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. Eleanor Greene

    Much to do about nothing

    October 18, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  2. Anne

    Just like Obama, Cain is another black liar trying to push his black agenda. I don't trust blacks because they are more interested in pushing their own "people's" agenda instead of the American people. Since I last checked, any black living in this country now was not a slave and is not from Africa, but born here with the same opportunities as other Americans. I voted for Obama thinking he would be more fair: "Change that you can believe in" but ultimately he has been putting change in his pockets and taking money from the banks. He is just a blow hard black liar.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Paul

      At least one of you whites for the righties tells the truth....thank you.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  3. Paul

    I love how in this country we are so advanced we don't have to choose between black/white, men/women, gay/straight...all of you wan to know if he is liberal/GOP....why do we have to be on sides...that's part of the problem.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Maggie19

      Its happening because our president is putting a divide between the rich and poor. Class warfare they call it and it should be stopped before it gets out of hand. Obama is playing a very dangerous game with our lives with his rhetoric. He has to stop it and set a good example. As far as I know the president is elected to represent all Americans and not just one side.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  4. Angie

    Gee, where were all these stories when Obama was running as a candidate????? CNN just couldn't be bothered to look into anything that might tarnish his storybook life.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • MAL

      Your memory is hazy, Jeremiah Wright and his church were featured on CNN quite a bit. Maybe not to the extent of Fox News but I'm willing to bet you don't recall everything that was on CNN or was going on in the world beyond a couple of years ago.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • The Man from Scene 24

      Angie, it's nice to see that not everyone is asleep. CNN and their ilk intentionally ignored Obamas associates and shortcomings which is why we're in the mess we're in. They're also scared to death of a black conservative.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Alvin

      Edward Thull, his name is Edward T Hall:A Breitbart.tv investigation has unvecored that the man whose epic meltdown video at the Occupy Wall Street protests went viral is really Edward T. Hall III. Mr. Hall is a Columbia graduate student who has a trust fund set up by his grandfather. He recently made headlines for trying to board a flight at JFK airport by hopping the ticket counter and diving onto the baggage carousel.

      May 19, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  5. sharon

    Has CNN posted as many stories of Obama telling a group of black people to "take off your slippers" as they have about Cain saying "...blacks are brainwashed..."

    If what Cain said is so offensive why isn't is so about what Obama said? Obama seems to hit more of a stereotype than Cain in his remarks.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • MAL

      You should really take the time to listen to both of them speak, they sound nothing alike. Obama sounds like an intellectual, Cain sounds like a shrewd sales man. Not to mention one sounds like a southerner while the other does not...

      October 18, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  6. john

    So, now CNN is interested in airing a story on a candidates background and Church attendance??? Where were they in 2008 when our current president was attending a racist church(for 20 years)

    October 18, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • Paul

      actually they did that to Obama...remember you all said he was racist because of the guy's church he went to....then you called him muslim...remember....

      October 18, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  7. awsomedeal

    Herman, Herman, Herman when are you going to see the forrest for the trees???? Koch Bros personal CLOWN !! How could you even think anybody but YOU has been brainwashed. Brother Hit your knees and thank GOD for preserviing your life and spend every minute of the rest of your life helping others preserve theirs.David and his brother could not spend all their money if they lived 100 more lifetimes. You would think like you they were very blessed and should help all the other people they could raise there standard of living too.No not in their "cup of Tea" . Wake up all you fools !! Remember what Jesus said " its eaiser for a camel to get thru the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven". And as of today there is NO A/C in HELL. SO WISE UP Herb lol

    October 18, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • Captben31

      Until you start discussing George Soros in the same sentence as the Koch brothers, then you cannot possibly be taken seriously. George Soros is worth $14 billion dollars and is Obama's puppet master. At least the Koch brother's are American. Soros is trying to influence American affairs and is not even American. Foreign money going to Democrat operations, sounds illegal to me.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • markmaximus

      SO is Obama George Soros's Useful Idiot?

