Ergun Caner and the Kingmakers: An Enforcer Leaves the Penalty Box
“All that generation also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel.” Judges 2:10
People forget. No matter what type of scandalous enterprises come to light, there seem to be those people in society who are continually accepted in public life no matter what they do, whom they hurt, or how many times they’ve been caught breaking the rules that the rest of their culture is expected to follow. After the initial shock of a sensational news story dies down, those who should have been anathematized as a result of the report seem to wait a short while and step right back into the spotlight of success as if nothing had ever happened. This is seen in the lives of celebrities like Rob Lowe, Sean Penn, and Roman Polanski. This is seen in the lives of politicians like Mark Sanford, Ted Kennedy, and the Clintons. It is also, unfortunately, seen inside of Christendom, especially when it comes to popular evangelists. Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker both remain in successful television “ministries” today; years after scandals derailed their careers for a time. The latest evangelist to make such a comeback is the charlatan Ergun Caner. Caner’s past is so checkered that this is not even the first time he’s had to make such a comeback. Yet the formula for his so doing remains the same. Friends in prominent positions lend Caner credibility after the smoke clears from his latest controversy and people stop thinking about what Caner has done and who he really is. During the week of Halloween 2016, Caner will appear in Corinth, Mississippi at the Wheeler Grove Baptist Church Real Evangelism Conference with a number of the most popular and respected preachers in all of Baptist life. That his appearance is during Halloween week is poetic, as he will be costumed as a faithful Christian preacher. The man under the mask is something much worse.
2014: Ergun Caner’s Trail of Blood Comes to Mount Vernon
Ergun Caner sat in the president’s house of Brewton-Parker College during the winter of 2014 and pondered his plight. The date was February 5th. Caner had recently been installed as that institution’s President. The college had seen better days and its infrastructure was in sad shape. It was plain to many locals that a once beautiful campus was wasting away. In 1998, the college had agreed to pay a $4 million settlement to the federal government (and a local whistle-blower) which was related the to financial aid fraud at the college. Since that time the small Baptist college had struggled financially. Currently, Brewton-Parker was in the throes of a fight to maintain its accreditation, which was in jeopardy because of concerns over the college’s financial situation. Caner was not happy about the state of affairs. He had left a position as Provost of Arlington Baptist College in Texas to take the helm of Brewton-Parker in Mount Vernon, Georgia. The school’s trustees, by his estimation, hadn’t fully informed him about the magnitude of the problems with the facilities at the college before his arrival. He was understandably upset. With him in the President’s house was the school’s director of Plant Operations, Thomas Dewayne Bynum. Disgusted with the trustees and the state of Bynum’s facilities, Caner assessed the disclosure of the trustees as lacking and far from fair:
“they ni***r di**ed me is what they did…they ni***r fu**ed me”
Bynum was taken aback at Caner’s racially and sexually charged language. He later reported the interaction with institutional Vice President, CB Scott. Bynum told Scott that perhaps Caner was just upset and his comments did not reflect how he actually felt. Eventually Bynum, after working with Caner for a year, came to the conclusion that the derogatory ways in which Caner spoke about African Americans were “part of his character.” Others at the college and in Georgia would soon come to see him the same way.
Coffee and the Caner Brothers
Break time had finally arrived for the students enrolled in the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s 2013 Spring Term course offering of “Logic and the Christian Faith”. Two days a week, for three hours during the evening, the students met in a makeshift classroom in the back of the library at the North Georgia campus of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in Marietta, Georgia to attend their class. Their class was taught by a doctoral student over a live video feed from the seminary’s main campus in New Orleans. The subject was difficult, the delivery method was not optimal, and the classroom was uncomfortable. The students, many of whom worked full-time jobs during the day, were almost always exhausted before class even started. They looked forward to the 15-minute break at the mid-point of each class. During these times coffee and intellectually stimulating conversation was sought. Neither was hard to find. The students enrolled in this class were the intellectuals of the Southern Baptist subculture; their majors included disciplines such as Christian Thought, Philosophy, and Apologetics.
