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. Mr. Arrogant

    A Christian nation is a forgiving nation. One that truly knows grace and knows God is the judge, not us.

    Being moral doesn't make you a Christian. Being faithful to God does. This means when you go astray, you come back and repent. Look at King David. You think he was a perfect king? Heck no he wasn't. When you repent does it have to be publicly? No, it doesn't.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • Appalled

      Are you saying you think Herman Cain is privately repentant? Wow is all I can say... And if you think he is innocent, what about the settlements?

      November 12, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  2. ScottCT

    America is not and has never been a "christian nation". We only have christian extremists that try to convince you it is.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:22 am |
  3. Steve

    What saddens me most about the coverage of sensational events, like Penn State, Herman Cain is the trial by Public Opinion. I've yet to hear of mass prayer gatherings to pray for victims, and others involved,including the people accused. The last I checked, we as Christians aren't to judge those, that is reserved for God. Until this country develops compassion and patience instead of jumping on the bandwagon to quickly play "judge, jury and executioner", we are headed for ruin...

    November 12, 2011 at 9:22 am |
  4. al kuwahara

    it just like in biblical times when barrabas, the criminal, was let go instead of Jesus the innoccent. when the adultress was almost stoned by the adulterers, the world has become a sodom and gomora. we see cain and the penn coach being defended by the masses and the victims villified. people defending sin. I don't know how to exactly quote scripture but i do now somewhere in the bible it says – many shall be called but few will answer the call – something like that.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • Steve

      Matthew 22:14 14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

      November 12, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Bob

      Your book of horrors bible also says that you need to burn a bloody animal so god gets smells that make him happy. So get on it.

      Yeah, Jesus did say the OT still applies.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • jm

      that is perfect.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  5. LaPlut

    Anyone can be spiritual, but religion separates people. Religion needs to go!

    November 12, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • rachel wallace

      I am a Democrat and an evangelical Christian. The reason many people lost faith in the Republican Party (I was a "Young Republican" in my college days) is the same reason people are losing faith in organized religion- Christianity in particular. They see people that no longer care about the "less than these". They see the excessive need to glorify the powerful and ignore the pain of the less.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  6. Guest

    I am not religious, I am an atheist, but feel the reactions of the people to these situations or to the contrary have nothing to do with religion. I also believe that the writer of this story is only reacting to what the media is portraying and is not considering the massive amounts of people who blog on facebook, speak behind close doors and talk to each other at work. They empathize with Cain's accuser and they empathize strongly with the PSU victims. The article is what I would expect, I myopic view without any real substance. There are many Christians and other religious persons who are considering the less privileged as there are non-religious atheist persons such as myself who are doing the same.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  7. Not buying it

    Your premise in this article is offensive. Whatever Christianity teaches, Christians are no more empathetic than anyone else. It's not easy to "teach" empathy. And suggesting that part of being a good person is choosing which side to be empathetic with seems downright ridiculous. One should empathize with everyone. Victims and criminals alike. And you are not even talking about the criminals here.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  8. Roger Ogilivy Thornhill

    I am not religious, but it looks like my heart is aligned on the side of Christianity according to the author's interpretation.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  9. cary lacayo


    Good point! That's exactly what the Bible says about the issue as you placed it..."For every Christians that responds there is a hundred atheist salivating. There are more atheist involved in religion than believers." The Bible says – "Narrow is gate that leads to God", so I hope you change your mind about being a person that believes there is no God. People don't believe in God because they don't want to leave the way they live their lives. We love darkness more than the light, so don't hide behind what's really in your heart...

    November 12, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  10. DS

    I believe the Bible is the one and only inspired Word of God - I suspect the author disagrees with me. However, the author is 100% correct about Cain and Paterno and the public's reaction to them. I generally vote for Republicans, but am disgusted by many conservative commentators (Hannity, Limbaugh, Coulter) reaction to the Cain controversy. There are four different women who claim Cain's behaviour was terrible and two received settlements or agreements with payouts. While the facts are not all known - it is shameful for the conservative knee-jerk rush to Cain's side.

