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. Atheist 1#

    Those to whom his word was revealed were always alone in some remote place, like Moses. There wasn't anyone else around when Mohammed got the word either. Mormon Joseph Smith and Christian Scientist, Mary Baker Eddy, had exclusive audiences with God. We have to trust them as reporters-and you know how reporters are. They'll do anything for a story

    November 12, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  2. Ann

    Sigh...what is it with Christians who think that the basic core of human decency is somehow rooted in Christian belief? Christianity is not a necessity for being a compassionate human being. People do evil and stupid things. Christian or not. Some of us don't need a Bible to tell us what's right and wrong.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  3. Paul

    Well there at this point and time there is one major difference between Joe Paterno and Herman Cain, Joe has taken personal responsibility as voiced in his comment, "In hindsight, I was was would have done more." In he is the only one of fired who has voiced any kind of regret, therefore recognizing his own short falling. Herman Cain on the other side continues to voice his denial of any wrong doing, blinded by his ego.

    Of course Jesus would be comforting the victims in both situations, and I believe he would also be knocking on Joe's door as well, because of his admission of his own sin. Herman still stands in denial.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Beverly Tatum

      Paterno knew abuse was going on and did nothing to stop it. Herman Cain IS a predatory abuser of women who refuses to admit his disrespect for women and criminal behavior. Neither men are Christians. Both are shameful.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  4. GauisCaesar

    Most of these comments aren't even considering the facts of the stories, they are just trying to insult the religious. I remember when atheists tried to explain that Christianity was about ridiculing others that weren't like them... now atheists do this all the time!

    November 12, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  5. Loboi

    The author asks which way Jesus would lean. Jesus, being God incarnate, would know who was telling the truth. There would be no dilemma for him. He would have compassion on the innocent who have been hurt–regardless of who they were. But, being God incarnate, he would also have compassion on the guilty. That does not mean he would let them go free but if they truly repented of their sins (and he would truly know if their repentance was sincere–see 2 Sam. 12) then he would forgive their sins. They would still have to deal with the earthly consequences of their sins(prison or civil penalties or what ever the courts decide) but God would forgive them.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • Beverly Tatum

      You first have to be sorry to be forgiven and netiher admit they did anything wrong. Cain thinks abusing women is fine and even funny. He has no morals, no character, no integrity, and the Republicans should throw him out if he won't leave the race.
      Republicans are NOT Christians. Showing up at church and quoting the Bible is not Christianity. Actions and compassion and service to others, especiallly those in need is what God asked of us. Republicans do not represent God on any level. They are more like Scrooge – who looked at the poor and said "if they are to die, then let them die, and decrease the surplus population". Republicans are the Moneychangers Jesus threw out of the Temple for cheating the People and disrespecting God. Republicans have destroyed or are trying to destoy EVERY program for the PEOPLE. They serve their King – the corporations, the wealthy, and their greed.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  6. fillcore

    This guy is a writer? Should have put a little more effort into this one. Such a useless article. How did this get to print?

    November 12, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  7. Atheist 1#

    If god is the alpha and the omega. The begining and the end, knows what has passed and what is to come, like it states in the bible, why do people pray and think it will make any difference

    November 12, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  8. Lorelord

    "When I turn on the television and see “family values” conservatives jumping to Cain’s defense within hours of the first charges surfacing,"

    So because Conservatives instincitvely went to Cain's defense, we need to question our Christianity? So in you mind, we should have all flocked over to the lady who made the claims and been at her side till this all came out? That is exactly what you are saying here. That is whats wrong with this country and this society. Why in the 21st century when women are lying, cheating, murdering and killing their own children do we have to automatically go to the person making the accusation? We went to Cains side because anyone with have a mind could tell this woman was full of it. Her timing was undeniably more than a coincidence. Now, we are learning she has made a life of doing stuff like this.

