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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. Cleareye

    You could not say this on FoxNews.

    November 12, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  2. Old Surf

    Organized religion ( not faith and love) has been a world problem for so many years.

    November 12, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  3. nobody

    Christianity should not be judged by how a "christian" acts, but by the message that Christ brought to earth. If you're not impressed with Christianity it's only because you have not taken the time to understand what Christ is about, and instead, you've decided to judge Christ by how a christian acts.

    November 12, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • KenKnows

      If the words of Christ provoke todays Christian actions that we witness then the essence of the thought is to blame.

      November 12, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • KenKnows

      If every time you start down a path you end at the same destination then the first step is in the wrong direction.

      November 12, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
  4. Susan Booth

    It seems like an obvious observation to me as well. I am no longer impressed by those touting their religion, assuming that their "brand" of Christianity is moral, right and just. They assume they are more patriotic and that their causes are righteous. Their actions speak louder than their words to me.

    November 12, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  5. Scott

    I question your premise that ethical questions depend on empathy. Ethical questions are answered by reference to a standard of behavior that exists outside an individual. Empathy is an internal emotion unrelated to the "right-ness" or "wrong-ness" of something. To use your abortion example to explain my position: the ethics of abortion do not depend upon the object of someone's empathy. One can empathize with the mother in an unwanted pregnancy and still hold a belief that abortion is in fact wrong. These are not two mutually exclusive positions to take. It may be more difficult to empathize with the unborn and still believe that abortion is allowable, but not impossible. Taken to answer your larger question of the religious nature of the United States and its people, empathy is irrelevant for the same reasons.

    November 12, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • KenKnows

      I agree with you, empathy can be for anyone who has made harmful decisions but does not in itself condone the act therefore empathy is irrelevant to the rightfulness or wrongfulness of the act. Determining the harm to others is necessary in order to clearly weigh the results of the act.

      November 12, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
  6. wisdom4u2

    Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.

    November 12, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • What If

      wisdom:

      Perhaps you will be a bit wiser when you learn what "fantasy" is.

      November 12, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  7. wisdom4u2

    Even the Angels say: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come."

    November 12, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Free

      Ah, isn't that from a song, or did you hear them say it personally?

      November 12, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • KenKnows

      Maybe you should rename yourself Parrot4U2 for wisdom requires critical thinking of which you have demonstrated alludes you.

      November 12, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • KenKnows

      lol.
      Correction: eludes not alludes.

      November 12, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      @ KenKnows
      Uh..DERRR!!

      November 12, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
  8. Brian

    The author of this silly ambivalent article should get a real job .

    November 12, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  9. Better Panic

    If most Christians thought like you do, I would not have as much as a problem with them. I have a circle of friends and one of our biggest topics is how unlike Jesus Christians are. We often wonder if they read the Bible at all. I am not religious at all, and often offended my religion for the reasons you have stated. The victims are usually victimized twice in this country.

    November 12, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  10. Mark Smith

    You forgot to mention the Catholic Church. It's not just Penn State and Cain. Jesus would be ashamed of American Christians.

    November 12, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      Not to fret: ....'every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'"

      November 12, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • BlackYowe

      Yes, true Christians are working to try to do good on this earth but are seldom heard because they are a threat to both the false Christians and those who bow down to the golden calf.

      November 12, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Wisdom, again, please take your groveling elsewhere. We don't doubt you are a pathetic coward. Just don't assume everyone is.

      BlackYowe, the bible is full of hate of a sort that even the modern right wing disavow in certain cases. Who are you to say that they aren't true christians?

      November 12, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      Hard to argue with words that have been around thousands of years before you set foot on this planet.

      November 12, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • What If

      wisdom: "'every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'"

      Sounds like something that your megamaniacal "Satan" character would desire.

      November 12, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Free

      wisdom4u2
      The point seems to be that the very people who say that will be the ones fretting should God actually come to judge them, hypocrites that they are.

      November 12, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • i wonder

      wisdom4u2
      "Hard to argue with words that have been around thousands of years before you set foot on this planet."

      Then you should be quoting something from the ancient Hindu or Egyptian gods... they are much older than your stuff.

      November 12, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      LOL! You Bozos think you're retorting on something that 'I' said, but I'm only ‘quoting‘.....Derrr!

      November 12, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
  11. Kitty2

    Hear! Hear! agree wholeheartedly with the writer's observations. For one, I believe we are turning into a nation of moral & religious hypocrites. Am tired of people like Herman Cain using their position to step on others. He should step down and apologize for his wrong doing. It won't happen–he's above everything. Am tired of hearing about great men like Paterno turning a blind eye to those whose abuses to keep an assistant coach. Am tired of seeing men like Cantor, Boehner and Paul Ryan put their personal agendas ahead of those in need–which are not the wealthy and powerful. Yes indeed, a growing nation of hypocrites. Time for change.

    November 12, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  12. SK

    Yes, in heart of hearts I know the answer: Stephen Prothero is a moron. What does this have to do with Christianity or with Jesus? And what is common between the Cain's allegations and Paterno's case? Even those who know anything about both cases would realize that they are so different. In one case there is a possible political motive and motive to make money by the women and there are no witnesses or evidence or a trial or formal charges. The other deals with abuse of a number of children (without a monetary or political motive) – a case which has been investigated over many years and the culprit got arrested. There are so many other glaring differences. How stupid one must be to compare these two, put people in a false dilemma and bring in a 'what would Jesus do' argument. One doesn't have to be Jesus to use their common sense to figure this out!