      I'll take Herman Cain any day over the petulant man-child President we have now who has NEVER met a payroll or created one job in his life!

      October 18, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  8. glyder

    hey cnn,could you go through obamas ties with the radical left.rev.wright,van jones,trumpka,holder.or maybe more current events.he supports the protests,so does the nazi and communist parties.just another unrelated coincidence.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  9. Rusty (Big3News)

    We were in attendance and covered the "Faith & Freedom" rally in Central Ohio last Thursday, where Herman Cain was the keynote speaker. The event, billed as "non-political" gave Cain the opportunity to discuss more of his faith, his personal battle with cancer and belief in the nation's religious background. Check out our article here, with exclusive video footage of Mr. Cain's full remarks: http://www.big3news.net/2011/10/14/republican-presidential-hopeful-herman-cain-courts-values-voters-with-faith-freedom-message-at-ohio-christian-university-rally/

    October 18, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  10. djlockerthebrain

    Herman Cain is a very ignorant man when it comes to people and social functioning in society. I've listened to hours of interviews with him and his only concern with life is MONEY. I'm not saying he's got bad intentions but the guy is a typical greedy money hungry politician. He is no different than any of the others.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  11. Big_D

    Were the blacks brainwashed by opportunities provided by the Democrats or is Cain brainwashed by all the Koch money he is taking? Seems sad that a "self made man" can become a slave for the Koch brothers so quickly. He shouldn't worry the GOP is full of Koch slaves.

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

      and do you slave for George Soros?? LOL!
      Obamas Puppertmaster! hahahaha!
      Useful Idiots!

      October 18, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  12. ajgorm

    The Messiah is on the left why isnt he on the Right. We are toast.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  13. mike

    CNN's desperate attempt at brainwashing "black people" to always vote left.. derp deerp!!

    October 18, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  14. mike

    This reminds me of 2008: When all American media bands together to demonize conservatives. FAIL

    October 18, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Fromthefront

      Whats sad is that this is about about Herman Cain and the first thing the right wing or should I say the white wing does is attempt compare him to Obama. Lets face it Conservatives are viewed as demonic and those that follow them are either to rich to say anything for fear of being isolate or they are so poor they don't have enough since to see that they are considered
      collaterol damage anyway.

      October 18, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Serdar

      Sadly the scientific eiecvnde is overwhelming and Mr. Cain is just another liar trying to deny reality. Mainstream science is not wrong, human activity is the source code of climate chaos. nasa is not misleading us. NOAA is not misleading us. Get with it, Cain is a liar! End of story

      May 19, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
  15. TeeDeeDubya

    Good article. That is the way it should be in the Church... check your politics at the front door when entering. I don't want my politicians telling me when to take communion or my pastor telling me how to vote.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  16. jay sargos

    PRAISE JESUS..........

    October 18, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Mexican American

      Only to mow the lawn and trim the hedges.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  17. Ben


    October 18, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • TheMovieFan

      The fascination you guys have with him is scary enough for me not to vote for him.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • Paul

      Ron Paul is the only one telling the truth...can't help your not used to that.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  18. MuffinMan88

    It seems ironic that someone named "Cain" believes God called on him to run. Biblically, Cain slew Abel, becoming the first murderer and a pariah among mankind. Now, this Cain has turned against his brothers. Also, there's that 999 thing, which is 666 when turned upside-down. Coincidence? I think not.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • ajgorm

      The cat has been let out of the bag !

      October 18, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • mike


      October 18, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  19. Brian C

    Why is every lead story on this website this week critical of Hermain Cain? He's not my choice either, but I just can't see why CNN keeps picking on him.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  20. Rich

    The way Cain is down grading the poor blacks he may get a KKK invite to speak at a ralley...No matter how much of a fool he plays, deep down "he ain't one of the good ole boys" he just doesn't know it yet...

    October 18, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Bill

      So he's in a dead heat w Romney because...

      October 18, 2011 at 11:40 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.