Adventures in Christian Retail #tbt

Religion in American History

Digging through old blogs, I ran across my “Adventures in Christian Retail” series from a couple of years ago. Hope you enjoy on this Throw Back Thursday.

Adventures in Christian Retail Part I

Adventures in Christian Retail Part II

Adventures in Christian Retail Part III

Part I

Disclaimer: This is a teaser. I’m working on a larger piece about experiencing employment at a Christian retail chain this summer. I took on the job because 1) we needed the money and 2) I was curious. I have been documenting my day-to-day life there as a full-time employee and am working up a full-length piece with an academic emphasis and analysis of marketing with religion, the gender politics of the place, as well as how they handle money and workers’ rights. Enjoy.
I worked retail this summer. “Christian”-run retail. When I walked into the interview for the position at the local store that is part of a national chain (we’ll call it “Christian Chain” or “CC”), the manager was a bit baffled by the Ph.D. sitting in front of him. “Honestly,” I assured him (and meant it), “I want to work here and my family needs the income.” I (naively) believed that CC, a company that nationally proclaims its Christian values and give generously to conservative Christian causes/movements, would provide a good work environment and would reveal to me how Christian employers manage the workplace. It would give me insight into the world of Christian retail. And it has. Plenty of insight. So here’s a taste of what I witnessed in terms of the corporate model CC follows. The larger piece will include issues of sexism/sexual harassment and employee’s work schedules/worker’s rights but, like I said, teaser.

On money and mythology at CC: This company handles its resources in the most Luddite and inefficient way possible. There is one computer in the store where I worked. It was locked away in the back room and was used only to make/print out weekly schedules. All ordering is done by hand using a pencil and three-ring binders and a complicated system of “base” numbers and “minimum” orders. The poor soul who works in the back room has to then take all of the binders from each department and enter them into the one (aged) computer before a deadline in order for stock to come in.

There are no SKUs–no barcodes–no scanning devices. Thus the hand-written ordering. This is where the mythology comes in. I inquired about the lack of computers in the store and the ancient cash registers that required each item to be manually punched in and discounts to be manually entered as well. I was told that the cash registers WERE NEW. The explanation varied based on who responded to my questions. Some employees (especially those higher up) explained that it was just CC’s way. That it had maintained the same system since its birth (over 20 years ago) and that CC does not change. I found this idea interesting for several reasons. It requires more work from employees, thus costing the business more money. It is a business after all and so shouldn’t it be concerned with profits and losses? But it may also connect to the idea that workers should have sweat on their brow constantly in order to truly earn their wages. The Protestant ethic, so to speak. Work for work’s sake.

Several other (lower-paid) employees told me that the lack of barcodes was CC policy because barcodes represent the mark of the beast. Wha?! I know, this seems far-fetched. But this is a widely held belief amongst employees and thus should not be discounted. Some are dissatisfied with this reasoning but accept it, again, as being CC’s way so it cannot be questioned. (More on this in the longer article.)

Another strongly held belief is that the company does not have barcodes because then it does not have to have uniform pricing. Sales, then, do not have to be reflected at the register unless the customer notices that they are not receiving the discount and asks for it. A few employees see the lack of technology as a ploy for the company to make extra money.

There is an odd dichotomy at work at CC: they are focused on saving money (they are very concerned with hours and wages and do not move an employee to full-time unless they really need them and the employee makes enough demands) but they use a system that ultimately costs them money because it requires employees to work double or triple the hours at a task that in other stores is not nearly as involved and grueling.

Ultimately, what I’d like to consider in a larger format is what does it mean to be a Christian-run corporation in the modern marketplace? CC has held on to antiquated ideas regarding its particular brand of commerce, and the reasoning for that steadfastness varies based on what myth or history an employee chooses to subscribe. Also, the Christian values on which the chain claims to rely are not reflected in its treatment of employees or the employee’s treatment of each other. This begs the question: how much are “Christian” businesses relying on the image of being Christian without truly employing (or even hinting at employing) Christian ethics in their stores. This I will explore in more detail in the article with a discussion of sexual politics at CC and the overextension of employees to the point of completely disregarding their rights. Good times.