One class member who could always be counted on for an engaging dialogue was Mark Lamprecht. Lamprecht, who was rarely without his trench-coat and plastic jug of tea, was a former body-builder. He was an imposing figure, physically and mentally, but his soft-spoken nature and kind eyes portrayed an affability that many of his kind, 5-point Calvinists, sorely lacked. Lamprecht was raised as a fundamentalist Mormon and, having come to faith in Christ, insisted on doctrinal fidelity in a way that should be expected from a cultist who had come to hold to the Doctrines of Grace. Lamprecht was such a dyed-in-the-wool Calvinist that James White himself had performed Lamprecht’s wedding ceremony.
I was another student enrolled in the class. Like Lamprecht, a full-time professional who attended seminary in the evenings, on-line, or through week-long workshops. After having been enrolled in seminary for three years, I decided to change my major to Christian Apologetics. As an accountant and student of philosophy, the logical and intellectual nature of the discipline called to me. Thus, I found myself in the evening section of Logic class at the North Georgia campus library with Mark Lamprecht. On one particular evening I watched as an animated Mark Lamprecht stood at the front of the classroom during break time telling anyone who would listen to him about the systematic elimination of Calvinist professors from Truett-McConnell College, a small Georgia Baptist Convention college nestled in the mountains of rural North Georgia, that was being instigated by the institution’s president Dr. Emir Caner. I, not being a Calvinist myself and not being apprised of the Calvinist controversies that permeated Georgia Baptist politics had little interest in Lamprecht’s tale of Emir Caner and Truett-McConnell College. Yet one individual Lamprecht brought up piqued my interest, Emir Caner’s brother, Ergun.
Ergun Caner was a fascinating character and one of whom I had never heard. Lamprecht told me all about the misdeeds of Ergun. Ergun was the former Dean of Liberty University’s seminary. In 2010, a Liberty University investigation deemed that Caner was guilty “factual statements that are self-contradictory” in a popular testimony claiming he received terrorist training before converting from Islam to Christianity. According to a Baptist News Global Report:
“Controversy arose in 2010, when bloggers questioned written descriptions of Caner’s academic credentials and apparent embellishments in recorded versions of his ‘Jihad to Jesus’ testimony popular with evangelical audiences in the aftermath of 9/11.
‘Jesus strapped a cross on his back so I wouldn’t have to strap a bomb on mine,’ Caner said in a sermon at the Southern Baptist Convention pastors’ conference in 2004. He preached in high-profile pulpits including First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., and Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, claiming he came to America to do what the 9/11 terrorists did before being saved from a martyr’s death by accepting Christ.
Bloggers investigating the story found documents indicating that Caner, in fact, grew up in Ohio the son of a divorced Muslim father and Lutheran mother. After viewing online videos, Liberty trustees found “discrepancies related to matters such as dates, names and places of residence” but “no evidence to suggest that Dr. Caner was not a Muslim who converted to Christianity as a teenager.” Because of his deceptions, Ergun Caner was forced out of Liberty University, the world’s largest Christian college.
