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. Iqbal Khan


    October 21, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
  2. Iqbal Khan


    October 21, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
  3. Iqbal Khan


    October 21, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
  4. Godhavemercy

    America does not need another Abel's brother, Cain, to commit murder again- murder his brother, President Obama. That
    is the purpose of the Republican's hyping Cain. Make no mistake Cain, Republicans will never vote for you. Do not
    be a fool. Today's conservatives brainwash and deceive people that they serve God when they really stand for personal gain-sin sin and more sin. They cannot deceive God, plain and simple.
    Get out Cain, do not spend your money. I love God and and respect our President. Look what the Republicans did to Pres
    George Bush–they made a mockery out of him, making the world hate him. They used him. They are using you too.
    The only one I see that would hold up, stand his ground and help the middle class would be Romney, if he won. If President
    Obama has resisted relentless blows, there is no comparison what you would suffer. God is so ashamed of the Republicans doing so much evil using his name. Stop killing your own brother. In the name of God.

    October 20, 2011 at 5:52 am |
    • ColoradoGirl

      I had some difficulty following your posting, Godhavemercy, but what I do believe is that the Republican machine has brainwashed evangelicals into believing that they are the "moral compass" for the country, this based primarily on their supposed pro-life stance. However, if one looks at what the New Testament's secondary issue is (the primary issue being salvation through grace), I find that the Democrats more closely support Jesus' teachings than the Republicans. Democrats stand firmly for the care and well-being of the poor, the sick, and the outcasts than Republicans ever have. Yes, the Democrat party is "pro-choice" but if you engage them they are hardly "pro-abortion," seeing abortion as the last thing a woman should do in a problem pregnancy. Jesus was a Liberal and did not support religious intrusion into matters of the State. Any reading of the New Testament should make anyone wonder, "How can a Christian possibly be a Republican?"

      October 20, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • Howard

      barack obama attended the anti-American, racist church of jeremiah Wright for TWENTY YEARS !!!
      obama attacking Cain, is like the pot calling the kettle black !!!

      October 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Joseph

      You discredited your entire argument when you claimed to know what God thinks. Only liars and fools say such things.

      October 20, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
    • Joseph

      ColoradoGirl, I have to disagree with you on your claim of Jesus being liberal. First off, he was not political. Second, to try and compare a religious leader 2000 years ago living under the control of the Roman Empire to modern day American politics is just idiotic. Secondly, if you really listen to what Jesus said, he talked about individuals helping the poor, not a state mandated income redistribution plan. His speeches and paraboles were always directed to individual actions. This belief is actually more in line with conservatives. With that said, I don't think he'd care for abortions or the anti-religious mindset of liberals anymore than he would for big business republican greed. If he were alive today, I suspect he would be independent.

      October 20, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
    • rightwinger

      I am a Tea Party member and I plan on voting for Mr. Cain. What are you talking about GODHAVEMERCY??? Your president O has been the worst president in history. I fiind it amazing how CNN (not newsworthy) is putting out a story like this on Mr. Cain. They completely turned the other cheek when it came time to dig into Barack Hussein Obamas past. Pitiful. The DEMS are seriously concerned about Barry loosing this election to Herman Cain. I'm proudly on the CAIN TRAIN!!!

      October 26, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • J.W

      I don't know about that rightwinger. Obama has done a couple of things that Bush never could, ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

      October 26, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  5. Victor

    The Americans very much like pizza. There is many ethnic, language, and culture. Let Mr Cain created a new recipe for Americans, hope he can deliver us with delicious pizza. Go go go Mr Cain...I order some white pizza with black sauce and a little Hispanic cheese and Asian tomato. And please some juice from Middle East...

    October 20, 2011 at 12:56 am |
  6. The Dough Man

    After reading the article completely, it seems that the sharp criticisms here are unfounded. As a white man, I have visited many churches over the years, black, white, hispanic, multicultural. Some were liberal, others had questionable doctrine but most have been very conservative (in doctrine and politics). Unlike Obama, who constantly surrounds himself with the most liberal Democrats in order to insulate himself from any dissenting opinions, Cain actually tolerates their company. Cain doesn't hate those who would disagree with him. Could it be that liberal Democrats are less tolerant than conservative Republicans? The case might could be made for such an argument, but one thing is definitely clear, Obama has made great strides to divide this country more than any other president in the history of the US. At least Bush made the attempt to meet at the middle, that's more than I can say for Obama. Obama is an unprofessional and inconsiderate professional politician, not so unlike a the old time union thug.

    October 20, 2011 at 12:26 am |
    • ColoradoGirl

      Cain is the classic Republican candidate, wanting to do away with the middle class. His 9-9-9 plan benefits corporations, stock holders and the rich by taking money away from the poor and middle class. I'm sure his policies would in fact create jobs - part-time, minimum wage jobs with no benefits. Under a Cain administration a person most certainly could make ends meet .... if he or she could get four or five jobs and work 100 hours per week.

      October 20, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  7. WOT

    An electric fence is on thing but an electric chair is another! Some think the chair would have be a better word! The shock of one(fence) knock you back, the chair will kill you! I think Cain is a fine MAN, he just says what others think and I like that! He would not shoot you in the back!

    October 20, 2011 at 12:04 am |
  8. Reality

    From p. 19:

    If Cain's 9-9-9 program has any chance of balancing the budget and he gets nominated, I will vote for him. BUT his chances of winning are probably nil unless he can somehow get rid of the "pro-life" label.

