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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. Andrew

    When fascism comes to the United States it will be wrapped in the flag and holding a cross.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  2. Byron

    Great I can't wait till it's just Cain against Obama. That will be way better than any sitcom.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  3. ajgorm

    If it is all about brain washing then Cain might be Able to do the same and undo the Acorn brain washed left and plant some job fear in their heads to vote anti socialist...

    October 18, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  4. Eli Ojemuyiwa

    Cain is an opportunist. He knows he cannot win, however he is thinking of the next next event. Do not be surprised if he gets a contract with Fox and then he can mingle with his other creepy friends-Hannity & O'reilley. By the way I have seen all the repugs presidential contestants wives wives but his. Is he married or single.?

    October 18, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • Charmaine

      That is a good question.Where is Cain`s wife? Any children? Hmmmmmmmmm.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  5. Theo

    I despise both parties but am particularly fearful of the fascists that is the Republican party of today. They are pushing legislation everywhere to require a photo id at voting booths which will potentially disenfrachise millions including the old, poor, handicapped, and women, the vast majority of which are legal, registered voters. In many places, you must include several forms of identification including marriage certificates, social security cards, and birth certificates. It's basically a form of gerrymandering. I lean toward the right when it comes to immigration policy, but when I hear the leading contender talking about building a coast-to-coast fence and electrifying it, it evokes memories of the Berlin wall. Next thing you know, we will shoot them down like dogs. So much for "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

    October 18, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • rATL

      I dont really see any of that as a bad thing. You should have to prove your identification before voting, otherwise there are folks who will play the system and cast votes multiple times, for the dead, etc. There is no reason a law abiding citizen shouldn't be able to produce proper identification to vote.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Gelfling

      I agree with Ralt

      October 18, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  6. Robert Johnson

    There is a seemingly endless stream of media output detailing a million reasons Herman Cain cannot be nominated, much less elected. At the same time, people who have learned more about him or have actually met the man are impressed by the good qualities that have led to his growing popularity. Other than Democrats, with their obvious concern about him as a possible opponent, why all the negativism? It can't be about lack of applicable experience, especially compared to the 2008 election results.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  7. Gelfling

    Why dont we just run an election between CNN and Foxnews. Both completely bias with their own candidate bashing everyday.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  8. Mary

    Maybe it's just me, but I don't think I want a two-faced oreo cookie and hypocrite as my president.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Ken from FL

      Nice. Very tolerant. That type of thinking will certainly advance race relations in this country.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  9. GSA

    Quick question/thought.
    In America, similar to up here in Canada ppl love their country for the most part and the opportunities it provides and the way of life we live. This is all well and good and I understand the pride and realizing that both countries are proud of what they built and where they are when it comes to their world standing.
    Does anyone think that we could use a change of system? I understand that both systems work and have put brought the countries to where they are but have the systems reached their respective limits? To me it seems like most ppl would rather get stuck in the political system and pick a side and argue it to death (ie Liberal vs Conservative) or just become disengaged instead of actually trying to change the country for the better.
    Being from Canada, I love this country and really do think it is the best place in the world to live but I also think that there needs to be major changes and I personally do not participate in the voting process (I know ppl will jump down my throat for this but I am completely disengaged at this point) but I just feel like any person or party we put in place will only have minor influences and in reality my day-to-day life does not change much. I hate to be forced to vote simply because it is my "responsibility" or "right" when I really feel like i'm having to choose the lesser of 2 evils.
    If ever there was 0 voter turnout would that change things? Just some thoughts that i'm throwing out there. I mean I love the healthcare and education system up here in Canada but the fact is just like the US, majority of my tax dollars gets wasted or used for things like bailouts.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Dan

      There's actually a novel, called Seeing, by Jose Saramago, that explores the "zero voter turnout" concept. (In this case the voters actually cast blank ballots, but that's essentially the same thing as what you hypothesized)
      Worth a read – this is the same individual who wrote Blindness – which was quite notable as well.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  10. Kweg Yung

    Corporate America's expansion into China was paid for by the American taxpayer. Bush's “tax cuts for the rich” policy helped to fund this transition. That's why no American jobs were created but a lot of Chinese jobs were. Republican politicians represent the corporate rich, the 'job creators'. When was the last time you saw a job created in the U.S.? The rich don't pay tax in this country and their corporations are physically based in communist China; where, by the way, SOCIALIZED healthcare and SOCIALIZED education are the norm and ALL the banks are state owned. These former American companies only pay tax in China, supporting a growing communist government and military. Republican politicians sold us (U.S.) out. These guys aren't batting for us (U.S.) anymore.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  11. Ted

    So far these comments have been purely ideological/race-related typical for liberal Democratic voters in this country. When Herman Cain comes out and says, "Racism today does not hold anybody back in a big way", he is being true to what hes seen in years of business. He knows only he, because he is black, can get away with saying this without a media firestorm. It is a brave stance and I admire him having a backbone on his issue rather than the Cynthia McKinney's out there busing fellow black churchgoers to the polls on election day.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  12. Fleischen

    I love it how CNN's suddenly all concerned about scrutinizing a presidental candidate's church and pastor. Where the hell were you in 2008?