Part II

Muzak. Bad muzak, but also an excellent indicator of the spiritual/secular influences on (what I’m teasingly calling) “Christian Chain” (CC). One of the things that customers constantly complement store management on is the “acoustic” music that streams incessantly over the speakers in the store. They say that it is soothing and that its Christian message is something that keeps them in the store and also keeps them coming back. It’s a very clever marketing gimmick, ultimately. But there are a few surprises that I encountered when I listened a bit more closely to what consumers were actually ingesting on their visits to CC.
Most obviously, the store pipes in the now-common coinciding traditional hymn and praise music combo that many churches have incorporated into their repertoire. Contemporary praise and worship has become so commonplace that many song melodies are as recognizable as Wesley’s hymns. While “Amazing Grace” is a muzak mainstay, so are songs like “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” “Our God is an Awesome God,” “Father I Adore You,” “Tear Down the Walls.” Hillsong United, Integrity Music, and other major praise and worship companies have obviously cooperated with CC to provide some of their more widely used songs in instrumental versions. They are pumped through a station at some headquarters whereby shoppers and employees at all of CC stores will have a uniform muzakal experience. It’s a strange collective experience, especially as the hours in your 12-16 hour shift wear on and “Above All” is ringing in your ears for the seventeenth time (no bitterness here, no sir–and more on the shifts and work schedules as well as my current dealings with OSHA in the next post).
What strikes me as interesting is that by making the music muzak, instrumental by nature, CC is relying on the customers’ knowledge of Christian music and the familiarity of the melodies to the general public (or at least the public that they are serving). They are also probably avoiding a ton of royalty fees, but Darren will certainly be able to better speak to that issue. But what they also do is reveal the secular nature of CC’s commercialism. In addition to Christian-themed music, the stores also have an odd array of non-Christian songs (in fact, some songs used are by nature not conservative or Christian at all). This fact first struck me as I was stocking merchandise and immediately recognized the butchered version of “Imagine” that suddenly began playing over the loudspeakers. “Imagine”? “Imagine no religion”? When I finished my task and returned to my department I asked another employee about the song–how could this store be playing that song (as happy as I was to hear it and for the respite from “Awesome God”)? I was confronted by a very defensive fellow worker who explained to me that “Imagine” is a Christian song and that John Lennon and the Beatles were all Christians. I tried to throw down some pop culture knowledge but eventually gave up and logged the event as singular. Maybe the higher-ups are under the same impression and honestly believe that “Imagine” is a Christian tune. Whatever. But it did make me listen a little more carefully to the muzak from then on and I discovered that the instrumentals that the customers so loved because of the Christian inspiration they received while shopping (no irony, none at all) did not adhere to any real ideology or logic whatsoever. Rod Stewart, Sting, John Mayer (“Your Body is a Wonderland”), all showed up in their repertoire. The Beatles are a favorite.
My sense is that as long as the tune is registered by the typical consumer’s ear as something that they know, that’s how it made the cut. So praise and worship and traditional hymns are recognizable, just like “Imagine” and “Broken Arrow.” In other words, commerce is king in the CC muzak department.
Part III
The one good and seemingly Christian thing about CC (“Christian Chain”) is that it is closed on Sunday. Until it’s not. One of the aspects that many shoppers find appealing about CC (in addition to the P&W muzak like “Awesome God”—that’s for you, Paul Harvey) is that it openly states that it treats its employees well. It’s right there on the door as soon as you walk in: “Closed on Sunday for Worship and Family.” The store is technically closed on Sunday, but it must be for customers’ worship and families because oftentimes employees are called in on Sundays to stock shelves, clean the store, hurriedly ready it for an upcoming visit from management. So what is at the heart of the work ethic of CC? Is it a Christian calling or is it corporate pressure, or both?
A striking element of CC’s character is it does have many long-term employees—individuals who have been working there for several years, some almost a decade on and off. Why do they stay and why do they agree to work Sundays? Why do they keep working until 1 AM on some nights to get the stock on the shelves when their shift was over at 5 PM? Why do they maintain 14 hour days when they are making part-time pay with promises of full-time benefits eventually (oftentimes promises that go unfulfilled)?