    To wit:

    All the conservative votes in the country "ain't" going to help a "pro-life" presidential candidate, i.e Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Ron Paul or Rick Santorum, in 2012 as the "Immoral Majority" rules the country and will be doing so for awhile. The "Immoral Majority" you ask?

    The fastest growing USA voting bloc: In 2008, the 70+ million "Roe vs. Wade mothers and fathers" of aborted womb-babies" whose ranks grow by two million per year i.e. 78+ million "IM" voters in 2012.

    2008 Presidential popular vote results:

    69,456,897 for pro-abortion/choice BO, 59,934,814 for "pro-life" JM.

    And all because many women fail to take the Pill once a day or men fail to use a condom even though in most cases these men have them in their pockets. (maybe they should be called the "Stupid Majority"?)
    (The failures of the widely used birth "control" methods i.e. the Pill and male condom have led to the large rate of abortions ( one million/yr) and S-TDs (19 million/yr) in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or condoms properly and/or use other safer birth control methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.)

    Statistical data provided by the CDC and the Guttmacher Inst-itute.

    October 19, 2011 at 11:41 pm |
  9. JohnQuest

    You know it's bad when Ron is the only one you can believe, we know he's crazy but he doesn't tell you only what you want to hear.

    October 19, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  10. James

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmTE9Q_SkW8&hl=en_US&feature=player_embedded&version=3%5D

    October 19, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  11. James


    October 19, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
  12. James

    mAN I LEFT THE CHURCH BECAUSE I GOT MAD. EVERY YEAR MY PASTOR WOULD PULL UP IN A NEW CAR.yOU Could go back in the room and see guys putting money in their wallets.

    October 19, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  13. god

    now bend over pope i need to check something...yup here it is, i knew i left moses's staff somewhere.

    October 19, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  14. JohnQuest

    I have been a member of a Southern Baptist Church for about 8 years now (I don't think I'm the only Non-Believer in the congregation). The description of the Black Church is spot on (at least from my perspective), hypocrisy is written into the bylaws of the church (figuratively speaking). About a year ago I had to speak out against a pet-ition to ban Gay Marriage.

    October 19, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Al

      I don't think I'm the only Non-Believer in the congregation

      You are correct. In fact, your preacher could very well be a non-believer. He has to make a living. I'm not sying that he would be right in doing so, but he would be no different than the preachers on television.

      October 19, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • G-D

      The 'falling away' of devotionalized practices in social constructs is but the beginning towards an ending of timely progressions.

      GOD's god

      October 19, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • EvolvedDNA

      G-D ..I bet you have received a different meal to what you thought you had ordered in a restaurant more than once. Gods " love", what ever that actually is, does not appear to extend to Africans..

      October 21, 2011 at 1:33 am |
  15. Norm

    I love this quote right here.
    This says it all..........
    “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.

    So basically there's no difference between a sellout/hypocrite and a politician.
    Nothing new there.
    And this guy is promoting the church?
    God will have His spiritual balls when the time comes.

    October 19, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Al

      God will have His spiritual balls when the time comes.

      If by God you mean Venus, then that could be a good thing.

      October 19, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  16. Mindie from India

    Herman the "I have no facts to back up my claims" Cain is sleeping with the KUKU Brothers you know....

    October 19, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  17. Norm

    Herman Cain is just another part of the problem with this country.
    The Occupy people are all protesting in the wrong place.
    Washington DC is the 1% headquarters of the world.
    And I love the clueless people that the the protestors are all about wanting things given to them.
    It shows how brainwashed and out of touch the middle class is in this country.
    And how many people like to fool themselves into thinking they're still a part of the middle class?

    October 19, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • TC

      That's right, DC, not Wall Street, is the REAL center of them problem. It is the 1% that is sucking the life out of the rest of us. Federal bureaucrats and croney capitalists are the enemies of the American people.

      October 19, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
  18. pizza man

    the worst part about all of this is that godfather's pizza is really really cruddy pizza.

    October 19, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • The Dough Man

      So you are suggesting that it was actually more than the pizza that has made it a successful business?

      October 19, 2011 at 11:52 pm |
  19. Phill

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

    That right there is telling. Who is going to provide the bootstraps? should the Government? We as black people need to look to ourselves to solve our problem, not the Government at this point. So Yes! Pull yourself up by your bootstraps

    October 19, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • JohnQuest

      In principle I agree, but that places Black People (us) at a serious disadvantage. Consider the following:
      GI Bill after WWII was a large factor in moving people up to a Middle Class income (Blacks were mostly excluded)
      Farm Subsidies created our current Agribusiness that feeds the country (Blacks were mostly excluded)
      Federally backed Start-up Business Loans, Government contracts: large and small, and on and on (Blacks were mostly excluded).

      These are all assistance from the Government that built the wealth in this country that we were mostly excluded from. To address the "bootstrap" statement where do you think most people got theirs from; the Government.

      October 19, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  20. WhatWhatWhat?

    Wow, he seems even more delusional than most of the other republican delusionists. Advertising just HOW delusional you are though seems to be the wrong way to go, if you ask me. I mean, if you believe in things that are not true, like a global flood that never happened, or a boat that never existed, purportedly with all species of animals that are here today, or the suffering and death of everyone who doesn't believe in jebus, you are a scary individual and should never be trusted to any office, none the less the presidency. This guy is a loon of astronomical proportions.

    October 19, 2011 at 2:20 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.