October 18th, 2011
08:54 AM ET

The liberal church of Herman Cain

By Eric Marrapodi and John Blake, CNN

Editor’s note: CNN’s John Blake was formerly a member of Antioch Baptist Church North. He left 13 years ago.

Atlanta (CNN) -  Herman Cain has vaulted to the top of the polls as a Republican presidential candidate, but there’s one audience that may prove tougher for him to win over: his hometown church.

Cain, a conservative who recently said African-Americans were “brainwashed” into voting Democratic, is an associate minister at an Atlanta megachurch that has been a stronghold of liberal activism and is led by a pastor who cites Malcolm X as one of his influences.

Cain is a longtime member of Antioch Baptist Church North, which sits near the former college and home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The church, founded by freed slaves 134 years ago, boasts 14,000 members and an operating budget of more than $5 million. For years Antioch has hosted a “who’s who” of civil rights activists as guest speakers, including Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young.

Antioch’s powerful senior pastor, the Rev. C.M. Alexander, doesn’t share Cain’s political philosophy, Atlanta clergy say. But Cain and Alexander are so close that Cain sang “The Impossible Dream” for the pastor’s 50th anniversary celebration. The Atlanta businessman-turned-presidential hopeful is well liked by many members of his church, though some disagree with his politics, Antioch pastors say.

Cain’s piety may be just as fascinating as his politics, interviews suggest.

“He’s a real person who is more complicated than the sound bite you may have heard from him,” says the Rev. Fredrick Robinson, a friend of Cain’s who was an associate minister at Antioch before leaving to form his own church.

At Antioch, Cain has had to share the pews with fiery critics of the Republican Party like Joe Beasley, a man born to sharecroppers who once said he’s been called the “N-word” more times than he can count.

Read about Cain's stint as an Atlanta radio talk show host

Beasley is a deacon at Antioch and serves as Southern regional director for Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition. He also knows Cain and has no problem with his presence at Antioch.

“We’re good friends. He’s a great speaker and a great singer. He has a great love for the church,” Beasley says.

Beasley says he doesn’t talk politics with Cain, though.

“I respect him – and I want to keep my respect for him,” Beasley says.

Beasley, who worked with Cain on his unsuccessful 2004 run for one of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats, says Antioch’s acceptance of the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO is not unusual. It’s an attitude, he says, that starts at the top with Alexander.

“The reverend’s position is when we open the door, whosoever comes, let them come,” Beasley says.

Alexander did not return calls seeking comment. Cain also was not available to comment for this article.

‘He’s family’

The black church has long been a paradox. It is one of the most politically liberal but theologically conservative institutions in the black community. Cain’s house of worship embodies some of these contradictions.

Antioch is a member of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., a denomination in which some churches do not ordain women. The denomination’s leadership publicly broke with King over his civil rights activism.

But like many black Baptist churches, Antioch has developed a strong social justice component to its ministry over the years. It offers ministries for people suffering from drug addition and those infected with HIV/AIDS, and it has been a Sunday stopover for black politicians running for office.

Cain and his family blossomed in this world, according to some people who’ve known them at Antioch.

Robinson, the former Antioch minister, says Cain’s parents were pillars of the church. Cain graduated from Morehouse College, King’s alma mater, and went away to make his fortune. He returned to Antioch amid “great fanfare,” Robinson says.

Cain eventually became a fixture in the church’s deacon’s corner, a row of seats near the pulpit. On any Sunday, Cain could be seen sitting with the other deacons in his favorite light-blue dress shirt shouting, “Preach Rev!” or “Say it,” as the minister preached, Robinson says.

In 2002, Cain became a licensed minister at Antioch, he told Christianity Today.

Antioch members accept Cain because “he’s family,” Robinson says.

“If Herman Cain was one of those real uppity ‘I’m too good for regular blacks folks’ kind of person, he wouldn’t have mingled with us like he did,” Robinson says.

Robinson left Antioch to form his own church in rural Georgia and invited Cain to speak three times. All Robinson could afford to pay Cain was $200. It didn’t matter to Cain, whose speaking fee is usually far more, Robinson says.

Cain accepted the offer and brought a group of worshippers along with him to support Robinson’s small church, the pastor says.

Cain’s views on race aren’t simplistic, Robinson says. Cain says he doesn’t think racism is a huge obstacle for blacks, but Robinson says Cain has privately told him it’s a problem and once even complained about “the good ol’ boy” network in Georgia Republican politics.

“He knows there’s racism in the tea party, but he’ll never say that because they are his supporters. That bothers a lot of people, but he plays to that base not because he’s a sellout but because he’s a politician,” Robinson says.

In one video on his campaign website, “The Official Herman Cain Train Music Video,” Cain poses with young African-American and white supporters at a tea party rally and bellows, "To those who say the tea party is a racist organization, eat your words!"

The Rev. Gerald Durley, senior pastor of Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta and a longtime activist, recalls when Cain performed the key song from “Man of La Mancha” for Antioch’s pastor.

