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. Kevin

    That ratio of individual GDP to debt doesn't acnouct for the fact that almost half of those in the US pay no net federal taxes. That means that, for those who DO pay, we're already long since underwater. ='[.] =

    May 21, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  2. Saundra

    Edward T. Hall? That's a dude? Wow! I was so totally (well somhaewt marginally) off on that one. I am not sure I am ready to endorse this report. Someone should check his junk to confirm. I understand that is generally easy to do at the occupation.As for Biden, he is only symptomatic of how this whole administration is melting down. It will only be getting worse b/f 2012.

    May 19, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
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    May 19, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  4. Yusuf

    Every time he gets stuck, he just starts yeilnlg 9-9-9!Considering it is a regressive tax and will put tax pressure on companies to keep wages down, it's a wonder this improves anyone's opinion of the man. Well, anyone outside of the 1%.

    May 19, 2012 at 9:57 am |
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    February 27, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
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    February 27, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Jeorge

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      May 20, 2012 at 2:41 am |
  8. Rebecca

    Elitists use the underlings however it suits them.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
  9. Ryan

    Tea Party racist? who freed the slaves...? oh ya, right, the republicans/conservatives.

    November 10, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • bryce

      Yes, Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. But to imply that the republican party ideals are the same today as they were back then, or that a modern "conservative" would have backed Lincoln, is disingenuous, and nothing short of revisionist history.

      November 10, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • TunaBlue


      Please be specific and identify what "ideals" have changed for Republican Party?

      Since you tacitly admit that it was the Republicans who freed the slaves, and in fact it was the Democrats who were the slave owners, please reconcile the atrocities committed by the Democrats relative to the change of "ideals" of which you speak. Specifically, what atrocities were committed by the Republican Party since 1854, and who committed them? I can identify tens of thousands committed by Democrats.

      November 20, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  10. Brar Hopper

    >>>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.
    Only on the Clinton News Network...

    November 9, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
    • bryce

      Uh, sure. No doubt this websites "liberal bias" is what caused them to quote what the man actually said. If they were a little less "liberal", they could have just invented a quote form thin air, and passes it off as fact.

      November 10, 2011 at 11:52 am |

      Try 'Communist News Network.' But since that's the case, why do you or I use it?

      November 27, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  11. Rocky

    "a known womanizer"?? Based o what. The word of three anonymous and one overdressed bimbo? Come one. You're just trying to bring down the man because he is not a typical predictable dyed in the wool, left wing, democratic knee grow. He has the audacity to be different and not fit into your box so you attack him for Uncle Tomism.

    November 9, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Male

      Rocky, you seriously believe this n-igger hasn't assaulted white wimmenz (not that I care if he has)? On what grounds? Looks to me like you're blindly worshiping him (you're defending him) and you don't even know why yet.

      November 27, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  12. SwaseyGirl

    The Republicans impeached Clinton as President for womanizing, but now want to elect Cain, a known womanizer to the Presidency. How does that work?

    November 7, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • Brar Hopper

      Actually you're either a bald faced liar or an idiot which it typical of libtards like yourself. Billy Boy was impeached for perjury, a crime that thousands of Americans are incarcerated for.

      November 9, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
    • Brar Hopper

      I guess I should clarify for you that incarcerated means they are in prison.

      November 9, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
  13. KC

    "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."
    Why would he accept any money? I belonged to an organization that flatly forbid those of us who taught from accepting more than gas money. The group we were teaching was responsible for making photocopies of the class materials, and if you were lucky, they'd feed you lunch.

    November 5, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  14. Rebecca

    Listening to the Deficit Committee meeting, I noticed that Senator Hensarling is opposed to any military budget cuts, typical hawk. Never mind that most of the military budget has nothing to do with keeping this country safe. Massive amounts of the military budget is spent on occupying bases in countries all over the world, designed to back up global megacorporations. Never mind that the citizens paying for this "protection" would prefer to stop paying for outsourcing jobs. We spend $1 trillion annually for our supposed security... but our borders are wide open, we invte 38 Million legal aliens in each year since 2010... and we now have Homeland Security in charge of our defense instead of the military. Our military is used for aggression all over the world, punishing those who are unwilling to be ravished by U.S. corporations. These same corporations are using the same tactics at home. Now we have a new problem, we are financing a large contingent of mercenary soldiers who owe their allegiance to the corporation they work for. How suicidal is that? Of course, we may just go bankrupt first trying to finance the most ridiculous corporate imperialism on this planet.

