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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. tinaf

    Asians for Cain!

    October 18, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Big_D

      Mostly Chinese nationals that like our trade being unrestricted at any cost.

      October 18, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • OneProudAmerican

      Hmm...it's really ironic. So many liberals call us conservatives racist and insensitive, yet in practice, it is the liberal establishment that is doing more to hurt and attack minority races–as evidenced by your comment here...

      October 18, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      And rice noodles!

      October 18, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      And fish too!!!

      October 18, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
  2. Wiserthanu

    Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!

    It's NO secret that predominately black churches are conservative in terms of religion, but liberal when it comes to social issues.

    An Aside: I wasn't sure where the authors were going with this article. Quite frankly, I thought this was another Jeremiah Wright fiasco; to my surprise the article was mostly fair with slight a liberal slant.

    October 18, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  3. tinaf

    Democrats are to blame for the plight of black Americans:

    Here's what voting Democrat for Blacks has done:

    *60 percent of black children grow up in fatherless homes.

    *800,000 black men are in jail or prison.

    *70 percent of black babies are born to unwed mothers.

    *Over 300,000 black babies are aborted annually.

    *50 percent of new AIDS cases are in the black community.

    *Almost half of young black men in America's cities are
    neither working nor in school. What we have here is a ticking time bomb
    waiting to explode!

    October 18, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • Bruce

      for Tinaf
      Your'e kidding right?!??!!?? Democrats are to blame for all the problems faced by blacks?? Hardly. If you make the statement, provide some supporting information, you know, like PROOF.

      October 18, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  4. marcia

    What has happened to the separation of church and state???

    October 18, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • steve

      Sorry to disappoint you, but separation of church and state doesn't mean all candidates have to be atheists.

      October 18, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      You're right Steve but it does mean that they have to keep their own personal religious views out of government.

      October 18, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  5. Ron Paul 2012!

    So, let me get this right (feel free to correct me if I am wrong):

    1. Perry is a former Democrat, and served on Al Gore's campaign. His favorite slogan is "Si se puede" after passing the Texas Dream Act.

    2. Cain is a minister at a church, which CNN calls "A Liberal Activist Stronghold espousing to the teachings of Malcolm-X" He is a former director of the Federal Reserve, and came up with a tax plan based on Pizza Hut's "$9 – $9 – $9" promotion.

    3. Romney is the one that came up with Obamacare, and is the definition of a RINO.

    What's with all this excitement over this group of losers? Republicans and Democrats are all sheep!

    October 18, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  6. neastsider

    I thought with his nein-nein-nein plan Cain belings to the rebug teabagger chucrh of hate , intolernace and corporate greed. Anyone who voes for this yahoo os seriously mentally crippled.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Steve

      Take a grammar class.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • BJP

      Someone please help this nit wit.

      October 18, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  7. ajgorm

    Very SUPERSTICOUS ! The bad guy is on the way..

    October 18, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • ajgorm

      tious .....

      October 18, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • ajgorm

      Cain to co captain Cain come in please..I know where this is leading..

      October 18, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  8. chip

    Lot of "he said, she said" in this article with few facts to back it up. Trying to stir the pot is all this is.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  9. prettypiper

    @GauisJulius....sounds like someone trying to call the kettle black. Apparently, you're the 8year old. It's spelt ARE...NOT AER

    October 18, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  10. Melvin Mortimerstein, Junior Accoountant to the Overlord of the Universe ! ! !

    The conservatives sure are going through "front runners" at a furious pace! They can't even get their 15 minutes of fame before they flame out.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  11. OneProudAmerican

    I'm sorry, but just reading these comments makes me sick. I would never resort to such ad hominem attacks against another member. As a matter of fact, back in 2008, I -voted- for Obama. I've since been soured on the guy, and frankly, am -glad- to see that there's another black man who has his head on his shoulders. Listen to this, all you CNN mouthpieces. I hope this comment gets around, because this is the God's truth: I'm no wealthy multimillionaire, or someone who comes from wealth. I'm not in the older age set, nor am I white. I am a young, lower middle class, black american. And for most of my life, I've been conservative. Not because of tradition, or anything else. Simply because they were the party that made the most sense. Even in times when we had -no- money, and the liberal establishment was promising to gut the rich to pay the poor, I stuck on the right side of the aisle, because in my understanding of economics and capitalism, when you do that, nothing gets done. We've seen it now in the Obama presidency. I respect Obama as a person, because he had a -gargantuan- undertaking in front of him to be the nation's first black president. However, that hurdle has been conquered and now, race or racism, can no longer be used as a card by the leftist establishment in order to shut down public opinion and debate.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • rizzo

      Not sure what your point is. Cain specifically favors the rich over everyone else, his 9-9-9 BS proves that, so...??

