity that it may as well appear in the funny papers. Is Christianity all about making snap judgements of others based on mass hysterical news reports? I don't think my reading of scripture supports that. Moreover, the comparison of Cain and Paterno is forced and wildly, unbelievably inaccurate. Has this guy been watching the news? Paterno has received a public lynching by all but some homer students, while Cain has been dumped on by nearly every talking head on the boob tube, and only his diehard Tea Pary fan base continues to believe him. Neither Paterno nor Cain, it seems to me, has wide public support for the media portrayal of their actions. So if the author wants to take the overall public reaction to these two sorry news items as his litmus test for whether we are a "Christian" nation, he should be seeing the evidence of "empathy" overwhelmingly for his version of Christ. Never mind that Jesus said "I come not to judge the world but to save it", "Cast not the first stone", and other statements that suggest an empathy not only for the victims but also the sinners.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • andy

      Well said

      November 12, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  10. relians

    @ colin. awesome!

    November 12, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  11. Sapient

    None of this is surprising. The vast majority of so-called Christians I've met over the past 4 decades have been entirely hypocritical, some downright evil. One need not be religious to be a moral, ethical person. The way to keep morality is to promote morality in and of itself. We as a species know what morality is and we recognize moral behavior when we see it. We are naturally moral because we have developed complex instincts to help us in social situations. These instincts work as long as we allow them instead of burying them in external threats and admonishments. The ten commandments do not help us discover ultimate morality—no book does. We all know it when we see it. The way to get people to behave in a moral way is to trust them, to integrate them and to allow them to develop fully as individuals in a caring society. People will only act as amoral criminals if they fall into a criminal subculture, are mentally deficient in morality (conditions do exist that cause these problems, such as the sociopath) or are oppressed beyond endurance. However you cannot create a moral society with nothing but kindness. We also need something else, something deeply unfashionable but vital to the healthy running of any society: intolerance of oppression, tyranny and impediment of justice. Unfortunately, a lot of people who self identify as Christians use their religion as an excuse to behave very badly.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Concerned Catholic

      I'm sorry that you have had such bad experiences with Christians up to this point in your life. That is a shame. Please know that there are good Christians out there who share similar view about morality with you.

      November 12, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  12. BabsinPA

    Wow, with all the false accusations that go on in our society, all the bending of the truth and the use of scapegoats to hide the real criminals and enablers, it's difficult for me to label people "non-Christian" for not joining lynch mobs and those whose judgmental, self righteous opinions are based on everything but facts. Sandusky is the one who deserves our scorn and deservedly so, the others you mention have been crucified by public opinion and very few facts, and there is nothing "Christian" about that.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  13. Gumpsion

    Again, much of our ethics as displayed in our courts and community charters come from
    JUDEO- CHRISTIAN roots regardless if you're an atheist or not. Those are the facts. Thou shalt not steal . .
    thou shalt not commit adultery, or see you in court . . . .

    November 12, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Atheist 1#

      We must question the story logic

      November 12, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  14. 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.

    May God Bless all atheists with faith.

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

      The moment we admit that our beliefs are attempts to represent states of the world, we see that they must stand in right relation to the world to be valid

      November 12, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I have plenty of faith. I have faith that the efforts to discover how this universe was created will continue and that our knowledge will change and increase. I have faith that my friends and my family will be there for me when I need them, as I will be there for them. I have faith that the secular teachings of my parents and grandparents will keep me honest and honorable.

      What I don't have faith in is a god who has absolutely no proof of existence, and a 2000 year old book that is full of contradictions. And after reading all the support pouring out on these boards for Joe Paterno, who turned a blind eye to a child molester, I am also losing faith that christians are basically nice people.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • Concerned Catholic

      talluah 13 I'm sorry to hear that. There are many good Christians out there. I encourage you to hold out hope because they do exist. As far as God not existing I encourage you to look around you. There are many small instances everyday that occur that prove God's existence. You must simply look for them and be open to them. The Bible is a complex collection of books to understand no doubt about it. But it is not meant to be taken word for word literally. There are many good messages that come from it. Love thy neighbor as thy self, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, there is no greater sacrifice then to lay down ones life for ones friends. These are just a few examples.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • myklds


      That's why I was using faith, NOT belief.


      I just hope that someday both you and Atheist1# would exquisitely grasp the distinction between faith and belief that you may not completely mix them up, ever again.

