Brow Beat

A Christian Comedian’s Alleged Sexual Misconduct Prompts a Reckoning in the Evangelical Press

Most of the women who accused John Crist were willing to use their names. The publication kept them anonymous in the name of protecting them.

John Crist
Comedian John Crist speaks onstage at the Grand Ole Opry on May 27, 2018, in Nashville, Tennessee. Jason Davis/Getty Images for K-Love

This week, the Christian magazine Charisma published a lengthy, meticulous piece of reporting on multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against the popular Christian comedian John Crist. The fallout was immediate. Netflix announced that Crist’s upcoming comedy special had been put on hold, and Christian publisher WaterBrook, an evangelical imprint of Penguin Random House, said that it is postponing the planned spring 2020 publication of Crist’s first book, Untag Me: The Subtle Art of Appearing Better Than You Really Are. Crist has also canceled the remaining dates in his ongoing Immature Thoughts stand-up tour.

Crist is a massively popular “clean” comedian, with millions of followers on social media and an in-demand stand-up act. He’s known for his good-natured skewering of what could be loosely described as white, middle-class megachurch culture: He fondly imitates “Christian moms” yelling Bible verses at their kids, tweaks the aesthetics of “Christian Girl Instagram,” and riffs on the awkwardness of bringing a date to church. His now-postponed Netflix special, I Ain’t Prayin for That, was filmed on tour in Alabama, and featured the comedian’s “riffs on modern faith, southern communities, clean eating and more.”

The Charisma story documents a pattern of emotional and sexual manipulation that included offering performance tickets in exchange for sexual favors and making advances on married and partnered women over the course of the past seven years. Associate editor Taylor Berglund interviewed five women about their relationships with Crist. Some of them told Charisma it was Crist’s public reputation as a Christian, and his apparent openness about his struggles, that made them trust him. “The one thing that stopped me from believing he was creepy is John so proudly parades his face as a Christian,” one alleged victim, “Kate,” told Berglund. “I’ve let myself believe that just because someone is a Christian means they won’t do something intentionally bad.”

In a statement to Charisma, Crist admitted to “destructive and sinful behavior” that violated his own values and hurt his accusers. He said he has received “professional treatment for sexual sin and addiction struggles” over the last several years and that he takes full responsibility for his actions. In January, Crist posted online about spending time at a Christian therapy retreat center after becoming “kinda unhappy about some things in my life.”

Charisma’s investigation is the latest sign that conservative evangelicals are having serious internal conversations about not just criminal acts of sexual abuse but subtler acts of manipulation and misconduct. But the story’s presentation also suggests the extra layer of difficulty in reporting on sexual misconduct for audiences that might otherwise view such reporting skeptically.

Charisma is not a publication known for its investigative reporting. The Florida-based monthly magazine is aimed at Christians in the charismatic tradition, whose practices include an emphasis on the possibility of present-day miracles. (Crist’s father, now the mayor of a small town in Georgia, was once the pastor of a large charismatic church.) The magazine and its website typically focus on spiritual self-improvement and positive coverage of conservative Christians in the news. Its longtime publisher, Stephen Strang, is the author of the 2017 book God and Donald Trump, which suggests many contemporary Christian prophets foresaw Trump’s election. Strang’s son, Cameron Strang, founded the popular millennial-focused culture magazine Relevant. (Cameron Strang took a “sabbatical” in September after several former employees accused him of toxic leadership patterns.)

Charisma’s critical reporting on a beloved evangelical celebrity was likely surprising to many of its readers. Many conservative Christians are skeptical of journalists in general, wary of the #MeToo movement, and—like everyone—protective of figures they see as one of their own. In an email, Berglund said that’s why he took such pains to explain the publication’s motives in publishing the exposé. “There is often a feeling that stories of this nature can be gossipy or clickbait,” he told me. “Our motivation was not to ruin John’s career or shame people for past actions; our motivation was to prevent him from being able to hurt other women, since there were no signs that his existing support system was capable of or interested in curbing his behavior.”

The publication’s expectation that many of its readers will be uncomfortable with the story is palpable from the top. Berglund writes in the story that “our editorial team does not relish being in this position” and spells out why the allegations are newsworthy despite the fact that they are not criminal:

We believe pastors and leaders who book Crist at their ministry events need to know the person they’re signing. We believe leaders who make Christianity part of their public persona—whether or not they are formally in ministry—should held to a higher standard. And above all, we believe the body of Christ must police itself and has an obligation to protect the innocent and vulnerable among us.

The story also leads with a remarkable editor’s note that says that Charisma is using pseudonyms for all five of Crist’s accusers, despite the fact that four of them were willing to use their real names. The editorial board decided to withhold their names anyway “after prayerful deliberation,” the note says, “to protect the reputations and identities of those sources.”

It is standard practice in mainstream journalism to publish sources’ names unless they have a strong rationale for asking to remain anonymous, and Berglund told me that for much of the editorial process, the magazine intended to publish the women’s names. Berglund said the decision to use pseudonyms was made by Stephen Strang and the company’s vice president and publisher, Steve Greene.

From the outside, that decision might read as paternalistic, not to mention journalistically questionable. Berglund sees it as respectful. “There’s an unfortunately large group of believers who tend to instinctively side with the perpetrator and shame or harass the victims online,” Berglund explained by email. “We decided we wanted to avoid that, and would stake our own outlet’s credibility and reputation on the fact that we believed the women. If anyone was mad about reporting on the allegations, they could be mad at Charisma, not at the individual women who bravely spoke out.” He said Strang also feared that some of the women might someday regret having their names permanently attached to the story. When Berglund told the women about this editorial decision, he said, they thanked Charisma. It’s impossible to verify that independently. But so far, the women have apparently maintained their anonymity even as the story has circulated widely on social media.

The problem of sexual abuse within Protestant churches and adjacent settings is well-documented—increasingly from within evangelicalism itself. The conservative news magazine World published a sweeping cover story last year on sexual abuse within Protestant communities. This summer, Christianity Today magazine profiled 10 women who helped change the Southern Baptist response to abuse. Since the 2017 burgeoning of the #MeToo movement, there has been a “#ChurchToo” summit at a prominent evangelical college, a Southern Baptist conference on how churches should respond to victims, and an ongoing social media movement of sharing and support from newly emboldened survivors.

Berglund described himself to me as “a big supporter of the #MeToo movement and an advocate for women in general.” He has followed the last several years of reporting on how churches and other Christian communities have failed to support women who report sexual misconduct. “I knew when these women trusted me enough to tell me their stories, I had a responsibility to use our platform to make this public and bring justice,” he said. “I wanted to honor God with my reporting and bring darkness into light.”