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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. Dreamer96

    This is how a Rich Religious Republican decides What god wants...Every Sunday after collections at the Church, the Church officals ask god "How much should they spend on themselfs and how much should they spend on the poor"...They place a bowl in the middle of the room and say "God we'll throw the money up in the air over there in the corner, and any money you want us to spend on the poor, you just use your powers to send it to this bowl, OK"....Then they throw the money straight up in the air in the corner of the room and wait to see what God does...And God always says spend it on yourselfs guys, your doing a great job....

    Just remember

    Jesus preached in the open air, did not care where he preach, did not wear gold, it was the message that was important, not where it was preached, I wonder if he is impressed with fancy churches, or big cars, or would rather the money went to help his people.

    He said you know; "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s",

    and who did he run out of the temple, the money changers....

    October 18, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  2. Hening

    So we can get a president who didn't chose a racist, American hating pastor? Cain just keeps looking better all the time.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  3. jbmar1312

    Rizzo, I suspect you only vote party line (democratic) and are unable to make an honest evaluation of the facts for yourself. The statement you made in response to this is a knee jerk emotional rant.

    Please get past the hate of all who don't agree with all of your views of life and try some honest evaluation based on some time put in researching all points of a issue. A judge can only judge rightly when they have heard (listened to) to testimonies of all involved.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  4. Svenska Flicka

    Seriously? There is no such thing as a "Conservative Christian". It is an oxymoron. Christ would NEVER have been labeled a "conservative" in modern terms. He was the furthest thing FROM a narcissistic self serving war mongering modern day "Conservative Christian" that you can imagine.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • DavidE7

      Jesus was a conservative. He said "I came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it!" But he was also a liberal because he was tolerant and accepting of the outcasts of society. He was all things to all men.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  5. Frank

    So Eric Marrapodi and John Blake decided to attack Cain by branding him with "liberal"?!? HAHAHAHAHAHA! Oh, you "journalists" you!

    October 18, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  6. jorge washinsen

    The muck raking has begun.The liberal news agencies are running scared.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  7. Kerry

    Seems to me Mr. Cain has a bit of a schizophrenic personality being an associate minister in a liberal church yet espousing very conservative and disparaging comments about blacks being "brainwashed". Complicated or hypocritical?

    October 18, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • CainCan

      " Once you vote black... you never go back. "

      October 18, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • jorge washinsen

      Maybe he is trying to save their souls (the Liberals)

      October 18, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  8. CainCan

    " CAIN MEANS BUSINESS! CAIN CAN. 2012. "

    October 18, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • CainCan

      "Put that cup of hot chocolate in the White House and a pizza in every oven. Vote CAIN... or your must be INSANE."

      October 18, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • ramiro64

      Cain means more pain, lets' be real the Rep/Tea party will never nominate this man, they want to destroy Pres.Obama. What do you think they'll do with 9-9-9 pizza Cain?

      October 18, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • ramiro64

      Yeah! if you love pizza!

      October 18, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • Cain is fake

      I would rather eath Tacos and not pizza, pizza sucks,.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  9. DavidE7

    I don't need to read the article to know it will be one more subtle way to make sure that Herman Cain will NOT be the nominee so that Mitt Romney WILL, so that Barack Obama will be reassured of re-election. The Republican establishment wants Romney because he will protect the big banks and financial industry. The Democratic establishment also wants Romney, but because they know he cannot win. Therefore, every article on the internet about any other candidate will be an attempt to marginalize him. But the American people, and not the media, will decide!

    October 18, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Maventi

      You're insane if you think Herman Cain has a better chance against Obama than Romney. There's a fairly large part of the Republican Base that simply won't vote for a black man. That's just a fact. It's what happens when your Base is comprised of elderly Deep South evangelicals. And those very same evangelicals might whine about Romney being a Mormon, but they're even more opposed to Cain's church. So basically, Cain won't get the Black vote, and he won't get the White vote, and the Independents are unlikely to vote for a guy who's never held any sort of political office.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  10. paganguy

    I like the Chinese method of real separation of state and church: You can practice any religion but then you can't serve in the government at any level.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Maventi

      I'm sure Tibet would be interested in hearing about all this "freedom of religion" that the Chinese practice.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • dave

      wow, are you serious...

      in china, christian churches have to be sanctioned by the state. there is no freedom of religion there, it's all controlled by the state to keep it's population in line. how can you have separation, when the government controls whom can and cannot form a congregation.