I’ve considered many options and overanalyzed the answers to these questions, I’m sure. If one took a Weberian approach, the answer may be that the employees see some greater meaning to their work. They see their employment with the company as part of their larger role as members of God’s Kingdom and doers of his will. And some of the workers at CC may very well view themselves this way. Case study: an older woman, well beyond the age of retirement, comes to work every day and puts her all into her job. She sees the work as necessary for her family and also productive in and of itself. She keeps a Bible at her station and often shares passages with coworkers and customers. Mrs. Mary (as she is affectionately called by everyone, including the manager) is not content in her employment (she often talks about how she wishes that she could go home early or how her feet hurt), but she does engage in it as a result of a compulsion to work for a higher good. God wants her to work and she sees God’s hand in her work.
What undermines this Weberian perspective are the other employees. Sexual harassment is rampant at CC as well as a general desire to goof off. In other words, Mrs. Mary is not the norm. The sexual harassment is particularly distressing considering the said mission statement of the company. There is, however, internal arbitration for any complaints. (Sorry, but a “yeah, right” is due here as anyone who has dealt with “internal arbitration” before can probably attest.) I witnessed male employees taking pictures of female employees rear-ends and bragging about it, female employees grabbing each other’s crotches as a joke, and constant back-and-forth sexual teasing. I was once asked by a male coworker if I would ever cheat on my husband. All this being said, the sexual harassment and general malaise of CC employees completely detracts from whatever Weber would say about the company and the employees’ drive to work with a godly ethic. That ain’t happening.
In the middle of the two extremes is the “false idol” worship that is incorporated into every day dealings with employees behind closed doors. At every staff meeting the manager insists upon a prayer before getting down to business and the prayer always begins by thanking God for the owner of CC and asking God to bless the owner as the owner has blessed each of us. Creepy? Yes. Christian? Uh, no. I welcome analysis of this feature of CC as it was one of the more baffling. Perhaps it is a derivative of the Prosperity Gospel—the idea that the owner is making millions because of his commitment to God and that through trickle-down Prosperity Gospel we were somehow benefiting from it? Again, I welcome ideas here, especially from you, Deg.
Ultimately, I’ll lean on Marx (as usual) for an explanation of why employees remain in this environment (and don’t flee and file complaints with OSHA as I did). Opiate of the masses. Class. Take your pick. Religion serves as the opiate of the customers more so than the employees. Consumers come into CC with an understanding that it is a Christian company, that it is run on Christian values, that they will get soothing Christian muzak (sort of) once they enter the doors. Employees are force-fed an odd Christian message at staff meetings and through the general material culture of the place while not experiencing it in their interactions with other workers and managers. It is simply class status that keeps them there. They cannot find other employment because they have neither the skills or the education to do so. And if they do have skills/education there are other barriers: the market is terrible, one guy had a felony under his belt for domestic abuse, etc. It is mostly the ones who need the job who stay—they simply don’t have a way out. Another case study: I ran into a former CC coworker the other day. (She hardly recognized me out of uniform.) She has been at CC for over 2 years now and I never got close enough to her to tell if she was content or merely smiling because her job depended on it. Well, away from CC I found out. As soon as she saw me she ran up to tell me how much she and other coworkers wished they could do what I had done and quit. She wants to find something else but there just isn’t anything else out there. She is Pentecostal, lives by Christian virtues, and does not buy into CC’s message of Christian retail. Not after the way that she’s been treated as one of its employees. Her final message to me before we parted ways was “You go, girl. You did the right thing and stood up for yourself. I just wish I was in the position where I could do the same thing.”
Ultimately, it’s class that keeps CC’s employees there. Not some religious work ethic or “time for worship and family” on Sundays. They are there because they need the money and their families could not survive without the extra income.
My final thoughts on my experience working for CC are this: not all Christian-run retailers are the same, but the social expectations for them are. American consumers who purchase items because they believe that the corporation is working for some higher cause should question the company’s motives (key word: company) and should research what they are really selling. I think they may be surprised. I sure was.

