The Rev. Al Sharpton, minus the religion

Standing in a gift shop line at the Memphis International Airport on Friday, I spotted a familiar face, one I hadn’t seen in a while. There he was right in front of me — the Rev. Al Sharpton. Not in person, mind you, but staring at me from the cover of Newsweek magazine.

The title of the cover piece:

The Reinvention of the Reverend

The subhead:

Why the indefatigable Al Sharpton still has work to do. And what his evolution tells us about race and politics in Obama’s America.

Intrigued by the piece, I wish I could say I did my part to support journalism in America by picking up a copy and sticking it on the checkout counter. Instead, I made a mental note to myself to look it up on the Internet when I got home (and to plug “indefatigable” into my online dictionary).

I got around to reading the 2,800-word cover story this morning and found it quite interesting — in a this-is-Newsweek-so-you-have-to-expect-a-left-wing-bent kind of way.

The piece opens like this:

If the Rev. Al Sharpton didn’t exist, he would have had to be invented. In fact, the novelist Tom Wolfe has claimed he did invent him, in the character of the Reverend Bacon, a supporting figure in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Each generation of black America gives birth to its own incarnation of the charismatic preacher-activist who confronts the white power structure in the streets and talks circles around it on Meet the Press. Just a few months after the fictional Bacon made his appearance in 1987, the real Sharpton burst onto the national stage as the fiery advocate for Tawana Brawley, a New York teenager who claimed to have been raped by a gang of white men, including a policeman. In that incarnation he still haunts the popular imagination: a bulky, bullhorn-toting figure in a neon-hued tracksuit, topped by a preposterously high, wavy pompadour. About all that remains today is a bare suggestion of the pompadour and roughly two thirds of the 300-pound 1980s-vintage Sharpton himself, now typically clad in an impeccable custom-tailored suit. His erstwhile ally, rival, and adversary, former New York City mayor David Dinkins, maintains that of course Sharpton has “grown up and matured, as most people do if they live long enough.”

Now, as Newsweek articles tend to do, this one takes a presumption and provides enough conjecture to make it plausible without a whole lot of concrete evidence. In this case, Sharpton himself rejects the premise of a new, savvier, more reflective Rev. Al, telling the magazine: “My mission, my message, and everything else about me is the same as always. The country may have changed, but I haven’t.”

Given the article’s title (“The Reinvention of the Reverend”), I hoped the story might provide insight into Sharpton’s religious background and beliefs. Like many Americans, I am familiar with Sharpton’s political advocacy, but not his theological underpinnings. Alas, Newsweek approaches this profile as a purely political undertaking. Thus, religion is viewed solely through a political lens.

We get this background on Sharpton’s childhood:

His other sustenance was preaching; he was a mesmerizing speaker from the age of 4, when he gave his first sermon. (He rehearsed before his sister’s dolls, gowned in one of his mother’s housedresses.) By 7, he was touring with gospel singer Mahalia Jackson; by 10, he’d been ordained in the Pentecostal Church. (He now identifies as a Baptist.) This gave him a unique perspective on outsiderness: preaching the Gospel wasn’t exactly a route to peer acceptance for a black teenager in the 1960s.

Wow — a 4-year-old preacher. I don’t know about you, but I’d love to know about the theological content of that sermon. What was he preaching then? (Or now, for that matter.)

Wow — an ordained 10-year-old. How, exactly, did a child that age get ordained? What sort of process and theological education did he undertake? What was the name of the denomination or theological institution that ordained him?

And, forgive me, Newsweek, for detouring so far away from the far more important topic (politics), but what is the Pentecostal Church? I am familiar with Pentecostalism and Assemblies of God and various Pentecostal denominations, but I don’t think there’s a single entity known as the Pentecostal Church? Someone please correct me if I’m wrong (it wouldn’t be the first time). Similarly, in a nation with several dozen different kinds of Baptists, identifying Sharpton simply as a “Baptist” might fall a bit short. Tell us what he believes, please.

But rather than explore Sharpton’s faith in any real way, we get descriptions of his “political instincts” and “personal charisma.” We find out that he and his wife “amicably separated” in 2004. And we learn this:

Sharpton has weathered some minor embarrassments over finances and taxes in his career, but he is one preacher who has managed to negotiate the temptations of fame untouched by sexual scandal.

Again, if this were a religion story and not a political story, I’d love to see Sharpton’s failed marriage — not to mention the sexual issue — explored through a faith lens.

About Sharpton’s personal wealth, we learn this:

Today he supports himself on income from his radio talk show, Keeping It Real With Al Sharpton, and from “love offerings” at the sermons he preaches almost every Sunday in churches all around the country. His enemies sometimes charge, bizarrely, that he has chosen a career as a peripatetic community activist for the money. “It’s amazing when people call me an opportunist,” he says. “Do you know how much money I could have made with a megachurch like T. D. Jakes or Eddie Long? Don’t you think I could have done that?”

Maybe it’s just me, but I’d love to know what churches Sharpton is preaching in and how much the “love offerings” are filling his pockets. It’s easy enough to brush off the criticism as “bizarre,” but how about providing some real reporting and allowing readers to judge for themselves?

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Dave

    I understand the core of your complaint here, Bobby, but I have a niggling thought behind that: Can an article that ignores religious details about Al Sharpton really be said not to get religion?

  • Rev. Michael Church

    All true. But in fairness to Newsweek, I don’t recall ever reading a profile of Sharpton that gave me any useful information about his religious community or beliefs.