    October 30, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
  15. Earle Belle

    Paul, Daniels, Barbour and Christie vs. GOP Establishment on Foreign Policy

    In my latest column at The Daily Caller, I attempt to demonstrate that many Republicans’ disagreements with Ron Paul on foreign policy have mostly to do with old partisan attachments that prevent any serious reassessment of American foreign policy. One-time possible 2012 Republican presidential contenders like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have all expressed foreign policy views similar to what Paul espouses. Yet, each of these Republican leaders decision to not enter this race has left Paul as the only viable candidate making the argument for a more practically prudent and fiscally responsible foreign policy. Or as The Politico’sJames Antle asks What GOP foreign policy debate? (emphasis mine) http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1011/66470.html :

    Remember the foreign policy debate that was supposed to break out in the Republican Party during next year’s primaries?

    Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels… ruffled hawks’ feathers by suggesting that America might have to shrink its military footprint around the globe to restore solvency to the federal budget. He proposed a defense budget test.

    “What size and kind of military is absolutely essential to preserve the physical safety of Americans?” Daniels asked. “What, very strictly defined, are the national interests of our country?”

    He reminded audiences concerned about the U.S. world leadership, “If we go broke, no one will follow a pauper.”

    Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, one of the most successful Republican National Committee chairmen in recent history, sounded a similar note. “Anybody who says you can’t save money at the Pentagon has never been to the Pentagon. We can save money on defense. And if we Republicans don’t propose saving money on defense, we’ll have no credibility on anything else.”

    Barbour also questioned how long the U.S. should remain in Afghanistan. “What is our mission?” he asked. “How many [members of] Al Qaeda are in Afghanistan? … Is that a 100,000-man Army mission?”

    He then answered his own question:, “I don’t think our mission should be to think we’re going to make Afghanistan an Ireland or an Italy.”

    New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has also said, “The United States must also become more discriminating in what we try to accomplish abroad,” he said in a speech at the Reagan Presidential Library.

    Christie acknowledged the limits of using the military for nation-building. “We certainly cannot force others to adopt our principles through coercion,” Christie continued. “Local realities count; we cannot have forced makeovers of other societies in our image.”

    Daniels, Barbour and Christie are not running for president. Romney is. The former Massachusetts governor seems also to have considered the case for foreign policy restraint…. (but) it seems that Romney has since decided to move in the opposite direction. He now resists further cuts to the defense budget, arguing instead that military spending should be increased. He argues for a larger role for the U.S. military on the world stage. He warns against “isolationism” — though the country is now engaged in three wars.

    Romney’s foreign policy team is dominated by people who advised former President George W. Bush.

    Antle adds, and this is key:

    Most other Republican presidential candidates would be likely to draw from a similar talent pool.

    Antle then concludes:

    So despite initial impressions that much has changed since 2008, the Republican foreign policy debate may remain Paul versus everyone else.

    My conclusion: The foreign policy debate Daniels, Barbour and Christie think the GOP desperately needs to have now falls, as Antle points out, on the shoulders of Ron Paul–and if conservatives are serious about a more fiscally responsible and prudent federal government, this is unquestionably a debate the Republican Party and this country must have.
    Ron Paul vs. foreign policy partisanship:


    Correcting The Disinformation About Ron Paul's Budget & Student Loan Plan:
    Ron Paul Offers Relief for Small Business
    Allows grace period for regulatory compliance
    LAKE JACKSON, Texas – This week, 2012 Republican Presidential candidate, Congressman Ron Paul introduced a bill on the House Floor that would alleviate the onerous regulations the federal government imposes on small businesses, which are the backbone of the U.S. economy.
    H.R. 3267, the Protect Small Business Jobs Act of 2011, would grant small businesses a six-month grace period to comply with federal regulations.

    Speaking about the bill on the House floor, Congressman Paul said:

    “At a time of continuing high unemployment and stagnant growth, doesn’t it make sense to give small businesses a reasonable time to comply with federal regulations rather than just hitting them with job-destroying fines and legal bills?

    “I hope all my colleagues will stand up for small businesses and their current and potential employees by cosponsoring the Protect Small Business Jobs Act.”

    October 30, 2011 at 12:51 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.