Lamprecht was one of the many bloggers who had taken on the thankless task of exposing the charlatanry of Ergun Caner. I was initially incredulous of Lamprecht. I had never met a blogger before. However, Lamprecht challenged all of my presuppositions about bloggers. He wasn’t some unemployed loser man-child covered into Cheeto dust and living in his mother’s basement. He was a grown man, a financial professional with a wife, and a careful theologian enrolled at the Baptist Seminary. The name of Lamprecht’s blog was “Here I Blog,” an allusion the brave words of Martin Luther as he stood against Catholic persecution during the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. This name resonated with me, someone who abhorred all forms of corruption. I, a professional auditor and now a Christian apologist, had a particular respect for rules, integrity, and truth. Lamprecht provided me with video and audio clips of Caner making one false statement after another to a variety of audiences. These clips were hard to come by as church after church had been removing Caner’s incriminating sermons from their websites. Yet Lamprecht had some of them them, he even had a video that Caner sued two men to surpress. I concluded that Ergun Caner broke the rules, had no integrity, and demonstrated no respect for the truth. Like Lamprecht, I detested Ergun Caner, the charlatan. Furthermore, I detested that men of Baptist renown had tried to defend Ergun Caner when his deceptions were first revealed. These men included Norman Geisler, John Ankerberg, and former Southern Baptist Convention President Paige Patterson. According to Lamprecht, another defender was his brother, Emir. As Ergun’s own brother, Emir Caner was in as good of a position as anyone to clear up the controversy over his brother. Yet, he stood by him, lest his own background be challenged as well. Lamprecht was insistent that Emir, who had co-authored a popular book about Islam with Ergun, was just a dishonest as his brother. I wasn’t so sure about Emir but I was glad that Ergun had been removed from prominence in Baptist life.
Not at Liberty to Share
Jonathan Autry was distraught. As a student in the divinity program at Liberty University, he believed in Ergun Caner, the dean of his school and a professor of “Global Apologetics”. It was September 2010 and the allegations against Ergun Caner were coming to a head. Autry wondered if the allegations could be true. Autry had heard Ergun Caner powerfully and boldly preach many a sermon. His wife had worked for Ergun Caner. He had even received a baby shower president from Caner and his wife, Jill. Autry was convinced that Caner was innocent of the charges that were being levied against him. He was convinced that God was telling him that Ergun caner was innocent. Autry later came to the unfortunate conclusion that whatever he was calling God was not God and that Ergun Caner was not innocent. Through a Freedom of Information Act request Autry and an Arizona pastor and ex-convict named Jason Smathers came to possess videos of Ergun Caner addressing US Marines who were preparing to ship out for Iraqi combat duty. Caner, who the Marines believed to be a former Muslim jihadist of Middle Eastern origin, was brought in to prepare them for what they could expect in the country.
Caner was not truly the Middle Eastern expert that he purported himself to be. Yet, at that time, the public did not know. According to Smathers, at the time the videos were made public,
“Caner was still preaching behind Christian pulpits, telling a web of lies. His story was about a young man who grew up trained to do ‘that which was done on 9/11,’ growing up in Turkey in the house of a polygamist Muslim before moving to America as a teenager and eventually becoming a Christian. In truth, Caner was born in Sweden and moved to Ohio while he was two years old.”
The videos proved to be an embarrassment to Caner and his defenders. Caner sued Autry and Smathers to suppress the distribution of the videos, which they had posted to social media. Many Baptist men who had been heroes to Jonathan Autry looked the other way while he, Jason Smathers, and their families suffered the embarrassment and expense of the lawsuit. Caner was a nationally respected preacher. Who were these people, a student and an ex-convict to question him?
A Long Ride to New Orleans
It was January 2014 and the campus of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary was cold and mostly deserted except for a cadre of Christian Apologists who had come to attend the annual “Defend the Faith Conference.” Among these freezing pilgrims were Mark Lamprecht and me. We made the long trip from Atlanta together in a Kia Soul borrowed from my parents. As a result of our time together in Logic class, Mark Lamprecht and me had become fast friends. We were both nontraditional Baptist seminary students interested in theology and apologetics and had often found ourselves conversing into the night in the parking lot of the library after our evening class sessions had ended. We were also members of the same flagship Southern Baptist Church, First Baptist Church of Woodstock. Both of us were distraught when we learned in late 2013 that Ergun Caner was coming to our state to be appointed President of a Georgia Baptist College, Brewton-Parker. We were further distraught that our own pastor, Johnny Hunt, supported the move.