Methodist Discipline, Gay Rights, and Church History

Religion in American History

My blog this month focused on a case in which a gay choir director had to resign from a UMC congregation. I discuss how the Methodist Discipline and culture adapts over time in this post.

Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.

“Discipline” sounds so ugly. I pride myself in being a bit of a rebel, and I just don’t like the word. It brings forth images of rulers smacking knuckles or a New Year’s diet routine. If only you had more discipline, you could resist that Frappuccino and make it to the gym today. But for Methodists, Discipline is what holds everything together. Since the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Discipline has served as the unifying document of rules and regulations that keep the clergy and congregations in step—they must abide by the same moral code or face correction by the church. I’m not sure of the last time you walked into a Methodist church and heard a sermon on this very technical piece of denominational policy, but I’m betting it happens with the same regularity that you resist those Frappuccinos. This week, however, the Methodist Discipline received way more attention than it has in a long time and I can’t help but see some historical parallels to a current controversy facing the church.

Adam Fraley resigned from his position at United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Indiana. Until recently, he had served as choir director of the small congregation but a new pastor forced changes in the church and altered Fraley’s work environment. Fraley is gay and the change in pastor indicated a shift in attitude towards his serving in a leadership position. Although he is not openly homosexual, his partner did attend services with him. According to interviews, Fraley resigned because “of a heavy workload and his own personal discomfort with the new leadership.” The new minister did not approve of Fraley holding the choir director position (which he had been in for six years), and the situation culminated in a need for the young man to resign.

What’s interesting is that the current Discipline does not stipulate that Fraley cannot be choir director because of his sexual orientation. The 2012 edition includes statements that reflect the “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” motto of the UMC: “The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth.” Everyone is welcome to attend, worship, be baptized, receive sacraments, no matter what they look like, where they live, who they love. The limitations on homosexuals in the UMC really have to do with ordination and marriage. The church will not ordain or marry gay men or women. Fraley did not ask for either of these things, but he also wasn’t corrected or condemned by the UMC. Instead, a local minister personally fought his serving in church leadership. It’s one of those ambiguous cases where a person is “disciplined” but not formally so the denomination is not directly involved. If the Discipline stated that all persons could not be discriminated against in the church, we may have seen a different scenario unfold.

Methodist Discipline and culture are malleable things. They shift and move with the larger social demands and adapt to the needs of church members and ministers alike. In my work on nineteenth-century Methodist ministers, I see a lot of cases where the norm for the clergy changed over time. The two areas that were particularly controversial were slavery and marriage. Slavery is the obvious one, and created a schism between northern and southern ministers. Marriage, however, turned out to be a real struggle for many clergymen because the church forbade the kinds of things that nudge men into matrimony. No frolicking, socializing, dancing, flirting—none of those frivolous activities that would actually land a person a wife. The early Methodist church in America did not ban the marriage of ministers (they did have to consult with their brethren before taking a wife), but it did make it very difficult for them to find and keep a partner.  Financially, ministers found it very difficult to support a family and had to rely on the charity of others. The Discipline noted that “the impossibility of our enriching ourselves by our ministry, is another great preservation of its purity. The lovers of this world will not long continue travelling preachers.” Today, most ministers are married and single pastors actually have a rough go of it. A while back, I wrote about the perils of being an unmarried pastor in today’s ministerial marketplace. But the church’s embrace of pastoral marriage represents a change since the early-nineteenth century brethren sported dusty black coats and froze to death on their circuits. Early ministers did not make enough money to have a family and, if they did, that family usually experienced many hardships. The shift to encouraging and actually desiring married ministers happened over time and because of social pressures and an expansion of church resources.