    October 18, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Ken from FL

      Right on target. Excellent.

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

      Awww look at CNN trying to tell "black people" who to vote for. This is the lowest of the low, honestly folks there is nothing more racist and condescending than a NEWS OUTLET trying to convince "black people" that they are victims and voting for a conservative is a BAD THING... 😉

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

      That was all about a Different Black guy running for president. You know – the LIBERAL one.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Maggie19

      I am behind you 100%..If it was not for Fox, we would never have heard of Rev. Wright. Its like he did not exist on all the other networks. Now CNN is so eager to tell us about Cain's religion and his church and who and what his Pastor believes in.

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

      Yeah Maggie! If it weren't for Fox, we wouldn't have heard about the death panels either! Oh, wait... that was fabricated nonsense.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  13. gaucho420

    Did I get this right? The article pats the church on the back for not just preaching, but helping people with HIV? That's some church...all talk and very little action??!!!!

    October 18, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  14. Lynne

    “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.”

    Wouldn't that be nice if just one Republican could fit this description?!?!?!

    October 18, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Ken from FL

      Ah, yes, and promoting class warfare is wonderful, isn't it? Have you really bothered to look at the Republican candidates's backgrounds, or has that knee jerk knocked you senseless?

      October 18, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  15. Diane

    Cain said if yo are not rich or employed its your own fault or something like that.I wonder what he pays his employees an d does he offer benefits? Probably not and 7.25 an hour. Why isn't his employees rich I wonder

    October 18, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • C. Smith

      Better question is how he got so rich in the first place. I don't know, but if he brought himself up by his own bootstraps, then maybe he's got a point in his statement, based on his own achievements. There are plenty of resources available for minorities to improve their own livelihoods. How many actually take advantage of them, though?

      In the short term, Cain's statement may not be entirely right. There are plenty of people today who lost their jobs or saw their pay cut because of the economy's crash, and not because of anything they did or didn't do, but the perennial problem of poverty in America is another issue.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Gelfling

      Do you really expect someone to get rich while working at Godfathers Pizza?

      October 18, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  16. james

    Why is CNN so afraid of this Guy?

    October 18, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Charmaine

      I do not think CNN is afraid of Cain.CNN is showing him making a fool out of himself on nation wide t.v! He is a abig joke.I do not agree with anything he says.I hope he is not taking the people`s money that goes to his"Mega" Church.I have heard how these fake pastors steal money by pocketing the "tides" people give by keeping the money for himself.I am not beleiving that his money comes from just the pizza businesses.I like to know how many pizza stores he have open and running.How much does the workers get paid and do they have medical coverage.I doubt that.This guy needs to go away now.He is a big joke and says a lot of illusional so call ideas that will only work for himself.Such as the 999 tax idea.In PA.it is 8% why would I want it to go to 9%? He is a idiot!"999 more problems we will have and he will have none".That is my song verse version.Ugh.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • Maggie19

      They nervous about another black man giving Obama a run for his $1 billion donation monies. It seems that American can be bought.......wasting money to vote for Obama who has made our country a disaster.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  17. Just Me

    You sound just a little liberal to me? But glad you are so open minded (not!). I'm thinking your nonsensical athiest banter is simply wasted on the conservatives who are really interested in this article. Sorry, its the truth.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Just Me

      Sorry, my last comment was at JRCNNJR.

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

    The republican party IS a evil racist party.Just look at their tea baggers who have pics of the pres in a pot with a bone in his nose.
    Cain is "playin the fool for the Koch bros"

    October 18, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • sharon

      oh brother....such a simple mind.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Gelfling

      I feel people who are so polarized in there political beliefs is what is going to destroy this country. Be flexible. Not everything Obama does is all evil or good. Same goes with Republicans.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  19. Republican's are fraud's !

    All republican's aren't KKK member's but all KKK member's are republican's ! Why doesn't Cain visit a klan meeting and ask them what they think about his candidacy ? The republican party of today is nothing like the republican party of Lincoln ! Cain is a useful tool to them , just like Michael Steele was ! They will discard him soon after primary voting start's ! The sad part about it is that Cain is so delusional , he won't even see it coming !

    October 18, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • Gelfling

      I feel people who are so polarized in their political beliefs is what is going to destroy this country. Be flexible. Not everything Obama does is all evil or good. Same goes with Republicans

      October 18, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • skipca

      I think it's time to put down the bong and check facts bozo. Historically the KKK has been a democrat organization.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  20. hippypoet

    Honor, courage, truth, justice, honesty....do these words mean nothing?

    October 18, 2011 at 11:20 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.