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. CNN out to divide and conquer again

    So typical religious 'coverage' by CNN. Aim at Repub.'s, conservatives, anti-LGBTer's and announce 'news' will alienate supporters if possible or better yet gain them for their liberal causes. Same thing with 'Editorial' why blacks shouldn't support Cain written by a Harvard radical. (Oh what a surprise! Radicals at liberal Harvard!! Not.) So CNN can only pull the word 'liberal' out and use it when describing Cain's church most likely with strategy to dissuade conservative away from Cain and divide and conquer. CNN, why not use 'liberal' alot more often like when referring to Obama politics, CNN philosophy (is there a red phone from WH to CNN newsroom? 🙂

    October 18, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  2. hippypoet

    i see no honor in these so called representatives that are suppose to represent us. i see no courage to do the right thing, i see no truth coming out of there mouths. What i do see is the same bullsh!T tossed out by everyone every new election from all parties no matter the issue at hand.

    October 18, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Scott

      Poet not. Hippy yes.

      October 18, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • hippypoet

      sry if it didn't rhyme.... maybe next time. 🙂

      October 18, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      HP did you my Sun God theme song yesterday?

      October 18, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  3. vet4life63

    Ron Paul is by far the best candidate. He wants to do things that will help the little guy, that is willing to work, and prevent the fed and big banks from sucking us dry. Obama GAVE them OUR money. Paul wants to end the fed. totally revise the tax system. I think thats a good thing!!

    October 18, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  4. eunice


    October 18, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  5. Johnny Thor

    Still awaiting CNN to investigate Obama's church!

    October 18, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • Nell

      What would you like to find out. It is streaming every Sunday on the internet and was thoroughly investigaged during the election?

      October 18, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • Scott

      Johnny wants even 'news' coverage not just investigations of one and ignorance of the other cause they know it'll hurt their liberal causes.

      October 18, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  6. Scott

    Cain's a great breath of fresh air. It sets him apart.

    October 18, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  7. Tim Hurst

    I would hardly call thissouthern baptist church liberal or even progressive. Like most predominantly black southern baptists churches, it's equality and justice unless you're not one of them.

    October 18, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  8. Big_D

    Cain talks a good game but when it comes to reality he is just a Koch slave. The sad part is he sold himself.

    October 18, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  9. us1776

    Cain is a paid-for Koch shill.


    October 18, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  10. george of the jungle

    the same people post the same crap day after day. So you hate the president. Get over it. and comment on the artical at hand. If their are any failures it is the GOP for not having any ideas to help the American public. Cains church may be liberal but he is not.

    October 18, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  11. Tranice

    I don't get some of you.......posting

    Obama has been a failure! Hillary should challenge him!

    He is not a failure. He has done a lot for our beauiful country. People please think before you post. And she did challenge him.....

    October 18, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  12. hippypoet

    Honor, courage, truth, justice, honesty.....where did these traits go if not in our hearts anymore? Where is the rightous few that once kept the wolves at bay? Where are the fires that burn for those whom gave there lives for ours??

    October 18, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  13. hippypoet

    first the church he belongs to is a great church based and built on the proper foundations that all churches should be build upon...equal rights, freedom, and say.... who could ask for more...

    of all the people running for office this is one of a few that aren't completely jokes, and take nearly everything thats serious seriously and leave the funny stuff funny. However he is a believer in a make believe god and should not run the country. we need people who are more down to earth, who concern themselves with the problems of the many instead of the few, who work in the office not make the office work for them. WE NEED A LEADER OF QUALITY. One who when they talk others listen, and not from fear but from admiration. We need a man who values peace over all but still understands the value of war.

    October 18, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • Thetruth

      Go on back to sleep.....

      October 18, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • hippypoet

      ooo, whats a matter? did i say something that hurt your retard feelings. What i said is the truth, you on the other hand are a loser whinny baby who can't stand on his/her own two feet. What this country really needs is to be split up into the states and allowed to run ourselves or a leader to lead us out of this mess.

      October 18, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  14. Meeehhh

    Why didn't they report on Obamas church? Is he not "black" enough for CNN?

