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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.
Peter Montgomery is a senior fellow at People For the American Way Foundation.