Steve Baughman is an attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. He is also the individual that researched and found the academic issues and other scandals with Ravi Zacharias. With Zacharias’s death I asked Steve Baughman if he would be interested in reflecting on how evangelicalism responded to him and the academic and sexting scandals involving the well known Christian apologist. This is a guest post on how the evangelical industrial complex looked the other way when it came to the scandals with Ravi Zacharias.
“Fraud is like any other virus. The fraudster will go somewhere else and mutate the fraud. We are constantly adjusting our algorithms to look for fraudulent behaviour.”
My mouth will tell of your righteous acts,
of your deeds of salvation all the day,
for their number is past my knowledge.
16 With the mighty deeds of the Lord God I will come;
I will remind them of your righteousness, yours alone.
17 O God, from my youth you have taught me,
and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
18 So even to old age and gray hairs,
O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might to another generation,
your power to all those to come.
Psalm 71:15-18 ESV
The death of Ravi Zacharias has brought forth an avalanche of praise on someone who this blog finds questionable. I touched on some of this in a post called, “Considering Ravi Zacharias and his Passing. Do Evangelical Leaders Think of Death and Funerals? Or are the Pewsitters the Only Ones Guilted Regularly About Death?” Ravi Zacharias has long been embroiled in scandal. The issues inside evangelicalism would not stand in the secular world which has higher standards. Its a lesson as to how shallow and rotten much of evangelicalism can be. While Zacharias inflated his own credentials what happens inside the academic community when plagiarism or fraud are committed? In 2003 the United States Naval Academy demoted history professor Brian VanDeMark for his book on the atomic bomb because he did not give proper credit to his sources. Another example happened last year at Columbia University. History professor Charles Armstrong published a book on North Korea and it was found to have plagiarized over academic material. How did Columbia University respond? They removed the professor and prevented him from teaching or interacting with students. What happened in evangelicalism when Ravi Zacharias committed fraud in passing himself with inflated academic credentials? Evangelicalism turned around and embraced him and looked the other way. Too much money was at stake. One of the lessons of the entire spectacle is that if you want to learn about integrity and character don’t look at the evangelical church as you will not find it in that system.
When Zacharias died I interacted with Steve Baughman on Twitter. I asked him if he would be interested in writing an article about about how evangelicalism reacted to the Zacharias scandals and his interactions with some evangelicals. Steve agreed and his post is below. As you continue to study this issue this blog is encouraging you to check out the links to Steve’s YouTube channel and also to his book about the Zacharias scandal. This blog is grateful for his work when it comes to the Ravi Zacharias story.
The death of George Floyd has shown us that police brutality is not a matter of a few bad apples. The life of Ravi Zacharias has revealed the same for corruption in U.S. evangelicalism.
In 2015 incontrovertible evidence of career-long credential fraud by Zacharias emerged. In July of 2017 we learned that a sexting relationship had landed him in federal court. Evangelical organizations, without exception, either ignored or systematically downplayed the revelations and maintained a business-as-usual relationship with the politically influential preacher.
Ravi Zacharias passed away last week. Based in the Atlanta area he built an international empire on charisma, stagecraft, and by pretending to be a polished academic with Cambridge and Oxford credentials. For decades he called himself Dr. Zacharias but used ambiguous language to disguise the fact that he had no academic doctorates. He falsely claimed to be “Cambridge educated,” to have studied quantum physics at the University of Cambridge, to have been a “visiting scholar” at the University, and to have been a “professor at Oxford.” That each of these claims was false is not disputable.
We have also learned that in July of 2017 Zacharias filed a federal lawsuit against a married Canadian woman from whom he had received sexual photos during their online relationship. Zacharias admitted initiating “more secure” BlackBerry communication with this woman and not disclosing the relationship to his board until she threatened legal action. Exhibit One of his federal lawsuit contains an allegation that he threatened suicide in writing to pressure the woman not to disclose their relationship to her husband. Zacharias never denied making this threat and when asked about it by Christian media he refused to answer.
The lawsuit settled in late 2017 with Zacharias making payment to the woman in exchange for mutual promises of silence.
Those are the facts.
In secular realms here in the U.S. scandals of this sort would lead to rescinded book contracts, canceled speaking engagements, and a good bit of public outrage. How has the Christian world responded?
President Mike Pence attended the Zacharias Memorial on May 29 and later that day tweeted “In Ravi Zacharias, God gave us the greatest Christian Apologist of this century.” Tim Tebow called Zacharias “my mentor and a great hero of the faith.” Franklin Graham called him “one of the great Christian apologists of our time.” And so on.
