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. earl thomas kenneth edwards

    I was born 3/27/50 an i know what i went thru was racism and for him to say it had no effect which was a true lie coming out this man mouth and for him to denia for a man who ancestors as mind was slave an had no voice or rights is disrespectiful to every black american who was beaten spit on as i was. I lost respect for this person not for his color but for ignorant stupidity and i was born in texas and lived in atlanta, georgia for 14 years working not beening worthless or brain washed.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • virtualgd

      Give up on the slave crap already! Nobody owes anyone anything.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • dave

      Exactly. It blows my mind that a black man who lived through the Civil Rights era can make statements that basically say the only roadblock to wealth and success is yourself.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • Ben

      I think you're actually missing the message. He is saying that he didn't LET it hold him back. He is saying that too many black people do let racism get in their way. That instead of working harder and succeeding despite that setback, they allow it to become a roadblock and give up.

      Herman Cain has two major faults for a candidate: He isn't eloquent or sensitive. He says what he means, and means what he says. That kind of cold honesty is probably what is needed, but it often rubs people the wrong way. Believe me, I've learned that. I often tell my coworkers that they are lazy or even useless. My intention isn't to demean them or hurt their feelings. It's to let them know that they need to work harder.

      Don't let the words get in the way of the message. And Cain's message is one of the absolute best: Only you can determine how much of a success or failure you are. Nobody else has the same affect on your life that you do.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • debunk

      Well, there is the current administration as well.......That is a serious obstacle to anyone's success unless your name is Soros.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  2. ajgorm

    The GOP must over come their brain washed image so they pulled Cain out of the closet.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  3. Boycott Black Friday!!

    I was wondering if Cain was a subversive liberal plant. He even fooled the Koch brothers. 😉

    October 18, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • dave

      Not a plant. But we can call him "Token"...

      October 18, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • Balls McGhee

      Dear GOP: PLEASE elect this man!!!

      October 18, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • Balls McGhee

      the DNC should endorse Cain...

      October 18, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  4. Dan of The Prophecy Society

    Cain would have a hard time reconciling his political views with the teachings of Jesus. And, anyone who gets a favorable word from Ralph Reed should be suspect.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  5. SamSite

    Cain is getting more attention. How appropriate for Halloween that a real, live, monster is in the news.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • debunk

      Yep. Obama is on every headline I see.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  6. johnbeer

    Herman Cain will do more for America going to a church that is predominately Black than he will going to a White church. He may actually convince a few people to stop voting for the political party that is shackling them with a few huncred dollars in hand-outs every month and turn to a party that believes that government exists to provide opportunity. People are poor because of the choices they make, not because the cards are stacked against them. If you finish high school and wait until you are married to have children, the chances of succes are the same, regardless of race. I have worked with thousands of people during my career. The ones who made the right choices, did great. The ones who made the wrong choices were usually unsuccessful and whined about how unfair life is. This was regardless of skin color. Go, Herman!

    October 18, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  7. Cashemire

    Obama !!!! Obama !!!! Obama !!!! Yessssssssssss !!!! God Bless America !!!! Yessssssssssssss Obama !!!! Obama !!!! Obama !!!!

    October 18, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • virtualgd

      yea, obama sucks.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  8. Bill Milner

    I'm sure, after reading this article, many must be comparing the teachings of Rev. Wright to those of Rev. Alexander. I think we all prefer, "God Bless America" to Rev. Wright's hate. Both ministers have influenced the behavior and thinking of those that sit beneath the respective pulpits.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • Kofi

      How, in any way is Rev. Jeremiah Wright similar to Rev. Alexander? You fail to make that connection evident to us, but assume there somehow is one. Is it because they are both Black? I don't see any other likeness in physicality or message. One can advocate for the equal rights of a community and request equal opportunity from the powers that be and clearly NOT preach hate. It's done all of the time.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  9. Mike

    There is only one candidate who brings anything to the table. It's time to vote for Ron Paul. Real Change. Real Hope.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Mel

      It's ashame he doesn't get the attention he deserves.

      Everone will vote for another fake this election.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • Val

      I would, but he seems a bit absent minded. I am scared he may wander off from the White House, and gets lost. That would be a whole other issue on top of all the others we have going on here.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  10. Ben

    Not really important. Georgia votes overwhelmingly Republican when it comes to the President. So Cain probably isn't going to see much of a setback.

    If he's smart, he'll tell people to vote for who they think is the best candidate, and he'll do it in an open and public forum. That kind of symbolic gesture would carry weight in other places where he does need the support.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  11. Val

    Don't like him, he's an Opportunist. He says what he thinks is the right thing to say. "I was taught not to be a Victim", Yes ,that sounds too Black.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  12. LC1

    Quote from the front page promo: "There's one audience that may prove tough for Herman Cain to win over: his hometown church."