Johnny Hunt is widely regarded as one of the heroes of the Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention, a movement which restored a denomination wavering toward liberalism back to biblical fidelity. Conservative leaders such as a Hunt, a former SBC President, and Paige Patterson were looked up to by up-and-coming seminary students like Lamprecht and me.
When I learned from FBC Woodstock Executive Pastor Jim Law that my own pastor (and a hero in my mind), Hunt, “had commended” Ergun Caner to the trustees of Brewton-Parker I was crestfallen. Hunt, as former Liberty University trustee knew of Caner’s charlatanry first hand. Yet he commended him anyway. It had been nearly four years since Caner was banished from Liberty to the relative obscurity (and lower salary) of Arlington Baptist College. People were forgetting what Caner had done. To make matters some people were outright denying his guilt, while Caner was suing Christian men to suppress the very videos that proved it. It was time for Caner, to come out of the penalty box and once again rise to a position of prominence in Baptist life.
Caner was a friend of Hunt’s and had preached at conferences and other events with him for a long time. Caner was close with a lot of men like Hunt, the kingmakers of the Southern Baptist Convention. When conservatives won the battle for the Bible they rewarded themselves with power; now they protect that power. These leaders, some estimate their number to be about thirty-five, make many SBC decisions from restaurants and motel rooms long before motions are made on the floor of the annual convention. Johnny Hunt is among their number. Ergun Caner is among their friends. He has preached at the top levels of Baptist gatherings and with the most prominent preachers in all of Evangelicalism: Voddie Baucham, Jerry Vines (former SBC President), Junior Hill, and Fred Luter (former SBC President) to just name a few. He has even preached in front of President George W. Bush. Caner is loved by the demographic to which he preaches. He tells jokes, often off-color ones, and preaches with all the bravado of an Old Testament prophet. He is widely regarded as a “warrior” who stands against the Muslim horde and a kind of a tough-guy enforcer who scoffs in the face of political correctness. He even once took a shot from a stun gun while preaching to prove his toughness.
Ergun Caner was taken out of the most prominent preaching circles when he was dismissed, in shame, from Liberty in 2010. He began to creep back in when he was appointed to helm Brewton-Parker in 2013. Caner was back in a position of respectability, having been endorsed by respected men. Lamprecht and me told anyone who would listen to us about this gross miscarriage of decency during lunch and break times at the 2014 Defend the Faith Conference. We strategized with other students about how to reduce corruption in Baptist life during late night meetings at the Taco Bell down the street from campus. We discussed how to handle the situation for much of their long ride home. It was decided that Lamprecht was to discuss the situation with Hunt, in coming days. Hunt had begun the process of taking Lamprecht under his wing and the two thought that Lamprecht may have had Hunt’s ear. Lamprecht planned to share a ride with Hunt to a preaching conference in Marietta and after that, he hoped to ride in Hunt’s cart during the upcoming Johnny Hunt Golf Classic.
In May of the same year, I was dejected to learn that Ergun Caner’s return to the most prominent preaching circles was complete. He had been invited by Johnny Hunt to fill the pulpit at FBC Woodstock during Hunt’s vacation to Panama City. On a hot July 27, I put on his best three-piece suit and made my way to the Sunday Service at FBC Woodstock. I was detained by security near the door of the worship center. I would not be allowed to approach the charlatan Ergun Caner, whom I planned to call to account. I would not be allowed to talk to fellow church members about the travesty that was taking place in out church’s pulpit that day. Not being allowed to interact with fellow church members, I was resigned to prayers, imprecatory ones, during Caner’s sermon, one in which a defiant Caner talked mostly about himself for nearly 45 minutes. After the sermon was over, I was stopped on the way to my Sunday School class. I and a guest were escorted to the parking lot by security personnel and told to leave the campus. I left, resigned my membership shortly thereafter, and never again returned to First Baptist Woodstock. Mark Lamprecht, who for so long had blogged about and preached against the misdeeds of Ergun Caner and his brother Emir, did not attend the worship service or face Dr. Caner that day. After his Sunday school class was over, he went home. His wife was sick, he told me, and he had needed to return to her. Lamprecht would later go on to be licensed to the ministry by First Baptist Woodstock and was once given the stage for a short time at one of Johnny Hunt’s men’s conferences. He no longer blogs about matters of discernment and integrity at hereiblog.com.