With their relatively new message of inclusion, the UMC has made great strides to grow its evangelical reach by extending its membership and services to everyone, without restriction. If you put the 1798 Discipline of the MEC and the 2012 Discipline of the UMC next to each other to scan for similarities, it’s astounding to see how Methodism has adapted over time. In the case of Fraley and homosexuality in the church, it will be interesting to see where things go from here. According to many reports, eighty percent of the members left the congregation after the choir director resigned. “We have a lot of people,” the church’s lay leader explained, “especially a lot of elderly people who are lonesome for their church, but will not feel comfortable to come back with a minister who will not accept a man who we really liked as our choir director.” This case is a test of the power of the congregation and of American culture to affect church policies and practices. If the past is any indicator, that power is greater than any Discipline or ministerial prejudice.

Blurred Lines: The Basement and Civil Rights (Part III)

Religion in American History

I have a new blog post up at Religion in American History on the way the Basement is using the Civil Right Movement to defend Matt Pitt. Enjoy!

The Basement and Civil Rights

I was tempted to name this post “Mic’d Phone Calls from a Birmingham Jail” for all of you civil rights scholars out there. Matt Pitt is serving a year sentence for impersonating a police officer and the rhetoric surrounding his conviction has been… well, many adjectives. Surprising, galling, bizarre? You’ll have to decide for yourself. In my previous posts, I commented on the reasons behind the popular Birmingham youth pastor’s arrest and on his frenetic interview that hit YouTube weeks later. In the impromptu (and now infamous) interview that Pitt gave a local reporter before his arrest, he compares himself to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Creflo Dollar. The association with King has bloomed into an actual mushroom cloud of civil rights analogies that make zero sense (historically speaking) but are driving the #FreePitt movement.

The #FreePitt website includes several references to Pitt’s role in a continuing Civil Rights Movement. In their description of Matt, the Basement-supported website describes the pastor in ways that directly relate him to King’s mission in Alabama (with some historical inaccuracy peppered in for good measure): “Matt Pitt leads a non-profit outreach known as The Basement in Birmingham, AL. Birmingham is notoriously known as the stained and tainted city that launched the 1963 Civil Rights Movement. It was the most segregated and oppressed city in the nation for the African American race. This is why Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled to Birmingham, AL to the frontlines of the civil right’s war. This is also where Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed for parading without a permit.”    The site recognizes that it may be difficult to see how the two men’s causes are connected: “Many cannot see the correlation of the 1963 Civil Rights Movement and the movement Matt Pitt began over 10 years ago that lead him from a four person Bible study in the basement of his parent’s house to the City Hall lawn of downtown Birmingham, AL” No, many cannot.
The overarching (and vague) notions of hope, love, and Christian mission are woven throughout any correlations #FreePitt makes between the two leaders, who share very few characteristics in terms of race, message, context, or reasons for imprisonment. They are both preachers who spent time in the Birmingham jail—that part is true. But the #FreePitt folks also drive home their points with images that promote an emotional connection between Martin Luther King’s trials and the struggles of civil rights movement in Birmingham and Pitt’s ministry and imprisonment. This posted image is captioned, “Matt Pitt brought to and threatened by JT Smallwood [the sheriff] in MLK cell”:

#FreePitt also created this collage that compares a Pitt-led march in the city to the famous 1963 SCLC campaign:


Pitt has reflected this rhetorical connection to the Civil Rights Movement in his calls from prisons, where he addresses congregants and expresses gratitude for their support. Members of the Basement community have joined together in protest tailgates (aka “jailgates”) and prayer circles to demonstrate solidarity for their fallen leader, and he thanks them for their letters that keep his spirits up. Pitt also boasts about the work that God has him doing behind bars and reflects on what is next for the Basement.

When he addresses the crowd of his youth followers from prison, one of his staff members holds a cell phone up to a mic so that Pitt can still talk to the many people who continue to gather for the Basement events. Matt believes that his prison stay was prophesied months earlier and that it is necessary for the further development of the movement. “God’s given me a vision,” he proclaims, “that he’s going to send me to jail to minister to these people.” He’s not enjoying his time there (“I tell you one thing, jail reminds me of what hell would be like. I don’t know what hell would be like, but it’s like jail.”) but he does believe that it’s expanding his opportunity to minister, stating “I can’t tell you what a blessing it is to serve here.” So many inmates are coming to Christ, he claims, that they are telling him: “Now that you done come to jail, you’ve become the nation’s pastor.” His time as a Jefferson County inmate is increasing his popularity and Pitt argues that the Basement will now be able to reach communities across the nation. “Everybody and their mama” is going to want to attend a Basement gathering, the young pastor tells his followers. (And if the message itself is not enough, Pitt also let inmates know that there are some beautiful women at the Basement, which may get them to come after their release.)

