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. Moe Smith


    November 12, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  2. boyamidumb

    Whenever someone begins a conversation or a business meeting with "I am a Christian." I DUCK!! I know instantly that I'm dealing with a person who will try to screw me in any way they can and then go to church and act like saints.

    Sorry folks but it is true.

    I have known some real and good Christians, but especially in business I have met more than I can count who use the label to cover a wide range of sins and evils.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  3. Moe Smith

    http://notachristian.org/christianatrocities.html - get educated

    November 12, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  4. Brian

    Besides the implication that non-Christian means non-moral, this article is flawed in that it doesn't seem to recognize reality.

    In the Paterno case, I'm with the author. Supporting Paterno when he obviously did the wrong thing (even though he met his legal obligation) is insane. I think people shame themselves when they do that.

    But in the case of Cain, things get a lot more complicated. Should a Christian's heart automatically go out to the accuser, regardless of the facts, because they are in a weaker position than Cain?

    Well, no.

    The issue is whether the accusations are true. Christians are supposed to seek *justice*, not just the universal support of the weaker against the stronger. If a poor man robs and kills a rich man, do we applaud him?

    November 12, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Kerry

      The article is correct in stating not to jump to conclusions either way, even though it might be to a persons political advantage to do so. Those kids at Pen State are following their own agenda, what is best for their own needs. Not what is right or wrong. Same with the Cain followers, they back him no matter what the situation. That is the complaint. People do need to step outside of their needs and think what would Jesus do.....and apply the Golden Rule as well.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • hmm

      I didn't see that implication in the article at all.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:03 am |
  5. shawn

    I totally agree that the focus has not been on the victims, but how horribly it affects these monsters lives. They were adults, knew what they were doing, and knew that they might have their lives destroyed by their crimes. They should take their medicine and be in jail. The victims however, especially the children, had no choice, no way out, and were the ones we need to heal. It gives me some measure of hope, that there were students at Penn State that had vigils for the victims, and have been trying to figure out what they can do to help the victims. But unfortunately that population is in the minority. I hope that changes or we as a nation are doomed. When the 'Graven Idols' fall because we find they are human and capable of mortal evil, we must question whether we should have such idols.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  6. 21k

    maybe we should acknowledge that evolution is the reason that our species developed social skills, rather than by the hand of some deity. who, by the way, did nothing to stop the murder of six million of his chosen people by hitler.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  7. Rick

    "I am talking about where are hearts instinctively go in these situations."

    Hearts go in the upper portion of the chest. I can't comment on where other hearts are going, instinctively or not.

    Perhaps a bit more proofreading is in order.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  8. Joe E.

    I do not believe that these events suggest that we are a nation of non-Christians. You make a good point about what people should be most concerned with in both situations. However, the media covers the most newsworthy aspects of these things. If there is bedlam in State College and a violent protest about the firing of Joe Paterno, the media is going to cover it. Just because we see this on TV does not mean most people think of Joe Paterno first. Heck, it doesn't even mean that people in State College think of Joe Paterno first. We have to not allow our perspective of things to be shaped by what we view on television or the Internet because really these are only microcosms of reality.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  9. vanadis06

    College students attending Penn State are obviously not a broad enough sample to make any generalizations about the public's empathy in the Paterno situation. And in politics, people always support their "guy" until he becomes unsupportable (John Edwards) and often justify his actions/policies that may breach their own abstract moral and ethical codes. It seems like this whole article is stretching to use two high profile story to make a point that is completely unrelated.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  10. Willie

    If God is just, I tremble for my country.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  11. Bruce Hodgman

    Great story and I hope some of my Repub friends take this to heart. They are starting to scare me with the beliefs and moral direction.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  12. Tom T

    Once again, thank you for the laugh Stephen. You are a great. I like especially when you pretend to know what Jesus would do in any given situation, and when you pretend to know anything about Jesus. Great stuff.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:31 am |
  13. ji12

    Your commentary is offensive. So are you implying that only Christians are capable of empathy? What about Jews, Muslims and all the other religious beliefs that are practiced in this country today? You're article is typical of the arrogance Christians often display.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • Steve in Denver

      Uh, ji12, I didn't see anything in the article saying other religions are bad. In fact, the beginning of the article says "one of the purposes of the world's great religions is to extend our circle of empathy . . . " He talks about Christianity for the rest of the article, but this would seem to imply he sees this as a goal of all religions.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • hmm

      No. He's not implying that at ALL and I don't see where people are getting that from.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • lulz

      now, before you start assuming things about the author (his religion, his intent) and making blanket, condemning statements about a religion because you think other religions were snubbed, maybe you should learn the difference between "your" and "you're." Your comment makes you sound like you're a troll.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  14. Ray T.

