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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. ajgorm

    This ought to get interesting as the ranting gets louder on both sides. nothing like watching two cats fight for the catnip.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  2. snarks

    Anyone who does not like herman cain (predominantly liberals) are just racists and bigots.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • AGuest9

      Or, are people who don't agree with his views.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • snarks

      No, has nothing to do with views. If you don't like him, you are racist, simple as that. That is how it worked for obama, that is how it works now. Your own medicine being dished. Reality is setting in, and it isn't easy is it? The truth will set you free, racist liberal.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • Mike

      I like Obama but don't like Cain. So what does that make me????

      October 18, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Neb

      Or intelligent human beings. Are you kidding me? Under this guys plan Warren Buffett would pay little to no taxes. What is it exactly that you find so profound in Herman Cain?

      October 18, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • tonelok

      An idiot.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • snarks

      No, obama is half white. You are racist if you do not like Cain, period. Liberalism is a mental disorder, and now any liberal who does not like cain is a complete racist bigot, period. If you were in the UK you should be reported for hate abuse, pure racism.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • Mike

      Black or White .. .Cain is your basic GOP C.OCKR.OACH

      October 18, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • snarks

      No Mike, you can't make an excuse for your deep hatred toward African Americans. Either you vote for Cain, or god (if you believe in one) will make you realize your hatred. Karma will haunt you for racism and bigotry. That goes for all liberals. Don't live a life full of evil, bad energy.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • OGR99

      Didn't we learn from 2008 that a person's church is irrelevant?

      October 18, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  3. hippypoet

    Honor, courage, truth, justice, honesty.....where did these traits go if not in our hearts anymore? Where is the rightous few that once kept the wolves at bay? Where are the fires that burn for those whom gave there lives for ours?

    October 18, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  4. Readcarefully

    It says JOHN BLAKE left the church 13 years ago, noit Cain.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  5. tony

    If you don't think all churches quickly become the cradles of evil, just look at the recent revelations about the Catholic Church in Spain stealing 300,000 healthy new-born babies to pass on to "more suitable" parents. Religion is the greatest evil ever to curse mankind, and the foul, self-righteous leaders are still at it!

    October 18, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • Actually...

      There are many wolves in sheep's clothing but that doesn't make true followers of Christ evil.

      October 18, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  6. AmenToThat!

    Herman Cain...."Flavor of the Weak."

    October 18, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  7. Matt in Ohio

    Anyone associated with Ken Blackwell is suspect in my book.

    October 18, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  8. stevie68a

    I remember the Reagan's first inaugural had the actor Ben Vereen perform in blackface. For the second, a blind man, Ray Charles. These not so subtle messages were not lost on me. How Cain cannot know that republicans are basically anti-black,
    shows he's not very bright. He also uses that tired lie that gay people "choose" being gay, no matter what the experts, as well
    as gay people have been saying for decades and decades. Doesn't he realize that Clarence Thomas is but a token? He also
    clings to "faith", which in many ways, is just a denial of reality. Get back to your 9.99 pizzas, Mr. Cain, you're none too bright.

    October 18, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • perry

      what do you mean, ben vereen performed in black face....ben vereen is black!

      October 18, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • perry

      oh, i take that back, i see that ben vereen DID perform in blackface....crazy! i apologize!

      October 18, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  9. Joseph and Mary

    Like most Repugnantcan "candidates" this guy, like Palin, Trump, Bachman, etc is only using the limelight to greedily stuff more ca$h in his bank account, with absolutely NO ambition to serve the country at all. Thank God!

    P.S. No, I won't watch the cable TV show or buy the book.

    October 18, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  10. awake

    Cain talks of brainwashing, when he himself has been thoroughly brainwashed and indoctrinated by religion: a man-made construct to satisfy, appease and keep the masses distracted and unaware of their true nature/power.
    I recently heard that many of the GOP candidates (including Cain) have stated that "God told them to run for office."
    That's enough to head me off at the pass.

    October 18, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  11. Ned Racine

    Cain seems like a nice enough guy. And he wants to get elected by the right wing so he has to pander to the religious, However, he might be an atheist, for all we know – he is in a business where lying is imposed on him by the people. The problem with Cain, as usual with all politicians, is not his personal life. These politicians manipulate their personal lives. Gays pretend they are straight; single politicians get married because it looks good; they have a family for show; they buy a dog for the picture; etc. I just ignore all of that, not because it isn't important, but because you can never know what you are really getting.

    The real problem is the guys politics. He is willing to allow the wealthy to get even more wealthy off the backs of the poor and middle class. Republicans have people convinced that while it is true they are the party of the rich, YOU are rich – when you are not. The Republican Party is the party of the WEALTHY. And unless you make $10M or more per year, believe it or not, they have no interest in you unless it is election day.

    October 18, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  12. dms

    This is just another RICH lying Republican who will say and do anything to get what he wants. What were men like him called...UNCLE TOM!!!!!!

