What did Al Sharpton really mean?

The minister is under fire for allegedly bigoted remarks against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But it's not entirely clear he meant them.

Published May 11, 2007 5:36PM (EDT)

It sounds like the Don Imus affair in reverse. The Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the driving forces behind the controversial radio host's recent firing for making racist comments, is now under attack himself for allegedly making bigoted comments about former Massachusetts Gov. and current Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. According to cable news, right-wing blogs and the Romney campaign, in a debate over the existence of God with Christopher Hitchens in New York on Monday night, Sharpton denigrated Romney's Mormon faith.

Out of context and reduced to a single, printed quote, Sharpton's words -- "And as for the one Mormon running for office, those that really believe in God will defeat him anyway, so don't worry about that" -- do make him sound like a religious bigot. But to someone who was actually listening in person at the New York Public Library on Monday night -- like, say, me -- Sharpton's words sounded very different. As I heard him speak it never occurred to me that he intended anything defamatory toward the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

When I heard him say "those that really believe in God," I took him to mean anyone of faith, since all evening he had been defending the very idea of belief in God against an avowed, strident atheist. Sharpton explicitly did not try to defend organized religion, but instead supported faith in all its varieties. In an interview with Salon, Sharpton says that "anyone of faith" is what he meant by "those that really believe in God." His remarks had come in response to Hitchens' downplaying the role of religious faith in the civil rights movement, trying to play up the role of secularists, and observing that some religions -- Hitchens cited Mormonism specifically and mentioned Romney -- had made racism part of their doctrine. "What I was responding to," explained Sharpton, "is that, yes, people have used religion negatively. And as for the Mormon [Hitchens] mentioned, a lot of 'real believers' are going to vote against Romney, meaning his politics, and meaning that we're not going to depend on atheists, who [Hitchens] depends on ... I wasn't saying that Mormons didn't believe in God, I was saying that we weren't going to have to rely on atheists" to defeat Romney.

Speaking by phone Thursday afternoon, Hitchens declined to say for sure what he felt Sharpton meant, saying that I might have a better perspective because he "find[s] Sharpton very difficult to listen to, because it's dribble and babble," and that he would not "be the interpreter of a vulgar clown like Al Sharpton."

"I neither know nor do I care," Hitchens said, "but if you asked me if he seemed to say that Mormons did not believe in God ... I would have to say yes."

Videos of what Hitchens said, and Sharpton's response, are below.

Jacob Weisberg, the editor of the online newsmagazine Slate, who moderated the debate between Hitchens and Sharpton, says that, when considering the context of the debate, he doesn't believe Sharpton's comments were an attack on Mormons.

"It would have been weird for Sharpton, in a context where he wasn't defending any organized religion, to specifically attack one organized religion," Weisberg says. "I don't deny that his words had that meaning on the page... but I don't think he meant to say that Mormons don't believe in God."

Sharpton told me that, later in the debate, he had referred to Mormons specifically as believers. I don't recall that, and couldn't, in reviewing audio of the debate, find such a quote. However, at the end of the debate, responding to a question from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the author of Infidel, Sharpton did say something that seems to support his point:

"What I wanted to convey is that there are all kinds of people that relate to god other than the ways Mr. Hitchens may address... You don't have to be a Christian or a Muslim or a Hindu or a Buddhist to believe in god or worship god."

A video of that remark is below.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Alex Koppelman

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Christopher Hitchens