Granted, postmortem tributes are often a little hyperbolic. But the adulation began long before Zacharias‘s death and continued unabated after the scandals broke. Within weeks of Zacharias dismissing his lawsuit a Southern Baptist megachurch in Jacksonville, Florida bestowed a prestigious lifetime ministry award on him. In April of 2018, four months after the lawsuit settled, the Christian publishing behemoth, HarperCollins Christian Publishing, announced a new book deal with Zacharias. Two months later the Southern Baptist convention had Zacharias speak at their annual convention in Dallas, where he spoke to the crowd about “convictions.”
Christian media handled the scandals with noticeable temerity. Christianity Today covered the sexting lawsuit on December 3, 2017. As part of their coverage the magazine printed verbatim the 800 word press release Zacharias had issued that day in which he proclaimed his innocence. Notably, when they asked Zacharias about the suicide threat he declined to comment, citing the nondisclosure agreement. The magazine failed to follow up about Zacharias’s selective invocation of that agreement. And while the article noted corrections Zacharias had made to his bio about the Cambridge and Oxford claims, the magazine failed to ask why Zacharias made those misleading claims in the first place.
Christianity Today’s coverage was fairly representative of what little appeared in the Christian press. The coverage tended to focus on Zacharias’s own press statement. The suicide threat to cover up his infidelity was almost never mentioned. Coverage of the credential fraud focused largely on the relatively trivial “Dr. Zacharias“ issue and less on the much bolder Oxford and Cambridge claims. To my knowledge, not a single professional reporter in the Christian press asked Mr. Zacharias why he had made the misleading credential claims.
The only book about the scandals was my “Cover-Up in the Kingdom“, which had 268 footnotes carefully documenting my findings. It received no reviews in the (non-blog) religious press.
In the trenches of social media we saw a great deal of intense vitriol heaped upon the few who criticized Zacharias. The vast majority of criticism directed at me focused on my motives and claimed that as an atheist I have no right to make moral judgments. In the many hundreds of comments posted at my YouTube videos I believe there are not more than a dozen or so attempts to address the evidence itself. Zacharias’s online defenders overwhelmingly felt they did not need to engage the facts. Those interested in the psychology of religious enthusiasm will find a treasure trove of lively case studies in the comment section of my YouTube videos about Zacharias.
Then there is the phenomenon of Zacharias’s current and former colleagues expressing concerns in private about his conduct but refusing publicly to comment. In mid 2019 a Christian blogger published a critical article on Zacharias. This blogger told me that he had been encouraged to do so by Dr. Os Guinness, one of the senior speakers at Zacharias’s ministry. Guinness, I was told, had “challenged Ravi and gotten push back.” Guinness himself has never spoken out.
A former event organizer for the Zacharias ministry tweeted a scathing attack on his former boss on the one-year anniversary of leaving the ministry. He refused, however, to mention Zacharias by name.
A new testament PhD student at a prominent East Coast university tweeted a critical evaluation of an apologist whom I instantly knew to be Zacharias. When I pointed this out on Twitter, this individual contacted me privately and asked me to remove my post.
Lorna Dueck, a prominent Christian broadcasting personality in Canada, wrote me a letter in mid-2019 thanking me for my book, which she had read in one sitting. The book she said had taught them “a tough and needed lesson.” Her network, nevertheless, maintained its business relationship with Mr. Zacharias with no visible changes.
About a dozen active Christian bloggers and YouTube hosts have been publicly critical of Zacharias and discussed the evidence in detail. Most are somewhat obscure, and their message was overwhelmed by the favorable coverage of Zacharias by the professional Christian press. And, to my knowledge, not a single nationally or regionally influential minister commented on the Zacharias scandals.
As for the denomination that licensed Zacharias as a minister, the Christian & Missionary Alliance announced in a very vague statement that it would not discuss the “nuances of these allegations.” It nevertheless assured the public that the evidence “does not provide basis for formal discipline” under denomination policy.
The Ravi Zacharias story is not as much about Ravi Zacharias as about the religious institutions that supported him in his career-long deceptions and then aided in the cover-up. These are extraordinarily powerful groups in U.S. politics. Yesterday our president had protesters tear gassed so that he could be photographed holding a Bible in front of a church across from the White House.
Big Evangelism has maintained a grip on its base by proclaiming loyalty to a divine entity who demands of His followers courage, integrity and honesty. Ravi Zacharias has given us ample reasons to be cynical about that message.
Steven Baughman is a lawyer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the author of Cover-up in the Kingdom: Phone Sex, Lies, and God’s Great Apologist, Ravi Zacharias.