By Andy Kopsa 

Standing before a crowd of reporters at the Friar’s Club in New York, Sharon Bialek told her story.  With her lawyer Gloria Allred at her side, Bialek painted a picture of an unwanted sexual encounter in a parked car in Washington DC: what she was wearing – pleated skirt, suit jacket; a pleasurable dinner and cocktails; and to her surprise, an upgrade to a suite at her hotel, courtesy of her host for the evening, Herman Cain.

Bialek shockingly revealed that Cain “reached for my genitals” and then pulled her head toward his crotch.  She resisted and asked, “What are you doing you know I have a boyfriend?” Cain’s reply was simply, ‘You want a job, right?’

For a man who has likened himself to Moses, claims God told him to run for presidency and is a registered minister at Antioch Church in Atlanta, these charges should be troubling.  Instead Cain’s personal response has been indignant, his campaign’s ham-handed and somewhat juvenile.  Cain’s lawyer recently cautioned that women considering going public with claims of harassment by Cain should “think twice,” a threat like that of a playground bully.

What Bialek has described is sexual assault.  While sexual harassment is serious, sexual assault is, criminally speaking, a whole other level.  In Washington DC, where the alleged Bialek – Cain incident occurred, a misdemeanor sexual abuse charge carries a $1000 fine plus up to 180 days in jail.  If a case reaches into 3rd or 4th degree assault territory fines can reach $100,000 and jail time soars to 10 years in prison.

GOP Presidential candidate Herman Cain

So what do Evangelicals, who make up a solid 44% of GOP primary voters, view the assault claims against Cain?  And his campaign’s reaction to them?  There’s no better barometer than this weekend’s stars-of-the-Right-studded Thanksgiving event in Iowa.

Just seven weeks before the state’s caucuses, the first in the nation, Herman Cain and the rest of the GOP presidential hopefuls (except Mitt Romney) will participate in the The FAMiLY Leader’s Thanksgiving Family Forum.  The candidates will face an audience of Iowa voters lining the pews of The First Federated Church in Des Moines.

The FAMiLY Leader (TFL) is the primary politico-Christian organization in the state, having played a crucial role as liaison for visiting GOP hopefuls since before the straw polls last spring.

But their political positions have been criticized.  The group has made controversial statements about homosexuality (worse than second hand smoke) and women’s role in society (producing lots of babies). They are responsible for the bizarre “Marriage Vow” made famous in July that extolled the benefits of slavery to African American families.  (After push-back, TFL removed all reference to slavery from the pledge’s text).  Despite all this, TFL wouldn’t be half as interesting a story if, as a Focus on the Family affiliate, the organization hadn’t been built with over $3 million in federal funds.

Bob Vander Plaats, head of The Family Leader looks like a high school principal: slight comb-over, a hallway-commanding gate, sturdy handshake and obligatory smile.  He’s been called a Republican political “kingmaker” by The Atlantic and ranked as one of the top 10 “endorsements the presidential candidates covet most” by The Hill.  Vander Plaats has carefully crafted his national power position over the past several years, most recently demonstrating his strength by spearheading the ouster of three Iowa Supreme Court Justices who had all ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.

Of this weekend’s debate, co-sponsored by Focus on the Family affiliate CitizenLink and the National Organization for Marriage, Vander Plaats told Citizen Link, ”We’d like to see the candidates go beyond the talking points.  We want to know why they think what they think, or why they believe what they believe. So we’re really looking for worldview, both from a biblical perspective and from a constitutional perspective.”

What could a host of “traditional values,” and “pro-marriage,” and “pro-family” Christian groups have to say about Herman Cain?  Even before Bialek’s more serious claims of assault surfaced, PRRI posted an article titled “Sexual Harassment Allegations Could Damage Cain’s Popularity Among White Evangelicals“:

91% of Americans say that taking a bribe is a very serious moral problem, while 81% say the same if an elected official does not report all of their income on their taxes. By comparison, two-thirds (67% and 66%, respectively) say that sending sexually explicit messages to someone other than their spouse and having sex with a prostitute are very serious moral problems.  Nearly two-thirds (64%) say that an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life cannot behave ethically in their public life.

Bob Vander Plaats of Iowa's The FAMiLY Leader

But, Cain seems to be riding the storm, the campaign taking in a reported $2 million in the ten days after allegations were revealed.  It is just in the past few days that Cain has dipped in the polls though it’s unclear if this is due to the charges against him or his poor showing in recent debates.  Still, the Evangelical vote is essential to any GOP presidential hopeful.  Cain’s showing in Iowa could illuminate what the party’s socially conservative (and highly organized, well-funded) voters think of Cain’s family values.

Already, Herman Cain walks a curious religious line in his campaign.  He is not as overt as Michele Bachmann or Rick Santorum.  Where Bachmann and Santorum routinely ground their radical ideas in biblical teachings –gays are barbarians, women submit to their husbands, the sin of homosexuality will lead to man on dog sex – Cain plays his religion close to his chest.   He doesn’t trumpet his preacher status and most of his religious predilections on the campaign trail manifest as singing gospel songs.  (Which incidentally could as easily be attributed to Cain’s love of hearing himself sing as religious conviction.)

