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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. Anon

    Cain is insane. His 999 plan wont just help the wealthy even more, it will eliminate the middle and lower classes. 9% tax on everyone?? This guy should be no where near the white house. Keep Obama in power, he's at least doing something even if the GOP rejects any plans for new jobs.

    This is the democratic nation of America, not a Republic feudalism.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • rizzo

      Nine percent ON TOP of state sales taxes. And what happens to Social Security? How does the poor old dude that I hang out with, who barely gets by on his pension and SS, even manage to pay for food under 9-9-9?

      He's either an idiot or another GOP candidate shilling for the rich.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Anon2

      @rizzo: Actually, Cain wants to abolish Social Security. He just doesn't mention that very much.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • rizzo

      Exactly...so I'm not sure how the old man gets by on @$900/month with what will be, adding in state tax, 15%.

      Oh wait, he's not rich so he doesn't matter to Cain.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  2. hippypoet

    people like this will be the end of the U.S. as we know it... hell its already begun! the downfall from grand empire to third world country is a long but quick decent. I wonder if the Natives will raise and take power, afterall they were here first.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  3. Spam Eater

    So far, I like what I'm hearing from and about Herman Cain. Now if I find out he sat in the pews for 20 years while someone spouted "GD America" crap every Sunday, my opinion may change. So far there's no indication of that. I'm glad to see that the media is actually vetting this presidential candidate. Maybe if they would have done that last time around, our country wouldn't be in the shape it's in today with such a clueless imbicile at the helm.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • rizzo

      You like the way he wants to implement a regressive tax scheme that will screw everyone but the rich? Great job, guy!

      October 18, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Numyorangay

      Keep eatin' that Spam, your bowels are blocked.

      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.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Spam Eater

      Yes, I'd actually like to see the 47 percent who pay nothing and consume virtually everything have to contribute a little something to their upkeep.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • rizzo

      Lol@Spam Eater. Keep eating that Faux news garbage and don't listen to how that mythical whatever percent pays the vast majority of FICA taxes.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Spam Eater

      rizzo, You're spouting off about things you know nothing about. FICA is not a tax, it is an insurance payment known as the "Federal Insurance Contribution Act". If your beloved Democrats hadn't spent all of those premiums on other social engineering projects, SS would still be viable.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • rizzo

      FICA isn't a tax as soon as know nothings want to spout off about how 47% of people don't contribute anything. No matter what you call it, it's money that the government takes from your paycheck but only up to a specific amount, and the people who don't earn a ton of money are the ones that fund it. The 40whatever% thing is a LIE. It's a lie told by the rich to get the poor and middle classes to enslave themselves even further.

      The Dems aren't 'beloved' of me, I'm a communist, and I know very well that Democratic Congresses spent all the money from the SS Trust Fund, just as I know it was mostly Republican presidents that signed off on those expenditures, so both parties are to blame. It's great that you want to be on the side of the good guys, but both sides are the bad guy here, and right now, Cain is the worst of them.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  4. Angie S.

    All of a sudden CNN is curious about a man and his pastor/church? What happened back when Obama was running? It wasn't an issue back then. Oh, wait, he's a DEMOCRAT and LIBERAL. I get it. Shameful.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • Anon

      Forgetting the Jeremiah Wright controversy so soon are we?

      October 18, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • rizzo

      And how a man believes in the Invisible Sky Daddy is his own business anyhow. I don't care who or how any of them worship god, Jesus said that how you worship is between you and god. What I care about is the actions people take, or in Cain's case, what they say they plan to do. Cain plans on screwing the poor, so I dislike what he has to say. And if we're getting back to Invisible Sky Daddy terms, also makes him a bad Christian.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  5. Scott Kenan

    Interesting article about the complexity of issues here. Thank God CNN is treating the public like adults!!! Not necessarily so the politicians written about, however. Herman Cain makes some great points yet advances a party that is totally corrupted except for a few minor politicians and some of their registerred voters. See what I sent to CNN when they asked me for information on otherer political matters (the drug-trafficking of Bush/Cheney/Gingrich bolstered by the email/cell-phone hackinig and news-lying of Fox News. Click the header to see my whole blog. An indexi is a couple of scrolls below the link to my Tennessee Williams memoir on the right: http://scottkenan.blogspot.com/2011/05/my-reply-to-cnns-request-for-info.html .

    October 18, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • Bob Owens

      Oh, I get it. All Rupublicans and conservatives are bad. All Democrats and liberals are good. Thanks for the enlightenment, Scott.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Joxer the Mighty

      And what, you think the Democratic party is not corrupt?

      October 18, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  6. Bill

    "Muffin Man"....are you serious? What idiotic reasoning (if you can even call your comments "reasoning").

