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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. Child still learning

    America is not a christian nation nor is it a united nation. The children of the world are counting on adults to unite. For the sake of all...Old and young. STOP HATE.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • pla

      thats right stop hate or i'll kill you!!

      November 13, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  2. pla

    all "chistians" know how to do is the very antistisis of whom they profess to emulate; and they have the nerve to look down at you if you're not running around condemming everyone to hell that doesnt think like you do

    November 13, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  3. pla

    why should this country be so exclusively "christian". whenever i see a christian coming towards me, i high tail it the opposite way as fast as my llittle legs can cary me.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:34 am |
    • justjudy

      No one has ever harmed me so bad as those who had first gained my trust by calling themselves "Christian", "evangelicals", "born again" or other such religion speak. Lying snakes. I even saved an email from one who declared she had not lied to me so much as had just not been telling the whole truth (for 6 years).

      November 13, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  4. Baldur

    Sandusky may belong to the "privileged class" of football staff at an elite university, but he also belongs to the "unprivileged class" or males who are considered guilty until proven guilty, even though evidence has shown that over half of these types of accusations are not only false but entirely groundless.

    Cain may be among the "privileged" rich, but his accusers are in the "privileged class" of women, whose accusations of harassment must always be believed (despite abundant evidence that accusations are often false).

    During the Spanish Inquisition, rich individuals were targeted for torture and death and seizures of their property – precisely because they had wealth that could be looted.

    So how do we determine who is privileged and who is not? How do we determine who is the least and who is powerful? I don't believe that Christianity is so shallow as to fall firmly into one camp or another. Jesus said that we should not judge according to appearances, but make a righteous judgment.

    This article ignores the complexity of human experience.

    November 13, 2011 at 7:58 am |
    • Lindsay

      What evidence shows that half of such accusations are groundless? I am very curious, because if it is true women are generally evil, and if it is false, you just made it that much more difficult for women to be taken seriously when things like this happen. I suspect it is the latter.

      November 13, 2011 at 8:57 am |
  5. Reality

    There are a few short phrases that define good human conduct.

    Failures to follow two phrases of good human conduct, "Do No Harm" and "Call A Cop" define the current "vomit inducing" situation at Penn State, the Boy Scouts of America, the RCC, the Southern Baptist Convention, Seventh Day Adventists, Judaism et al.

    No Christian god or other god(s) required, needed or desired !!!

    November 13, 2011 at 7:56 am |
  6. Reality

    Prohtero noted:

    "In the abortion debate, do you identify with the woman who wants an abortion or with the fetus?"

    I identify with both with two bottom liners:

    o Bottom Line #1: The failures of the widely used birth "control" methods i.e. the Pill and male condom have led to the large rate of abortions ( one million/yr) and S-TDs (19 million/yr) in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the pill or condoms properly and/or use safer methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.

    Bottom line #2-
    Currently, a perfect barrier system does not exist. Time to develop one! In the meantime, mono-ma-sturbation or mutual ma-sturbation are highly recommended for hete-rose-xuals who need a contraceptive. Abstinence is another best-solution but obviously the se-x drive typically vitiates this option although being biological would it not be able to develop a drug to temporarily eliminate said drive?

    November 13, 2011 at 7:48 am |
    • pla

      and while you're at it how about a BJ?

      November 13, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • Reality

      Some words of caution:

      from:

      http://pagingdrgupta.blogs.cnn.com/2011/02/20/yes-or-al-se-x-is-se-x-and-it-can-boost-cancer-risk/?npt=NP1

      "Yes, or-al se-x is se-x, and it can boost cancer risk-

      Here's a crucial message for teens (and all se-xually active "post-teeners": Or-al se-x carries many of the same risks as va-ginal se-x, including human papilloma virus, or HPV. And HPV may now be overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of or-al cancers in America in people under age 50.

      "Adolescents don’t think or-al se-x is something to worry about," said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. "They view it as a way to have intimacy without having 's-ex.'"