    There is another audience that Herman Cain hardly stands a chance to win them over: RON PAUL FANS

    And why? For starters, he was the Deputy Chairman and then Chairman of the Kansas City Federal Reserve from 1992-1996.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  13. Anne

    I dislike his lack of compassion with the poor, to say if you are not rich it is your fault, come on, to the immigrants about the electried fence, he insulted his own people calling them "brainwashed". Oh no, I forgot, he was joking. So is he trying to be a clown or a President? If he can not be politically correct talking, then he is not ready for President, imagine, each time he says something silly he will say "it was a joke", what about if he makes a joke to the wrong country?

    October 18, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • Paul

      I agree. We don't want a 'Hugo Chavez' type character running this country.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  14. TodayMessage

    It just safe to say Cain forgot where he came from. He removed his root when he made it to the OTHER side.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  15. Sam

    Ahhh, traditional GOP hypocrisy and two-faced behavior. The only reason Cain has come this far is because they're trying to prove that they are not bigots after all. They'll dump him soon for the prototype Republican, Mitt Romney. You know, the one that started Universal Health Care and supports abortion rights.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • debunk

      I hope he takes it. Not only are his ideas good, He'll wipe up a debate stage with Obama. That, and Obama wont get to play the race card over and over and over and over and over and over again.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  16. Jonathan

    Please don't trust him just because he's black. Powerful Africans also sold their own as slaves.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  17. David

    uh...If he left this church thirteen years ago...why is this article even relevant? 13 years ago I thought I was republican.
    this article is useless...

    And I don't even like republicans. Post something relevant.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • RTFA

      Uhhhh.... you might want to work on your reading comprehension. Go ahead – I'll wait.

      Need help?

      OK, try looking at the by-line again and see who it is that was a member of the church and left 13 years ago.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • Franklin

      Blake, the article's writer left Antioch Baptist Church thirteen years ago. Cain has not left.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • Phillygrl

      The writer, John Blake, left Antioch 13 years ago, not Herman Cain.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  18. Ranterdon

    Would Herman have said there are Racists in the Tea Party? Of course he would...but he would likely point out that the liberals in places like the Occupy New York have been RECORDED with thier racist staements...something I have yet to see from real Tea Party people.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • benji

      You must be blind then because I have seen much racism of the teabaggers

      October 18, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • dave

      In this reality, anyone saying racists comments at an Occupy protest is a "real" Occupy protester and people holding up droves of racist signs at a Tea Party rally are liberal plants...

      October 18, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • hmm

      Really? Please show us these recording, b/c I have not seen or heard any. Cite your sources or it didn't happen.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • debunk

      That is Tea Party Members benjimoron. The occupy folks are starting to have a very late 30's european sound to them. You know the Europe that gave us words like pogrom and holocaust.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  19. jrcnnjr

    The Republicans leading contender is Cain, who appears to be a Bigoted Charlatan Con Artist with NO integrity or self-respect, willing to say anything and use anyone in order to get publicity and/or be elected. His 999 deceptive plan will WIDEN the disparity between have’s and have not’s, he will try to CONTROL peoples lives with his FANATICAL religious beliefs, and once Americans take a good look at this CLOWN and his ignorant ideas, many will probably group him with the other dangerous CRAZIES that were on the Republican Debate Stage . . . Also, Cain and Romney have a lot of HYPOCRITICAL nerve to complain about Perry’s actions towards Blacks or Mormons, when Romney and Cain seems to be just as bigoted towards Gays as Perry is bigoted towards Blacks, Mormons, and Gays . . . Cain and Romney, rest assured when you align yourselves with Bigots, they will eventually turn on YOU, and that is exactly what they will do once the RepubliKKKTEAlibanNUTS finish USING YOU . . .

    October 18, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Just Me

      You sound just a little liberal to me? But glad you are so open minded (not!). I'm thinking your nonsensical athiest banter is simply wasted on the conservatives who are really interested in this article. Sorry, its the truth.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • debunk

      The dangerous crazies are in the White House now. How's that change working out for you?!

      October 18, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • tallulah13

      debunk, please explain why you believe our current President is crazy. Is it because he actually thought that the republicans would compromise, or even help, in the effort to save our economy?

      October 18, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • jrcnnjr

      @Just Me: You sound just a little conservative and mentally challenged to me. Actually, your idiotic reply is simply wasted – sorry it‘s the truth -. . . You have said nothing of substance or factual to refute my comments, which are TRUTHFUL . . . You can take the meds and go back to sleep now . . .

      October 18, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  20. blake

    Mr. Cain, it may be time for you to become an active member of an evangelical church.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Roger

      II don't understand what is wrong with these Idiotic presidential candidates, and the people listening and rooting for these candidates, still hanging and clubbing religion to the politics. We call ourselves "the Secular Democratic Nation ", however "Hypocritical" though; the world is moving in a different direction, and we are going sinking down with stupid dogmatic, old school principles. Why do you care about faith of a person? faith won't bring good political ideologies; education, track record, understanding of the current problems, experience and smartness. You all know every freaking person is lying for motive of getting into the president's seat. Every other person is reading and delivering speeches written by someone. What do you call this? Naivety? Stupidity? Illiterate? Or lacking awareness.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:28 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.