    October 18, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Julie

      You guys need to re-read the article. Cain's parents were pillars of the church. That was Cain's home church. He was honoring his parents by going there even though he held different views from the church. That fact is mentioned several times in the article. The church respects him and he respects the church. Nothing inconsistent in Cain here. He is above your hatred.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  13. ajgorm

    No I think it should be about blacks wanting to be Republican because they want to be part of the establishment with equal rights to profit from it. Creating a better work environment requires participation.

    October 18, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  14. Me

    I love reading about these idiots. Black people aren't brainwashed, they have no trust in the Republican party!

    October 18, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Maggie19

      Its the republican party that freed us black people from slavery.

      October 18, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • AGuest9

      There is a grand divide between Mr. Lincoln's party, and the sad, egotistical, bloated, pampered, uber-rich joke that they are now.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • Are you kidding me ?

      Maggy that republican party is not the republican party of today ! They are a bunch of greedy , money grubbing , bigot's ! BTW that was many years ago join the rest of us that live in the present !

      October 18, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Franky

      To compare the republican party of Abraham Lincoln to today's Republican party is a joke. Moreover, to even compare it to the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan is an even bigger joke. REagan raised taxes 6x's after 1981 (he never lowered them again) after the disaster on the budget the lowered tax rate became. He also gave amnesty all illegals. Neither of these measures could remotely pass by today's republican party. As far as freeing the slaves, The republican party also called for AA (or a guise of it), as well as reperations to be paid to slaves, after they were freed. Do you think either of those could pass in today's republican party. The Republican party of today has a large voter black of former southern democrats squarely racist in ideology who switched party's after Johnson signed the ending of Segregation. Today;s Republican party has steadly increased is vitriol and angst towards equality when it's ranks were swelled by those racist democrats who left the party for the republican party during the 50's.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  15. hippypoet

    first the church he belongs to is a great church based and built on the proper foundations that all churches should be build upon...equal rights, freedom, and say.... who could ask for more...

    of all the people running for office this is one of a few that aren't completely jokes, and take nearly everything thats serious seriously and leave the funny stuff funny. However he is a believer in a make believe god and should not run the country. we need people who are more down to earth, who concern themselves with the problems of the many instead of the few, who work in the office not make the office work for them. WE NEED A LEADER OF QUALITY. One who when they talk others listen, and not from fear but from admiration. We need a man who values peace over all but still understands the value of war.

    Honor, courage, truth, justice, honesty.....where did these traits go if not in our hearts anymore? Where is the rightous few that once kept the wolves at bay? Where are the fires that burn for those whom gave there lives for ours?

    October 18, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • The Hell With Leaders

      You can have leaders if you are so weak, but in America, we are supposed to have representatives, which is a totally different concept. Representatives are supposed to do what we want, not the other way around.

      Of course, way too many Americans are not up to the challenge being Americans, and instead follow the leader, whether that leader be a politician like Bush or Obama, or if that leader is a demagogue like Limbaugh or Michael Moore. They are not up to having independant thought, of considering what is best for all as well as what is best for themselves, to think critically – especially of your own preferred side's prevailing opinion.

      Many claim to be independant, but few actually are.

      And, of course, most politicians are into the power of being a leader, and act that way.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • hippypoet

      our representatives represent only themselves how they want to be seen... not who they are suppose to be representing. i prefer leaders who rally there people for a common cause, goal, end, whatever... a representative is there for a set term of so called service, a leader is normally there untill they die or are taken over.... so a leader has to work FOR his or her people while the representatives only work for them untill in office, then they normally do what they wanted from the start.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  16. conoclast

    To paraphrase Bill Clinton, He's a complicated rascal, isn't he! In my book complex (implying intelligent) is OK; it means the guy is at least capable of understanding those folks he disagrees with! And he's got a set of pipes on him too!

    October 18, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  17. Lillie

    Its shocking that someone like Mr. Cain who was born in the cradle of the civil rights struggle would kick black folk und er the bus the way he has. Mr. Cain has sold his soul to the devil. while callilng himself a minister!!!!!!! More importantly, once he becomes a threat to the republican's preferred candidate, Mr. Cain will drop like a weak fly hinged between the window and the screen!

    OBAMA- BIDEN 2012

    October 18, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • tonelok

      What exactly has he done to minorities as the CEO of Godfather's Pizza to throw them under the bus? Can you cite any examples of programs he plans on implimenting as president to single out the black population and "throw them under the bus"? Your gross overly-dramatic characterization of him is baseless and just wreaks of political bias. You won't vote for him or any republican, we get it. Now go wave your Obama "Waiting on the Change" 2012 banner and please stfu.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  18. ajgorm

    Blacks were brain washed into voting democratic WoW what a thing to say,,,,and they ended up poorer than ever uhhh is there any truth in that. Acorn might have some answers to that.

    October 18, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  19. justin

    how about we do what our founding fathers wanted us to do.... Leave religion out of politics!

    October 18, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  20. Fear

    The Antichrist is finally, here ... can' t you see. Come on CNN, this friday is again end of the worlds day (you love to cover these events, don't miss it), Cain is ready for the revelation, his name says all.

    October 18, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • conoclast

      "Fear", your moniker says everything we need to know about your politics. Stay scared like a good republican!

      October 18, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • tonelok

      @conoclast
      Can't tell if troll, or stupid.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:16 am |
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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.