      November 13, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  7. Ozzi

    This is not a "christian" nation-it's a secular nation. Get it right and quit pushing your religious supremacist beliefs on readers. You're as bad as Snooki.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:57 am |
    • Mirosal

      hey now .. she's got a hell of a figure, but she's dumber than a houseplant .. the FAKE kind lol

      November 13, 2011 at 7:01 am |
    • pla

      snooki has a brain, and is better looking

      November 13, 2011 at 10:03 am |
  8. BWAHAHAHA

    Mr. Cain announced yesterday that "God" told him to run for president. AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/cain-tells-gop-crowd-that-god-told-him-to-run-for-president/2011/11/12/gIQAeW1eFN_story.html

    November 13, 2011 at 2:21 am |
    • Mirosal

      Wel, apparently, "god" told Perry and Bachmann to also run. This "god" might said to run, but "he" didn't say anything about WINNING the office!! lol

      November 13, 2011 at 2:24 am |
    • BWAHAHAHA

      We simply must not have psychotic folks like these in leadership positions. Fortunately, none of these three has a snowball's chance to be president... such a waste of money to have them even be out there. Oh well, I guess it is employing a few workers and is spreading some dollars around.

      November 13, 2011 at 2:38 am |
    • pla

      Hey, pal i certainly did; watch out i have my finger on the delete button

      November 13, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • BWAHAHAHA

      pla - what on Earth are talking about?

      Did the second half of your name (gue) not get entered in the sign in box?

      November 13, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  9. Raymond James Thibault, SFC,USA Ret

    Sadly so. Sadly So.

    November 13, 2011 at 2:06 am |
  10. hippypoet

    @Patrick Williams

    you sais that "America is more equivalent to Babylon in the Book of Revelation."

    i agree, i am no a believer but i have been saying for years that the United States of America is parallel to Rome in its so called depravity – i think its a show of freedom but thats an opinion – Now didn't many early christians state that Rome, the city itself, would come down by god's wrath? When Rome was sacked and then finally the fall of the empire in 476 a.d. the christian folks said that was gods doing...but later christians have said that it was just an over-stretched arm that got cut off by inside factions and too many fronts on the border lands. The folks who say such are normally historians but still are believers in god, so who is right,which was closer to being right if neither were?

    November 12, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
    • Patrick Williams

      in 430ce when the Roman capital fell (western side), i am sure there were some who had apocalyptic beliefs concerning the fall but I dont think all held that.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:06 pm |
    • Mirosal

      In the year 476 Roman emperor Romulus Augustus was overthrown by Odacer (sp?) and his merry band of Germanic barbarians. The historical accounts for this are a-plenty. Now let's see some kind of "evidence" that it was all "god's wrath" please.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
    • hippypoet

      i was going by the definition of the word ancient – its says everything that happened after the fall of Roman empire – 476 a.d. but your date and mine, the empire fell at the end several times by many tribes of invaders...for some reason, someone onlys places a "emporer" to the "seat" of power...so what happens is the under-lings of Rome, for the most part – others placed new kings on old thrones, followed the orders coming out of Rome – it has been the way of the world for over 1000 years. Sothe date i gave was the last tribal chief who claim emporership.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
    • pla

      America is in no way like Babylon L.I.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  11. Patrick Williams

    What the Hippypoet said below is true...really, there is nothing to expand on that.

    Not just from a founding point of view but from a cultural point of view it is obvious that the predominant culture is not a Christian one. I do not say this to bash Christians but to only speak the truth.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
    • pla

      That's right, white man never tell lie.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  12. hippypoet

    there is no such thing as a christian nation...and this country is far from anything like that idea!!!

