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. What the...

    Maybe Jesus was a CEO of a huge global company which would explain why the religious conservatives refuse to denounce corruption and greed. Maybe Jesus was actually what is written in the bible and the religious right only THINK Jesus was something other than that.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • Uncoerced

      These 'CEOs' and businessmen are educated at the universities that preach there is no God, no right or wrong, no absolutes. What else do you expect from them but greed and corruption?

      November 12, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • John Richardson

      @Uncoerced You claiming that all the greedy CEOs are non-believers?

      November 12, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • Uncoerced

      One who is OBEDIENT to the teachings of Christ will give. "If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?"

      November 12, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  2. Uncoerced

    "What has happened to this supposed Christian nation?!! Were do I start?! We kill the most innocent, the unborn, and get creative with semantics and call it a 'choice'. We entertain ourselves with all sorts of depravity and killing. We are only focused on the material. We don't believe in absolutes. When a culture embraces these ideas, the consequences will be harsh. There will be more suffering.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • Erm

      Calling a first trimester fetus a "Person" or "Child" is about creative with semantics as you can get

      November 12, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • GR

      What about decrying what has happened in that religion towards molestation of children? Maybe that is why we are suffering? Just a thought, as comparable to the logic of saying we are suffering because of killing the unborn?

      November 12, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Uncoerced

      Even in the first trimest, the unborn is FULLY human. Well, that's what science tells us.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  3. Bob07

    When exactly was this ever a Christian nation? Maybe when it was founded and African-Americans were only considered three-fifths of a person, or maybe it was when the Ku Klux Klan (which actively practiced public lynchings) was one of the strongest political forces in this country........This country has NEVER been a Christian nation. I think Christ himself would vomit upon hearing that very phrase. Politicians just use religion as a way to appease the public, but when you look at the actions of our politicians and nation as a whole throughout history.....you have to ask yourself.....where was this supposed "Christianity" when we allowed and facilitated so many horrible acts.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • Erm

      The true KKK only lynched blacks people believed to be rapists or murderers. The Bible endorses such treatment int he Old Testament.

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

      Oh, and the Bible also permits slavery and polygamy. It's not that the US isn't largely a Christian religion, it's just that modenr liberal Christians ignore most of what's inthe bible when deciding whats moral and "christian-like".

      Enlighten yourself. Google "Skeptics Annotated Bible" and read online

      November 12, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  4. Charles

    This is a complete misrepresentation of Christianity. To be a Christian is to believe that Jesus was the son of god and that he died on the cross and was resurrected. That is all. Everything else about empathy is false.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • Erm

      So everything Jesus taught was false? Because that's pretty much what you just said.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • GR

      Probably, yes. To be more accurate, out dated and antiquated as is the other religion whose God purportedly wants to kill everyone who does not believe in Him. One reader here said that the "true KKK" went after blacks who were supposed to be rapists etc. Really, the true "KKK". Actually, keep it up. I never thought that stupidity could be this entertaining.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  5. senoy

    He's not using Christian as a synonym for good. We don't know what is good. After all, if Herman Cain is falsely accused, then the good act would be to side with him as the victim. He's talking about inclination. His claim is that the natural inclination of Christians should be to side with the less powerful, not the more powerful. He says we incline to temporal power which seems to be against his interpretation of orthodox Christian ethics.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  6. Dave

    I haven't seen where either of these guys (Paterno or Cain) have been proven guilty of anything yet? I still love the values of this nation, Christian or not Christian.

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

      Is that you Herman?

      November 12, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  7. Nick

    Excellent writing. Particularly powerful that the article reminds the reader that this is not about the legalities but where the heart leads. Very potent.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  8. GR

    Hey, It is a religion! What do you expect? Religion was fundamentally designed to divide people, collect unaccounted money and not pay taxes – and finally use God as an excuse to make one feel guilty. What a choice we have, one that routinely molests children to the extent that even Ireland broke off diplomatic relations with the head of that branch of that religion, and another that routinely wants to kill people that do not believe in it.
    Whatever happened to being good to your fellow human being, follow basic tenets of decency, and pray to God your own way? Too simple? And the farce that this "was" a Christian nation. Get off it. This nation was founded on slavery, on the near eradication of a race and the use of illegals to build it. So, let us not try any "holier than thou" talk here. There was nothing "Christian" about this nation. Is it a great nation? Yes, undisguisedly, but only on relative scales, and not in absolute terms.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  9. joe

    I think this is only a superficially thought out piece. The sore failure is the insistence on placing a "either/or" upon God's location in these crises.
    What makes you think that God isn't at both doorsteps in each situation? Admittedly God would be knocking at the doors of some of these hearts to compell them to stand for truth while knocking at the doors of others trying to bring them comfort, I I am convicted that the Christian position is that God wants healing for all parties – both for the heart that is wounded and alos for the one that is poisoned with power. That will ultimately mean, for the powerful, seeking forgiveness and surrendering their love of power – but the first and the greatest still matter to God. What is sad is that these people who "love" the powerful think they are helping them by defending their pedestals. What we need to understand is why, as a race, do we insist on idolizing (make into gods) human beings? That's a differnt topic I suppose.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • John Richardson

      The at best superficially thought out essay is Stephen Prothero's genre of choice.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  10. DOG told me to do it!

