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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. Ron

    P.S. he's juist another Clarence Thomas to African Americans.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • rob

      Yup, "i got where i am with no help and i aint given you any" Juast cause thomas got his education thru affirmative action doesent mean you'all should.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  2. Bannister

    This was actually a pretty good article. It explore the many facets of Herman Cain. Based on what I've read here, Mr Cain seems to be a balanced, pragmatic person who gets along with liberals and conservatives alike. If he's the nominee, he will get my vote.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Inglourious

      Well, everyone except Muslims.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • rob

      and me

      October 18, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Byrd

      ...and me.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  3. marcia

    Poor Jon is such a misguided nincompoop! Get well soon, Jon!

    October 18, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • J.W

      whoa whoa you can say nincompoop on here?

      October 18, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  4. nathan

    Here we go again with the church thing...

    October 18, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  5. 1crusader

    I am not a supporter of Herman Cain.I am a Christian , and former member of Antioch( back in the 80s).I left Antioch because it seemed too politically oriented as a church , and wasn't what I wanted, although I felt that there were many good things about it. I don't have a problem with Herman Cain's decision to worship at Antioch,but as the article points out, it is "liberal".I myself am moderate , ( even conservative on some issues), but lean Democratic, and vote that way, many times, because of a concern for equity , education, and the disadvantaged.; but Cain is somewhat of an enigma, because he so dogmatic and adamant about the positions that he advocates for that are so contradictory to the stances that are taken at Antioch.Having said that, this shows , as in the president's case, that a person can be a part of a ministry for years( for whatever reason); and not agree with some of the positions that its leadership takes.Generally speaking , I'm not in agreement with that, but I see how that could happen.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • rob

      Ya and it all about what "you want" get your own life, look around at whats happening read a book other than the bible and then make a choice...otherwise don't vote.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • rob

      "antioc" you sound like a line from a monty python move "bring me the holy handgrenade of ANTIOC"

      October 18, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  6. Daric

    It amazes me how people will speak about an issue as if they know everything about it. I've followed Mr. Cain from the moment he announced he was running for the GOP Nomination. And I can assure you that all who I know, have only good things to say about Mr. Cain and are supporting him with their vote. To say their is racism in the Tea Party is not a lie per say, those that declare that the entire Tea Party is an out right bold faced lie. There is racism in any group or organization of people, your going to have your bad apples of any group. I am dumbfounded as to why they spent so much time investigating Mr. Cain's Church but with Obama they blew it off and defend him even accepting the outlandish excuse Obama gave that he must have not attended on the days Wright G-d damned America and spewed out total racism from his pulpit, which should have been struck down by a bolt of lightening from the Name of the Lord that he took in vain more times one could count. Wright is no preacher of the God I worship nor is he the kind of person that is Christ-like. Yet Obama was given a free pass when it came to his Church of 20 years and was...perhaps still is, in secret i'm sure if so... a very close friend with Wright. Only because Mr. Cain is an ABC, a American Black Conservative as he calls himself, is why CNN and all the other leaning left media networks have shown and are still showing their bias and bigotry. And because Mr. Cain is surging ahead in poll after poll like in Iowa where he is leading by 8 points ahead of the others, a key State in the General and Primary Elections. And thats not the only State he is leading in, Florida, South Carolina, to name a few others. I guess all of us white people who are supporting Mr. Cain with such staunch and loyal support are just racist who are putting our feelings aside huh... Black people know better than anyone that white people who are racist just as black people who are racist do not put their feelings aside when it comes to something as voting for someone to be the next President of the United States, who, God willing will be Mr. Herman Cain! God Bless EVERYONE and God Bless America!

    October 18, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • Here4entertainment

      I stop reading individual's comments after the first "there, their, they're" mistake.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • rob

      Actually what is happening to Cain and the free association with his church which seems to contradict his views is EXACTLY the same thing that happended to Obama with regard to his church affiliation.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • prettypiper

      Well said TEABAGGER....now enough already. In your entire speech, what does Cain actually tend to do? Okay, I get it, let's use him as a pond for our agenda to discriminate, and protect our ICE-COLD water. He's a puppet not a politican. Who's funding his campaign dollars? No funny business....okay

      October 18, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  7. CainCan

    CAIN IS ABLE. CAIN MEANS BUSINESS. VOTE CAIN 2012. Put that cup of hot chocolate in the Whitehouse. hum hum

    October 18, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • campaign

      are you doin this campaign Pro Bono?

      October 18, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  8. drew

    There is much beneath the surface like and iceberg that has yet to be explored. I was under the impression he came from nothing and yet he grew up amongst his family attended church and went to Morehouse sound middle class at worst need to explore more.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  9. Angie

    Just another attempt by the media to try to keep Cain from getting the Republican nomination. Who's the racist?

    October 18, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  10. JR

    Rob – Other than that what do you think of him. I can't say I'd vote for the guy just yet but at least he has verbalized a plan for tax reform which is more than anyone else, including Barry, has done.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • drew

      Barry has done plenty why don't you turn an eye to that do nothing Congress.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  11. Blah Blah

    The real test for cnn is will Gloria Berger swoon like she did for Obamba,

    October 18, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  12. CommonSenseChannel

    He certainly p!$$es off the right people. No he di ent! Yes we Cain!! Yes we Cain!!

    October 18, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • rob

      Ya and if he is elected america becomes Abel.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • CommonSenseChannel

      Cain vs Unable..2012!!

      October 18, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  13. Jason

    OK....so he goes to church and no one cares.

    Too bad he doesn't have a pastor who hates America, eh CNN?