Cain prefers, like Gingrich, who uncharacteristically visited Pat Robertson’s 700 Club to proclaim his Christianity, to use his faith where needed to curry favor with the conservative base.  Cain too appeared on The Christian Broadcast Network.  He told of his battle and victory over cancer, crediting God for getting him through.

Or take the recent example of a National Press Club appearance. Cain used his religion and his pipes to dodge harassment charges (and perhaps seek redemption?). Already planned for the day of the allegations before there were public allegations, the event gave Cain the opportunity to “share [his] faith.”  He did this by singing a song called “He Looked Beyond My Faults.” The He in this case?  Jesus.

Cain’s confusing religious outbursts are more anomaly than rule in a Republican party that, consistently veering to the right, tends to keep the god talk steady and consistent.  A good example of how Cain stands out are his confusing comments on abortion.  In an interview with Piers Morgan Cain said, “I believe that life begins at conception, and abortion under no circumstances,” and then immediately followed with, “What I’m saying is, it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make,” he said. “Not me as president. Not some politician. Not a bureaucrat. It gets down to that family… I can have an opinion on an issue without it being a directive on the nation. The government shouldn’t be trying to tell people everything to do, especially when it comes to a social decision that they need to make.”

No other GOP candidate would have made that mistake, moving so far from the standard “pro-life” demand that government, not women, have reproductive choice.  Certainly Santorum would have gotten the answer right.  Even Mitt Romney would have pulled it off with flip-flopping ease.  In a field populated with support for Personhood amendments and anti-choice legislation, Cain doesn’t appear to be a true believer.

No matter how grave the nature of the accusations against Cain (on any count), the role media and political power brokers play in shaping public perception regarding Cain’s presidential race can’t be underestimated.

Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and FOX News, have been busy shaping the conservative base’s perception of the Cain allegations.  Limbaugh blamed the victim, calling Bialek a gold-digger, and played the race card, claiming the Left doesn’t like black conservatives.  Ann Coulter ignored the truth and seriousness of the issue – that sexual harassment and assault are common, punishable crimes – and used dismissive hyperbole: the allegations are no more than a “high tech lynching” of Cain, Anita Hill redux.

The Thanksgiving gathering in Iowa will be a star studded one for the Right.  The event will feature Republican strategist and frequent FOX commentator, Frank Luntz.  (Luntz recently told the Des Moines Register his participation in TFL’s forum to be “one of the greatest honors of my life, and it may be the single most important responsibility I’ll ever have.”  Luntz also hints that one possible question to Cain and the others could be “what do the words ‘so help me God’ mean to you?”)

Conservative radio host and pundit, Steve Deace, thinks asking Cain about charges against him is “imperative” at this weekend’s event (bold added):
I think its imperative that Christians strive for as much moral consistency as possible in any arena of testimony, including the political one. It’s completely fair and appropriate to vet how a candidate has lived out the principles they’re espousing on the campaign trail in their own lives. Therefore, I  think The Family Leader is well within its rights and responsibilities in raising those questions this weekend, and the candidates in question would be wise to use those opportunities to express humility, repentance, honesty, and transparency in how they respond. As Mr. Vander Plaats said on my showon Tuesday, an organization such as The Family Leader would not typically support a candidate that has had two sexual harassment cases lead to financial settlements with previous employees, as well as aired the unbiblical viewpoints on life and marriage that are all applicable to Mr. Cain.
The power of Deace’s words in Iowa politics can’t be understated.  Deace played a pivotal role in elevating Mike Huckabee to a win over Mitt Romney during the last caucus go-round.  And, Deace has skin in the game when it comes to Herman Cain.  As claims of sexual harassment surfaced, Deace revealed that Cain made “inappropriate and awkward” comments to his female staffers.*

Not only conservatives are watching.  The Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers (IAF) group are organizing a protest of the event.  Dave Grzeskowiak said the IAF was coming out to draw national awareness to the erosion of separation of church and state, which he said TFL both flagrantly ignores and routinely violates.  On how Cain’s alleged assault is being brushed under the rug by The FAMiLY Leader and GOP politicos in general, Grzeskowiak said, “Cain’s impropriety and the lack of [TFL’s] attention came up and one of our members wondered if it had to do with it being a heterosexual indiscretion, therefore somehow okay by their [TFL] standards.”

Vander Plaats said TFL would not endorse a candidate until after the Thanksgiving Family Forum and inferred the Forum is the critical test of candidates before Iowa conservatives.   Of the sexual harassment charges, Vander Plaats has said that Cain needs to address the allegations or a “cloud of doubt will envelop his candidacy,” and, “The Iowa and American voter are fair when humility, sincerity and authenticity are communicated. This is a tipping point for the viability of his campaign.”

Indeed, Vander Plaats may be right about the evangelical Christian electorate he represents.  And in a state whose caucuses make presidential kings, and Vander Plaats is kingmaker, Cain better bring his religious A-game.

*breaking news about Steve Deace updated 11.17

Andy Kopsa is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for The American IndependentRH Reality Check and AlterNet. She is a native Iowan and former Iowa newspaper editor.  She blogs at Off The Record.