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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. Dave

    Why would we want the US to be a Christian nation? And when did Jesus talk about using force to make other people help the poor?

    November 12, 2011 at 9:14 am |
  2. Average American

    Articles like this put Freedom of Religion at risk!!

    November 12, 2011 at 9:14 am |
  3. Average American

    Sorry, Prothero but I just find it funny and moronic that the standards you are discussing are those standards that you follow. The U.S. has never been a Christian Nation, from the last I checked we are a melting pot of diverse people, and diverse beliefs. It is this insane idea that people like yourself have, that people must be "christians," in order to be anything good in this world or have good judgement. This notion that people must assimilate to your standards in order to be consider a good person is quite frightening. Because in essence what you are saying is that if you are not "Christian," and do not believe what I believe then you are 1. Going to Hell, 2. an evil sinner who should burn in hell, and 3. Have no ounce of goodness in you because your beliefs are different from mine. Just to refresh your memory on some history about great people who were not "Christian," Gandhi, all of our FOUNDING FATHERS, yes that includes, Washington, Jefferson, Ben Franklin, etc., Steve Jobs, the list goes on. This ethnocentric notion that you are putting out there is harmful to humanity and to the U.S. and you should maybe ask the right questions instead of the "Christian," question. Like do you think it's right that the U.S. finds more empathy with the rich and corrupt, rather than those hurt and victimized by such individuals as Cain and Paterno? I am not a "Christian," but I have always sided with the unfortunate, and I always will. And it is not because GOD told me so, it is because out of my own heart and mind I know what is right and what is wrong. What is so ironic about these situations especially in the Republican party, is they claim to be "Christians," and have hearts that follow the "direction of Christianity or Jesus," but in reality they do the opposite of what he has taught. You do not need to be a Christian to know Goodness or as you call it "God," you just need a good heart. It's not hard if you try.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:13 am |
  4. Barb

    I must agree with the writer of this artical. We are not reacting to these events as a Christian nation would. We like to think that we are Christian but then are quick to jump on the band wagon of anyone with whom we agree. Morality does not seem to come imto play. Why wouldn't we think there is any credibility to the charges against Cain? Because we like him and don't want to hear anything negative about him, rather than feeling any sympathy with the women who are reporting these indicents. We like the coach, therefore our sympathies are with him rather than with the alleged victims. And then we work hard to look for reasons to back up our position. A Christian would look first towards "the least of these," rather than going with what is most comfortable.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:13 am |
  5. duke nelson

    People has such weak self-worth, they want to have some type of identify. No wonder you see so many idiots these days claiming to be Christian. I am not one but I know a few real Christians who are just wonderful human beings. Most of these politicians and their supporters are not even close to being called a Christian.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:11 am |
  6. Rob

    Dear CNN, stop demonizing Christianity. I am not very religious, but every other day I click on CNN there is a story poking at extreme points of Christianity. Why not any other religion? They all have their extremists. If you truly want to stay above the labels of being slanted, you'll change up the message from time to time.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:10 am |
    • Brad

      No other religion except Christianity has such a role in determining laws and opinions in this country. Maybe thats why.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • Willie

      Eskimo: If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell? Priest: No, not if you did not know. Eskimo: Then why did you tell me?

      November 12, 2011 at 9:17 am |
    • Bob

      That one's a classic, Willie.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  7. Concerned Lutheran

    In my heart of hearts my concerns are for "the least of these".

    In context: “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

    Thank you, Stephen Prothero, for bringing this to light.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:10 am |
    • Jim Rousch

      A lot of Christians will go to Hell not only because they chose to ignore the poor and the sick, but also because they voted for people who caused the sick to lose their Blue Cross coverage.

      Jesus never asked for an insurance card.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  8. Sue

    I am not a Christian, but my heart is with the "least o these".

    November 12, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  9. Dismantle the NCAA Cartel

    If ever there was a moment in time as a shining example of why the NCAA and the enormous greed of the corrupt BC$ should be scrapped...

    November 12, 2011 at 9:05 am |
  10. Dana

    Thank you.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:05 am |
  11. Mike

    I have two thoughts. (1) The 13th chapter of Romans makes one thing very clear: Christians are required to be good law abiding citizens of the State. (2) Anyone who thinks Jesus has to, or would, choose which party to "empathize" with has completely missed the definition of infinity, alpha and omega. Jesus is big enough to empathize with everyone at once.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:04 am |
    • marco

      I agree, Jesus would look at all the people involved and offer understanding AND forgiveness.

