A few years ago, I got out a notepad and wrote a list of the "seven deadly sins" of religion writing in the modern mainstream press.
Right near the top of the list is the tendency among reporters to assume that all religious issues are, in reality, political issues when push comes to shove. It's a kind of militant materialism that assumes the political life is the ultimate reality for all people, since that happens to be the case for legions of people (but not all) in elite newsrooms.
It is especially easy to see this principle at work in mainstream news coverage of the African-American church. Am I the only person that has noticed that major news organizations have started omitting the term "the Rev." when printing the names of many black clergy?
Of course, it must be noted that clergy have -- for generations -- provided crucial public leadership for the entire black community, including in politics. The fact that this is true does not, however, mean that the work these pastors do in the public square has nothing to do with their faith and their role as church leaders.
This brings us to the Rev. Al Sharpton, a Pentecostal preacher turned Baptist whose high-profile work in politics and mass-media career have made him a controversial figure, including among African-American clergy. It is common to hear his critics say that he doesn't deserve the title "the Rev." -- which, in my opinion, only makes it more important for journalists to provide basic facts about who this man is, what he believes and to whom he relates as a minister. The bottom line: He is ordained and he is making faith claims, as well as political claims, when he speaks and/or preaches.
The Los Angeles Times times recently offered up a lengthy news feature on Sharpton that is a perfect, five-star example of all of this. Click on this link and do some searching. Here are some words you will not find in this piece -- "God," "Jesus," "faith," "religion," "Bible" and "ordained." The only reason "church" appears is that there are descriptions of rallies held in churches.
Is this a comment about Sharpton, the Los Angeles Times or both? If it is true that this man's faith plays zero role in his current work (and I don't think that is the case), then THAT is a relevant fact that needs to be demonstrated in the story. Right? Instead readers get passages like this:
Sharpton was in his MSNBC office, which is a reflection of him: compact and neat. He is rail thin, almost bird-like, thanks to a diet of wheat toast and salads and a daily workout regimen that begins shortly after he rises at 4:30 a.m.
His desk was clear except for a computer, a signed picture of Nelson Mandela and a plastic red nose Sharpton had saved from Red Nose Day, an anti-poverty event. Framed newspaper and magazine pieces about Sharpton covered the walls. "My Pal Al," read the banner headline on a New York Post cover featuring a photograph of Sharpton shaking hands with President Obama and dominating the wall behind Sharpton's desk.
The White House's public relationship with Sharpton is perhaps the most striking evidence of Sharpton's evolution, but it is not the only one. The activist also enjoys relationships with New York's most powerful leaders, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who ducked out of a charity gala hosted by the archbishop of New York in October to drop by Sharpton's 60th birthday bash at the swank Four Seasons restaurant.
Let's see, what is missing from this routine of early-morning disciplines, especially for an ordained minister? Can anything think of some questions that the Times team may have wanted to have asked in this case?
Toward the end of the story, there is a brief scene of Sharpton at work in the pulpit, preaching at the "House of Justice" linked to his organization, the National Action Network. Now, Sharpton has referred to this institution as a "social justice kind of church," which again raises an interesting question: Is this legally a church?
Does this institution function as a church, with a resident congregation? If so, in what tradition? Who functions as the actual pastor? Now, I know that Sharpton is a Baptist, which means that his church could easily be totally mainstream and independent at the same time. However, it would still be registered, somewhere, as a church. Is this relevant?
Back to the pulpit. The Times offers readers this:
... Sharpton also has widened his repertoire to emphasize mainstream issues such as healthcare, education, same-sex marriage and immigration.
All of them affect blacks, and advances in those areas could be lost if a Republican wins the White House, Sharpton said after delivering his weekly sermon at the House of Justice, the network's headquarters. Losing the White House is his biggest fear, and his sermon had focused on the need for African Americans to prevent that by being politically active and not giving in to despair despite a national landscape still rife with inequality.
Sharpton was operating on about four hours' sleep, having flown in that morning from leading a rally in Cleveland to demand law enforcement reform. But he spoke without notes for more than an hour, his voice booming through the cavernous room.
The sermon turned personal as Sharpton remembered his mother, who scrubbed floors, directing him to wait by the mailbox on the first and 16th of each month to ensure nobody stole their welfare checks or food stamps.
"It wasn't my fault how I was born, but it's going to be my fault how I leave here," he told the mainly black crowd of about 200, exhorting them to vote.
And that's that. Once again, what is missing from this Times version of the sermon?
But let's assume that this story is accurate and that there was zero faith content in this sermon, that Sharpton never talked about God, Christianity, prayer, the Bible or any other faith-centered topics when delivering this message. Would that be a valid topic for questions?
What is this story saying about Sharpton, his work, the church and life in African-American communities today? Is this accurate? What do other black clergy think of this?
The bottom line: Why not deal with "the Rev." in front of this preacher's name?