    "Those without sin – let them cast the first stone". And you forgot the difference between religion and moral integrity. I think your article is more about the later, but you wouldn't have the same audience for this article if you hadn't mentioned religion, politics and sports (especially Joe Pa). You managed to wrap all of them into one article, good job!

    November 12, 2011 at 9:30 am |
  15. Mark

    I feel that most ppl want to give the accused the benefit of the doubt because so many times the accusations are false. Just look at the French Presidential candidate that was accused of rap over the summer. Those allegations proved to be false, but the damage was done and he had no chance of winning the presidency. I think a lot of ppl are moving away from Christianity because of its history of picking the wrong sides. Just look at the Spanish inquisition, WWII and the Nazis where the Church did nothing, and the Salem witch hunts, which are most relevant to the article. I don't think we should just believe what someone says just because they are the "least among us". The least are just as capable of not telling the truth as those they accuse. The only fair way is to allow the accuser and the accuse tell there story, prevent facts and allow the law to determine guilt before we jump to our "Christian Values" and ruin innocent ppls careers'.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • jm

      I believe Mark is more sympathetic to the perverts and pedifiles than he is of the victims which tells me a lot about Mark. I know there are people who are accused of wrong doings who are innocent, but when you have that many young boys, and different men that have witnessed them being abused, and four different women who come forward while Cain makes jokes about it and speaks so disrespectful of women, that is pretty much a sure thing.

      November 12, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  16. Kyle B.

    This seems to be a lengthy, eloquent version of "They're not true Christians" that I hear from disagreeing Christians all the time.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  17. olepi

    Odd that he would even think this is a Christian country. We have tens of millions of children living in poverty, alongside massive wealth. The GOP resists any attempt to help the poor, the weak, and the sick, and instead insists on keeping all their money for themselves. And they claim the loudest to be "Christians".

    No, what America is, instead of Christian, is intolerant, bigoted, and cruel.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • hmm

      He didn't say that at all.
      He's saying that people CLAIM it's a Christian nation.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  18. brandy


    "Mr. Prothero, using "Christian" as a synonym for "good" or "moral" displays either a complete ignorance of history or the conscious choice to ignore history. I'm guessing it's the latter. It's absurd to pretend that morality or societal values or norms would cease to exist in the absence of religion."

    November 12, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • Helen

      Brandy.....perfectly stated!!!

      November 12, 2011 at 9:42 am |
  19. Andy

    I agree with this article, that many people(assuming they're Christian) haven't been ethical. I disagree with this article saying that we must derive our morals/ethics from Christianity and that to do otherwise, our people will support these 'bad' people instead of the victims.

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

      Oy. Where does it say that in the article? It doesn't.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  20. DarthLawyer

    Mr. Prothero, using "Christian" as a synonym for "good" or "moral" displays either a complete ignorance of history or the conscious choice to ignore history. I'm guessing it's the latter. It's absurd to pretend that morality or societal values or norms would cease to exist in the absence of religion.

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

      I am glad all the Christian churches jumped to help all of the boys that were abused by priests. They quickly moved to arrest, prosecute them, and take them away from a position to harm any young boys again.....oh yea, they didn't. They shut their mouths and moved them to a new church so they could do it again as they hid the facts. Glad the Church has their heart of hearts in the right place.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • hmm

      I don't think that's what he was saying. I think what he means is that other people call this a "Christian" nation and yet these same people display empathy toward those who don't deserve it over those who do, a most decidedly UNChristian trait. I don't think he was saying that only Christians have morals, etc.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • clarke


      November 12, 2011 at 9:56 am |
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