      What a very poorly thought out article. What are the credentials to be a journalist in this country.

      Remember Strauss-Kahn and how much the media was calling for his blood. If any of you were one called for it too, maybe you should not be writing about this story...

      November 12, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  12. cary lacayo

    Anita,

    There must be some sort of trauma or dis functional formations in your life due to your response. Your arrogance and wayward confidence is easy to see...Soak in this...What's keeping your heart beating right now???

    November 12, 2011 at 9:04 am |
  13. Raka

    Apparently Christians do not realize that CNN's religion blog is nit actually about religion but the lack thereof. For every Christians that responds there is a hundred atheist salivating. There are more atheis involved in religion than believers.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:00 am |
    • NoDoubt

      Its very true about the Athiests- they think more about religion and spirituality than most people. It takes a lot of faith to have no faith.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:10 am |
    • El Kababa

      For most American Christians, religion is a trivial experience. You spend an hour ignoring a sermon and thinking about lunch and you're done.

      Most atheists have had some very troubling experiences with religion. My experiences with the Baptist Church when I was a boy were the most traumatic experiences of my life. My childhood nightmares were about Jesus. The preacher's description of living eternally in Hell, feeling the pain of living in a 20,000 degree furnace, able to feel the pain but unable to die, was horrible. The fact that Jesus never "came into my heart" but He "came into the hearts" of all the other kids convinced me that I had been rejected by God himself. I had to read a lot of books and spend a lot of time in psychotherapy recovering from Christianty. My problem was that I actually believed all of that stuff.

      I'd say that a larger percentage of atheists have read the Bible than Christians have.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • Anne

      El Kababa,
      What a horrible experience for you! That sounds so traumatic! Because I was raised in a church where God was described as the most loving and forgiving being who wants nothing evil for anyone, I have a hard time understanding churches like that. I can only say that I am glad you are out of that situation and that you are recovering.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  14. twgloege

    What a shocker this is. It's real hard to imagine anyone trying to capitalize on the word christian??? Anyone want to buy a used bridge??

    November 12, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  15. Anne

    The recent reactions which ignore the feelings of those who have been abused–even when they are just children–demonstrate a lack of empathy and concern for the least among us. True Christians should not only feel empathy but do things to support and protect the weak. That was not done, and instead of outrage over a failure to protect innocent children, there is outrage over punishment for those who allowed it to continue. I am horrified at the state of our country, and agree that we are not Christian nation. It has been a long, long time since we came anywhere close to the standards of Jesus, let alone the standards of any decent person, religious or not.

    November 12, 2011 at 8:59 am |
  16. johnborg

    The United States is not secularizing. I'm not sure how these two incidents point to a "not-so-Christian" nation. With Cain, people don't believe the allegations. It isn't that they wouldn't morally condemn them, but that they actually don't believe in them. With Paterno, there isn't a direct connection between the evils and himself (besides him withholding information). Plus, these are college students living in a postmodern era – I don't think they care much about morality. The question shouldn't be is the United States a Christian nation? Rather, is it individually-speaking Christian or macro-level Christian. Who controls the government? Who controls the corporations? Evangelicals are more powerful than you think.

    November 12, 2011 at 8:59 am |
  17. NickDanger3i

    Herman Cain should have drove those women off a bridge. Then, as a rich man, he could get elected to the US Senate for 40 years.

    November 12, 2011 at 8:58 am |
  18. Denise

    It is not about what lies in the hearts of mankind. It is all about judgment; and religious or not, none of us hold any position to judge or accuse.

    November 12, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • James

      but all of us has the imperative/duty to succor.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  19. JJ

    The wording of this article bothers me even though I understand what the author may have meant. It's not a Christian nation, that's the point. There's people here who aren't Christian, they are the minority, but they exist. And as far as I know we have not adopted a enforced, official religion. So perhaps it would be more accurate and sensitive to say "What happened to the Christians in this nation?" but of course a question formulated like that goes on the offensive more than you were perhaps comfortable with, so you chose to generalize what you really meant a little more. And I think you shouldn't have.

    November 12, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • James

      To say united states is not a christian nation is like saying Italy is not a Catholic Nation. Sure there are other religions here in our country, but the core values that determins the laws and common morality of this nation is absolutely Christian central.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  20. Bob T.

    The most prominent religious group in the US is the Religious Right (Evangelicals). This group does not represent mainstream christianity. Their political views seem to overshadow their religious views. Other christians should not be judged by this minority.

    November 12, 2011 at 8:57 am |
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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.