    the first line in this article is a complete showing of how ignorant our country has become... was this country founded by religious people – yes and no... some were and some weren't...the first settlers came here to be "their" type of religious rather then stay in england and be Henry the 8th's version of belief... so in the sense, yes this country is started by nut jobs, but this country is not yet a country at this point – its a colony of England. The founding fathers put into the const!tution a separation of church and state, so there is a very clear difference between the colonists and the founders... This is in my opinion beyond clear that our country was founded not as a christian nation, not even a religious nation, but one that allows for any belief but has laws that are not bound to any dogma – they are instead voted in and changed by vote over time as to stay up to date for the times. The fact that some morons have the "10" commandments outside a house of justice is sad and @ssbackwards... So with the first sentence of this article – "In the never-ending debate over whether the United States is a Christian nation" we the people show our ignorance of our own land and founders – thats insulting to the core. I wish people if they are going to talk, let them please at least try to know half of what they are talking about! All i am asking for is half, but apparently thats asking too much!

    Sad and further insulting as i am a citizen of this nation!

    November 12, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
    • Free

      "there is no such thing as a christian nation"
      My guess is that Vatican City would be the best candidate for one, but that sure doesn't prove what the Religious Right would like it to, eh?

      November 12, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
    • Mirosal

      Ever notice how the religious right is seldom, if ever, right? lol ... Even our own President has said to the cameras that we are NOT a X-tian nation .. we are a naition of X-tians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and NON-believers as well. You are free, and welcome, to practice or NOT practice as you see fit for YOUR life. But, others have the right to NOT believe. And you thumpers out there telling we Atheists that we will "burn forever" is nothing short of outright arrogance.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      >>"And you thumpers out there telling we Atheists that we will "burn forever" is nothing short of outright arrogance."

      Hmmm... so what about the arrogant Atheist? I know that there are many decent Atheist but the percentage of arrogance in their number are very equal to those in the Faiths. 🙁

      November 13, 2011 at 2:23 am |
    • Mirosal

      I personally don't care what faith you are. Go ahead and go to your church, temple, mosque, synogogue .. what have you. But don't push your beliefs at my door, and cetainly NOT in a legislative capacity. When you start looking to your "holy" texts to make the laws that affect my life, we're going to have issues. This is a secular democracy, not a theocracy.

      November 13, 2011 at 2:28 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      >>>”But don't push your beliefs at my door, and certainly NOT in a legislative capacity.”

      Are you willing to also not push your non-beliefs as well. Sorta that when the Government have other cultural acknowledgements such as Black History, German or even Native American displays at city hall you will not have a problem with at Christmas time if the Christians in town setup a nativity scene? Or when a kid wants to choose as a subject of his or her book report a book of the Bible, you will also not race to call the ACLU.

      Also this is not a democracy, it is representative republic. As such folks who are Gay, Hispanic, Greek, or whatever... are part of society. This also means that the Atheist and the Faithful are also. Is having a Gay pride parade ...pushing their lifestyle or is it more like they are showing with pride that they are Gay or Lesbian?

      There are so many parts of society but do not think we all agree where the line of “pushing” aspects of culture, lifestyles or race begins. What one group declares as a outward expression of Pride in who they are, is usually defined as “pushing” by someone who has negative views of that group.

      Mirosal, do not worry about a Theocracy here in the States. If all of us folks of Faith were that much in agreement and on the same page you would not see so many denominations and sects.

      Oh well, bedtime here. Mirosal, I was thinking about going to the late night McDonalds and get some French Fries with Transfats ….but someone outlawed Transfats in my area.

      ….. I guess someone made a law that effected my life.... should I have a issue, or not 🙂

      l'Chaim.

      November 13, 2011 at 3:48 am |
    • pla

      if your passport is in order then there is nothing keeping you from leaving

      November 13, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • TheTruthFairy

      @Mark
      If the law that prevents you from buying transfat laden freedom fries was passed based on a passage from the book of Thor, then I would say you should be concerned. Likewise if any existing, or future laws are passed based on Black History, German, or even Native American cultures, then I would also consider that cause for alarm. Otherwise it’s called living in a democracy.

      November 14, 2011 at 8:16 am |
  13. James

    reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion You say? I am Atheist and i do this every day

    November 12, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
    • pla

      so do you work on christmas day?