    I do not look to ANY religion to guide me in my actions. Doing so is like holding a pair of binoculars upside down to your eyes, looking at your feet, then trying to walk straight.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:52 am |
  11. the truth

    JT.. you hit the nail on the head. Zbeas, your commentary makes no sense. Forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • Bob

      oh that reply button.

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

      But why would you equate forgiveness of the miserable and poor with forgiveness of the rich and powerful? You and author both need a brain.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  12. kderii

    Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty... CNN and their writers have signed Joe Paterno's death warrant when no charges have even been filed.. And as the writer states in his piece the Herman Cain "accusations". Why shouldn't we be holding our judgement until a court of law decides their innocent or guilt... I just see a lot of media hype as usual...

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

      The author says:

      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.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  13. Pope Leo X

    It has served us well, this myth of Christ.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:49 am |
    • Bob

      Sure has. Pass that plate around. We need, errr, God needs money.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      @Bob: Awesome. 🙂

      November 12, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  14. Tim

    This is hogwash. I swear to God, somebody needs brain surgery. This is why noone takes media seriously any more.
    Like Cain and Paterno are homeless, right? They are both ambitious, successfu and wealthyl people who screwed
    up and now must be held to accounts like the rest of us. Has nothing with Christ. Get a job at MacDonalds, author.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • dori

      To parallel Cain and the pervert child molesting coach is nonsense. The adult women had power and didn't use it. Children are vulnerable and believe threats to be silenced. You're a writer? Try being and thinker.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:03 am |
  15. ReligiousCrook

    Great! Christians are gullible and violent anyway.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  16. Funkymonkey

    I believe Christianity is alive and well in our country. There are many, however, who use it as a guise to push their own agenda. The Religious Right and a large portion of the conservative community use religion as a tool to fight agains that which makes them uncomfortable. They are not very different than Osamma Bin Laden who used Islam as a tool to manipulate the radical Muslim base. Much like Bin Laden, these Psudo-Christians care less about the tenants of their faith and more about the influence it yields over an easily manipulated subset of that faith. Also, much like Bin Laden does not represent Islam, those who use Christianity to manipulate their base do not represtne Christians. Unfortulately, more often than not, they are the public face of their religion.

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

      "I believe Christianity is alive and well in our country." -very sad if true.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • dick

      Very well put.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • Counting Wizard

      Lots of people have agendas. The doesn't make agendas bad. I think what you are trying to say is that a large group of Christians are trying to impose their religious beliefs on non-Christians through government, something that isn't fair or equitable in our country. No need to bring up comparisons with hot-button issues.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  17. The Dude

    Atheists would never act this way. Mainly because we don't think we will receive forgiveness JUST for believing in a fairy tale invisible sky Jew father figure.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • The Dude

      Atheists would never act this way. Mainly because we don't think we will receive forgiveness JUST for believing in a fairy tale invisible sky Jew father figure.

      Atheists are 100x more moral than any religious cult follower because we have real morals, not ones derived from a make believe GOD. Our morals are genuine ones derived from logic and reason.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • NewsRaider

      You are right. Most so-called christians believe they are good people who follow the law, but spend their lives breaking the law, praying to god, asking for forgiveness, and continually repenting. If you don't know such christian laws, you are much better off.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • DOG told me to do it!

      Easy Dude. Most religious folks do not believe in logic and reason. How many times have you heard someone say "I give it up to the lord to decide." instead of handleing the situation with said logic or reason.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • JT

      Agreed. Who has more morals, one who does good because the threat of eternal punishment or promise of a great eternal reward in the afterlife or one who believes none of these things but does good for his fellow man simply because it's the right thing to do?

      I'm an atheist and I've actually had Christians ask me what keeps me from raping and murdering.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  18. The one and only

    Oh Moe. People who live in the past can't possibly have hope for the future. Good luck with your life. Also the problem with this nation isn't whether it's christian enough or not, it's the fact that we're all self indulgent inbred retards who can't see past our own noses.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  19. hippypoet

    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 9:46 am |
    • TRH

      You nailed it. I barely read beyond the first paragraph because I new he would blame all this current mess on lack of religion which is beyond stupidity. Actually on second thought he might be right...the first protestors (and this is a mindset of this entire nation) DO have religion...football. We are a nation of confused priorities with sports, pro AND college (even at the high school level) taking precedence over education. SAT scores, the dropout rate, and literacy statistics bear this out.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • Gene Bertsche

      Thank you. I believe you addressed this issue very well.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  20. Charlie

    Good column, but it would have been more powerful if had been restricted to the situation at Penn State. There's little comparison between what happened to those adult women and what happened to those young boys.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • the truth

      Actually there is.. It is an abuse of position and power and subsequent subjugation of weaker individuals to your will. They are both evil men. The apologists for them are weak willed and small people.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:59 am |
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