    By the way, who gave his this job? And why does CNN allow such stupid articles to be posted? Where is the editor?

    November 12, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • Gordon

      Yep! You sound just like a "christian"!

      November 12, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  13. Steve

    The difference between Jesus and us is that he would know who was guilty and who was lying. If the women are lying in accusing Herman Cain of harassment, then they deserve contempt and not empathy. Jesus would know if they were lying. As far as Paterno goes, the issue is whether he himself is guilty of anything or just a fall guy for a university that covered up the problem. As far as feeling empathy for the boys, of course we all do. The main issue is that we don't know who they are. It is kind of hard to show empathy when we don't even know who they are. If you want to write garbage, then write is somewhere else.

    November 12, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Prothero is a half-wited, semi-Chrisitan knucklehead. He wants you to know that. And to that end, he writes a regular column for CNN's belief blog.

      November 12, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  14. rene

    I am so sick and tired of right wing Christians trying to rule everybody's lives with morality legislation when they are the most un-Christian people on the planet. If you don't believe in abortion or gay marriage – then don't have one and leave the rest of us alone. Who made them God anyway?

    November 12, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • BlackYowe

      You are right. Right -wing, fundamentalist Christians in the US use their twisted interpretation of what Christianity is to justify their hate and bigotry as well as their lust for power and wealth. The true Christians are working to try to do good on this earth but are seldom heard because they are a threat to both the false Christians and those who bow down to the golden calf.

      November 12, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      and all will confess: It is written: "'As surely as I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'"

      November 12, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Hey wisdom, shut up. Some of us don't grovel.

      BlackYowe, the right wing does use the bible to further their ends. But the bible is such a twisted work of enduring cultural prejudices that it gives them a lot of ammunition.

      November 12, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      Again I say: 'every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'"

      November 12, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • What If

      wisdom:

      I can copy / paste as well as you...

      ""'As surely as I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'"

      Sounds like something that your megamaniacal "Satan" character would desire.

      November 12, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • Cleareye

      A real American will not bow on knees to anything! The Jesus I think existed was simply a man with advanced ideas of compassion, and had the courage to attempt to convince others of the rightness of them. We agnostics do not think Jesus would punish anyone for seeking the truth.

      November 12, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • Free

      Cleareye
      Here, Here! I cannot understand how any real American would choose to bow down to a king.

      November 12, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  15. chip

    What an absurdly twisted application of that passage.

    November 12, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Free

      Excuse me, but where did Jesus say "Blessed are the rich and powerful, for they shall be beyond accusation"?

      November 12, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  16. wisdom4u2

    It is written: "'As surely as I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'"

    November 12, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • rene

      Written by man – not God. Man is fallible!

      November 12, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      Once again, It is written: "'As surely as I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'"

      November 12, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • What If

      wisdom:

      I can copy / paste as well as you can...

      ""'As surely as I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'"

      Sounds like something that your megamaniacal "Satan" character would desire.

      November 12, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Cleareye

      "Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."
      -Thomas Jefferson

      November 12, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • David Johnson

      @wisdom4u2

      You said: "Once again, It is written: "'As surely as I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'"

      The Christian god is very unlikely to exist. Jesus was a myth.

      Cheers!

      November 12, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
  17. KenKnows

    The US is NOT a Christian nation! It is a nation that respects citizens of multiple religions and non-religious beliefs. No child should be abused because this act harms the individual. If the allegations against Joe Paterno are correct then he allowed and enabled a person to harm children. Your heart does not need to empathize; your brain can understand that this is wrong regardless of any religious or non-religious belief. Woman are human beings and equal to men who are also human beings. If the allegations against Cain are true, then Cain believed that another human being was inferior to him and used his position to inflict harm to them. It does not take the heart, only the brain, to realized that this act is wrong. These are wrong acts because they harm a human being. Religion of any kind does not hold the key to this insight. The human mind has the ability to determine what is right and what is wrong. Actions that harm, suppress, control, or take away from another human being are wrong. The mind and brain can critically understand this without the need for empathy, heart of hearts, family value, or religious beliefs.

    November 12, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  18. wisdom4u2

    “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

    November 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • rene

      Who are you trying to convince – yourself? Nobody wants to read your preaching. Live it if you believe it as actions speak louder than words.

      November 12, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      Again, It is written: "'As surely as I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'"

      November 12, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Cleareye

      Phooey!

      November 12, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  19. wisdom4u2

    "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come."

    November 12, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • Gordon

      quoting the Bible like this makes you sound like a nutcase.

      November 12, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • Cleareye

      "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?"
      -Epicurus

      November 12, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Free

      wisdom4u2
      Proverbs 26:11 "As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly."
      And repeats, and repeats, and repeats, ...

      November 12, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  20. Marcia

    “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”
    Seneca

    November 12, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • Tom

      Yea, but people are coming alive, and just like Ohio overturned governor Kasich's union-busting law, Louisianans saw through the false righteousness of their "personhood" bill. The revolution has only begun, as the days of rulers using religion to manipulate people are coming to an end.
      We STILL CAN BE a Christian nation.

      November 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • BlackYowe

      Great quote. Sadly the powerful use religion as a tool of control while the common folk try to live by faith.

      November 12, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Zack

      Did you know that the higher an education level you have, the more likely you are to be open to the idea of God?

      November 12, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • Cleareye

      A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.
      -Saul Bellow, writer, Nobel laureate (1915-2005)

      November 12, 2011 at 4:42 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.