    October 18, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • rob

      His church doesen't "hate america" dumb @$$, it hates some ways the way america is. Sounds like you do to since you obviousely hate our curren president.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • GauisJulius

      Rob's comment is why I don't believe anyone that screams about someone being hated these days! Rob said because the original comment was saying Obama's pastor hated America, that means that the writer of that comment "obviously hates Obama." Huh???? This is the strange times we live in. The more i read comments on CNN, the more I feel like the average commenter is 8 years old, and either can't read correctly or has a huge problem ascertaining what they aer reading!!!!

      October 18, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • rob

      @GauisJulius, ok ill bite, "he obviousely doesent like obama" like two teenagers critizing each other by calling their mothers names and that somehow reflect there faults directly. It aint rocket science pal.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Gary

      But you're fine with Palin who's husband actually belonged to a secessionist party for 7years. How's that for hating America???

      October 18, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  14. Chris

    Cain tells it like it is and it frightens the left establishment. The dems hijacked minorities back in the 60's even tho they were the party of slavery prior to that. What have they done since for minorities? Nothing. Cain is just showing people the truth about the democrats.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • Junaid

      the left finds humor in cain, we are def not frightened... In fact i hope he gets the GOP nom...

      His policies or lack of will ensure Obama gets elected again...

      Please please vote for him!!!

      October 18, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • rob

      ya back in the 60's when blacks couldnt pee in the same restrooms as you.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Gary

      Chris,
      You should go back and read some history about the civil rights movement, Dixiecrats and their exodus to the Republican party as a result of said civil rights movement.. It's better to get your "learnins" from actual history books and real news outlets as opposed to Newsmax, World Net Daily, Hannity et al ad nauseaum..

      October 18, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  15. sunny lovetts

    RON PAUL OR THIS NATION DIES.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • rob

      way be thougfhtful and diverse, painted yourself in a corner cause RP aint gonna win.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • Dave

      I'd rather the nation dies.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  16. Gort01

    i dont want anyone that engrossed in his/her religion to be President of the United States.....

    October 18, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • brian

      What does that have to do with his ability to lead the county. Does religion scare you, if so you should look at yourself and ask why? I don't believe in god or life after death but I think some religions are beneficial. What don't you like about Christianity? The fact it preaches love and tolerance. He believes in god like you probably believe in the lack of one. Can you prove that there isn't one? No you can't and if you said yes then you lie or you could single handedly bring down religion. Besides there is separation of church and state so find a valid reason not to vote for him.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Randy M

      So someone with no ideals, no morals or least very little of those attributes is the way to go? Are you against religion, against Christians against conservatives or all of the above.?

      October 18, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  17. laura

    ThinkAgain are you kidding? You think that Obama is smart and wants to work with people. This is the mose divisive president in history. He is also now know as president downgrade! So much for those smarts. And it's funny that CNN is even mentioning Cain's church. Do they really want to go there considering the racist vial church Odumbo patronized for 20 years with his wife who was not proud to be an American? Unbelievable truely!

    October 18, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • Inglourious

      You must be quite young to believe that Obama is the most divisive president in history. G.W. Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Nixon, Johnson - just in recent history were all thought to be dividing the country with their policies. Street riots, assassinations, bombings, etc were not uncommon in the Johnson and Nixon years. Obama the most divisive? Get some perspective.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Dave

      Dear dumb-a$$ Laura, it is not Obama who is divisive, it is the Congress that morons like you elected into office. There's your perspective. Now, stfu.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • brian

      Dear dumb-@ss Dave, go crawl back under your rock sc um bag. Then drop said rock on your little squishy head. We elected congress the way we did because we couldn't recall this horrible president.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Gary

      Your nonsensical, based on nothing, assertions are based on what you gobble up at the trough of right wing hate radio and internet media. If you think President Obama isn't so smart I'm wondering what you thought of W who only got to go to Yale because he was a legacy or Palin who's simply too stupid for words. Divisive? His biggest criticism is that's he's too compromising with the R's. In this day Reagan would be considered a liberal so I'm not really sure what it is the right has against Obama. Why don't you tell us why you really don't like him??

      October 18, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  18. rob

    Cain is a narcissistic, self rightious, meglomaniac who has no idea what he is talking about and doesen't care....oh ya and his "pizza", term used loosely, $uX @$$.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • daniel

      Unlike the current narcissistic, self rightious, meglomaniac in office?

      October 18, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • rob

      Exactly

      October 18, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  19. marcia

    Liberalism is a mental disorder characterized by the inability to think for oneself. It is merely a herd mentality! Cain epitomizes the kind of leadership we need to help the liberals find their way towards normality!

    October 18, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Jon

      Unlike Conservatism which is a mental disorder where you ignore the conditions of real people, pontificate about the 'good old days', HOPE for things to get better if we'd ONLY cut taxes and loosen regulations on industry and banks.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • rob

      Too bad he is so stupid

      October 18, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • frank

      And the Tea party has a pack mentality. Neither are right and both are detrimental to this country. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people was hijacked by self serving corporations and lawyers 30 years ago. We the people are going to get it back and set things right. There is no-where to hide with the internet. Most of the politiacians in Washington are traitors to the American people. GOP and DEMS alike.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Randy M

      There is a lot of the follow the hear mentality in politics. Otherwise how do you explain Obama. There has never been a more unqualified person elected as President and it shows in his performance. He was elected because of the financial crisis and he is good at reading outloud.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  20. PRISM 1234

    Any political candidate that joins either one of the two corrupt parties we have is already proving he/she is not to be trusted. If someone runs for political office and has sound moral and ethical principles, one thing is for sure, that by the time they are done, he / she will take on the same stench of hypocrisy as the party they have joined! There is NO WAY around it!

    October 18, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Dave

      right on!

      October 18, 2011 at 1:23 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.