Liberty Seminary President Ergun Caner claims he traveled the road ‘from jihad to Jesus,’ but Baptist bloggers say his stories of terrorist training are false.
Ergun Caner’s rise to the top of conservative evangelical celebrity — and to the presidency of the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell — was fueled by how aggressively he capitalized on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to portray himself as a personal example of the power of Jesus to save even someone raised as a jihadist, which he claimed to be.
There’s only one problem with that part of Caner’s story: it appears not to be true.
In 2001, Caner was pastoring a church in Colorado. After 9/11, he became a hot commodity on the speaking circuit as someone who knew about the evils of Islam firsthand. Before the shock waves from the terror attacks had died down, he was lacing his sermons with his own tale of having been raised in Turkey as the son of a religious leader and trained in a madrassa to wage jihad against Americans.
He said he’d learned about America from TV shows — “Dukes of Hazzard” in some tellings, “Dallas” or “Andy Griffith” in others. He talked about learning English after moving to Brooklyn as a teenager. His personal testimony was used to sell books and videotapes. In one 2001 sermon, “From Jihad to Jesus,” he said he didn’t know much about Christians the first 17 years of his life because “there’s not that many of them in Turkey.” One CD was until recently marketed this way: “Do you believe God can change the heart of a hardened terrorist? Former Muslim Ergun Caner, who came to America to be a terrorist, shares his testimony of how he came to know Jesus Christ.”
All that made for great post-9/11 storytelling. And it helped Caner and his brother, Emir, sell a lot of books. (In 2002 they published and promoted Unveiling Islam: An Insider’s Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs, one of many books bearing the Caner name.) In 2005, Caner was appointed to his current post as president of Liberty University Theological Seminary.
In recent months, a group of Muslim and Christian bloggers have made an airtight case against many of Caner’s fabrications using the kind of documentation — videos, podcasts, recorded sermons — the digital age makes possible.
The Life Stories of Ergun Mehmet Caner
Here’s the basic outline of Ergun Caner’s actual life story, as told in some of his books and public appearances and pieced together from public records in recent months by bloggers. Ergun Caner was born in 1966 in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Turkish father. His parents settled in Ohio a few years later and were divorced when Caner was 8. Caner lived with his mother and spent time and religious holidays with his father.
His parents tussled over the terms of the divorce settlement and the degree to which his Muslim father would control his religious upbringing. As a teenager, Caner became a Christian. His father disowned him after his conversion, but his brothers, mother and grandmother also eventually became Christians. Caner earned undergraduate and graduate degrees (some of which he misstated until a recent bio revision on Liberty’s Web site), and entered the ministry.
Before 2001, he seems to have gone by Ergun Michael Caner or E. Michael Caner — or Butch Caner, which is what he says his wife calls him. Ergun Michael Caner is the name on his concealed carry gun permit, issued in 2009 by the Commonwealth of Virginia. But after 2001, Caner’s middle name, Michael, was replaced with the exotic-to-American-ears “Mehmet” on the covers of his books.
Ergun Caner is unquestionably a polished and entertaining performer. He stands out among conservative evangelicals with defiant rhetoric designed to elicit “did he really say that?” titters and a frisson of naughtiness from his audience. Part of Caner’s performing persona is his own brand of shock humor, which often relies on racial, ethnic and sexist humor. Speaking to one largely white audience, Caner joked about worship in black churches, where he said they pass the plate 12 times, women wear hats the size of satellite dishes and men wear blue suits that match their shoes and a handkerchief that matches their car. One black Baptist preacher asked for an apology.
At a conference in Seattle a few years ago, Caner joked about the Mexican students at Liberty this way:
“The Mexican students and I get along real well. They’re my boys. I always joke with ’em, I say ‘Man, if I ever adopt, I want to adopt a Mexican because I need work done on my roof. [laughter], and, and uh, I got a big lawn….
At an Ohio men’s conference in 2007, he got the audience whooping and shouting with this gem:
“Dr. Caner, do you believe in women behind the pulpit? My answer is well, yeah, of course, how are they going to vacuum back there unless they get behind it….[laughter]…..and that’s going to be in half of your pulpits next Sunday. FEEL FREE!!! I LOVE THAT LINE!! But you know one line like that shuts it all up, ’cause they’re not going to talk about it, and they’re not going to talk to you for a while, which is good, which is good.
Sin and Redemption
The human story of sin and redemption is a fundamental theme in Christianity. When stars of the conservative evangelical movement have succumbed to the lure of sexual temptation, they have often won forgiveness on the force of a public confession. It has worked for politicians as well as preachers. So why is Ergun Caner, under fire for lying about the life story that catapulted him to evangelical stardom, refusing to repent and passing up the chance to earn redemption? And why is Liberty University supporting his stonewalling?
