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. jacg50

    This article makes no sense at all......First of all we have no idea if Cain is guilty......we have no idea what all is going on with Paterno. My heart is broken for the young boys whose lives have been hurt by this but your aritcle is senseless......As far as Cain.....one lady has sued other people for other things......I don't buy everything I hear. Things aren't always as they seem. I think I will wait and and pass judgement later.....Jesus would rather me do that I think......

    November 12, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • Bob D Iowa

      Or what you've been told to think.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • Jussmartenuf

      I don't get why a lot of commentators don't understand the author is not discussing guilt or innocence. His question has to do with empathy and questions whether those who call themselves Christians, and what that implies, truly Christian in their thinking. Many Christians are phoney as a 9 dollar bill, sanctimonious and a discredit to their fellow Christians. His query is, which are you?

      November 12, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  2. Sue Frederick

    Simple Comment: It is difficult to see our beautiful country in its present state . . . it is shameful. Its rapid decay is evident everywhere we look. I feel helpless – our country is ruled by laws and democracy. Yet, its citizens deflower it every chance they get – Mr. Prothero weeps as the rest of us do.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:03 am |
  3. Wo0F

    Hell no were not a christian nation.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:03 am |
  4. LittleLordHoseaComethUntoU2Say

    modern Christians are harmful to themselves and others. The ONLY Christian ever was nailed to a price of wood long before the term Christianity was crafted to serve the church. Today's christian is an end-timer and has no idea of the message of Christ.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • TC

      I seriously doubt you are in any position to judge an know the hearts and minds of people regardless of their beliefs.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • LittleLordHoseaComethUntoU2Say

      Judgement in and of itself is the human trap, so your comment has no foundation to anything. Exoterically I can make that statement. but Esoterically you are right, ....since judgement is the trap "judge not ...lest thee be judged"

      November 12, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  5. Galabb

    I have plenty of empathy! But my empathy is ALL with victims whose lives have been forever damaged! I AM CHRISTIAN!

    November 12, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  6. Isaac

    Total hypocrisy?.... that's the very essence of a christian society.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • micah


      November 12, 2011 at 10:03 am |
  7. Margaret

    In the time of Jesus both Paterno and Cain would be harshly dealt with. One would be gone and the other would be run out of town. Are you for real? This is all about the victims and nothing else. The side effects of this horror story would be the lost of students, prestige, trust, money and future for the university and the secondary downside impacts would be to the student body, past and present, themselves. Jesus shut the church down for usury, just what do you think he would do to this debaser of children. As for the womanizer, life itself will take care of him. I have every confidence that Jesus, were he among us today, would be leading the charge to punish the evil man Petrano and he would probably give Cain 3 years of penance to think about his foolish ways. As I am not a christian I will refrain from giving you my idea of what should or should not happen to Mr. Petrano and I think Cain laughable as a choice for anything let alone President of the United States.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  8. frank

    Thanks for articulating an excellent perspective.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  9. Yobee

    The concept of the United States being a 'Christian Nation' is a canard created by those who would install a theocracy in this country. We never have been a 'Christian Nation', nor will we ever be, nor would we want to be. We're Americans, that's it and that's enough...

    November 12, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • TC

      Not that simple – the nation was founded by arrogant Brits who wanted a country run by white aristocrats that were Protestant and it has shaped our culture.

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

      Canard, good word and so appropriate. Your entire comment is correct and well put. The evangelicals would have a theocracy to rival the Taliban.

      November 12, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  10. Joe

    Obviously this authors glass is half full. Sad he only see the nation, us, in a negative light with a grand sweeping generalization based on the actions of a few. Not very Christian – right. Not very intelligent ether. MOST people do care. MOST people are saddened. MOST people are disgusted. And on the other hand people are innocent until proven guilty.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  11. TX Mom

    Amen! The people that scream the loudest about being Christian show the least Christian characteristics of all.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  12. Denese

    You must remember that when anyone begins to spew religious ideals; that is how they want us to act and not how they themselves behave.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  13. Bennett

    The problem with this argument is that you've written an entire story and never once mentioned Jerry Sandusky by name. You and your media colleagues have spent so much time barking about Joe Paterno and how wrong he was instead of focusing on the real perpetrator, Sandusky.

