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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. Joe Shea

    How dare you attack Cain on the basis of the church he goes to? This is a new low.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  2. Doug

    I am liking Mr. Cain more each time I read about him. Its very impressive for a man to sit with others who totally disagree with his point of view and become friends with them. They can agree to disagree and that is something Washington needs to learn. He is someone I would like to meet, and from what he says and does I am respecting him already. Good look and I will be hoping for your nomination!

    October 18, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  3. John

    The Tea Party Is Racist and when It come down to who they got to choose It won't be Herman Cain.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • Randy M

      What evidence do you have of racism by the tea party?

      October 18, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • Bob Vader

      He's the front runner right now, with the republicans and the tea party. How do you reconcile that? I know that people call the tea party racist based on the actions of a few members (and because SNL, and John Stewart tell them that it's racist) but I think actions speak louder than words here. He is the republican front runner, yet republicans are all racist. I think the second part is clearly not true.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  4. Bob Vader

    Hey, think about this. The democrats and liberals rely heavily on the votes of poor minorities. The republicans rely on a more wealthy population of voters to get elected. Which party has the most interest in ensuring that minorities get out of poverty, and which party has the most to lose?

    October 18, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • George In Austerlitz

      Bob Vader

      Hey, think about this. The democrats and liberals rely heavily on the votes of poor minorities. The republicans rely on a more wealthy population of voters to get elected. Which party has the most interest in ensuring that minorities get out of poverty, and which party has the most to lose?

      HEY, Think About THIS::
      Working Poor and minorities are attracted to Democratic/"Liberal" candidates because they best represent their ideas and ideologies
      THEY rely on Democrats and "Liberals" to protect them from the "Rich."

      October 18, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  5. alay granda

    Unfortunate the racist is jeer to stay in the people than want. Before black slaves were white slaves and other groups. We still playing the gain today it will never stop why because there are people they think they are better than other and people they think they are less than other because skin color or other reason .That thinking do not allow to get better individually don’t let that to rule you short life stopped telling your children about those issues in ether way is not fear to pass those feeling generation to generation. If poor do the best you can to educate not excuse if can’t’ be doctor is ok. I am sure you can scale to some better what you doing now .Unfortunate we are human and we are not perfect and also human rule government for the moment .Live the best you can focus you energy in you love one every day don’t way for they to get sick or death. Vote if can and you agree with the person you want to vote if not don’t vote. Do the best to deal with the real issue don’t blame people of any mistake you make and let go if some want to get you down, Let go hate ect and you will get peace it is nice way to live but dot be stupid or less any body to abuse or you be strong too and let the guy to said 999 free speech don’t mix race .I love black ,white ,asia, latinos ,Indian.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  6. S.R.

    Wolf in sheeps clothing ..........not buying it!!!

    October 18, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • Lardeau

      Yes .. he scares me too.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  7. Mel

    Exactly, to Gayle. Churches SHOULD help the poor. Not only that, but churches are supposed to be politically neutral to keep their tax exempt status. I'd say Antioch has forfeited that status. (But won't be called on it.)

    October 18, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Randy M

      You are an idiot. The Antioch church has members who are free to express their own opinions. The church leadership cannot use the pulpit to promote a politician and the church facilities cannot be used for political purposes. The individuals still have freedom of speech.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  8. recheckfacts

    Won't be voting for him. It's not that I don't l think he's likeable. It's just that his 999 plan will raise my taxes. I have to vote for my best interests.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  9. Hmmm

    Mildly interesting article, but is there a good reason why it's plastered on the front page? Ron Paul just gave a speech and rolled out a broad outline of his plans as president. It has specifics to it and calls for a $1 trillion dollar decrease in spending in his first year. Like or dislike it's a real plan but for some reason CNN tucked it away in an obscure corner. For as much coverage as 999 is getting, other plans sure aren't.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  10. Joot

    Another "fist of mud" article aimed at HC. Are there ANY true journalists employed at CNN ? Wow. Just wow. CNN has assigned itself the mission of smearing, downgrading, and making fun of HC. CNN may mock FOX News and its "Fair and Balanced" motto, but gee whiz, CNN ! Your company has moved from creeping to running toward the Nationol Enquirer category. (FWIW, I'm an independent voter.I hold NO allegiance to nor tendency to lean toward ANY political party.)