      November 12, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • What If

      myklds, If "faith" is just something you just "have", why are you trying to preach it?

      November 12, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
  15. Colin

    Ten Ways You Know you are an Atheist.

    1. You were likely brought up a theist (probably a Christian if you live in the USA) and had to do your own thinking to rise above the beliefs that still occupy the mind of the believer. This usually involved being smart and working hard at school and college so as to get a good, accurate view of the natural Universe and overcoming significant social pressure to dumb yourself down and conform. In short, you had the guts to ask the hard questions and the brains to spot the weak answers. The more you came to understand the Universe, the less reason there was to believe in a god and the more you came to appreciate human nature, the more you understood why billions of us still do.

    2. While rejecting the supernatural elements of the Bible, you nevertheless retain a large amount of the morality taught today by mainstream Christianity. To the extent you reject Christian morality, it is where it is mean spirited – such as in the way it seeks to curtail freedoms or oppose the rights of $exual minorities. In most other respects, your basic moral outlook is indistinguishable from that of the liberal Christian – you just don’t need the mother of all carrots and sticks hanging over your head in order to act in a manner that you consider moral.

    3. You know a great deal more about the Bible than most believers. This is because you took the time to read it yourself and did not rely on the primary-color simple stories you learned in Sunday school. You have also probably done some research into the historical Jesus and have a good handle on where he REALLY fit in to the broader picture of the Middle East at the time. Needless to say, his miracles and other magic powers soon started to look pretty unlikely.

    4. Your knowledge of basic science and history is much stronger than that of your average believer. You likely have a basic working knowledge of physics, astronomy, evolutionary biology and cosmology and a good idea of the history of life on this planet. This acc.umulated knowledge puts you in a position to judge the claims of the Bible in a critical light and they are almost always found wanting. To the theist, this makes you “elitist” and ‘arrogant”.

    5. You relish your role as a religious minority in the USA, as this gives you an impetus to fight and you understand how others with unpopular, but doubtlessly correct views have felt throughout history. There is something altogether satisfying to you about having a deep conviction you are right and being viewed with disdain for your views by the errant majority. You feel a quiet confidence that future generations will look back on you as a member of a class of trailblazers, as religious supersti.tions go into inevitable decline in popularity.

    6. You are likely more environmentally aware than your theist friends and colleagues and unlikely to fall for claims of industry and wind-bag politicians concerning the impact of man’s activities on the environment. You could no more act in an environmentally irresponsible manner because “god will keep us safe” than you could jump off a ship, believing King Neptune will keep you safe.

    7. You generally have a live and let live atti.tude, but will fiercely defend any attempts by theists to thrust their views on you or your children, directly or through control of school boards, the legislature or the executive. While you are prepared to debate and argue passionately with the theist on an intellectual level, you would never wish them harm or ill will. You know you are likely to be smugly told you will “burn in hell for all eternity” for your healthy skepticism. This highlights what you despise about religion, as you would not wish a bad sunburn on another, simply because they have a different religious view to you. You have never heard of an evolutionary biologist strapping a bomb to himself and running into a church yelling “Darwin-u akbar”.

    8. You likely know more about other religions than your average theist. This makes you less fearful of them and enables you to see parallels. You realize that, if you were born in India, you would have been brought up with a totally different religion. You realize that every culture that has ever existed has had its own god(s) and they always favor that particular culture, its hopes, dreams and prejudices. They cannot all exist and you see the error all faiths make of thinking only theirs exist(s). This “rising above” the regional nature of all religions was probably instrumental in your achieving atheism.

    9. You likely have a deep, genuine appreciation of the fathomless beauty and unbelievable complexity of our Universe, from the 4 nucleotides that orchestrate every aspect of you, through to the distant quasars, without having to think it was all made for you. You likely get more out of being the irrelevant ant staring up at the cosmos than you do in having to pretend that it was all made to turn in majestic black-and-white pirouette about you.