    This article is garbage, the author is garbage and CNN, has always been garbage and this is proof positive.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • Ann

      If the same exact allegations were made against Obama in the same exact way, I bet you'd be singing a different tune.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  9. PaulNYC

    You say the word "Christian" as if there is only one definition of it. The fact remains that many of the people who are so-called Christians have not one ounce of empathy for the poor or abused and instead cast their lot with the powers that be. If there is any indication that the thoughts of some Christians are not very Christ-like it is that.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  10. Casey

    The article is quite confusing and rather off the mark. There are a few things all working at the same time on this, and they really don't boil down to the "Christian or Not" thesis. All good practicing Christians will have empathy for all sides of the issues noted. They are all very troublesome. However, we really don't know the facts of what went on. We are often bombarded with half truths, poor reporting, inaccuracies, and sometimes, downright lies. We also know than mankind is flawed and sinful... but we have the chance of salvation because of Jesus Christ. So... on one hand, a person may express their support, or opinion of a situation, and at the same time, pray for the support of all.. the victims and the perpetrators (whoever that may be). The article's thesis is poorly conceived.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  11. Cantard

    I think this is a silly article. What would Jesus do? Depending on which sect of Christianity you belong to Jesus was the mortal avatar (sock puppet) of the Judeo-Christian God with the trait of omnisciency, So Jesus would already know if 1) Cains accusers are legitimate 2) Cain accusers are illegitimate or 3)Cains accusers are legitimate but coming forward because they scent blood in the water and want to cash in. Unlike us mere mortals Jesus doesn't have the handicap of limited knowledge. So Jesus wouldn't have to evaluate the evidence and make a judgment decision. He already knows which, if any, party deserves empathy.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  12. John Gault

    Article 11 treaty of tripoli says it all in one sentence: "As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion...."
    Ratified unanimously by Congress in 1897, signed into law by Pres John Adams.
    Never was a Christian Nation, it's a secular nation.
    Love these rewriters of history.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  13. James the Atheist

    This article sucks. How can you begin to equate the state of the country's religiousness, or lack thereof, with the reaction to JoePa and Cain in our current social climate? How are they even related? One's religiousness DOES NOT equate to one's thinking something is right or wrong. That's insinuating that those who don't jump on the bandwagon and believe every bit of sensationalist drivel are "godless" and "immoral". And those that do are good Christians with good morals. ???? Why can't an atheist ALSO have good morals? Clearly we see religious people in this country do some insane and questionable things all the time in the name of their god, yet you choose to bring up religion in reference to peoples' belief or disbelief in these current crazy issues? You choose blind religious faith over legal judgment? Who made you god? Who told you all the facts? You're daft. A sense of right and wrong are not badges of religion, they're badges of common sense and being a well-rounded human.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • Srik

      Well spoken

      November 12, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  14. Sinner Saved By Grace

    I think Jesus would and DOES care for all involved. For ALL have fallen short of the glory of God and are deserving of Hell.... Jesus came and died for all of us wicked sinners.. and my heart goes out to the victim and the predator. We all will face judgment one day and have to give an account for our lives. Only those who trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the Cross will be able to enter in.

    Thanks for writing this article... and to everyone out there, please think about it... what will YOU have to give an account for one day before God?

    Trust in Jesus! He loves you!

    November 12, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • John Gault

      I feel for the victims too and I'm an atheist, has nothing to do with Jesus or God. I would venture to say that Mr. Sandusky would tell you he was a Christian as about 85% of Americans do. Mostly hypocrites.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • Steve Brinkhoff

      Yes, Jesus loves me, unless I exercise the free will he gave, and don't believe he is the song of god, or that there is no god. Then he will torture me for eternity in a lake of fire. Thank you anyway, but you can keep that brand of "love".

