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October 18th, 2011
08:54 AM ET

The liberal church of Herman Cain

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.

Read about Cain's stint as an Atlanta radio talk show host

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.

‘He’s family’

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.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Baptist • Belief • Christianity • Herman Cain • Politics

soundoff (1,058 Responses)
  1. DrMobiles.com

    This is one smart business man for sure. How many people cared about his views or even knew who he was before he decided to "Run For President"? Now he's on the news everyday. Oh by the way, he has a book and a gospel album that he just happens to be selling at the same time. Speaking engagements anyone? He knows that he doesn't have chance of even being elected by his own party, yet what better way to market yourself and your products, than to run for president and then have CNN and everyone else talk about you and your products for FREE. We are the most gullible people in the world when it comes to our so called political leaders. Donald Trump does the same thing every election cycle, it's what keeps him relevant.

    So, I hereby declare that I want to run for President and at the same time please visit my website http://DrMobiles.com for iPhone, iPad & Mac repair services.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • ungato1

      Wow. I really don't think Herman Cain is motivated the way you state; but I like your humor.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • John in Colorado

      Does this remind you of anyone? Sarah Palin?

      October 18, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  2. Patrick

    "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."

    This is exactly the issue here. The republican party will never be a choice for black voters. Republicans don't want it – they'd have to address their core nature.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
  3. Monte

    This guy is a GREAT commercial for Godfather's Pizza, it has been a long time since I had a slice. Really, no politics, just interested to see if the Pizza is good.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Rob

      The Pizza is excellent. However, it's a small chain, so it's hard to find in most areas of the country.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  4. the_dude

    Who does this black think he is voting republican? Blacks need to stick toghther and vote for the party that gives them welfare and section 8 and affirmative action.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • YoDaddy

      Wow..you really have black people figured out. Now ring up my fries. No one pays you to "think"

      October 18, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • Dee

      All races, including white people benefit from welfare, section 8, and all minorities, which includes white women benefit from affirmative action... I hate ignorance. Ignorant parents sooner or later have ignorant children, and the world never changes.

      October 18, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  5. Rob

    It's more of a mental block these days than overt or covert racism. Plenty of black people are successful. My office building is full of them. Plenty of black people are going to college and have a leg up on getting in to the college of their choice because of their race and if they are the first in their family to go to college.... and if they're poor, they pretty much go to college for free with Pell Grants and other need based scholarships. So, what's holding black people back again? If racism not an impediment to becoming President of the US and it's not an impediment to becoming the Republican front runner, it's hard to say that racism still has a major impact today.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  6. John Schwendler

    He's never held elected office. Aren't we struggling with this now with Obama? Wake up, people. Like it or not, an experienced compromiser/leader is needed in the WH to get Congress off its collective kiester and get our country moving again. In case no one has noticed, the Occupiers seem to have gotten moving.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • Rob

      The thing about Cain is he was a talk show host. He was a right wing bomb thrower in the vein of a Sean Hannity. I listened to him, but he said a lot of crazy stuff. Stuff you're not hearing too much of right now. It will all come out in time.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Dave R

      “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.

      Pandering to the racists for votes. What a hypocrite.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  7. jayc

    I wonder what MLK would have said if some one had the idea to raise a wired electric fence to keep blacks out of white neighborhoods...Hispanics are a minority too, under attack of racist people, and Mr Cain propose the electric fence. Then sd it was a joke. By his fruits you will know them, sd the Lord...

    October 18, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • Rob

      I support immigration reform completely..... however, comparing latino citizens of other countries to African Americans who are US citizens is beyond laughable. Latino americans can talk about their rights, but illegals have no rights. You might not like it, but that's the way it is in pretty much every country in the world. I support guest worker programs & I think border fences are stupid and a waste of money. However, don't talk about illegals like they are US citizens. They're not.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  8. Nelle

    Liberals have destroyed this country. They erode the fabric of what is realy right or wrong and try to create grey areas that will make sin acceptable. Sin is sin. God tells us to love the sinner. Pray for them, but do not be yoked with them.. It is the same in the story of the the woman being stoned for adultry in the bible. The Lord said to the people "who is without sin, cast the first stone..." He loves us all as sinners too. But the really important part now is this.. The Lord picked her up off the ground and told this woman, "Your sins are forgiven, go and SIN NO MORE." God does not condone sin, or sinful, perverted lifestyles. He makes this clear. He wants us to strive not to sin and that is the truth. There is not a grey acceptable area of sin and we have to make it a goal as a Christian not to sin to please and serve God. The world and the liberal media want us to accept sin as a lifestyle – but your lifestyle cannot be one of unrepentance. You cannot serve two Gods.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • J.W

      I do not believe that liberals or anyone is in favor of adultery.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • Patrick

      Reagan's policies have been in place for over 30 years. Liberals had nothing to do with it.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • Rob

      You can pick apart the liberals for their support of gay marriage, and other similar liberal social causes. However you can pick apart the conservatives for their lack of compassion for the poor and disinfranchised. Cheering the idea of letting an old person die, rather than have health care that might let them live, is the most clear example of that. I don't think God would be entirely happy with either party.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • Kelly

      Relevance?