    October 18, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Thetruth

      WHAT CHURCH?!?

      October 18, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • TheTooth

      dont you mean moske he is a muslin you know

      October 19, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  15. BJP

    you missed the real story in 2007 & 2008. Seems like Herman cain suffered to be with these people. Blacks are mostly liberal on social justice because the democrats have locked up their vote for food stamps and welfae checks. Somehow, democrats have blacks believing that the Republican party will stop their welfare from coming in. More blacks have prospered under a Republican President. Ray Charles could see that!

    October 18, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • Patrick

      Truth is, the Republicans have given away the black vote because of widespread belief in the crap you just posted.

      October 18, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Linda

      But Republicans aren't racist, right?

      October 18, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • Nell

      More whites are on welfare and receive food stamps than any group. Why any poor white person is a Republican confuses me.

      October 18, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  16. tinaf

    Obama has been a failure! Hillary should challenge him!

    October 18, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • DA

      You are delusional!! I guess you are a GOP plant!!

      October 18, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • alan

      hilary did challenge him. Don't think for a second republicans would have played nice with Hilary. She would be in the same situation as Barack finds himself in now..............and you would be writting Obama should challenge hillary.. think about it....

      October 18, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  17. Howard


    October 18, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  18. tinaf

    Just watched the interview – Great job CNN for letting the candidates talk themselves! So far, I like a Cain/Newt ticket! Brains, experience and COJONES!

    October 18, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  19. jayc

    Being a Christian myself, always have wondered why the GOP always make a big issue of abortion in the election year. I don't approve on abortion, but wondered why after the republicans so called christian prevent a death by opposing abortion, after that person is saved, they dont care if that saved baby, have a health insurance, receive any assistance if they are struggling, medicaid for them is a bad word and forget about education, too expensive if you are not rich... I guess democrats looks more christian if you ask me....

    October 18, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • Actually...

      You make a pretty broad statement saying Christians don't care for the well being of a baby after it is born. The truth is they do care but object to those who are able but not willing to be personally responsible. Those who are truly in need are the ones the church should be taking care of, not government programs.

      October 18, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Thetruth

      Come on Jayc,....Don't be a COMPLETE IDIOT out here in the public!

      October 18, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      Actually and jayc both make serious points here. To articulate what jayc appeared to say was while the Republican party has done everything it can to stop the availability of abortions to allow the child to be born, they have also done everything they could to remove the social safety net that can provide health care for children from financially at risk families, they have gutted the school systems by their insistence on vouchers to private schools. Because these private schools can select the students they want, the underperforming will find themselves stuck in the public schools on a guaranteed failure track.
      It is programs that provide for health care and education funding that Churches like Cain's have fought for. It is those same programs that people like Cain are trying to tear down. The problem is these conservatives are claiming that "the market" will take care of itself in instances like this. Why should 'the market" do now what it has avoided doing for the past 50 years?

      Now to the real meat of the comment – I applaud Deacon Cain for his work in the Church and his faith. As a Christian, I am always pleased to see others not being afraid to display their faith. However, as a Liberal Dem, I am afraid that Deacon Cain will probably not get my support come November 2012.

      October 18, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  20. C Lewis

    As it relates to the reporting on the home church of Herman Cain, where in the word was just an OUNCE of this type of reporting on Obama's home church. What a disgraceful and pitiful display of jounalistic malpractice.

    October 18, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • catwill

      @ lewis the reason that President Obamas church is not at issue is he is the President and has been vetted and these candidates are aspiring and needs to be vetted. PresidentObamas church and Rev Wright were discussed at length leading up to his election and is not at issue now.

      October 18, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Thetruth

      I agree with the "he is the president" part, but the "vetted" no so much so. He wasn't vetted in 2008, which is why we are in the mess wer're in today!

      October 18, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • Nell

      The truth
      Obviously you do not undertand what being vetted means. No one has undergone the process like President Obama and nothing was found. Otherwise it would have been front page news. The most they could find was Rev. Wright and a former radical college professor.

      October 18, 2011 at 4:40 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.