Raising Cain

Raising Cain

MAN ON THE RISE: Herman Cain at the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., last week. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/Newscom)

While reports of his imminent demise persist, Herman Cain is nonetheless “raising cane” in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. In fact, a just-released NBC/Wall Street Journal poll places him as the current frontrunner in the GOP race for president.

He’s been termed a “marginal candidate” by the likes of conservative operatives like Fred Barnes.

He’s been deemed unelectable by likely voters.

He’s been charged by conservatives like Michael Medved with the crime of “needlessly” playing the race card when he called a spade a spade in his repudiation of the “N-word” scrawled on an edifice at the Perry family ranch.

Yet, Cain rises.

Despite the pessimism of prognosticators, pundits, and party elites, businessman Herman Cain has emerged as the “yes we can” of the political right.

Compared to the presumed nominee Mitt Romney, Cain has managed to inspire the right’s base. Cain musters 31 percent support from self-described conservatives, compared to Romney’s 15 percent support among the same. Tea Partiers are sipping the Cain Kool-Aid too, with 24 percent support of their heft backing Cain and only 17 percent support for Romney. Pure social conservatives love Cain too — while he came in second place at the Values Voter Summit this month, Tony Perkins of the host group, the Family Research Council, noted that Cain was the obvious winner since 600 of Ron Paul’s minions conveniently flooded the conference only for the Straw Poll on the Saturday morning of the conference.

Perkins said values voters are excited by Herman Cain. “He is a success story,” Perkins told CNN. “If you look at his life — how he has grown up and how he was successful in the business world, and those principles of hard work, of faith, of following the teachings of Scripture and Jesus Christ — he is an example of that, and it’s reflective in his success.”

What are we to make of this apparent surge? Whether Democrat or Republican, ambivalent or animated about the primaries, it would be wise to take Cain’s candidacy seriously.

Recall that four years ago, a rising star in the Democratic primary race was counted out as inexperienced and unelectable, despite his rousing oratory. And he’s now President.

Comparisons of Cain to President Obama are inevitable for obvious reasons. And it wouldn’t be the first time that Republicans sought their own “Black Conservative” answer to the phenomenon that is Barack Obama. Yet, this time the candidate isn’t a drafted carpetbagger who’s being rushed onto the stage solely because of his skin color and loud voice. Cain appears to be his own man.

Pundits and pollsters have too easily dismissed Herman Cain’s candidacy, but the conservative base appears to have a new anointed one — at least for the time being. He’s not the clear frontrunner just yet, but he’s certainly raising cane in the Republican contest. Still, it wasn’t that long ago that Michele Bachmann (remember her?) and Rick Perry had all the buzz and momentum. In a GOP race that discards the favored ones just as quickly as it elevates them, can Cain keep it up?

Rick Perry’s Pastor Problem

Rick Perry’s Pastor Problem

HIS OWN JEREMIAH WRIGHT?: Texas governor and GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry was forced to distance himself from his pastor's statement that GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney's Mormon faith is a cult. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Mitt Romney wants his fellow Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry to disavow the Texas mega-church pastor who called Mormonism a “cult” at the Values Voters Summit last weekend, but Perry has declined, The Associated Press reported yesterday.

“The governor does not agree with every single issue of people that endorsed him or people that he meets,” said Perry spokesman Mark Miner. “This political rhetoric from Gov. Romney isn’t going to create one new job or help the economy. He’s playing a game of deflection and the people of this country know this.”

This Story Is Old News

At the media criticism site Get Religion, Christianity Today online editor Sarah Pulliam Bailey argued earlier that this story is old news.

“If you have been paying attention to religion and politics for at least the last four years, you know that [Robert] Jeffress’ belief that Mormonism is a cult isn’t terribly newsworthy to religion reporters. …Jeffress has been saying these things for quite a while now and political reporters are just now taking notice,” Pulliam Bailey wrote.

Bruised Feelings and Fundamentalists

At The Huffington Post, Episcopal priest and Columbia University religion professor Randall Balmer wrote that Mormons are sincerely wounded and confused by the charge that they aren’t Christians, right before he engaged in a bit of mud-slinging himself.

“For Jeffress and for millions of other fundamentalists, the word ‘Christian’ is a specialized term reserved only to those who hold certain beliefs. Having grown up fundamentalist, I spent the first two-plus decades of my life convinced that Roman Catholics were not Christians – because they were not fundamentalists,” Balmer wrote.

Impotent Labels

What interests me is the power of the labels bandied about in this discussion. Does the term cult hold any real power in an increasingly laissez-faire culture? Does it even approach the dismissive power of the word fundamentalist, which is identified not only with intolerance but also with religious terrorism?

It was 1978 when “cult” leader Jim Jones’ fanatacism led to the murder/suicide of 909 Americans and 1993 when the 50-day FBI siege on the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, left 86 people dead. It seems to me that the word cult has lost some of its verve in the intervening years, perhaps in part because of controversy surrounding the Waco siege.

Aside from the celebrity goings-on and abuse charges related to the Church of Scientology, the latest “cult” story to dominate the news involved the 2006 arrest of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints leader Warren Jeffs. Jeffs was charged with sexual assault and arranging illegal ploygamist marriages between adult men and underage girls. He was convicted of two counts of sexual assault earlier this year and, just yesterday,The Salt Lake Tribune reported that one of his 78+ plural wives requested police assistance in leaving the sect’s home base.

Normalizing Outliers

But then there was Big Love, the HBO hit drama series about a Utah polygamist sect that ran for five seasons (2006-2011) and helped normalize polygamy and other alternative family structures for an American audience.

Last month at the Religion Newswriters Association annual conference in Durham, North Carolina, the Darger family that the series was reportedly based on talked to journalists about their marriage. We were offered free copies of their book, Love Times Three: Our True Story of Polygamous Marriage, which I just finished reading.

Supercharged Words in a New Context

One of the things that struck me most about the Dargers’ storytelling was the way terminology was used in an unfamiliar context. For example, they repeatedly describe their family structure as a “lifestyle choice” and write about bigotry in a way that is similar to arguments for the legalization of same-sex marriage.

On the other hand, they describe themselves as Independent Fundamentalist Mormons, whose sect they say emerged from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) after polygamy was outlawed and the LDS church changed its position on the practice. For the Dargers, fundamentalist is a positive term, one with which they want to be identified.

The idea of one man looking to religion to justify having sex with three women involves a sexual taboo in American culture, but the term fundamentalist carries with it the idea of sexual repression. The phrase lifestyle choice is sometimes used to argue against inherent homosexual identity and is thus rejected by some homosexuals, but here it is embraced to argue for personal freedom.

Innovation or Aberration?

In the Associated Press article that I opened with, reporter Kasie Hunt says rightly that “some evangelical Christians believe Mormons are outside Christianity because they don’t believe in the concept of a unified Trinity and because they rely on holy texts in addition to the Bible.” But then she adds, “For conservative Protestants, the Bible alone is the authoritative word of God and the innovations of Mormon teaching are heresy.”

Innovations is a loaded word here. It carries with it a positive connotation, whereas earlier in the piece she had described the controversy over Jeffress’ statement as a “highly charged, emotional issue” that “raises the specter of religious bigotry.”

But does it really? In an age when the polygamy of Mormon-related sects is celebrated on TV and Americans are increasingly uncomfortable with religious marginalization, is this really a “highly charged emotional issue” or just a diversion, as Perry’s spokesman contends?

What do you think?

Do words like cult and fundamentalist still have power to marginalize or are we all so jaded by the exploitation of language that we don’t even listen anymore?