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. Carolyn

    Huh- funny- I'm not a Christian- yet my "heart" went to the victims automatically. I am appalled that Joe Paterno, the grad student and all of the others in power at Penn State never called the police- although I heard this morning that the security police at Penn State and the DA at the time may have known something- and I am appalled that Herman Cain can "forget" about past allegations and make light of the charges against him.

    But I am also appalled at the author of this article who seems to be making the argument that if you don't have sympathy towards the victims you must not be a Christian... wow!

    November 12, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  2. Bob D Iowa

    Veritas, I have learned that the more that someone has to preach to you to do right it works the opposite way. You have it or you don't.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • Veritas

      That is correct. We do not need gods or demons to do the right thing, or be able to do very bad things. People do the things they do based on who they are and what morals they have acquired about how to treat others. Religion is not needed.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:52 am |
  3. Jay Muller

    I consider myself a committed follower of Jesus. I am touched every time I of read (and reread) of the way Jesus was with hurting, despised or powerless people of his day, such as the "sinful" woman in Luke 7, sleazy Zacchaeus of Luke 19, the kids in Mark 10 or the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Jesus' teaching stories of the compassionate father in Luke 15 and the compassionate Samaritan in Luke 10 are some of the most heart warming words found in the Bible. I appreciate this blog by Stephen Prosthero – without coming down on sides of an issue, he is calling us to look at our hearts and our heart's inclination. If ever we as humans (Christ-follower or otherwise) lose the simple message of compassion for the small and the hurting, we have lost a lot of what God longs to see in the human heart and soul.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • JT

      But you see, you seem to be under the impression that compassion, empathy and simple human decency is from something supernatural. I'm an atheist and I assure you I have all those qualities and much more than 99% of all Christians I've ever met.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • richunix

      Wonderful you find a story that was written nearly 100 years after the suppose fact occur (no verifiable proof exist ....BAR NONE) about a MAN who name remain a mystery. Yet two thousand years ago multiple religions were the cultural norm. The belief in multiple GODs (the word GOD is taken from the 6th century CE Germanic language) was widely accepted and only varied by type (and special abilities) depending the region you lived in. None of the Bible stories were ever PROVEN (BAR NONE) and they were will written long after the events supposedly happened. The only thing that changed was the names used to describe the GODS, from Sumerian times the supreme God was called “An” when have evolved to the current Christian name “YAHWEH”. To make a finer point the only thing that really changed was the “story teller” . Each story teller went to great lengths improve his or her deity to the reader. Also remember they didn’t have much on the burden or nor was proof really a requirement. These writers create wondrous feats of magic that go beyond the basic physical laws of nature. You find the very same Creation (according to the Sumerian) stories written thousand years earlier, only the name has changed to meet the current popular God in use. Of course when any questioned these stories, the same standard answer “God says so” . But yet the same people will question any other believers of different religious sects like the Jehovah Witness and Mormons and then label them as “whack–jobs” , but they fail to see Christians are no different. The major difference is modern man has proven through scientific exam the laws of nature and how man really works and YES we evolved from lower forms of life and YES Apes are our distance cousin (deal with it).

      November 12, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • Veritas

      Who cares what "god" longs to see? Empathy and caring for the poor and needy does not require one to read those old dusty fairy tale books, Luke this chapter or Mark that chapter! It is part of the human nature, what we have evolved to. That is why many of us instinctively feel empathy for those we see are hurting or suffering without first asking ourselves if "god" wants us to help these people.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  4. Paul

    Actually, I think we all know that Jesus would be standing all parties involved- and reacting according to the reality of what happend. Empathy is not the only (nor even the best) determinant of how we respond to conundrums. Sometimes it's just a matter of right and wrong. That's why we depict justice as blindfolded.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  5. Jerald Morris

    The US is NOT a Christian Nation. Reason: The Government does legislate that you become a Christan. That is in The Bible, wake up.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  6. Lynam

    Thanks for sharing on this heated topic. I'll say that I agree with what appears to be your main point. Overall, the national response to these latest moral transgressions has been inappropriate and un-Christian or, rather, not Christ-like. I think that is true.
    What I disagree with, however, is the suggestion that Jesus clearly takes one side in these cases. Would he be, "laying flowers at the front door of Paterno’s house?" or be "standing alongside Cain’s lawyer?" Perhaps not as you have precisely described, but standing and comforting those very men, yes.
    Unfortunately, in this place, we all are still susceptible to the oppression of sin and death. Even Christ did not consider himself above this, but willingly took on a death that was meant for us. Yet, the great news in all of this is that Jesus IS the Christ and the redemption gained on the cross is free and available to each of us, saved and unsaved, at any time. So, yes, HE is there for Joe Paterno and Mr. Cain, just as HE WAS there at the moment when each of those people were becoming victims, enduring the pain with them. I know that to be the answer to the question you concluded with.
    God bless, Stephen.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  7. JP

