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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. Mel

    Opps!

    October 18, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  2. superfudge1

    How bad can your church affiliation really be? Ask Obama about rev Wrights church.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  3. LittleLordHoseaComethUntoU2Say

    Republican or Democrat, both = brainwashed. Vote for one of two people that sleep in the same bed together. The tables are always stacked against YOU.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • Rich

      Republicans and Democrats are polar opposites and vastly disagree with each other on just about every topic. How could one rationally say they are in the same bed together?

      October 18, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • HHR

      It's a two-party dictatorship. They act like they hate each other, when in truth they are often in collusion together to lock anyone else out.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  4. carly

    Hey maybe he was "turned" as in the new Homeland series and he is actually working for the liberals. LOL

    October 18, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  5. ajgorm

    What a shock to the liberal race card agenda being played for the last 2-3 years.The liberals have hit a brick wall with Cain they cant say anything YET ! They will throw Cain under the bus as they pick him and his church apart while they go after every detail of his life. GO CAIN ! can we last another 5 years like this ?

    October 18, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • redwine9991

      You are dreaming. This guy is a JOKE. Totally amusing. PIZZA, PIZZA, PIZZAAAA, PIZZAAAAAA, ONLY 999

      October 18, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  6. Rich

    To all the people saying the Republican party is an evil party for the wealthy:

    The Democratic party does not want you to get rich any more than you claim the Republican party does. They provide "free" government handouts from the salaries of the working man and remove all incentives to better yourselves or learn a more valuable skill. After awhile people become dependant upon the government handouts and abadnon their search for a more rewarding career or successful life, and at the same time guarantee future votes for Democrats.

    At least the Republican party supports growing American corporations, and as an extension creating more jobs providing oppurtunities for those that took the time to learn a trade to better their lives and themselves. The only way for the rich to get richer is for them to continue expanding their enterprises, and to continue to create jobs.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • Dave

      Yeah, creating more jobs in China! Wake up jack@ss! When your only goal is make as much money as you can as fast as you can, the logical place to do that is in the third world where you can make cheap products cheaper and get more return on your investment. And they don't care what it does to America because they are filthy rich! But the real question is not will blacks vote for Herman. The question is, will white conservative republicans? I don't think so. I don't even believe he will get the nomination.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Rich

      They will build in the US when people buy products in the US. As long as people like us value cost over geography so will the companies. You can't fault the companies for giving in to consumer demand and buying low cost foreign products over expensive domestic items.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • v_mag

      There are plenty of ways for the rich to get richer, and they use them all. They manipulate markets so that small investors get taken to the cleaners. They ship jobs overseas, where folks are forced to work for pennies. They buy politicians who reduce their taxes, lessen regulations, and make customized laws to exclude them from paying what they owe. They get themselves perks like company-owned jets and ski lodges that they don't have to claim as income.

      Why would a working person support the people who dominate and control his life? I've worked for over 40 years, have a masters degree, and I still have zero job security, because I work at the pleasure of rich people. Other countries don't allow their corporations and rich people get so out of hand that they can crush people without a second thought. The reason we have this situation is that we have allowed corporations and the rich to buy politicians who should be working for all of us. An honest person cannot even run for office, because the elections are awash in corporate cash. There is almost no possibility for an honest person to be elected, except maybe in a local election.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  7. SHAHOON

    YES WE CAIN!

    October 18, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  8. redwine9991

    WE MUST ELECTROCUTE HERMAN CAIN!!!! wait, wait...it was only a joke.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • CAIN IS AN IDIOT- NO LATINO VOTES FOR HIM, NEVER.

      Herman Cain in a campaign rally last Saturday regarding his immigration policy, said '...he would include building an electrified fence on the country's border with Mexico that could kill people trying to enter the country illegally'. How disgusting this man is, as a Latina voter I do not see any thing funny about his remark, he is a monster who will say or do anything in order to gain votes from white voters. He is a black Hitler, very dangerous for this country. Yes, Hitler comes in shape and color.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  9. Trigger

    This is hilarious. A black man disagrees with some of the long held ideals of the Democratic party and all the sudden he is the enemy and deserving of attack. How typical is that of that community. How about you take what he has to say and vote for him or not? At least he says what he feels and does not tell you waht you want to hear.(Obama) Nice pick last time!!

    October 18, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  10. Franky

    The GOP is going to find out real quick, Blacks don't vote republican because we don't believe in your politics that simple. As a Blackman Hermain Cain has zero chance of getting my vote. The issue with the GOP is that they all assume everyone has the same basic chance to pursue happiness we don't. No one is asking for hand out or for someone else to pull them up, the answer is this simple, government should seek to ensure that everyone has at least boot straps. And that's where most liberals and many blacks disagree with the GOP philisophically.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • HamsterDancer

      Franky, I agree 100%!