Since ascending to the helm of Liberty’s theological seminary, Caner has tripled student enrollment, due in no small part to his celebrity. That’s given him a prominent platform from which to speak and publish. It’s also given him some powerful allies with a strong incentive to protect his reputation. Rather than admitting that Caner lied about his upbringing in ways that made his “from jihad to Jesus” story (not to be confused with a book by that title by Jerry Rassamni) more compelling and marketable, Caner and Liberty University have hunkered down, portraying Caner as the victim of persecution and lashing out at his critics. At the same time, they’ve been working to strip some incriminating material from the Internet.
That’s going to keep the story boiling in the Baptist — and Muslim –blogosphere. And some think it’s a disastrous course for Caner, for Liberty, and for the religion and movement they represent.
It was a 20-something Muslim blogger, Mohammed Khan, who started bringing attention to problems with Caner’s public “testimony.” Khan believes Caner is out to give Muslims a bad name, and his Web site, fakeexmuslims.com, has used YouTube commentaries of Caner on video to challenge Caner’s expertise on Islam and to question whether Caner was, as he insists, a “devout” Muslim. (As this story was being prepared, many of those were taken down at least temporarily by a copyright claim.)
But that question hasn’t generated nearly as much interest among Christian bloggers as the easily verifiable discrepancies in Caner’s personal story. It’s especially troubling, they say, because that story is tied to the story he tells about the power of the gospel, the story that fueled his rise to a position of authority.
Here’s how Oklahoma pastor and blogger Wade Burleson summarized it, disputing Caner’s claims:
The myth Dr. Caner has created about himself seems now to be unraveling. He never came to America “via Beirut and Cairo.” He has never been trained as a fundamentalist Muslim. He has never had been a jihadist. He has never debated top Muslim scholars, in Nebraska or anywhere else. It is impossible for any of us to understand why someone would fabricate or embellish his past, butthere’s a great deal of money to be made selling books and DVDs about Islam in post 9/11. Who’s a better expert on the subject than a radical jihadist who has converted to faith in Jesus Christ, right?
Here’s how Tom Chantry, pastor of Christ Reformed Baptist Church in Milwaukeeputs it:
Preachers are witnesses to the gospel of Christ, and like all witnesses, when they are compromised they weaken the case. Furthermore, no witness can do more damage to his own case than an expert witness….When a preacher allows himself to deceive in any way he invites the sinner to pounce upon his error and heap scorn upon the gospel. Embellishment from the pulpit is therefore a deadly error which may do inestimable damage to the immortal souls of our fellow men. What are we to think of any preacher who regularly and repeatedly tells stories which are not true and publishes facts which are not facts?
Baptist blogger Tom Rich recalls being in the pews at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, when Caner came to speak just six weeks after the 9/11 attacks. When he started reading about the Caner controversy recently, he went back and listened to that sermon, and it confirmed what he remembered: With people still reeling from the terror attacks, Caner portrayed himself as someone who had been trained to carry out that kind of attack on America. It made for a powerful testimony.
Now, Rich says, he believes Caner was simply being opportunistic:
Unbelievable. Standing in front of shell-shocked Christians after 9/11, and Caner betrays their confidence by lying about where he was raised, where he learned English, and when he came to America. That is deception. A man that is misusing the pulpit to purposely mislead people about who he is and where he is from has no business being in the pulpit.
But several of Caner’s most vocal critics have said they’re not trying to get him fired — they just want him to tell the truth and apologize to those he deceived. But Liberty University officials have apparently decided it’s more important to protect the Ergun Caner brand. Southern Baptists and Liberty University have invested a lot in Caner’s persona, and now, in the words of one blogger, he’s “too big to fail.”
Back in February, in an effort to brush the controversy aside, Caner put out a statement some of his defenders characterize as an admission or apology. Here’s a portion of what it said:
I have never intentionally misled anyone. I am sure I have made many mistakes in the pulpit in the past 20-plus years, and I am sure I will make some in the future. For those times where I misspoke, said it wrong, scrambled words, or was just outright confusing, I apologize and will strive to do better.
This statement satisfied some people who want the controversy to go away, but it only inflamed others. Trying to pass off his false claims as mistakes feels to some critics like compounding the original lies with equally and embarrassingly transparent new ones. Caner has since pulled that statement from his Web site, but it’s still online at a Southern Baptist news site.