Cain sang “The Impossible Dream” in his deep baritone and “got a standing ovation,” Durley says. (Cain, who recently released an album of gospel tunes, also belted out the song at a recent campaign stop.)

Cain’s conservative message that blacks should forget about racism and focus on pulling themselves up by their bootstraps doesn’t mesh with his pastor’s philosophy, says Durley, himself a longtime leader among Atlanta clergy.

When the evangelist Billy Graham visited Atlanta in 1994 for a crusade, Alexander demanded that Graham include blacks on the various committees that organized his speaking event at the Georgia Dome, Durley says.

“He’s not going to talk about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” Durley says of Antioch’s pastor. “It’s about providing bootstraps.”

Alexander has said pastors should be agents of social change, not “religious pop stars.” He says Malcolm X and Rosa Parks are some of his civil rights influences.

“It’s not enough to talk about what black folks ought to do,” Alexander once said. “We have to also look at what government is not doing to ensure fairness and equal opportunity. God is on the side of the least of these. Jesus said, ‘The first shall become the last and the last shall become the first.’”

But Durley says Alexander can separate Cain’s political and religious beliefs.

“(Alexander) has respect for him,” Durley says. “Cain has been there for years. I would imagine that Alexander would say, ‘I can separate his spiritual soul and salvation from his political dogma.’”

‘Very clear … faith walk’

Ken Blackwell - former Cincinnati mayor, former Ohio secretary of state and fellow African-American Republican - first worked with Cain on an economic growth and tax reform commission in the mid-1990s.

“(Cain) is a person who tries to live his faith in the way he conducts himself in public and private life,” Blackwell says. “He doesn’t just talk the talk. He actually lives what he says and believes in.

“We have prayed with and for one another,” Blackwell says.

Both Cain and Blackwell are cancer survivors, and the two men leaned on each other during their health struggles. Blackwell beat prostate cancer in 2000 and Cain was diagnosed with stage four cancer in 2006. Cain has said his faith, coupled with the right medical treatment, was a major reason he was able to fight and beat the disease.

“I was able to see he has a very clear and discernible faith walk he was very comfortable with and very dependent on as he met his challenges,” Blackwell says.

Ralph Reed, head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and former Christian Coalition leader, says the time Cain spent behind the podium at Antioch has helped him connect with voters on the campaign trail.

“Herman Cain can hold his own with Mike Huckabee in terms of his ability to connect with and really develop a rapport with voters of faith,” Reed says. Cain heads back to Iowa next week to speak at a Faith and Freedom event with Reed.

“He shares their faith, he shares their values and he’s extremely good at being able to communicate his views,” Reed says. “I think someone who is comfortable with the lexicon of evangelicals is clearly going to over-perform in the early primaries.”

But while voters have welcomed Cain and helped rocket him to the top of polls, there are some fellow African-American clergy who are not as accepting.

The Rev. Artis Johnson, an Atlanta pastor, wrote an open letter to Cain in a local online newspaper, the Cascade Patch, after Cain said last month that blacks were brainwashed into voting Democratic.

“We are not circus animals or attendees of hypnotism shows that cannot make the reasonable and right decisions about who our greatest political enemies are, ” Johnson wrote.

In his letter, Johnson asked Cain why blacks would vote Republican when the party desires to disenfranchise blacks at the voting booth, denies the power of racism and believes the free market is going to address the needs of the poor and elderly.

“In my heart,” Johnson wrote, “I was hoping that you would represent a politician that did more than appeal to the worst in the electorate.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Baptist • Belief • Christianity • Herman Cain • Politics

soundoff (1,058 Responses)
  1. ajgorm

    The devil on the right shoulder and the angel on the left shoulder and an upside down 999 . Baffling simply baffling and Cain and the Messiah awesome ..and thye say we are not brain washed..TO MIDDLE GROUND ->o<-- . The eye is watching us.!

    October 18, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  2. Fezz

    “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,”

    Conclusion: He's a sellout for the sake of being a politician. In other words - sold his soul to the devil.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • OGR99

      "He knows there’s racism in the tea party, but he’ll never say that because they are his supporters."

      Seems like a perfect oxymoron to me.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • mike from iowa

      One thing Cain is not, and that's truthful. He is an arrogant liar that will say anything to get into office. Once in office, he would destroy this country with his insance, ill-thought initiatives.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  3. Bob

    Somebody has been "brain washed" for sure. Might want to have a look in the mirror.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  4. cashual

    You are aa ignorant as satan.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  5. ATL Guy

    As a black person, Herman Cain embarrasses me. Every time I see white people driving around with his sticker on their cars, I shake my head. He's an embarrassment to the black race. Very stereotypical angry black male routine that Obama would've been villified and hung out to dry for if he even attempted to do so. Obama will not be baited by his foolishness. And I do hope that if Obama loses to a Republican, that it be Herman Cain so that people can see the real difference between the Democratic approach and the clownish idiotic and childish Republican approach to governing.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  6. Ron

    the devil goes to church too, watch out don't be fooled by everybody that goes to church (beware of the wolves in sheep clothing)

    October 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Bill, Bloomington Il