Mark Lamprecht and I haven’t spoken for nearly two years. Two days after Ergun Caner’s sermon at FBC Woodstock, his son Braxton was found dead at his home in Texas, killed by an apparent self-inflicted shotgun wound.
CB Scott – Half Black, All Heart
Johnny Hunt and Ergun Canner’s other enablers, knowing his characters, should have imagined what would happen just a few months later. On December 14th, 2014 two Brewton-Parker students employed by the college, Maria Garvin and Zak Pitt, were sent to the president’s house to install light bulbs. Ergun Caner was on the phone discussing a problem he was having with the school’s athletic program. Garvin gave the following account of a conversation she overhead:
“Dr. Caner called someone else…I believe it had to be his brother solely based on the conversation that followed. Dr. Caner was asking for his brother’s advice about what he should do in the situation…His brother responded that he had his VP of Affairs handle those types of situations. Dr. Caner then said that he wouldn’t dare put the individual that he had for that area over the situation because it was Dr. C.B. Scott. He then proceeded to tell his brother why he wouldn’t allow Dr. Scott to be over the situation stating that Dr. Scott doesn’t know how to communicate well with people, he is a terrible teacher, he doesn’t work well with others, he doesn’t fundraise, and to top it off he acts like he is half black.”
Scott had never been a friend of Ergun Caner since the latter’s arrival on campus. Scott was a veteran of the conservative resurgence, a former foot soldier of Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, who had a mind to stand for what was right. Before Caner’s tenure began, he had been sent to Brewton-Parker by the Baptist powers that be to help “clean up” the place. By Scott’s account, Brewton-Parker was a place of “whore’s and whoremongers.” According to Maria Garvin, Brewton-Parker was a place of “institutionalized discrimination.” It didn’t take long for the comments Caner made about Scott to spread to the student body. During a subsequent chapel service, one-third of the student body walked out in protest of Caner. Ergun Caner approached CB Scott and asked him for help rebuilding his reputation with the student body. Scott refused and told Caner that he was going to “burn him down.” His integrity would not allow him to enable or assist Caner.
An investigation into Caner’s behavior was initiated by the school’s executive committee. Despite the fact that Caner was on the phone with his brother, a respected Baptist college president, when he insulted CB Scott and the entire black race, the committee was unable to “validate conclusively” Caner’s comments. Still, Caner resigned on January 20th, 2014. There was a final allegation that Caner claimed to be “too tired” to fight. This allegation, verified by CB Scott and others, regarded an affair with a staff member. Adultery was the very allegation leveled by Ergun Caner at his own wife, Jill when he filed for divorce from her in April of the same year.
CB Scott was promptly fired by Caner’s replacement, Gary Campbell. Maria Garvin transferred schools. Campbell, who was also the chairman of the Brewton-Parker board of trustees resigned amidst controversy over his firing of CB Scott. Scott was given a new job at the school but eventually left to pastor a church in Kentucky. Ergun Caner left his books in his office as a “donation to the school” and returned to Texas with a severance package. Somehow, Brewton-Parker held on to its accreditation.
Despite the enabling of Johnny Hunt and other prominent Georgia Baptist preachers such as Bucky Kennedy and Emir Caner, Ergun Caner left the state in the same way he came, mired in controversy. Caner would need his severance package. On July1st, 2014 the judge presiding over his lawsuit against Smathers and Autry ordered him to pay $34,389.59 for his opponents legal fees. His suit was deemed to be without merit. Once again Caner was out of the most prominent preaching circles. He was relegated to small-time preaching in the Texas circuit, his home turf, and to preaching at the youth camps of his cronies.