    Jesus did both. He reached out to the rich elite like Zacchaeus & Matthew, as well as the poor and oppressed like the 10 lepers, blind Bartimaeus, etc. They were on vastly different ends of the socio-economic spectrum, but shared the same spiritual poverty and need for a savior. Those of us who call ourselves His followers should do the same.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • Lady Morgahnna

      Jesus is supposed to have sided with the abused, but he forgave the abuser, IF they change their ways going forward, right? He didn't support the wealthy because they were wealthy, he spoke to all humankind to be kind to one another. Paterno and Cain are boils on the skin of the righteous and indignant who forget that there are those who are "lesser of these." Chrisitan-right? Patooey!! More like Christian-wrong!

      November 12, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  8. Nick San Diego

    And thats it in a nutshell....The so called Christian Right had better look itself in the mirror and REALLY see what they stand for.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  9. Moe Smith

    http://notachristian.org/christianatrocities.html – where's the "good" or "moral" christian here?

    November 12, 2011 at 9:42 am |
  10. TheTraveler

    The word "Christian" has taken on a number of derogatory meanings, not all of them undeserved. I think it's a shame, but like any other label, it predisposes a person to have preconceived notions about another who may be simply a person of faith. Personally, while I am a believer in the Lord and I try to apply scriptural teachings to my life everyday, I shy away from considering myself a "Christian". I prefer the term "disciple" and I tell people, if they ask me, that I simply follow after the teachings of the Christ.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:42 am |
  11. tim

    What was the point of your argument? That only christians have ethics? Ummm inquisition? Shut up!

    November 12, 2011 at 9:42 am |
  12. Bob D Iowa

    To many outspoken Christians of today have turned to hate to send their message. It is sad to say that but true that so many have found that there is more money in delivering a hate message than one of compassion for the victims.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  13. Veritas

    I find that the most intolerant and selfish people I meet, or see express their views on public media, are often the ones who pride themselves of being "christians". Meanwhile, many prominent apparent non-believers, such as Bill Gates, do good deeds without the need to score brownie points with the invisible sugar daddy in the sky.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  14. Tony

    i can't take any journalist seriously who doesn't know the difference between "are" and "our"

    November 12, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Bill

      I think the evidence shows that the journalist knows the difference. It's hard to be perfect.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  15. ruemorgue

    Nice useless article - were you paid for this junk or is this a free one?

    November 12, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • HealthDoc

      I agree, what a completely stupid editorial. Serves absolutely no benefit to anyone nor says anything worthwhile. Get new columnists.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:52 am |
  16. EddyL

    We are not a christian nation, and saying so is an insult to every non-christian American.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • Lady Morgahnna

      He isn't saying it is a Christian nation. He is speaking to those who call it a Christian nation.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  17. Cathy O

    Fantastic essay by Mr. Prothero. I've felt the same way for a years and as a Christian myself, I've been heartbroken by the way Christian values seem to have been turned upside down by some of those in power and those with an agenda that seems almost cruel. I've had many conversations with my teenagers discussing my belief in the kindness and empathy of Christ and explaining why I am a Christian, when they see so many of their classmates, those who wear their Christianity on their sleeve, bully classmates for no reason and harass anyone with a different political view. And we are in relatively affluent, well educated community. I believe that there are many Republican and Democratic Christians who try hard to live by true Christian values which, of course, are open to interpretation, but certainly include empathy and respect for others, even those with different religious and political beliefs. Unfortunately, their voices aren't heard much because we're too busy living our lives, going to work, and raising out kids, so the dominate voices who rule the airwaves portray a different type of Christianity that I have trouble recognizing.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • Veritas

      "include empathy and respect for others, even those with different religious and political beliefs", wow really? Aren't you going too far now?

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

      Keep the record straight: Atheists raise children, are law abiding and "YES" we find time to comment on News "BLOGS".

      Stephen F Roberts: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

      Atheism is not a religion nor is it a belief.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  18. z beas

    If there is a god then forgiveness is his/her domain. The rest of us hold grudges.

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


      November 12, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • richunix

      What was your GOD name: (The word GOD is of 6th Centrury German (Germanic) origins). So the question is "Who is granting forgivness"?

      November 12, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  19. JT

    Christianity has always been the most successful parasite belief system that hijacks and steals from the best of others and makes it their own. Christianity did not create the golden rule.but has hijacked and stolen it to help with the indoctrination of others. If one must promised a great reward or have the threat of eternal punishment to be a good person then I pity them.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:37 am |
  20. Moe Smith

    http://notachristian.org/christianatrocities.html - where's the "good" or "moral" christian here?

    November 12, 2011 at 9:37 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.