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

      Great point and the first real failure in this whole mess was Steve McQueary who saw it and did nothing.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • Hrafnr

      The problem is that it is not merely Sandusky at fault here. Yes, he is there perpetrator but his actions were allowed to continue due to the relative inaction of these men, Paterno included. Legally and Morally, these men are all at fault. They kicked the can down the road rather than making a phone call to the Police and so more children suffered.

      The article isn't about how people reacted to Sandusky.....its about the riots for Paterno and what it says about the oft touted Christian Values supposedly embraced by this Nation and its so called Leaders.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  14. kay

    Nicely said Stephen. I have had this thought many times on other, mainly political, issues. So many of those who claim to be so "faithful" act in ways that are against what most faiths teach.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  15. george S

    Very interesting and thought provoking article....well done

    November 12, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  16. Bob D Iowa

    Both Jesus and Mohammed would forsake the activities of Christine and Islam since their passing only the followers of the Old Testament Prophets taught these principals to gain control over others.

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

      who in the hell is christine?????????????? you sure spelled islam right. you and this bonehead writer are always trying to start something on CNN. where does he mention sandusky or the pope? he also mentioned the great religions of the world? just because this writer is an atheist, there are always going to be jerks like this that try to blast Christians. These people laying flowers at Joes door were idol worshippers and the only reason we are coming to cains defense as we want to get rid of this muslim in the whitehouse. these women all had a price tag. lawsuit,lawsuit. dialing for dollars, so SHUT UP

      November 12, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • jm

      I am replying to Shut Up. This guy is a number one horses ass. When he can say there are Muslims in the white house, he is one sick puppy, and would rate right up there with the rapists and thugs. President Obama is the most decent president this country has had and so refreshing after Bush. The Republicans are doing everything in their power to keep him from looking good, including keeping jobs from being created. This is Christian behavior? Really, Makes me sick to my stomach.

      November 12, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  17. Joan

    What would Jesus do? Most of us know the answer.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  18. Steve

    Jesus would probably be laying flowers down at BOTH Paterno's home as well as the victim's homes. That's where you and your article fall completely short, and demonstrate your absolutely lack of comprehension of Christianity itself. Life isn't always about choosing sides, either-or, black-and-white. Writers like yourself who narcissistically sound-off before thinking and research are what gives today's media a pathetic name. Frankly, you should be ashamed....

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

      Great comment Steve – I find Prothero to be an agitator as a CNN commentator. I think the heart may be in the right place but not a lot of thought goes into it.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • MechaStewart

      Steve – that's what I love about people defending their faith – they can either play black, white or black and white. If life is not about choosing sides – I assume that you do not choose a side in gay marriage, abortion, capital punishment and the hideous abuses by the church? Or do you profess to take a side but emphasize with the other. Not trying to troll here, but your logic is confusing. I agree that not all matters are black and white – but when it comes to the majority of issues or questions of ethics, religion consistently demonstrates what side it is on.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Chris

      No, Steve, he wouldn't have gone to Cain or Paterno. Jesus was no fan of the rich (Paterno, Cain). He is a fan of the poor, oppressed, and the needy (Alleged Victims). When was the last time you read your bible?

      November 12, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • TC

      You can take a side with an issue but you don't have to to blind to the other.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • Ed

      Very good comment Steve. Both the victim and the perpetrator need love and compassion. I am often discouraged by our need to assign blame. If you read the world's scriptures correctly I think you will find that there actually is no such thing as justice. There are only compassion and forgivness.

      November 12, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  19. LittleLordHoseaComethUntoU2Say

    The Jesus I've read (I'm not a Christian) would have neither placed flowers or went searching for victims. Just as he in passing said to the cripple man at Bethesda, "get up and walk", I believe he would have told everyone to" get over it" and therefore heal yourself. There is no such instrument by which a person can gain instant salvation or healing from anyone other then themselves ...this is the EXOTERIC practice of the Christian church crafted to keep victims forever in their flocks.

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

    More anti-christians articles by CNN– the Al jeherza of the west.

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

      Where in the world is this an anti-christian article?

      November 12, 2011 at 10:05 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.