Shaun King is learning the hard way that religion has privilege that blackness doesn’t

Yesterday, the Daily Beast published a long, thorough and doggedly fair account by Goldie Taylor of the controversy surrounding Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King. King, who had a very heated and very public falling out on Sunday with other leaders in the movement — in particular, DeRay McKesson and Johnetta “Netta” Elzie — is facing allegations that he has used multiple charitable projects associated with his racial justice activism for personal financial gain.

King maintains that all of his fundraising efforts are legitimate, and that in cases where ventures fail — such as his Justice Together project, which had counted McKesson as a board member before he resigned citing (you guessed it) questions about the organization’s finances — all donations have been refunded in full. However, as Taylor notes, King is asking us to take many of these claims on faith. He has not released a full accounting of his fundraising efforts, and he is being asked to. Until he does, as Taylor concludes, “King’s credibility as a social justice leader of any note hangs in the balance.”

To be clear, Shaun King has done great work independent from his fundraising. His reporting, first for DailyKos and now for the New York Daily News, has made him a go-to source for anyone who cares about racial justice and police brutality. There’s a reason he has over 217 thousand followers on Twitter, myself included. To be clearer, nothing in Taylor’s article openly accuses King of fraud or any other kind of misconduct, and I’m not ready to do so either.

However, one thing about Taylor’s report sticks out to me that, while not serving as proof of any wrongdoing, does make me more skeptical of King’s financial activity: Shaun King got his start in charity work as a pastor at a mega-church.

As Taylor writes:

After a brief stint in the classroom teaching civics, King entered the ministry—becoming a staff preacher at Total Grace Christian Center in an easterly suburb before founding his own church in 2008. As the congregation at Courageous Church grew, so then did King’s public personae. His name took flight, at least locally, as the “Facebook Pastor” for the way he used social media to engage prospective visitors and shore up its membership.

By his own account, the charismatic public speaker is a consummate fundraiser. “I have raised millions of dollars for causes around the world. I have sometimes been a first, and early, responder,” King said.

As Taylor notes, King’s claims concerning his religio-charitable endeavors appear to be exaggerated, at best. In one case, King claimed that a web auction house he had founded in association with Courageous Church, where he served as lead pastor, raised “over $1 million” for a Haitian relief fund. However, only $540,000 was actually raised…and only $200,000 was actually gifted. King has yet to adequately address what happened to the extra $340,000, saying only that he resigned from his position at Courageous Church in March 2011 due to “personal stress and disillusionment.” It appears as though Courageous Church’s fundraising for Haiti relief efforts has only now come under serious scrutiny.

Shaun King (right) and Crowdrise founder Robert Wolfe (left), via Geoff Livingston / Flickr

Shaun King (right) and Crowdrise founder Robert Wolfe (left), via Geoff Livingston / Flickr

This pattern continued with King’s secular charitable work. In 2013, a short-lived crowdfunding site called HopeMob, launched by King, paid out only $198,000 after taking in over $419,000 in donations. King’s personal compensation through the venture was $160,000 — or 40% of the company’s total revenue. As Taylor adds, “Using his HopeMob platform, King raised over $11,000 to support a gun control lobbying effort in honor of the Sandy Hook victims. However, King is not a registered lobbyist and I could find little or no evidence that he paid an individual or entity to formally lobby government entities.” Unlike Courageous Church, HopeMob earned itself a page on RipoffReport.com, with multiple users complaining that they never received the money they raised through the platform.

The thing is, while taking an exorbitant split on the revenue from a nominally righteous endeavor is generally frowned upon, there’s one sector in the United States where it’s both tacitly accepted and relatively common: religion. The general public may cast the occasional eyeroll at prosperity gospel pastors who are transparently bilking their congregants in order to live extravagant lifestyles. But we as a society — both through our tax laws and the cultural privilege we grant religion more generally — have decided that, at the end of the day, that’s something we’re willing to tolerate. After all, don’t you know about all the great charitable work churches and other religious organizations do?

Scratch the surface of all too many mega-church pastors, and you’ll find people who are willing to justify massive personal fortunes based on (perhaps smaller than possible) benefits they provide to others.

Which is why, after reading through Taylor’s account of what we know about Shaun King’s personal history and finances — and what we don’t know — I can’t shake the idea that he really does have something to hide. But I also can’t shake the idea that the only reason people care is because of the work he’s currently engaged in. King has been targeted again and again, usually by right wing outlets such as the Daily Caller and Breitbart, for doing things as a secular activist that we’ve effectively priced into our assumptions about the charitable work of many of our religious leaders.

