In my time as religion editor of The Oklahoman, a pastor of a large Baptist church wrote a book condemning Islam. After I reported on the book, I got a tip that the pastor had plagiarized large sections of the text and faked endorsements from syndicated columnist Cal Thomas and evangelist Franklin Graham. My investigation confirmed that the pastor -- who claimed to be a leading expert on Islam -- really was not.
I'll never forget the reaction my stories received. Many members of the church did not even try to hide their anger. They wanted a scalp.
No, not the pastor's. Mine.
I made the mistake of reporting news that they did not want to believe.
I am reminded of that experience as a potentially major thunderstorm erupts at Liberty University -- the institution founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. In a controversy fanned by bloggers and first given non-blogger credence by my friends at Christianity Today, Liberty's seminary president faces serious questions over his purported background as a youth jihadist who found Jesus. Much of what ex-Muslim Ergun Caner has claimed does not seem to add up. Liberty officials did not act too concerned at first, but launched an investigation after the CT report and other press inquiries.
The story has moved from the blog world to the mainstream media, and The Associated Press reported on it Monday:
RALEIGH, N.C. -- The Southern Baptist minister who leads Liberty University's seminary made a career as a go-to authority on Islam for the evangelical world, selling thousands of books and touring the country as a former Muslim who discovered Jesus Christ.
Now Ergun Caner is being investigated by the Lynchburg, Va., university -- founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell -- over allegations that he fabricated or embellished his past.
An unlikely coalition of Muslim and Christian bloggers, pastors and apologists has led the charge with video and audio clips they claim show Caner making contradictory statements.
Caner has since changed the biographical information on his website and asked friendly organizations to remove damning clips from their websites, but the questions are not going away.
The Raleigh dateline threw me for a second. I had to consult Mapquest to figure out that Lynchburg is 150 miles north of Raleigh. That's a nugget that the AP should have included in the story if editors felt a dateline was needed. Otherwise, follow AP style and use no dateline on a bylined story where the writer is not at the scene of the action.
But overall, AP's 1,000-word report struck me as good old-fashioned, nuts-and-bolts reporting. The story puts the facts out there and lets them speak for themselves. When the writer does not know something, he makes that clear. For example, these two paragraphs impressed me:
In an undated interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network's website, Caner said: "The only thing I ever learned about Christianity I learned from my imam and the scholars in the mosque. Then when I began to be trained in Madras we heard even more about Christians, that they are our enemies."
It's not clear if the transcript should read "madrasas," a type of religious school for Muslims, or "Madras," a city in India. Neither makes sense in the context of a 1970s boyhood in central Ohio.
Deep in the heart of Southern Baptist country, The Tennessean played its story on the controversy on Page 1 today. Again, it's a pretty straightforward, factual accounting of the questions facing Caner. I also liked that Godbeat pro Bob Smietana included this paragraph up high:
Caner did not respond to requests for an interview. Several Southern Baptist leaders who have supported him in the past, including Land and former Southern Baptist Convention President Paige Patterson, declined interview requests.
That paragraph speaks volumes. When Richard Land, who seldom meets a microphone he does not like, refuses to comment, it says something. Kudos to Smietana for recognizing that no-comments often convey as much information as a statement on the record. The Tennessean also quoted sources who remain supportive of Caner, a perspective missing from the AP story.
But the most intriguing report I've read on this situation was published Monday by The News & Advance in Lynchburg. Hmmmm, in the Internet age, could it be that there's still a major role for local newspapers to play?
The Lynchburg story did an excellent job of framing the questions that a Liberty investigative panel could explore:
Where did Caner grow up -- in Ohio or in Turkey?
When did he come to the United States -- as a teenager as he has said, or at age 4 as his parents' divorce documents indicate?
Did Caner have a nominal Muslim upbringing, or was he raised in Islamic jihad, "trained to do that which was done on 11 September" as he told an audience in Jacksonville, Fla., in November 2001?
Did he formally debate scholars of other faiths, including Islam, as his online biography once claimed?
Is Caner's middle name Mehmet, as it's shown on the cover of books he's written -- or is it Michael, as it's listed on the concealed-weapons permit he got last year in Lynchburg?
Should he include an honorary degree in his curriculum vitae, which typically is the string of earned degrees that appears after the names of faculty members and administrators in university publications?
The other thing that the local story did was raise the possibility -- hold on to your socks, GetReligion readers -- that a theological dispute played a role in fueling these allegations:
The earliest blog posts came from advocates of Calvinism, a strict view of salvation that Caner openly opposed.
So, did a fight over Calvinism lead to the questions about Caner's background? That certainly seems to be a possibility. A fascinating one, too, although if Caner truly has fabricated his background, his theological leanings may not make a lot of difference at this point.