    Penn State football is not a past-time. It is a money-making false religion. The plight of the victims of Sandusky seems to be of little concern to the PSU faithful. It is sickening.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:20 am |
    • jm

      You are exactly right. I can't believe the people who defend these sub-human beings for one reason and one reason only. They belong to the Republican party. Makes me sick. God help the victims.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  11. Nitalynn

    Thank you for this article. I am a Christian and have absolutely no love for the current far right politico-Christian stand. First I really cannot see my God having or even wanting a political party. We will not "elect" God or any of his hosts for that matter. I love this country and wore a uniform to defend it for almost 10 years. However in truth compared to what we are promised in Heaven it is the best of a bad lot or rather unfortunately I am afraid to say it WAS. Secondly when Jesus came the first time it was not to the wealthy, the legalistic Pharisaical class, or those politically well connected. He came to lift the il, the poor, and the downtrodden, those very people who are most under fire from the same politico-Christian right trying to claim an affinity to him today. God tells us "You shall know them by their works." not their loud self-serving attempts to try to attach them to Him (God) or their political stance. Fortunately I do know them and except in a few local cases where I know they have not yet fallen for the "party line" I do not vote for any of them. It is not that the other major political party in the country is much better now a days, but I do feel it is a Christian responsibility to vote and that vote has to be for someone. Of course if there is an independent running it can always be looked at as a protest vote against both of the big two.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:19 am |
  12. Michael F

    I'm not so sure that it's a question of the Christian faith being acted out in the lives of individual American, but one of the notion of self-absorption. "I side with Paterno, because he fulfills my entertainment wishes." "I side with Herman Cain, because he supports my political beliefs (NOT that I support his)." Christians hold to a standard of Absolute Truth, but currently that Absolute Truth becomes Truth only when it supports me. To paraphrase JFK:" "Ask not what you can do for God, but what God can do for you." After all, they reason, Christ said that He came to be a servant to man.....

    November 12, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  13. DaveInPA

    Excellent commentary. Thank you !

    November 12, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  14. Crowfisher

    America a not so christian nation? That's a relief. I am of native American heritage and our faith predates christianity by a few thousand years. For us any religion based on praying to a human is comical. Especially praying to an arab. It's pretty ridiculous to assume we are all christians. Plus any nation controlled by a religion is a terrible place to live. The examples of religious fanaticism are evident in countries where religion is forced upon the populace.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  15. Mike

    I don't think a group of college educated liberals define this country. What defines this country are the groups like Tea Party, the 99% and now the 53%(even though they are just an on-line group)
    Cain's alleged abuses are just that. Alleged. No one has given up any proof.
    JoePa's involvement is a little shaky. He told his superiors and more than likely they told him to shut his mouth. Regardless, more could have been done.
    That defines Penn State University, not the country.

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

      Well said.This article is representative of one person's opinion, not the country's. I believe Jesus would not take sides, period. Besides the fact, he is Omniscient which makes the whole argument moot.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:23 am |
  16. jordan

    I am an American first and I do not want this Country to be considered a "Christian Nation" as I was not born Christian and Ido not nor do I have to believe in Jesus or God.I am a human being and I have the right to do this in any supposedly advanced civilization.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  17. John

    ...Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:
    3"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
    4Blessed are those who mourn,
    For they shall be comforted.
    5Blessed are the meek,
    For they shall inherit the earth.
    6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    For they shall be filled.
    7Blessed are the merciful,
    For they shall obtain mercy.
    8Blessed are the pure in heart,
    For they shall see God.
    9Blessed are the peacemakers,
    For they shall be called sons of God.
    10Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake,
    For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
    11"Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
    – Matthew 5

    November 12, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  18. bill

    I'm a christian and all I have to say about this subject is that the religious right certainly doesn't represent me in any way! The religious right is nothing but a bunch of haters and hypocrites.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:15 am |
  19. Billy Ocean

    We are far removed from our founding fathers ideals of what our nation should be. It is what it is.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • Mike

      Please don't say "it is what it is". That is so submissive. Just because it is what it is, doesn't mean you have to like it. Of course, if you do like it, then never mind, there is no hope.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  20. Mike M.

    A Christian is a person, not a country. It's a noun, not an adjective. A country isn't saved by the sacrifice of Jesus, a person is. Does America have Christians in it? Yes. But America is not Christian.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:15 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.