      October 18, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • D

      Would someone please explain to me how Republicans can do the EXACT OPPOSITE of what the bible teaches about lending, treatment of the poor, and judging people (the list goes on and on). And have the audacity to try and 'pass it off' as it's what God wants. I am a Christian, and many like me have serious problems with what you people have turned into. The Democratic party is not the 'evil' in this country, it is the Republican leadership..you people should read what the bible actually says and stop listening to 'their' interpretation of the anti-christ.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  9. diego

    Herman cain unlike paul doesn't have knowledge about the economy, must see for yourself, Cain is caught

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=videoseries&w=640&h=360]

    October 18, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  10. mojo

    Wow CNN trying your best to knock down Herman Cain. Scared much?

    October 18, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  11. Tillie in Texas

    I see the FoxLite crowd is out today. What did CNN expect by hiring Erik Erikson, Dana Loesch and all these hate filled talking heads? So much for only providing facts to give people a chance to determine their own opinions. You are officially Fox Jr – unfair and unbalanced. Good Job, CNN!

    October 18, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • Margaret

      Did we read the same article? I came away with a more positive view of Mr. Cain, I still don't agree with him, but I now think he is sincere at least. I also came away with the strong idea that he has lasting friendships in spite of his politics. That the church he is at home with practices what they preach, and is Bible based. In fact I want to know more about the man himself even if I think the 999 idea can't possibly work. But then not many presidents can get what they want through congress in the same form it is presented.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  12. 46th Pres

    Funny how CNN wants Cain's church to reflect the man that he is yet they protected Obama from his affiliation with Wright and the Anti-American Church in Chicago.
    Further proof that the Obama media machine is very afraid of Herman Cain.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • Andrew

      it's raining today so it means that the obama political machine wanted you to associate cain with bad weather patterns....

      jesus.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  13. kesseljunkie

    This is more scrutiny than Obama's pastor got. Seems fair.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  14. ajgorm

    Most blacks are democrats and vote democrat it has nothing to do with being brain washed it is more of a necessity than anything else strength is in numbers so the democrats always pull the minority vote..

    October 18, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  15. Andrew

    In other words, he's playing a political hypocrite who's a bit worse than other politicians because he is also a minister. A black man who disowns the black community he's a part of, he's a mega-millionaire follower of Jesus Christ who is supposed to be poor by biblical standards, and a conservative politician who benefitted from the liberalism that freed his race from slavery. So much for paradoxes. It's all in the money to be made.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  16. Joe

    Great another republicon sucking off the koach brothers tate.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  17. frank

    How funny! Liberal church, ha, ha! I thought the article was going to be about, REVERAND WRIGHT, and his SOON TO BE FORMER POTUS, what's his name (anima, abima, oh no a, whatever, just former)

    October 18, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • Obama 2012

      You're so racist you can't even say his name. Free yourself and just admit it.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  18. Patricksday

    Reverend Cain can Preach against Gays and service to the Poor, Sick and Alienated, and still call him self a follower of Jesus Christ? What about the Chapter of Matthew that talks about what you do to the Least you have done to God. Now GREED is in control of the "Christian Ministers" who want to be Rock Stars, there Ego's have take charge and Jesus is OUT.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • Bermille

      These neoCONS care less about what anything says rather than what they can get away with.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Noncom

      Jesus' compulsion was voluntary and spiritual. Not at the point of a government wielded weapon nor with the threat of confiscation. Charity is for the benefit of both the giver and the recipient, not to build a huge government organization which keeps most of the money for bureaucrats and politicians.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • RLP55

      How does supporting laws that force people of any belief system to take care of the poor have anything to do with Chjristian responsibility for the poor? In case this doesn't make sense to you, government sponsored programs work by forcing everyone to pay for whatever the government decides to pay for, whether it's food stamps, wars, federal prisons or energy research. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but to not consider forcing everyone to pay to be a good thing could only be "unChristian" if there is also no personal commitment. A better way to think about it would be to say that I can replace personal responsi9bility by voting for people who will have the government do it for me. again, not necessarily good, but to consider it the ONLY valid Christian response is pretty narrow-minded.

      October 18, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  19. HURLCO

    Cain is an enigma. On the one hand, I respect a guy who stands for something. On the other hand, what he stands for is troubling.,An audit of the Federal Reserve isn't important? Well, isn't that special? He'd a far better choice than the other sleaze running and i find him to be more believable than Obama. Barrack seems to have squandered his big chance trying to be all things to all peeples. Bunk that. Take a position, stick to it. And let the chips fall where they may. I really don't know. At this point, this evangelical has more faith in the "Occupy" protesters than any front running candidate for political office.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  20. Chainyanker

    “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,”

    This doesn't sound right to me...where I come from it's called being a hypocrite...a cowardly one.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • meedily

      It's called heresy. Don't buy into everything you hear. Where I come from we call that being naive.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • JB

      I'm sure there are a few racist in the Tea Party, just as there are racist in the Rainbow Coalition, and every other group. As long as you have humans, you will have racism, but don't link everyone together, that makes you a bigot and racist.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • jk8369

      Let's see... they are racist so they will vote for a black person. Get that IQ at least up to double-digits and come try again.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • thearchitect

      CNN – 1.... Chainyanker – 0

      October 18, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
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About this blog

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.