      November 12, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      @John: And most criminals in jail are christian.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  15. Tom

    Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God." America's Christianity says, "Go kill millions of Arabs, occupy other's lands, take money from the safety nets of the poor and give it to the rich, tell women they can't have an abortion because it is murder–but they don't believe it is murder enough to go start (and/or fund) adoption centers.
    These people don't know and/or believe in Christ; like the Germans or WW2, they are merely caught up in their chosen god's philosophy.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Dan

      I guess Stephen believes a Christian should "judge another person" based on the media telling us to. Way far off of what a Christian is to me.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  16. The Beagle

    You asked, "What has happened to this supposedly Christian nation?"

    On the contrary, we remain solidly in the tradition of every other Christian nation the world has ever known. Sadly, the more pervasive Christianity has been in a society, the more judgmental and vicious it has become, and the less concerned with actual truth. On scales ranging from the Salem Witch Trials to the Spanish Inquisition to the conquest of the Americas, Christians have repeatedly shown how dangerous their religion is if allowed to become a dominant force.

    Christianity may or may not do individuals any good, but history has always proven that Christianity is a terrible basis for a nation.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  17. Christopher

    Have you seen anything that went on at PSU today or last night? 10,000 students organizing and holding a candlelight vigil for the victims. Prayers on the field before the game. I'm a proud PSU graduate and I support my University and all of the good it does. If you insist on writing about the bad things, try to include the good that is coming out of State College as well.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Mason


      I think you should reread the piece, and quit putting up your defenses. You, and I, weren't involved in the scandal, and no where in the piece does Stephen actually say anything negative about Penn State (other than that student's rioted, which they did). It was asked what would you do, where would you stand, and for the thousands that have chosen to stand up for the victims instead of JoPa, at least in this instance, are choosing to stand up for the least amongst us. The fact that in your reply you answered the question posed, but did so in such a defensive manner, should be a warning to yourself that in instances where this comes up (as it will) you maybe need to take a step back and realize that people are not criticizing you, the university, or those who have no culpability for the actions of a few.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Beverly Tatum

      It's shameful that Penn State even played their last game or that their opponent even showed up. In the end greed always wins and the people are ignored and left with nothing. Typical Republican behavior. Blame the victim and make sure your money flow is not interrupted. Christian? Not even human.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:58 pm |

    The more we try to fix world issues our selves as if we were god's, the more tangled and snared we will become in our own foolishness. For it is written: 5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6

    November 12, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  19. demolib

    Before you write an article you should do some research rather than just reading headlines from CNN. The students, faculty, staff, and yes, the current administration of Penn State are overwhelming outraged of what has happened to the children who were abused by Sandusky, some which occurred on our campus. You mentioned the student riot but failed to mention that this was a small number of students and the other students have loudly and vociferously condemned their actions. President Erickson has urged us to help in identifying the students and apprehending them. You also failed to mention, that Penn State students and alumni are raising $500,000 to help those who were abused. You also failed to mention that Penn State students have the largest student organized philanthropy in the nation to support children who are victims of cancer. They have raised 78 million dollars in support of these children and families. And what of Joe Paterno – he was fired and the vast majority of Penn Staters agree that this was the proper thing to do. The behavior and lack of action by Paterno, Spanier, Curley, and Schultz was deplorable. They deserve all the criticism you wish to heap on them, but please ask all of your buddies at CNN to stop bashing Penn State. 99.999% of the the students, faculty, staff, and alumni had nothing to do with the abuse of these children and we shouldn't be universally condemned by CNN.

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

      You fail to grasp the theme of the article. It isn't an article about truth, but a quick jab at American Christians in CNN's attempt to 1)call Christians biased 2) hate Cain before any real evidence is found 3)label Christianity as wrong.

      This is always the theme of the religious articles on CNN. Look in their archives...it is never about facts or truth, only about quick jabs for those who already hate christianity.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  20. Musicfan155

    The US is a representative republic. It is not a Christian nation or any other one-religion based nation. We are Jews, Catholics, Christians, Buddhists, Athiests, etc. We all believe in common societal and government ideals, not the same concept of G-d, or a savior or other supreme power. CNN should refrain from posting religious bigotry like that of Mr. Prospero.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:25 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.