      Ron is right. Obama has been seen in church.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  7. ajgorm

    I went to the mountain and the mountain said he who crosses bridge with no foundation take big risk.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  8. johnbeer

    The tea party is racist? If a person does not have the twisted view that government is there to satisfy every whim of a person who will not finish school and wait until marriage to start a family, he or she is a racist? I am opposed to white people who will not finish school or wait until marriage to begin a family. What is the word for that? Insensitive? Uncaring? How about just sick and tired? To assume that tea partiers are only tired of Blacks or Hispanics who will not work is twisted. "If a man shall not work, neither shall he eat." I believe that can be found in the Bible used at Herman Cain's church by individuals who believe that we should continue to coddle people who do not make good decisions. Come on you leftists. Come up with something better than "racist." A whole lot of us racist white people are going to vote for Mr. Cain and he sounds a whole lot more Black than the current President. Or maybe he is just intelligent and down-to-earth, unlike Obama. Go, Herman!

    October 18, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • contraryjim

      Even the bible can be correct, but the nation doesn't need a person indebted to religious, union or subsidized corporations.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • OGR99

      So, we need an amoral person? That doesn't make sense because everyone adheres to some type of belief system.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • lgny

      Here are two examples:

      Latinos: Whenever asked about Latinos, most Tea Partiers - and certainly their presidential candidates - start talking about illegal immigration and securing the borders. There are many Latinos who are legal citizens.

      Blacks: Whenever there's a successful black, Tea Partiers debase it as just the result of affirmative action - as though the person just got a free ride to success. Many got ahead by hard work an intelligence. Where affirmative action played a role, it got the foot in the door, but hard work is still needed to remain in the position and to advance.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • ajgorm

      Just a 999 type of situation

      October 18, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • mike from iowa

      Christians are not moral people. The way psychology works, the more a person claims to be something, the more likely they are not, and their claim is just a cover. Christians aer the worst haters and war-mongerers of all time. They are nothing like Christ. So, the last thing I want is to have a Christian in office. Christians use their Christianity and their claims of persecution to cover up all of their wrong-doings. They make excuses for it (oh, I'm only human, I'm weak) but hold everyone else to a standard of perfection. As Jesus was wont to identify – Christians are by-and-large hypocrits, and if you call them out for it, they call back "well you're not perfect" but if you don't call them out for it, then they'll pretend like because they're Christian they have some automatic assumption of being on high moral ground and a presumption of grace.

      For The Good Of The Country - Keep Religion Out Of Politics.

      October 18, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  9. mike from iowa

    What I don't like about Cain is that he is a bald-faced LIAR. He says things like "those who say my 999 plan is revenue short are wrong because they did a static analysis, and we did a dynamic analysis". What that *really* means is that Cain is assuming the economy will light on fire and produce alot more tax revenue – a very dangerous assumption that Cain tries to bury buy calling it a "Dynamic analysis". Liar. He also says "the poor won't pay more, a family at $25,000 is taxed 15.2%, so 9% is a 6% reduction". LIAR! 15.2% is the Scheduled Rate – that family has tax credits and pays 0%. HERMAN CAIN DISMISSES VOTER INTELLIGENCE AND LIES OFF-THE-CUFF. HE IS ARROGANT AND ELITE.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  10. ajgorm

    Can you not see the obvious is it so hard to put the pieces of the story togetherand see the divine nature of it ALL !

    October 18, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  11. Mr.Data

    Anybody who does not believe Herman Cain to be a republican does not deserve to vote. This story by CNN is MORE information than what it has ever been printed on its site about Obama's church in Chicago and its irreverent Rev. Wright.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  12. RepairsNeeded

    The Great Ronald Wilson Reagan is back, Black, and has changed his name to Herman Cain

    October 18, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  13. Big_D

    Wasn't there a Cain in the bible too? What was he responsible for?

    October 18, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • OneProudAmerican

      Really? Well, as long as we're on that tack, there was a Hussein around, too...in much more recent history? Could you tell me what he's done, please?

      October 18, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  14. Ron

    just because he attends church regular doesn't make his a nice person. a lot of people go to church and are hell bound.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  15. Juan in El Paso

    The "liberal" church!!! What about the "radical" church of Obama! The liberal media just brushed Rev. Wright, and his GD Amereica, but OMG... Cain attended a liberal church! Nice work CNN! This will just bring more attention to the church that Obama attended for 20 YEARS. Bring religion into this and Obama is free game. You can turn around and tell the GOP that they can't attack Obamas church. Nice way to unzip your fly.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  16. saf65

    He just seems to be deeply confused.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  17. Big_D

    Cain is a Koch slave. Next we will be hearing about how he used affirmative action to get his education in the first place too.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  18. OGR99

    Didn't we learn from 2080 that a person's church is irrelevant?

    October 18, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  19. Bob

    I'm getting "999" (the mark of Cain) tattooed on my forehead.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • mike from iowa

      Nice. Wow. I never thought of that!

      October 18, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  20. TraderJoe

    I say we write-in the "maverick" soccer mom in 2012.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
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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.