    October 18, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  7. Tim

    How low can you go Mr. Marripodi & Blake? What has this got to do with belief? Sounds more like a low level hatchet job to me. CNN needs to create a 'report abuse' button for the articles themselves.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  8. Sue Mart

    He can become the republican nominee but he's not getting the 35 % of the latin vote to WIN!!! He's an uncle TOM

    October 18, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Harri

      I don't like the guy much when it comes to his tax ideas and politics, but I think he is anything but an Uncle Tom

      October 18, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  9. jm

    There is something very evil in his eyes and in that little half smirk half smile. He scares me terribly.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Numyorangay

      I agree with you JM. I have said this to myself time and time again. Something's not right.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • Dave

      999 = 666

      October 18, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  10. dman

    Beyond funny. If a Democratic candidate was a minister of this church, the Republicans would be calling him or her everything from a criminal to the antichrist. The Grand Old Phony party is at it again.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  11. whocares

    Cain says what he feels is right. He' also an experienced, successful businessman. UNLIKE Obama.

    For honesty alone he's heads above Obamanation.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • rizzo

      But either he wants to screw everyone but the rich or he's an idiot, so what he thinks is right is very suspect.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Dave

      Um, Obama is a millionaire also, and a lawyer, so um, fail! Running a pizza joint is not like running a country. Besides, I've never had a Godfathers pizza so it couldn't have been that successful!

      October 18, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • rizzo

      Obama never said anything about introducing a regressive taxation scheme that will only make the rich richer before the entire economy tanks. I'm not the biggest Obama fan in the world, but at least he pretends to care for the poor and middle class, unlike Cain.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  12. johnny popper

    But was the pastor god parent to one or more of his kids? is the question.

    Seriously, is a candidate's faith even an issue after OB made it through despite having attended the racist, traitor, Reverend Wright's ranting sermons of hate for 20 years? OB and his family were in the whacko's inner circle, having him act as god parent to their children, having Wright over for family gatherings and on and on so I think not, a candidate's faith is not a show stopper. The issue mattered to me big time, but it matterred little to the 53 million nut jobs (ok, how about the anyone but a republican nuts) who voted him in.

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

      Way to prove my point. When the Democrats do it, it is EVIL. When the Republicans do the same thing, it is perfectly ok. That should be the slogan of the Grand Old Phony party.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • rizzo

      So because of reverend Wright or whatever you think electing a guy who wants to screw everyone but the rich is a good idea?

      October 18, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • Dave

      That 9-9-9 thing looks allot like a cover for 6-6-6. Perhaps Herman is the anti-christ! Wait, he would need charisma for that. This dude is greasy from being around all that pizza! I don't trust him.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  13. zip

    Gee, old Herman wouldn't be just tellin' us what we want to hear, would he??

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

      And relying on the general publics' lack of economic education. Nah, not a pizza king!

      October 18, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Dan

      Zip,
      I have been listening to Herman Cain for years and he is an honest-to-goodness conservative. This is just the Mainstream media's attempt to "divide and conquer".

      October 18, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • rizzo

      Oh he definitely is an honest to goodness conservative, he wants to screw the middle and lower classes so the rich can get richer. That's not in debate at all.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  14. Hikerstud

    Cain seems to be four the majority. The majority believes in a God. The majority believes in America that it is equal opportunity for all / not equal results for all. I like that he made it in business. I like he still hangs out with out left leaning church friends. He ain't afraid. That is good. Principles and character in a politician will be a nice change.

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

      You can't even speak correctly and you want me to take your advice on politics and life? It's for the majority not "four", that's a number, totally different word moron. While you're at it drop the stupid hikerstud moniker, it shows your lack of intelligence!

      October 18, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • StopTheMadness

      For*

      Learn to use proper grammar, spelling and puctuation before commenting on the intelligence or worth of someone please.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • StopTheMadness

      *punctuation.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  15. ajgorm

    Cain Card !

    October 18, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  16. ajgorm

    How are we to take this seriously if we cant even get beyond the religous part dumb founding everyone. Cain and wright and 999 I mean really will we get any sanity at all out of all this. Obama will declare marshall law before this is over if this contiues. Occupy !

    October 18, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  17. demogal

    Like him personally all you want, but continue to examine closely his politics, particularly his ties to the Koch brothers.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  18. Ted Peters

    Cain is a modern day Nat Turner wrecking havoc on the Democrat party plantation.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Numyorangay

      More like a house n. . . . . . .; Nat Turner was sane.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  19. Timfromfl

    I find it ridiculous that no one has noticed that the only reason there are no other better options for our country would be because in order to be president you either need to be a billionaire to last the campaign or have been a CEO of a major corporation

    October 18, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  20. jbmar1312

    I don't understand why accountability and self-responsibility cannot be coupled with civil rights and the government protecting the rights of all Americans. Insuring discrimination is not effecting the progress of a paticular ethnicity in soceity does not mean that as individuals some people will struggle and some will fail while others succeed. White, Black or other ... the cold hard facts are some work harder than others, some plan better than others and some are more disciplined than others. It is not always racism that hold people down. Many times we hold ourselves down. Herman Cain is just saying if you want it, go get it. If discrimination is a blocker than use the law, but go get it!

    October 18, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • rizzo

      He's also saying "I'm rich and I want to pay less taxes so here's my 9-9-9 plan". Cain is a moron(or at least acting like one), his plan is nutz and anyone who believes that it's a good idea needs a better education.

      Rich people hold the rest of us down, and Cain is one of them.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:44 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.