    10. While you have a survival instinct, you cannot fear death in the way the theist does. You know that the whole final judgment story, where you may be sent to hell if you fail, is Dark Ages nonsense meant to keep the Church’s authority. You also know that you were dead for 13,700,000,000 years before you were born. It is impossible for you to fear death, for the simple reason that you know the capacity to fear (or to feel pain or discomfort) itself dies. You will not even know you are dead. Fear of death is as meaningless to you as is the fear of a vacuum, the fear of not being born. You feel a lot more secure, and indeed a deep comfort, in this knowledge, than you would in trying to yoke yourself to some quasi-hope that every part of your intellect tells you is untenable.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • William Hopper

      Very well put. Kudos. 'The Heathen's Guide to World Religions.'. http://www.heathensguide.com

      November 12, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Justin H

      I don't agree with all 10 of your points, but I agree with your main point.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • matt

      Regarding #4 – It is a paucity of imagination that leads to the conclusion that religion and science are mutually exclusive. The old story of the blind men and the elephant provides the perfect metaphor of how science and religion are different views of the same thing. Science asks how; religion asks why.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Concerned Catholic

      The Bible is not meant to be taken literally word for word as a history book. If you read it closely enough you come to realize that it actually is a love letter from God. I agree with a lot of what you are saying. But I think to say there is no God is sad because it limits us to the beauty of the world we live in right now. With all of the beauty and majesty you describe regarding the earth, think about how much more beautiful heaven will be. Religions seek to offer people a greater understanding of the world around them and their place in it. Religion also requires a belief in something one cannot fully understand or comprehend. Just because we as humans cannot fully understand the world and universe around us the same goes for our understanding of a particular faith. I believe in the religion that I practice and put my faith in for a number of the reasons you have listed above. I also don't fear death because I know and believe what my faith teaches about death. As far as your children are concerned you are absolutely right. You have the right to raise them to believe what you believe. I disagree with your idea that religion is for the uneducated though. Some of the most brilliant minds in the world were members of a particular religion. I suggest you read G.K. Chesterton if you haven't already. He has written about many of the topics you talk about from a Catholic perspective. He does it in a way that is intelligent and thought provoking. I hope you will come to realize that religion is not something for the uneducated ad the weak minded. It can empower even the most educated person.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  16. andawg

    I don't get this article either.

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

      here is a bomb shell, christians are hypocrits plain and simple. what is the mystery?

      November 12, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • allareequal

      2pieman not all christians are hypocrites. Why do you think that christians are all-perfect? when they make mistakes or try to avoid problems like not talking to someone who's constantly annoying, you say they're not loving.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:40 am |
  17. Wanderer81

    Another stupid article from Prothero...all the American's did was blow off some internet steam all week, and the players capped it off with a group prayer on the field. Even the horrible Sandusky gets a nice fair trial. Hell, he is even out on bail right now. If this had happened in some other country most of the staff (and police) would have been beheaded right after evening prayers.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • Wanderer81

      ...not saying that some might not deserve the death penalty in this. Some rabid dogs need to be put out of their misery for their sake and ours. God willing.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  18. Tom

    So many people get hung up on the imperfection of the Bible. This is mostly the fault of established religion, as most of them insist that the bible is literally, word-for-word perfect. There is, however, a different kind of perfect, like someone who picks a mate whose looks is much less than any Amanda Seyfried or Bradley Cooper but never-the-less is just right. "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" If this promise is true, then some day wars will end, hatred will fade, and as a consequence, children will stop dying of hunger. Now the guy who sees the future like THAT is the guy I can believe in.
    Atheists could never deliver a world like the one I described above because they have no mission, no passion, just a "we are merely animals and nothing more than natural behavior is expected of us". In following this philosophy, they will never be able to receive or participate in the great transformation that is to come. To be great, one must truly believe in great things.
    Today's Christians obviously aren't delivering, and as a consequence, our nation HAS lost its way. "Some seed falls on rock, and at the first heat of day withers"

    November 12, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  19. LuminousRussula

    This is a GREAT opinion piece and it doesn't take rocket science to figure out the intent...what the author is doing here is calling out the HYPOCRISY of the Evangelical Christian Right in this nation. He's saying that it's 'convenient' for us to be Christians when it comes to anti-abortion and anti-GLBT ('family values') topics...yet when 'good Christian principles' should be applied in judging topics that the Christian Right holds dear (GOP candidates and college football), all this suddenly goes out the window.

    It's called "being a good Christian when it's convenient". Bravo to Mr. Prothero!!

    November 12, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  20. Atheist 1#

    To say that any people are not fit for freedom, is to make poverty their choice

    November 12, 2011 at 2:14 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.