A Sad Affair
Once again, nearly three years have passed. Once again, the Baptist kingmakers are letting their enforcer, Ergun Caner, out of the penalty box. Three years is apparently the amount of time it takes for sermon MP3s to disappear and for news article links to inactive. It’s apparently enough time for people to forget. It’s apparently enough time to sneak Ergun Caner back into the most prominent preaching circles. At the Wheeler Baptist Church Real Evangelism Conference, Caner is scheduled to preach with several major players in Baptist life:
There’s Gerald Harris, the editor of the Georgia Christian Index. During Caner’s tumultuous time in Georgia, Harris all but ignored the Caner controversy. Instead, he preached with his friends and now intends to preach with Caner. A story such as this one written by Harris, a professional journalist, is not to be found.
There’s Dallas Megachurch pastor and Fox News talking head Robert Jeffress. Perhaps Jeffress alone rivals Caner in the department of brash speech and playing to the crowd.
There’s former Southern Baptist President Bailey Smith, who was so sure of his evangelistic skill that he once guaranteed evangelistic results to those who donated to his “soul of the month” club. Smith is the founder of the Real Evangelism Conference. Smith’s personal website features and endorsement from Ergun Caner which reads:
“I make no apologies for saying this, and neither do I hesitate: I am who I am because of Dr. Bailey Smith. His courage, his prophetic voice, his unabashed enthusiasm for the Gospel- it radically affected me. To go from borrowing money to get gas money to attend a Real Evangelism Conference in 1987, to having the honor of preaching the REC many times now, God has used Dr. Smith to shape and mold me. If Bailey Smith called me to lead a silent prayer at a highway dedication, I would do it. The man is a living embodiment of John the Baptist. No fear…and faithful.”
There’s long time Caner enabler and current Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President, Paige Patterson, a former hero of the conservative resurgence.
Apparently, nothing can stop the meteoric rise of Ergun Caner but Ergun Caner and those who would insist on holding him accountable. No offense, not charlatanry, not racism, and not even adultery seem to be too much to stop Ergun Caner. Much like a WWE sports entertainer (aka ‘rassler’), Caner simply reinvents himself. Tom Rich, another blogger and observer of the many events of Caner’s career put it this way:
“Ergun is now “Ergun 4.0”. Version 1.0 was Mike Caner, the George Castanza-looking nerdy preacher from Ohio. Ergun version 2.0 was released after 9/11, as Mike Caner became Ergun Mehmet Giovani Caner, the terrorist who was “trained to do that which was done on 11 September”. Version 3.0 was released after Ergun was busted for his tall tales – he became Ergun the Warrior who has attacked by bloggers and evil judges who required him to pay for his frivolous lawsuits to quiet his critics. Now Ergun is Ergun Version 4.0 – the conquering hero who rescued Brewton Parker from extinction, and who ‘quit’ his job to become more like Jesus.”
The words of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthian church, unheeded by Caner’s enablers, scream out from the Bible text in the face of yet another Ergun Caner comeback:
“I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.”
Tragically, Caner’s sins would be removed as far from east to west by God himself if Caner would only repent of them. God would remember them no more. Instead, it seems, that Caner and company are relying upon the memory, a short one, of God’s people to turn Christendom into their own personal piggy bank. One has to wonder, with all that his enablers know about Caner, why they still support him. Furthermore, one eventually has to wonder, “What does Caner know about his enablers”?
Wheeler Baptist Church and all the participants and supporters of its “Real Evangelism” conference should be ashamed. Perhaps if they humbled themselves before God, instead of defying him, they would receive the revival they so desperately seek. Unfortunately, it seems to be just one more Corinthian Church full of men who will not heed the word of God.
[Contributed by Seth Dunn]
*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.