October 18th, 2011
08:54 AM ET
By Eric Marrapodi and John Blake, CNN
Editor’s note: CNN’s John Blake was formerly a member of Antioch Baptist Church North. He left 13 years ago.
Atlanta (CNN) – Herman Cain has vaulted to the top of the polls as a Republican presidential candidate, but there’s one audience that may prove tougher for him to win over: his hometown church.
Cain, a conservative who recently said African-Americans were “brainwashed” into voting Democratic, is an associate minister at an Atlanta megachurch that has been a stronghold of liberal activism and is led by a pastor who cites Malcolm X as one of his influences.
Cain is a longtime member of Antioch Baptist Church North, which sits near the former college and home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The church, founded by freed slaves 134 years ago, boasts 14,000 members and an operating budget of more than $5 million. For years Antioch has hosted a “who’s who” of civil rights activists as guest speakers, including Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young.
Antioch’s powerful senior pastor, the Rev. C.M. Alexander, doesn’t share Cain’s political philosophy, Atlanta clergy say. But Cain and Alexander are so close that Cain sang “The Impossible Dream” for the pastor’s 50th anniversary celebration. The Atlanta businessman-turned-presidential hopeful is well liked by many members of his church, though some disagree with his politics, Antioch pastors say.
Cain’s piety may be just as fascinating as his politics, interviews suggest.
“He’s a real person who is more complicated than the sound bite you may have heard from him,” says the Rev. Fredrick Robinson, a friend of Cain’s who was an associate minister at Antioch before leaving to form his own church.
At Antioch, Cain has had to share the pews with fiery critics of the Republican Party like Joe Beasley, a man born to sharecroppers who once said he’s been called the “N-word” more times than he can count.
Beasley is a deacon at Antioch and serves as Southern regional director for Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition. He also knows Cain and has no problem with his presence at Antioch.
“We’re good friends. He’s a great speaker and a great singer. He has a great love for the church,” Beasley says.
Beasley says he doesn’t talk politics with Cain, though.
“I respect him – and I want to keep my respect for him,” Beasley says.
Beasley, who worked with Cain on his unsuccessful 2004 run for one of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats, says Antioch’s acceptance of the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO is not unusual. It’s an attitude, he says, that starts at the top with Alexander.
“The reverend’s position is when we open the door, whosoever comes, let them come,” Beasley says.
Alexander did not return calls seeking comment. Cain also was not available to comment for this article.
The black church has long been a paradox. It is one of the most politically liberal but theologically conservative institutions in the black community. Cain’s house of worship embodies some of these contradictions.
Antioch is a member of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., a denomination in which some churches do not ordain women. The denomination’s leadership publicly broke with King over his civil rights activism.
But like many black Baptist churches, Antioch has developed a strong social justice component to its ministry over the years. It offers ministries for people suffering from drug addition and those infected with HIV/AIDS, and it has been a Sunday stopover for black politicians running for office.
Cain and his family blossomed in this world, according to some people who’ve known them at Antioch.
Robinson, the former Antioch minister, says Cain’s parents were pillars of the church. Cain graduated from Morehouse College, King’s alma mater, and went away to make his fortune. He returned to Antioch amid “great fanfare,” Robinson says.
Cain eventually became a fixture in the church’s deacon’s corner, a row of seats near the pulpit. On any Sunday, Cain could be seen sitting with the other deacons in his favorite light-blue dress shirt shouting, “Preach Rev!” or “Say it,” as the minister preached, Robinson says.
In 2002, Cain became a licensed minister at Antioch, he told Christianity Today.
Antioch members accept Cain because “he’s family,” Robinson says.
“If Herman Cain was one of those real uppity ‘I’m too good for regular blacks folks’ kind of person, he wouldn’t have mingled with us like he did,” Robinson says.
Robinson left Antioch to form his own church in rural Georgia and invited Cain to speak three times. All Robinson could afford to pay Cain was $200. It didn’t matter to Cain, whose speaking fee is usually far more, Robinson says.
Cain accepted the offer and brought a group of worshippers along with him to support Robinson’s small church, the pastor says.
