'Common ground' Sharpton tours, meets with apostle
Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
The Rev. Al Sharpton said Monday he's found "common ground" with LDS Church leaders during a visit to Salt Lake City that included a meeting with Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve.
The pair spent two hours together Sunday night, the Rev. Sharpton told listeners during his nationally syndicated radio talk show broadcast Monday from Salt Lake City but "talked very little if at all" about his recent comment suggesting Mormons don't believe in God.
It was that comment from the former Democratic presidential candidate, made during a debate on religion in New York City earlier this month, that sparked the Rev. Sharpton's interest in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and prompted his visit to Utah.
The Rev. Sharpton already apologized for offending church members by saying of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, "as for the one Mormon running for office, those that really believe in God will defeat him anyway, so don't worry about that, that's a temporary situation."
Romney, who is LDS, labeled the comment "extraordinarily bigoted," but the Rev. Sharpton said again Monday on his radio show that he was unfairly portrayed as "referring in a derogatory way to Mormons."
The Pentecostal minister went on to say that "whatever difference I have with their denomination or their religion, as I might with any that is not my own, has nothing to do with my disregard or disrespect for their faith."
The Rev. Sharpton made a brief statement to local reporters but answered no questions before going into the Family History Library in midafternoon. "I was very happy to come and have the last day and a half here, by the time I leave, talking with leaders of the Mormon Church.
"This visit is not about politics. It's not about controversy. It was about our trying to discuss, as believers of God in Christ, common ground things that we should know about each other that we do not know," he said.
It was not clear whether the questions the Rev. Sharpton has raised recently about the LDS Church's treatment of African-Americans were discussed during his visit. The LDS Church did not allow black males to hold the priesthood until 1978.
But he told the more than dozen print, radio and television reporters and photographers gathered around him that "we have not talked about politics and controversy at all. Unless, of course, there are those of you who think serving God's people is controversial."
The Rev. Sharpton described seeing the larger-than-life "Christus" statute of Jesus Christ at Temple Square with Elder Ballard on Sunday night after the pair had dinner together as "a very moving thing to me."
During his meeting with Elder Ballard, the Rev. Sharpton said they talked a lot about common concerns, including his National Action Network's call for decency in song lyrics and the LDS Church's dedication to genealogy.
Genealogy "is important to African-Americans particularly who've had a history of suffering prosecution and persecution and need to be reunited with our roots," he said, noting one of his slave ancestors had been owned by ancestors of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond.
He said his already "extensive conversations" with church leaders will continue, including at another dinner with Elder Ballard Monday night. The Rev. Sharpton said he was honored a church apostle was willing to accommodate his schedule.
"This is the best example of trying to learn and find common ground, which is what it is all about," he said. "There will be those in the media and in politics that will do what they do to try to get ratings. That is not what this is about. This is not our interest."
Elder Robert C. Oaks, a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, accompanied the Rev. Sharpton Monday and called it "a great honor to be able to host the Rev. Sharpton here on Temple Square and in other church facilities."
Elder Oaks, who also did not take questions from the media, said the focus of the Rev. Sharpton's visit was "about basic Christian values and about basic Christian activities we are both interested in, and we look forward to these discussions in the future."
The Rev. Sharpton said during his radio program that he decided to come to Utah to "have a dialogue" with LDS leaders after apologizing on May 10 by telephone to Elder Russell M. Nelson and Elder Henry B. Eyring of the Quorum of the Twelve.
They told him then the matter was closed, the Rev. Sharpton said. "The church said forget about it. I didn't," he told listeners after explaining, "if all of us claim to be men and women of faith, we should talk to each other in person not at each other through the media."
The Rev. Sharpton, who arrived in Utah Sunday, was to leave Monday. He toured the church's Welfare Square and broadcast his radio program from the church-owned Bonneville International studio at the Triad Center.
"He said he came here to learn about the church," LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter said, describing the Rev. Sharpton's visit as typical for a VIP. "That's his main purpose in coming here."A spokeswoman for the Rev. Sharpton, Rachel Noerdlinger, referred media inquires about the visit to the LDS Church. "We've put all of the control in the hands of the church," Noerdlinger said. "We have relied on them to do what they see fit."
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