Doxing for God: Organizations Expose Christian Journalists’ Personal Info
Doxing is a controversial 21st-century method of harassing enemies by gathering and disseminating private or identifying information with malicious intent. The technique gained notoriety through the 2014 Gamergate controversy, in which male video gamers targeted female players.
Recently, employees of two prominent Christian leaders—John MacArthur and Dave Ramsey—have doxed Christian journalists reporting critical stories that the leaders claimed were false and motivated by evil intent. Here’s an analysis of these troubling episodes.
MacArthur’s representative condemns “muckrakers” and “monomania”
In some two dozen articles and commentary, Christian writer Julie Roys of The Roys Report documented troubling issues at the various organizations affiliated with California pastor John MacArthur, including board governance (family members serving on boards) and financial transparency.
Grace Community Church left the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) in April 2020 after it chose not to abide by the ECFA standard of releasing its financial statements to people who request them. (Roys had requested the financial statements.) Two other MacArthur-led organizations, Grace to You and The Master’s University, remain ECFA members.
Roys, a veteran reporter who worked with Moody Radio and has published detailed articles on Ravi Zacharias and James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel, explored a number of issues in MacArthur’s empire.
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When Roys contacted MacArthur’s representative Phil Johnson about a new story that would be headlined, “The Prosperous Lifestyle of America’s Anti-Prosperity Gospel Preacher,” Johnson, executive director of MacArthur’s Grace to You broadcast ministry and elder/pastor at MacArthur’s Grace Community Church, responded with an angry letter.
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“We don’t want to drive traffic to the nests of busybodies,” he wrote. “We don’t feed information to anyone whose main activity consists of scandalmongering.” The letter said no one at MacArthur’s organizations would “ever answer questions for you.”
The letter was never actually mailed to Roys. Instead, Johnson posted it online, complete with Roys’s home address. The tactic generated harassment and inspired a chorus of condemnation, including a warning from the Bible Thumping Wingnut Network: “She’s a wicked woman preacher, very wicked person, an unstable, double-minded truth-twister…Pray that this woman would repent.” Johnson later blurred Roys’ address on the letter posted online.
Dave Ramsey, the Christian financial guru, sought to make his Franklin, Tennessee, headquarters “the best place to work,” and repeatedly won recognition for doing just that. But Bob Smietana, a veteran reporter with Religion News Service, was investigating complaints he had heard for years from employees who said the for-profit company embraced a “cult-like environment.”
For example: Not only are new hires interviewed, but so are their spouses, in an effort to avoid “crazy” partners. The company monitors workers’ communication outside office hours. Workers were called back to work despite COVID-19, with Ramsey saying only “wusses” get infected. But 100 employees tested positive. And when employees resign the company, they must sign nondisclosure agreements.
Before wrapping up his 4,150-word article, Smietana contacted Ramsey’s PR team for answers to some of his questions. They responded with a textbook example of how not to do PR, saying:
“Thanks for reaching out. We want to confirm for you that you are right, we are horrible evil people. We exist to simply bring harm to our team, take advantage of our customers, and spread COVID. And YOU figured it all out, wow…Because your personal virtue is so incredible, we want to help you with your hit piece and confirmation bias.”
The email (quoted in part above but linked in full here) was copied to all 1,000 Ramsey employees, and other people, along with information identifying where Smietana and his family live, his phone number and email, and a request that recipients contact him.
“If you are on this email we would ask a favor for Ramsey,” said the email. “Bob’s phone number and email are here, and we would ask that you contact him TODAY and tell him all the evil horrible stories you know about us.” The email then spelled out where Smietana lives, “so if you see him out and about, be sure to congratulate him on his virtue.” The email generated more than 100 calls and contacts.
Deflecting from the Details
The articles published about MacArthur and Ramsey total thousands of words, and the ministries’ responses total thousands more—way too much content to assess here.
But observers say these episodes reveal that the inherent tension that often exists between Christian leaders and Christian reporters can turn toxic when evangelicals embrace a classic, deflecting bully approach: declaring that journalists are enemies of the people who generate fake news, not truth; and responding with personal attacks rather than facts.
Smietana explored the Ramsey controversy in an hour-long discussion hosted by Religion Unplugged.
I reached out to Julie Roys and Phil Johnson to discuss her coverage of MacArthur. She agreed to be interviewed, but Johnson, who had previously said, “I’m willing to answer honest questions from fair-minded people,” declined. “No, thank you,” he replied. “I’ve already said what I need to say about it. I hope you understand.”
Johnson did talk to The Christian Post, which came to his defense in an article headlined: “Official denies John MacArthur makes more than $500K a year from Grace to You.” Curiously, Roys never made such a claim, instead documenting how MacArthur often makes more than $500,000 a year from salaries paid by his various ministry entities.
Roys acknowledges that a few of Johnson’s minor complaints are valid. She published one article too quickly, giving Johnson little time to respond. In articles about MacArthur’s three homes, she published the wrong photo of MacArthur’s Colorado Springs-area home. She has since corrected that error.
But Johnson offered no corrections to Roys’ reporting on MacArthur’s growing wealth and increasing secrecy, instead relying on name-calling and character assassination. Johnson did not dispute Roys’s central claims: That MacArthur and his family oversee ministries and a foundation that own more than $130 million in assets and generate more than $70 million a year in tax-free revenue, but they have failed to abide by even the ECFA’s minimal transparency guidelines.
Johnson, who also writes for the Pyromaniac blog, defended and explained away his doxing of Roys during a video interview. When asked if he doxed her, Johnson replied, “Basically, I did,” saying, “I don’t respond well to blackmail.”
Johnson’s defense muddled the definition of doxing.
“I’d always considered doxing the release of private information, and her address is public,” he said in the video. But it’s against California law to publish material that’s intended to harm, even if it is publicly available. Johnson also claimed Roys had “doxed” MacArthur, but her reporting does not match the definition.
And Johnson’s non-apology apology lacks contrition. “I’m sorry to have created the problem,” he said, “but I’m mostly sorry that I gave her an excuse to divert from the actual point, which is that her hit piece wasn’t even honest.”