    And there may be a reason for that which extends a little beyond reportorial laziness. Once, years ago, I met Sharpton at a prayer breakfast in the Bronx, with a group of local pastors. There were, let’s say, thirty people in the room. Of those, I was the only member of a large denomination (ELCA). The others identified themselves as Pentecostal or Baptist, but without any clarifying detail. Nor was there any sign that those lines, or the doctrinal differences they imply, meant very much to anybody in the room.

    My point is that Sharpton is part of a religious world which is strange to me, and to many other people. Even setting aside pre-K preachers, the churches in which Sharpton does much of his work have structures of authority, finance and faith which are difficult to understand if you are used to, say, Lutheranism. A reporter who really wanted to explain Sharpton’s religious milieu to people from outside that world would need to devote an enormous amount of space to the task. It would be worth the effort, but it’s hard to imagine anybody actually doing it.

    Incidentally, I confess that when Sharpton spoke, I expected the wild man of the TV soundbites. But he was clear, forthright and probably the elast theatrical person in the room. I forget the details, but he laid out a straightforward line of moral reasoning, applied it to some local issue, and asked for organizational support with it. I came away struck by the difference between the character he played in front of the cameras and the far more interesting one I ate breakfast with. I’d like to see a reporter capture that experience.

  • Bobby

    But in fairness to Newsweek, I don’t recall ever reading a profile of Sharpton that gave me any useful information about his religious community or beliefs.

    Michael, thank you for your insightful comments. I don’t guess I’ve ever gone Googling for insight on Sharpton’s religious community or beliefs, but like you, I don’t recall ever reading anything substantive along those lines. If any GR readers have and can provide links, that would be great.

  • Jessica

    As a civil right leader, Al Sharpton brings a moral authority to issues of race and he happens to be a preacher also. His oratory skills from a lifetime of preaching the good book have helped him to get to his current national prominence. Racism and religion have always had a complicated relationship in the US, yet Sharpton is one of the voices stressing that our current civil right problems are bigger than only some religious angles and more deep seated than the current political huff and fury. Racism in the US is a generational issue that will work itself out if reactionary bigotry doesn’t get its way.

    Whenever a liberal religious leader gets press, some seem always to question their religious credentials to speak out. Obviously Pat Robertson doesn’t question Al Sharpton’s cred as a moral leader when they worked together on issues they agree on.

    If you disagree with Sharpton’s message, come out and say so. Please spare us the holier-than thou routine and recognize Sharpton represents a vast Christian community that sees civil rights as a moral issue.

  • gfe

    … he is one preacher who has managed to negotiate the temptations of fame untouched by sexual scandal.

    Actually, for well-known preachers, that’s the rule, not the exception (unless you’re talking about the subset of preachers Newsweek writes about).

  • Bobby

    Whenever a liberal religious leader gets press, some seem always to question their religious credentials to speak out.

    You do realize, don’t you, that this is a blog whose sole purpose is to critique the secular media’s coverage of religion news? If so, then you also realize that our post was aimed at Newsweek, not Sharpton, given that he didn’t write the story or decide what information or details to include.

  • Jerry

    but I’d love to know what churches Sharpton is preaching in and how much the “love offerings” are filling his pockets.

    Given what is going on with religion in general today, I’d like to know how much the “love offerings” of all religious leaders from evangelicals to mainstream are filling their pockets.

    As to where he’s preaching, and which states:

    He is an assistant pastor at Bethany Baptist Church in Brooklyn

  • Bobby

    Dave, I’m not sure I understand your question.

  • Dave

    My question is a skeptical comment on just how religious Sharpton is. Maybe a description of his politics defines him.

  • Bobby

    OK, thanks for the clarification, Dave. Given your comment and No. 4, it’s obvious that “religious” is in the eye of the beholder. All the more reason for the story to explain what he believes and what he preaches on Sundays.

    Jerry, thanks for the information.

  • MattK

    Wait a second, I grew up Pentecostal. Pentecostals and Baptists, while not exactly oil and water, didn’t spend much time in each others pulpits. Very different understanding of several important theological issues. I think this info of Sharpton being on staff at a Baptist church might be a real news story and ought to be written. Especially if it is the vanguard of some kind of merging of movements.

  • carl

    Might it not be a case of shaping the message to fit the preference of the audience? I suspect the average Newsweek reader could not care less about Sharpton’s religious beliefs. Why would Newsweek write about something that its (vanishing, dwindling, incredibly shrinking) readership considers irrelevant?


  • Jerry

    I had a few minutes tonight and out of curiousity did a bit more digging. From his myspace page, he’s not a minister at Bethany but a member: and unless I misread that page, he’s not an ordained minister after all.

  • Bobby

    Carl, excellent questions and perhaps you’re right. But I’d like to think Newsweek’s audience would be interested in such an important element as the power and practice of religious faith in a preacher’s life.

  • carl

    [14] Bobby

    I’d like to think Newsweek’s audience would be interested in such an important element as the power and practice of religious faith in a preacher’s life.

    But you yourself said of the article that “religion is viewed solely through a political lens.” This is precisely how a stereotypical secularist views religion – as a blind for something else. He does not ascribe any truth or significance to its metaphysical content but cares only about its tangible impacts in the real world. Thus, for example, he will consider its guidance on sexual behavior important but not the doctrine that undergirds the guidance. I think the typical Newsweek reader would find extensive discussions of Al Sharpton’s ideas on such subjects as Theology Proper, and Soterieology, and Pneumatology, and Ecclesiology to be a needless distraction.

    There is one important exception to this rule. If the doctrinal discussion tends to make the religion look ridiculous or contemptible in the eyes of the modern secular world, then it will be appreciated by the reader in that it serves to discredit the religion as a source of authority, and (more importantly) tends to confirm the reader’s rejection of religion. Since Al Sharpton is an ideological ally, there is no reason to go down that road.