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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