      October 18, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  11. ramiro64

    Cain's real 9-9-9 plan- $9 bucks for a pie, you get to choose up to 9 toppings, and if not delivered within 9 minutes, you get it for free!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    October 18, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  12. James PDX

    “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.

    Sounds like one of those potato/potatoe things. It also sounds like the reverend was calling CAIN a liar but excusing him because it's OK for politicians to lie. Nice.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  13. Erik

    9-9-9 is evil. It takes from the poor to give to the rich, and would not come close to satisfying our country's spending requirements. Vote for this loon at your own risk.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • CainCan

      Only serial killers take "numbers" and turn them into evil warnings. Seek medical attention.

      "Vote Cain. Do the Cain Can. 2012."

      October 18, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • ramiro64

      If you flip it over (666) the devil's in the details!!!!!!!!!!

      October 18, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Erik

      Where did my post reference numerology? The plan is evil. I'm not a stupid zombie cultist.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • CainCan

      " No mo da same. Vote Cain. 2012. "

      October 18, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • creed

      Actually, the devil is in the 'greed'.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  14. ramiro64

    Cain's real 9-9-9 plan- $9 bucks for a pie, you get to choose up to 9 toppings, and if not delivered within 9 minutes, you get it fro free!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    October 18, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  15. callmecrazy

    Do you know what you get if you order a Cain from McDonalds?

    John McCain.

    Seriously, he is now under scrutiny for being the front runner, but that's how it goes. If this is the worst they can dig up, he'll get past it.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • James PDX

      Possibly the worst they could dig up is that he is one of 4 GOP candidates claiming that God told them to run for president. Psycho much?

      October 18, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  16. us1776

    999 = Nein, nein, nein = No, no, no !!

    .

    October 18, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Byrd

      Nice catch.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  17. Mike pison

    Basically in a nut shell republicans and the right have been Planning Obama's demise before the ink was dry on his inaugral papers. Many of them for all their efforts Will need psyho help when he is reelected.
    Oh..happy day!

    October 18, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Republican's are fraud's !

      I totally agree Mike ! Obama is the only choice ! None of the GOP field is worth wasting a vote on !

      October 18, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  18. Ryan

    If Cain get's the nomination at the very least the Republicans wont have to battle the race card anymore.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • CainCan

      Don't be insane... Vote Cain. Cain Can. 2012.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • jorge washinsen

      Squeaky wheels always squeak.There is not enough grease in the world to stop them now.Their claws are too deep in politics.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • James PDX

      On the contrary, CainCan, Cain is NOT able.

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

      Yeah, sure, just like racism in America died when Obama was elected.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  19. Byrd

    Beware those promising and championing false profits. It says that somewhere in your black book. Just don't get too hung up on semantics. This church is able to slay Cain, and do it in such a way that he never returns to politics.

    Make it so.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Erik

      Intentional use of profits instead of prophets? Or freudian slip?

      October 18, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  20. Gayle

    Churches are supposed to be socially liberal. Taking care of the poor, the elderly, and the downtrodden is the role of churches, not government. The only difference between Cain and his minister is that his minister believes that the government should assume that role. If the churches of the U.S. did a better job of caring for the poor, the government wouldn't have to.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Sean

      Or its just your basic hypocrisy.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Brian

      Your point has some validity. Certainly if the churches weren't so intent on stopping gay marriage and abortion and proclaiming the end of the world and death to all sinners they may be able to do a better job at taking care of the poor. However, taking care of the poor doesn't provide churches the cash flow, recognition or following that they get by standing against gay marriage and abortion, therefore they choose the alternative and dump the poor back on the government.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • FrankinSD

      Can you name a modern, democratic country anywhere in the world that handles poverty that way?

      October 18, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • Bonniec

      Where do you get the idea that it is the church's JOB to help the poor so that "the government doesn't HAVE to?"
      To the extent that the government causes and/or allows gross inequities, it is morally obligated to correct them, not leave it up to some church.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Bob

      Gayle, this isn't the 15th or 16th Century, where the Church WAS the Government. The world has grown far beyond that in the last 500 years, for good reason.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:56 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.