The Right Wing

Liberty University Dean Demoted After AlterNet Investigation

Ergun Caner, dean of a religious right seminary, claimed to be a former jihadist whose heart was changed by Jesus. But he never was, and now he's no longer dean.

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In the wake of an AlterNet exposé, Ergun Caner, president and dean of the theological seminary at Liberty University, was stripped of his leadership positions at the conservative Christian school founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Caner, a Baptist clergyman of Turkish descent, claimed for years to have been a fervent jihadist until Jesus changed his heart. He said he was raised in Turkey, attended a madrassa, and didn’t speak English until he was a teenager. His story won him fame on the Christian conservative speaking circuit and led to his appointment as dean.

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In May, AlterNet reported that Caner had lied about his past in order to exploit popular sentiment after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Caner became a star on the evangelical circuit when he began regaling audiences with stories of growing up in Turkey and being trained to wage violent jihad against America. His "jihad to Jesus" story and his claims to be an expert on violent Islam ("Jesus strapped a cross on his back so I wouldn't have to strap a bomb on mine") brought him a national audience and eventually led him to Liberty University’s seminary. During his tenure, enrollment soared.

But a group of Muslim and Christian bloggers and others (including Right Wing Watch, for which I write) documented serious discrepancies with known facts about his life story in claims made by Caner in sermons and other speaking appearances. It turns out that he didn’t grow up in Turkey, but in Ohio. Those stories about learning about the U.S. by watching American sitcoms in his Turkish living room, or struggling to learn English after coming to the states as a teenager? Not true.

When Christian media reported on the discrepancies highlighted by the bloggers, Liberty defended Caner, dismissing the allegations and the bloggers who made them. (Evangelist John Ankerberg and Liberty even lodged copyright complaints with YouTube over the posting of Caner’s sermons by Muslim blogger Mohammed Khan of Fake Ex Muslims, which led to the suspension of Khan’s YouTube account.) Only after AlterNet’s investigation was published did Liberty University officials take action on its embattled dean. Within hours of AlterNet’s publication of its story on Caner, university officials backtracked and announced that Liberty would conduct an internal investigation.

In a statement published on the Liberty University Web site, Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr., said that Liberty had taken no action until that time because the university "does not initiate personnel evaluations based upon accusations from Internet blogs," he wrote, referring to the Baptist and Muslim blogs that had been questioning Caner’s story. "However," Falwell continued, "in light of the fact that several newspapers have raised questions, we felt it necessary to initiate a formal inquiry."

The inquiry now completed, Caner has been demoted -- stripped of his titles as dean and president of the theological seminary -- but he remains on faculty with a one-year contract for the 2010-2011 academic term. A statement issued by the university reads, in part:

After a thorough and exhaustive review of Dr. Ergun Caner's public statements, a committee consisting of four members of Liberty University’s Board of Trustees has concluded that Dr. Caner has made factual statements that are self-contradictory. However, the committee found no evidence to suggest that Dr. Caner was not a Muslim who converted to Christianity as a teenager, but, instead, found discrepancies related to matters such as dates, names and places of residence.

Some Caner supporters called on Liberty to defend him, suggesting that "embellishing" on behalf of a good story is a long tradition among preachers. But in the digital age, when sermons and speeches live forever via YouTube, it was simply not possible to credibly dismiss the allegations.

The reaction to Liberty's announcement has been mixed. Some Caner supporters have actually said that the demotion-but-not-firing was an "exoneration" of Caner because it affirmed that he converted from Islam as a teenager. Others found the notion of exoneration in his demotion "delusional."

Gene Clyatt, author of the Christian blog, A Squirrel in Babylon, is among those who are appalled at Liberty’s use of euphemisms, such as "misstatements" and "factual statements that are self-contradictory."

No, what Dr. Caner did is called lying. He has deliberately, repeatedly, & knowingly told audiences things about himself & his upbringing that he knew were untrue….Instead of addressing Caner's lies head on, Liberty University has chosen to, once again, try to sweep the whole mess under the rug. Knowing that the evidence is too overwhelming to ignore completely, Liberty University has made a token gesture in an attempt to appease their critics….

Some bloggers continue to insist that Caner publicly repent and apologize. Other Caner critics have rhetorically asked when they will be receiving apologies from Caner and those of his supporters who had slammed them for allegedly engaging in slander, libel and helping Muslims "tear down" a fellow Christian.

Caner himself has said nothing publicly since an online "apology" in February -- met with derision by his accusers, and subsequently removed from his Web site (but available here) -- in which claimed he "never intentionally misled anyone." His own Web site makes no mention of the controversy but simply states his faculty position at Liberty.

Tom Rich of FBC Jax Watchdog, a high-profile Baptist blogger who has been calling for Caner to repent for lying to people from the pulpit after 9/11, sees Caner's demotion as a victory for the truth over a "decade of deceit":

While many don't think Liberty went far enough, and their statement is certainly embarrassing -- they took the right action, and Caner will be gone about the time a new seminary president is named, in my opinion.

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