      November 13, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      What, pray tell, does that have to do with the price of eggs in China, pla? Christmas is a legal holiday. It doesn't matter a whit that you celebrate a religious even that day-it's a holiday regardless.

      November 13, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  14. portland tony

    I'd love to agree ...but I don't have enough facts to make a judgment either way!

    November 12, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
  15. Marie Arrington

    I don't get it, his age or the times he came from should not even be a consideration. If you have questions about what is right or wrong THINK ABOUT HOW YOU WOULD FEEL IT IT WAS YOUR SON OR A RELATIVE, would you be still making excuses for Paterno? I say hell no. It should not be different for anyone else's son. I don't care if this old man had walked on water, he knew, he was told, no excuses. How many boys were sodomized and abused since the first one. I would bet my life that there are many more, some who will come forward and some who won't. I am beyond disgusted by this.

    November 12, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
  16. Atheist 1#

    DEISM in religious philosophy is the belief that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that the universe is the product of an all-powerful creator. According to deists, the creator does not intervene in human affairs or suspend the natural laws of the universe. Deists typically reject supernatural events such as prophecy and miracles, tending instead to assert that a god (or "the Supreme Architect") does not alter the universe by intervening in it. This idea is also known as the Clockwork universe theory, in which a god designs and builds the universe, but steps aside to let it run on its own. Two main forms of deism currently exist: classical deism and modern deism.

    November 12, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  17. *frank*

    Christians trying to "be as Christ" are pretty much like a sh!tty cover band doing Beatles songs. It doesn't work. It won't ever work. It's a shameful thing. Take off the moptop wig and write your own F'ing songs, you revolting parasite creeps.

    November 12, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • Free

      Except that we all know that The Beatles actually sounded great because we have the evidence in their recordings to support it. We do not have any evidence to support a Christ actually being as Christ-like as some Christians suggest. As far as we can tell for sure it's just an imagined ideal.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
  18. Colin

    I am the Judeo-Christian god. One time, I was really mad at a political leader. He had a group of my people hostage and would not release them. What would be the just and fair thing for me to do?

    (a) appear before him and demand that he release them

    (b) simply release them myself, given that I am all powerful

    (c) perform a quick miracle to help Moses prove himself; or

    (d) prevent Pharoh from releasing them by hardening his heart and then hold him responsible for my actions, but then punish him by punishing thousands of innocent people for what I made him do, including murdering lots of first born children who had nothing to do with the situation.

    Why anybody still believes the Bronze Age garbage of the Bible today is beyond me.

    November 12, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • Angus, Angus, the bagpiper's son

      Much is beyond you...my suggestion is that you start getting used to it.

      November 15, 2011 at 7:49 am |
  19. Jigga Man

    Whats A Deist

    November 12, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
    • Colin

      An atheist who has not yet read enough science. An apprentice atheist, if you will

      November 12, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
    • John Richardson

      @Colin Good one!

      November 12, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
    • Free

      More like someone who believes in a creator God who doesn't get involved in the universe or human affairs anymore, and basically acts like he's not there, like atheists suspect. It was popular amongst intellectuals before science began to shed light upon the origins of the universe.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • Charge Nurse Betty

      Ever hear of Deus ex machina ? Oh wait ... this is the US. Of course not.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
  20. Patrick Williams

    In America, most people who say "I am a Christian" are exactly like everyone else – they will cheat you in business and become downright mean when it suits them.

    Is America A Christian Nation? NO WAY!. But called did not call America, He called people...what is sad is the Christians act just like those who do not profess to believe in God. They should be ashamed of that fact (to be fair, there are a few who do act different and are really honest and humble but they are VERY FEW and VERY FAR-IN-BETWEEN.

    America is more equivalent to Babylon in the Book of Revelation.

    November 12, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • Zeb

      "Is America A Christian Nation? NO WAY!. " And that is a fantastic, good thing.

      November 12, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
    • pla

      more like Babylon Long Island

      November 13, 2011 at 10:12 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.