      October 18, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Maggie19

      I feel sorry for you. Mr. Cain is not demanding your vote but at least you can respect the fact that he has made something of himself rather than live on welfare for the rest of his life. We black people do not appreciate the bolldness of the ones who have worked hard and made themselves better than what they had as kids becaue their parents did not have the opportunities that we now have and most of us are not taking advantage of them.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • glyder

      well frankly,you are brainwashed.i guess black liberation theology is for you.blacks have followed the democratic party for decades and still live in the highest poverty rate,under educated and high crime rates.the democratic plantation is the ghetto.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Wally

      You don't agree with Republican politics because you are socialists at heart. You believe the government should sustain your existence. You don't want bootstraps. You already have bootstraps. Use them. Just like Herman Cain did.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • JT

      So, you do want a handout even though you said you don't? The proper role of government is ensuring we're all equally free to succeed for fail. It isn't to ensure we're all equally successful. That's a fool's errand. There isn't a class-less society. People need to appreciate that in a mostly free society (America) that it is up to them what kind of life they want to lead. Some start at the front of the pack and some at the back, but all are in the race. From there it is up to the individual talents/determination/education/productivity to see how far you go despite any/all obstacles.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • HHR

      I grew up dirt poor with a physical handicap. My parents made me work hard in school. It was tough, but I did it. I went to college, got a degree. Who gave me boot straps? I had to make my own by using hard work, ingenuity, and perseverance. The government didn't do it for me. I did it. I have been successfully employed for 18 years because I didn't wait on someone else to do it for me. Yes, some folks do need a little boost so let's help them. But, common, get it done.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  11. Cain 2012?

    cain as president would be a complete failure. Ok, lets for get that he has no resume. Long gone are the days of GOP candidates with a resume like H.W. Bush, Ambassador/Cia/VP/Pres. This man has done nothing except run an already crappy pizza joint into the ground.

    His 9-9-9 plan is an obvious ploy to raise taxes on the poor and middle classes, then he lables it a "fair" tax because it is "fair" to the billionaires.

    Surely there are enough racial sound bites from his radio show to dismantle him.

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

      Yeah, like Obama had a resume when he was elected. Herman Cain is so much more successful than Obama ever will be!

      October 18, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • Vic

      How interesting that now, we worry about Cain not having experience. You elected an inexperienced person as presinden in Obama, but then you did not complain. the man was a community organizer before having served 2 years in the Senate. Obama doesn't even come close to Mr. Cain in intelligence. Obama never held a real job, unlike Mr. Cain who worked all his life. Now all you lefties worry about his religion (never asked barak about his), worry about his experience (never worry about barak"s) There is only one word to describe that: HYPOCRISY. Yes sir, your are a hypocrite.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  12. HHR

    Cain is religious, but he's not shoving it in the face of America. All I care about is can this individual manage the economic structure of a nation and be sane as the Commander-in-Chief. So far, he is the only candidate that seems to be successful in just about everything he does and he didn't do it by being backed by a bunch of cronies. I like a man that speaks with respect about those he disagrees with, rather than isolate them. I do find his comment about blacks supporting Democrats a little absurd, but I do understand how many people can support a party that provides so many special favors to people with the idea of keeping them dependent on the favors to survive. The Black race is a fantastic race of strength, intellect, and culture that should pull itself up and move forward. It shouldn't need the permission of the government or church leaders to do so. I admire Cain for recognizing that his race doesn't need the government's permission to succeed. Although I'm not firmly decided, Mr. Cain has my attention. I will wait and see what manner of man unfolds.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  13. jen

    A wolf in sheep's clothing - why oh why do people vote against their own self interests all for some make-believe promise of a "heaven" so freakin' sad - oh well, i'm done trying to save people from themselves - i fought that good fight already - one day the ignorance of the religious right will ultimately kill them (since they dont believe in healthcare or an education) and then they will keep asking god why does he keep making them suffer so....

    October 18, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  14. billdawg

    Herman Cain is a man, who used his education and talents and relied on himself to get in the position to be a serious Presidential candidate. I think he is doing more to help Black folks by showing them by example you don't have to rely on government. You can be all you can be!

    October 18, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • jklmsla

      billdawg: Please tell me you're not suggesting that all Blacks are living off the government. Close-mind nitwit! You should really do your research. Do you know that us Whites far outnumber Blacks living off the government? Get better educated before you speak so dumbly. You're making us look bad!

      October 18, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  15. MM

    Michael Luther King (his real name) was a pro abortion adulterer who stirred up a lot of racial tension. He should not be glorified as he was not a good person.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • Paul

      i'm thinking the white people were beating blacks before Martin Luther King...but you go on in fantasy land.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • jklmsla

      MM: If you call trying to gain equal rights while being beat by Whites stirring up racial tension, then you are one confused dummy! Where do you get your mode of thinking? Seriously...

      October 18, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  16. 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 block 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 11:12 am |
  17. Dixie AZ

    Where is Mr. Cain's wife? He speaks of children and grandchildren. Maybe I've missed his mention of her. I respect what he's done with his life, but I won't vote for him. I've had enough of the Tea Party. The obstructionist Republicans in the house who were elected in 2010 have soured my view.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  18. Rich

    I can only hope,as a Dem,that he is the GOP man and Palin is the VP.....Great choices from big business and Koch bros...
    Keep acting the fool Herm.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  19. David

    How can the liberal black church be theologically conservative, and still be for things like gay marriage and abortion rights for women??

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

      Laf - the black church community is extremely anti-gay...what planet are you on?

      October 18, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • Paul

      because in this country we feel we have to choose left or right because of the nuts running. Americans are more down the middle but votes are bought for the left and right.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • Jupman

      Yes I can agree wiht Jen totally anti-gay they are just enforcing their will on people unless its in the church. they care but could care less.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  20. tularockstar

    Wow, CNN calling Herman Cain a liberal? Talk about a pot calling a kettle black! Hey Eric, you and John Blake are frikin hypocrites! Of course, your blog mentioned nothing about Jeremiah Wright and Mr. Socialist, Obama! How much did George Soros pay CNN for blogging this garbage? I guess if CNN is paid well enough, it'll stoop to any level. CNN, a slimey media at its best!

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

      I think you completely missed the point here!

      October 18, 2011 at 11:26 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.