      October 18, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Duane - St. Pete FLA

      great words by a great American.....

      October 18, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  12. Harry Martin

    This story illustrates one of the great double standards of American politics. First if a church were to identify as "white" versus African American that would be considered racist. Secondly African American Churches have always been fertile grounds for political activism and favorite dropping off places for candidates of all stripes. Yet when other churches express a concern in the realm of politics the separation of church and state activists come out for battle.
    The African American church has long held a very exclusive and privileged position in the world of American politics.
    Ahh hypocrisy..thy name is politics.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • ajgorm

      Maybe there is some truth to it all.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Patricksday

      All Churches were designed to control the People and keep them thinking small, it certainly hasnt helped when it comes to building ones own kingdom on earth and denying basic human rights and health to the least of us or the working class who work with no health insurance or a way to pay for bloated Medication prices. Why must the sick be profitable??

      October 18, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  13. dwl

    Any fool who votes for this @hole falls into the catagory that PT Barnum was speaking about when he said 'There is a sucker born every minute'.

    This is the same person that said if you lost your job you have nobody to blame but yourself.

    And for you conservative Chritians remember what God said... As you do unto the least of your brothers so you do unto me.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • ajgorm

      right on 696

      October 18, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  14. Duane - St. Pete FLA

    Pick your self up black America....stop believing you NEED government to "make it all better for you". Don't be afraid of the big bad world, just get out there and do the right things.....you know...
    1) follow the laws
    2) pick up a paint brush or a broom and take care of where you live.
    3) fathers be fathers and stop running off
    4) value an education
    5) take responsibility for your actions and those of your children
    6) Stop hating on anyone white
    7)get to work respect police and teachers....

    I know...all crazy talk to you liberals......lol. )

    October 18, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • OneProudAmerican

      Amen, brotha. One black soul here who's working his end off to try and find a job post-college...economy isn't cooperating, though.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • cory

      Duane, I'm trying to understand your Comment, want to guess what Nationality I am?

      October 18, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • MANNIGOAT

      Truth hurts....and i absolutely agree with what you have said....However when the HONORABLE MINISTER LOUIS FARRAKHAN say this he is called a racist....GOOGLE "TAVIS SMILEY QUESTION FARAKHAN....

      October 18, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  15. ajgorm

    699

    October 18, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  16. cashual

    Illuminati...KISS THE BACKSIDE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT & SEE WHERE YOU WAKE UP AT IN ETERNITY REAL SOON!!!!!!!!! KILLUMINATI IS THE MESSAGE

    October 18, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  17. will

    How exactly is this church liberal? Is ministering to AIDS victims and drug abusers liberal now? How about a church that doesn't permit female minsters? Last time I checked these don't make a church liberal. This is a poorly written opinion piece written with very litte facts to back up the headline. It is so bad I can not even tell if this is an attempt at partisan journalism. The piece doesn't even quote the senior minister of the church in question, just "Atlanta clergy say", nor does the piece cite to the "Antioch pastors" which an assertation that Mr. Cain's "politics" does not match the church's.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  18. cashual

    The illuminati is unfolding its plans for the world. They are using uncle toms who sell out for greed.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  19. Andrew

    I am a Christian, midwestern, educated white caucasion and I like what I am reading about Herman Cain. Anyone who has the respect of those you disagree with them, well....in this day and age that says a lot. I look forward to seeing his campaign develop, and he may be the the one I vote for.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • rizzo

      That's great, but unless you're rich, Cain's plan will screw you and your entire family.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  20. ajgorm

    post 999

    October 18, 2011 at 1:20 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.