Pastors — particularly in the South, where King is from — are already well-paid. But many of them still ask their congregants to take it on faith that their personal compensation is fair, that they aren’t skimming off the top and that they shouldn’t be made to open their books. They can ask for this faith from their congregants because churches, unlike secular non-profits, are not required to disclose their salaries to the public. This is why we know that Shaun King took home roughly 40% of the revenue from HopeMob, but we have no clue what his split was at Courageous Church. All we know is that his church took in $540,000, paid out $200,000 and something happened to the rest.

And no one thought that was odd until similar issues arose with King’s secular projects.

All this is to say that Shaun King appears to be learning the hard way that the privileges we grant religion are not privileges we grant other groups — especially not racial minorities. We are willing to look the other way when pastors make a whole lot of money for themselves in the name of charity, while the lives of prominent racial justice advocates are placed under the microscopes of the entire blogosphere until something sticks. Perhaps ironically, that sort of proves King’s underlying point about privilege as it intersects with race, but it won’t let him off the hook in explaining what he’s done with the money he’s raised.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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10 Responses to “Shaun King is learning the hard way that religion has privilege that blackness doesn’t”

  1. JohnFLob says:

    I gave you an upvote for both your comments and your avatar.

  2. Big Ed says:

    “To be clear, Shaun King has done great work independent from his fundraising. His reporting, first for DailyKos and now for the New York Daily News, has made him a go-to source for anyone who cares about racial justice and police brutality”

    Pure BS! He perpetuated rumors and blatantly false information during the Ferguson incident and called them “undisputed facts”… “Hands up.. don’t shoot” being one of them.
    He has deleted every one of his tweets because he lied so much and gave conflicting stories. “I don’t own a gun anymore”.. “I own several guns and love to take my kids to the range”… he says what is convenient. The reason the conservative press went after him was the left refuses to call anyone on their side on their lies.
    He’s a white man posing at a black man for personal and monetary gain. I have been following this guy for a year and he is nothing more than a liar. From his brutal beating by “rednecks” to his application for a scholarship reserved for black men.
    He “never knew who is Father was until he was 35 , he just knew he *felt* like a black man”???…. BS
    He’s a con and a race hustler.

  3. SWohio says:

    Since he has spent the last couple of decades pretending to be black in order to, I suppose, establish some kind of credibility, he threw all his credibility out the window as far as I am concerned.

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  5. The_Fixer says:

    But is a degree in Theology, no matter how long it took and how much it cost, really worth anything more than that online certification? I have my doubts. They may know a lot more “facts”, but in the end, it’s all the same result.

  6. BeccaM says:

    I honestly can’t tell at this point whether there is something hinky going on or if this is just another angle in an orchestrated smear campaign. The ‘long and dogged’ article on Daily Beast was more leading questions than definitive answers or conclusions.

    The only negative thing I’ve observed about Shaun so far, being an avid dKos reader myself, is that sometimes he has been sloppy regarding the facts in his ‘diaries’ over there (the term they’ve used for articles/posts). Never quite ‘pants on fire’ untrue, but occasionally important details–sometimes potentially exculpatory ones–were left out.

    As for his fund-raising activities and lobbying and whatnot? No clue. I’m not going to prejudge him just because he was once a mega-church pastor. Normally when someone is bilking people and living an extravagant lifestyle, there is clear evidence of it–the recently-arrested Martin Shkreli, for example. Life becomes centered around making more and more money. King, on the other hand, has had writing gigs as his last two major engagements. Not the sort of thing a typical scammer goes for.

  7. Steven Jaeger says:

    For their tax free privilege I think that they should have to show their where their money is going and because they are churches they need to be spending a hefty portion of their intake on true “good works” not on the pastoral(snigger) compensation. Charities are dinged if they spend more than about 15% on overhead, why not churches? Personally since so many do the prosperity gospel garbage, I don’t feel they are tax free in the first place but are simply businesses, especially when they run ‘stores, businesses such as noted below, or other forms of profit taking such as hospitals’. Too many are just grifters grifting. Happened at my parents’ church, new pastor came in the through off all of the congregants from the financial oversight committee and he now he counts the money himself. Nobody else gets to see where the money goes. They were smart enough to leave. Not one soul complains, or if they do they get thrown out of the church.

  8. emjayay says:

    “We are willing to look the other way at pastors who make a whole lot of money for themselves in the name of charity.” What you mean, we, white man?*

    *Look this one up too

  9. emjayay says:

    To become a Catholic priest for example takes many years of generally rigorous education. What about all these various evangelical/megachurch/prosperity gospel/teevee guys? Is it some kind of online certification from the Grace L. Fergusen Bible College (and Storm Door Co.)*, or what?

    * Look it up

  10. Hue-Man says:

    Your Haiti reference reminded me of this and similar stories:

    “How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti ­and Built Six Homes”
    https://www.propublica.org/article/how-the-red-cross-raised-half-a-billion-dollars-for-haiti-and-built-6-homes

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