Cain’s views on race aren’t simplistic, Robinson says. Cain says he doesn’t think racism is a huge obstacle for blacks, but Robinson says Cain has privately told him it’s a problem and once even complained about “the good ol’ boy” network in Georgia Republican politics.
“He knows there’s racism in the tea party, but he’ll never say that because they are his supporters. That bothers a lot of people, but he plays to that base not because he’s a sellout but because he’s a politician,” Robinson says.
In one video on his campaign website, “The Official Herman Cain Train Music Video,” Cain poses with young African-American and white supporters at a tea party rally and bellows, "To those who say the tea party is a racist organization, eat your words!"
The Rev. Gerald Durley, senior pastor of Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta and a longtime activist, recalls when Cain performed the key song from “Man of La Mancha” for Antioch’s pastor.
Cain sang “The Impossible Dream” in his deep baritone and “got a standing ovation,” Durley says. (Cain, who recently released an album of gospel tunes, also belted out the song at a recent campaign stop.)
Cain’s conservative message that blacks should forget about racism and focus on pulling themselves up by their bootstraps doesn’t mesh with his pastor’s philosophy, says Durley, himself a longtime leader among Atlanta clergy.
When the evangelist Billy Graham visited Atlanta in 1994 for a crusade, Alexander demanded that Graham include blacks on the various committees that organized his speaking event at the Georgia Dome, Durley says.
“He’s not going to talk about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” Durley says of Antioch’s pastor. “It’s about providing bootstraps.”
Alexander has said pastors should be agents of social change, not “religious pop stars.” He says Malcolm X and Rosa Parks are some of his civil rights influences.
“It’s not enough to talk about what black folks ought to do,” Alexander once said. “We have to also look at what government is not doing to ensure fairness and equal opportunity. God is on the side of the least of these. Jesus said, ‘The first shall become the last and the last shall become the first.’”
But Durley says Alexander can separate Cain’s political and religious beliefs.
“(Alexander) has respect for him,” Durley says. “Cain has been there for years. I would imagine that Alexander would say, ‘I can separate his spiritual soul and salvation from his political dogma.’”
‘Very clear … faith walk’
Ken Blackwell - former Cincinnati mayor, former Ohio secretary of state and fellow African-American Republican - first worked with Cain on an economic growth and tax reform commission in the mid-1990s.
“(Cain) is a person who tries to live his faith in the way he conducts himself in public and private life,” Blackwell says. “He doesn’t just talk the talk. He actually lives what he says and believes in.
“We have prayed with and for one another,” Blackwell says.
Both Cain and Blackwell are cancer survivors, and the two men leaned on each other during their health struggles. Blackwell beat prostate cancer in 2000 and Cain was diagnosed with stage four cancer in 2006. Cain has said his faith, coupled with the right medical treatment, was a major reason he was able to fight and beat the disease.
“I was able to see he has a very clear and discernible faith walk he was very comfortable with and very dependent on as he met his challenges,” Blackwell says.
Ralph Reed, head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and former Christian Coalition leader, says the time Cain spent behind the podium at Antioch has helped him connect with voters on the campaign trail.
“Herman Cain can hold his own with Mike Huckabee in terms of his ability to connect with and really develop a rapport with voters of faith,” Reed says. Cain heads back to Iowa next week to speak at a Faith and Freedom event with Reed.
“He shares their faith, he shares their values and he’s extremely good at being able to communicate his views,” Reed says. “I think someone who is comfortable with the lexicon of evangelicals is clearly going to over-perform in the early primaries.”
But while voters have welcomed Cain and helped rocket him to the top of polls, there are some fellow African-American clergy who are not as accepting.
The Rev. Artis Johnson, an Atlanta pastor, wrote an open letter to Cain in a local online newspaper, the Cascade Patch, after Cain said last month that blacks were brainwashed into voting Democratic.
“We are not circus animals or attendees of hypnotism shows that cannot make the reasonable and right decisions about who our greatest political enemies are, ” Johnson wrote.
In his letter, Johnson asked Cain why blacks would vote Republican when the party desires to disenfranchise blacks at the voting booth, denies the power of racism and believes the free market is going to address the needs of the poor and elderly.
“In my heart,” Johnson wrote, “I was hoping that you would represent a politician that did more than appeal to the worst in the electorate.”
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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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.