The Persecution of Ergun Caner
The current controversy about Caner’s “embellishments” is not the first one the pugnacious Caner has found himself in. He’s been part of sometimes heated debate over Calvinist theology within the Southern Baptist Convention. He’s a critic of one evangelical strategy for proselytizing to Muslims, and in February he called the president of the denomination’s International Mission Board a liar, for which he has since apologized. His word for fellow Baptists who might complain about Glenn Beck, a Mormon, being asked to speak at Liberty’s graduation? “Haters.”
Caner and his backers have energetically played the religious persecution card and attacked the motives and even faith of his critics. Caner wrote in a memo to Liberty faculty that “I never thought I would see the day when alleged ‘Christians’ join with Muslims to attack converts.” Both Khan and Baptist bloggers who continue to call for Caner to come clean have been barraged with hostile commentary.
Pastor Wade Burleson says that when one of his congregants, blogger Debbie Kaufman, first asked him about the Caner controversy, he told her he wasn’t interested. She poked around on her own and wrote a post asking questions about some of the discrepancies in Caner’s record. The response from Caner and his supporters was swift.
Burleson says he got an urgent call from someone insisting he get Kaufman to take down her post, which the caller said was putting Caner’s life and family in jeopardy. Startled, Burleson read the post and was astonished to discover that Kaufman was only asking questions about Caner’s truthfulness. He said as much in a comment on her blog. But the pressure intensified; Burleson says Caner even called Burleson’s father to put pressure on him.
Liberty University pulled Caner’s disputed bio, and put up a stripped-down version that reportedly was personally approved by the chancellor. Other incriminating or embarrassing materials have been pulled offline after Caner critics called attention to them. Focus on the Family, for example, broadcast Caner’s 2001 “From Jesus to Jihad” sermon on its April 26, 2010 program. In that sermon, Caner said he didn’t know much about Christians the first 17 years of his life because “there’s not that many of them in Turkey or in Sweden.” But that broadcast has since disappeared from the online Focus archives.
Liberty University was silent until last week, when Elmer Towns, dean of the school of religion, told Christianity Today the university’s board was satisfied that Caner has done nothing “theologically inappropriate.” Said Towns, “It’s not an ethical issue, it’s not a moral issue. We give faculty a certain amount of theological leverage. The arguments of the bloggers would not stand up in court.” The Christianity Today headline framed the story as an attack on Caner: “Bloggers Target Seminary President.”
In response to the Christianity Today story, one of Caner’s critics wrote on his blog:
So Caner’s deception is not “ethical” or “moral.” If I were a lost person, this would be a huge step forward in my belief that Christianity itself is a lie, and Christian leaders are mostly hypocritical charlatans selling their spiritual elixirs, whose “ethical” and “moral” standards are much lower than the average non-Christian.
Some Baptist bloggers say Liberty is sending a message to its students that celebrity is more important than integrity. One of them, Oklahoma pastor Burleson, says he can no longer recommend Liberty to potential students.
‘Get out of our way’
Caner’s critics insist their goal is not his personal destruction. Several of the bloggers campaigning for truth-telling and apologies said they believe Caner is a powerful speaker and talented leader. They would support him keeping his job if only he would apologize. Tom Rich says that in one of Caner’s books, Why Churches Die, the besieged seminary president wrote that public sin requires public repentance. And what is more of a public sin, Rich asks, than standing in the pulpit at First Baptist Jacksonville and lying to thousands of people about having been trained to kill Americans the way the 9/11 hijackers did?
Asked why Caner and Liberty would refuse the path of public repentance in the face of such clear evidence, Burleson says he is “baffled,” and insists he is not Caner’s enemy. “He is my friend and my brother in Christ.” Burleson says he, like many others, is not above the temptation to embellish. He thinks that a public admission of wrongdoing and an apology would bring an end to the story. But the Liberty response — pretending it never happened, circling the wagon, making other people the problem — is “the height of dysfunction,” he says. And the longer such stonewalling persists, the worse it will be — for Caner and for Liberty.
It’s not clear how this will end. Some bloggers have circulated a draft resolution with the notion that they would bring it before the Southern Baptist Convention, but it’s extremely unlikely that convention officials would ever let it get to the floor. After the story broke out of the blogosphere last week into Christianity Today, the Associated Baptist Press did a more in-depth story. The increased attention to Caner’s well-documented deceptions may make it harder for Liberty University to make them go away.
Caner seems to hope his celebrity and his bluster will carry him through. His attitude toward his critics seems to mirror the attitude he expressed in his speech at last fall’s Values Voter Summit. He ended his talk with this message to Christians he said were not being outspoken enough on the issues of the day: “You need to preach, teach, and reach, or just shut up and get out of our way.”
NOTE: This article has been corrected. The quote from Elmer Towns, dean of Liberty University’s school of religion, contained an error in transcription in the original version.