    October 18, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  11. jnpa

    Church, religion, Christianity...church, religion, Christianity...church, religion, Christianity. I am SO tired of hearing about it! Let's have a presidential election based on the issues and NOT on church, religion, Christianity!!!!!!!

    October 18, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Randy M

      The last guy got elected despite his lack of a definitive religion. To this day people don't know what he believes. He promote Islam, attended a so called christian church of racial hatred that had a philosophy more closely aligned with Malcom X and The Nation of Islam which is in fact not Islamic. So I think you have your guy now. He is no religion and all religions at the same time.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  12. ThinkAgain

    Hey, righties, where's all your anger about Cain and his association with church clergy you don't agree with? Or are you going to rationalize it?

    October 18, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Randy M

      Well Lefty, not all of us right wingers think Cain is great. He so far seems palatable but I still think Newt is the man.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  13. RichieP

    "'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.'
    What an idiotic thing to say. If he PLAYS, meaning "panders," to a base that he doesn't agree with he IS a SELLOUT. So if the Tea Party is racist againts blacks, then any black who takes their side and accuses all other blacks of being brainwashed and accuses poor black children of being at fault for their poverty is a sellout, plain and simple.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  14. CainCan

    " No mo da same. Yous gots to vote Cain. Cain be da main. 2012. Put that cup of hot chocolate in the Whitehouse. "

    October 18, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  15. jorge washinsen

    i think halfv or more of the posters here are employed by news agencies or J Edgar.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • CainCan

      Yeah. That's what the FBI does... "listens in on CNN chat forums... " lol

      October 18, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • shhhh

      spies everywhere!

      October 18, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  16. niko man

    Cain could be the right man for the job, if he can work and be admired by the liberals even on his own church and community and stil holds his views and principles, then we would work in this chaotic environment that this "administration" has created, a diviseded and heatreted politicaly Crongress that can not work outside their party and carrying that to the society in general.
    Wouldn't be nice to have a president that can unite instead of divide americans? I'm starting to like more the guy.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • Willie K.

      Excuse me, the environment that this administration created? Are you out of your ever-loving mind? This administration has tried to work with the Rethuglicans, but Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor have done everything in their power to block anything that will improve America. Get real, you moron!

      October 18, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  17. CainCan

    " No mo da same. Yous gots to vote Cain. Cain be da main. 2012. "

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

      hey Cain can-There it is your own bumper sticker!

      October 18, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  18. ThinkAgain

    "If you don't agree with me, you're brainwashed!" Wow, what an easy – and stupid – thing to say. No honest debate about the merits of each other's ideas, just a knee-jerk, emotional reaction. Cain's not much of a thinker; therefore, he resorts to this kind of sound bite.

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

      Read Cain's full quote before you post soemthing like this that makes you look like an idiot.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  19. Cheri

    So far, I am liking Herman Cain for President. I think he truly represents change and he is a very intelligent business man, not a career politician.

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

      Businesses are dictatorships, where whatever the boss says, goes. We live in a representative democracy and frankly, I want someone who tries to build consensus and works with the opposing party. President Obama does that – and he's hands-down way smarter than Cain ever hopes to be. We've had Cain's kind of closed-minded, lockstep, cowboy in the White House – and it did our country great harm.

      NO THANKS!

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

      Can you name a great (or near great) President who was an outstanding business man? Those that were ever in business were less than successful. In fact, historically, business people make nearly as bad presidents as generals do.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • Hmmm

      (ThinkAgain) You mean Obama has tried to do that since 2010 when he was forced to work with the other party right? I don't remember a whole lot of him reaching out to the Republicans before that.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  20. jbmar1312

    Rizzo

    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 12:48 pm |
    • ThinkAgain

      Your post is laughable: Cain epitomizes the kind of close-mindedness you rail against.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:51 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.