THE HERMINATOR: Herman Cain takes the stage to address the Conservative Political Action conference (CPAC) in Washington last February. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Newscom)
Herman Cain, an aspiring GOP presidential candidate, appeared out of nowhere. Or did he? Cain, an African-American Atlanta native, rose to prominence in the business world as an executive at the Pillsbury Company and then as CEO of the Godfather’s Pizza chain. He gained notoriety in the political arena by critiquing President Clinton’s healthcare plan in the mid ’90’s and pursuing the U.S. Senate in 2004. He went on to distinguish himself as a motivational speaker and conservative talk-radio host who sometimes calls himself “the Herminator.” But in terms of national name recognition—a critical commodity in politics—Cain essentially appeared out of nowhere.
Standard storylines of black religion and politics lean leftward, connoting images of the Reverends King, Sharpton, and Jackson. This impression is both false and misleading: false because it obscures the work of other faith-filled public servants like Leah Daughtry, Marian Wright Edelman, and Kay Coles James; misleading because it suggests that black politics and faith are inherently liberal—complete with an interventionist view of the State on economic policy.
Cain’s campaign, by contrast, can be seen as a reminder that black faith and politics often reach rightward. In a recent political speech he listed “Almighty God,” his grandchildren, and a love of country as the motivating factors for his race to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The God, grandchildren, and country motif, of course, is not inherently conservative, but is nonetheless a vision of America that black conservatives invoke more frequently than black liberals. From an academic perspective, Barbara Diane Savage reminds us in Their Spirits Walk Beside Us—and Eddie Glaude more popularly in his “Black Church is Dead” piece—the intersections of black faith and politics are varied. From Jupiter Hammon to the burgeoning black participation in right-to-life movements, any honest read of Christians within African-American religious studies reveals that the “God, grandchildren, and country” motif—or some variation thereof—has always been a part of the diverse tapestry of black faith in public life. For every Rev. Jesse Jackson, there is a Bishop Harry Jackson; for every Suzan Johnson Cook, there is an Alveda C. King.
Many bemoan the manifold manifestations of black faith and politics. We can, however, perceive the brute fact of this diversity as an opportunity for collaboration. For example, conservative pastors and politicians organize to help small businesses flourish, a critical concern that black liberals often overlook. The omission is significant: small businesses employ the majority of Americans, comprise a small but expanding percentage of industry in our urban areas, and thus are a pillar of any viable economic development strategy within America’s regions. Contrastively, liberal black pastors and politicians emphasize our system of social insurance (Medicare, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and Workers Compensation) as a promise that the government makes to American families, and—this is the point conservatives often overlook—the precondition for economic mobility in an exceedingly tight labor market.
Rarely, however, do we hear either liberals or conservatives argue explicitly about the importance of the civil sector. And yet, the civil sector, which harbors everything from universities and foundations to civil rights organizations and churches, is uniquely poised to advance an agenda of economic development and mobility.
I’ll conclude with a practical suggestion: Given the shared political emphasis on creating a vibrant and equitable economy, let’s seize the candidacy of Herman Cain as a moment to re-imagine how people of faith, across the political spectrum, might reinvigorate the performance and political presence of the civil sector.