Pitt is no stranger to attracting more members, and is using his jail stay to further expand his ministry. In its ten years of meeting, the Basement has achieved impressive growth (with average attendance at about five thousand). The dramatic services (with smoke, loud music, and club lighting) tiptoe around racialized imagery while drawing a diverse audience. Well, they tiptoe in steel-toed boots. These services provide more fodder for a broader discussion of Pitt’s association with African-American history in Alabama.

Other megachurch pastors and youth groups appropriate racial stereotypes. I’ve written about Randy and the Flea’s music videos in the past and Ed Young, Jr. is well known for his, erm, raps.

The question, then, is how successful are white pastors in appropriating parts of African American history and culture to grow their ministries? Ed Young, Jr., is immensely popular with a megachurch ministry outside of Dallas, Texas. Matt Pitt’s movement in Birmingham is only growing as a result of his cries of civil rights injustices. Like I said, there are many adjectives one could use to describe Pitt’s prison ministry in Birmingham and correlations that the #FreePitt people are presenting on the Internet. But the one adjective that may be the most accurate is: “effective.” “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and “Mic’d Phone Call from a Birmingham Jail” have very little in common, but the Basement is redefining the narrative to find commonalities that will resurrect Pitt’s reputation for the youth of Alabama.

“Now That’s Scripture”: The Significance of Religion in 12 Years a Slave

Religion in American History

This month, I blogged about the way that religion is used in the film 12 Years a Slave. The film does an incredible job of capturing so many aspects of life in the antebellum South and integrates religion in a very appropriate way.

 There were as many interpretations of the Christian religion in the South as there were slave owners and slave communities. This film accomplishes the difficult task of conveying that diversity while also portraying religion as one of the most valuable and dangerous tools in the slave South.

Check out my post at Religion in American History.

I don’t always have the most spiritual Sundays. But last weekend, I admit, I had one. I didn’t experience this reawakening in a sanctuary but at a small mall movie theater in Lufkin, Texas. Sitting amidst an audience that numbered about a dozen, my husband and I settled into our creaky, cushioned seats for the matinee showing of 12 Years a Slave. Based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 co-authored publication of his personal story as a kidnapping victim sold into slavery, the film expands on and sometimes detours from the book’s original narrative but also provides an extremely vivid and accurate portrayal of the antebellum South. It is incredible in its incorporation of so many facets of the slave system in this period—from the kidnapping itself, to the methods of enslavement, hiring out, the white class structure, the ways labor was used, life in the slave quarters. The film is a document not only of the trials of Northup and the millions of enslaved women, men, and children who lived through the horrors of bondage, but also serves as a document of where we stand as a culture today. It has taken decades, and the attempts of many actors and filmmakers, to finally arrive at this picture. This film is landmark in its holistic portrayal of the system of slavery in as an institution, culture, power structure, and moral blight. One of the things that makes the film so successful, however, is the particular emphasis it places on religion.
There are many tools that appear in the film. The whip and lash are seen throughout as a tool used by slaveholders and overseers to control the slave population. The noose is used to punish or kill runaways and those who disobey. Hands are used to pick cotton, play instruments, and soothe the wounded. Knives are used to harvest crops, craft corn-husk dolls, and threaten those who are smarter and stronger. The fiddle is a tool that reminds Northup of home and humanity, but is also an object of dehumanization through forced entertainment. But perhaps one of the most powerful tool woven into this story is religion. By the 1840s, Protestantism had wound its way into the southern states and onto plantations, where slaveholders adopted biblical justifications for slavery and used religious teachings to bolster the idea of planter paternalism.  With a compelling narrative and imagery, 12 Years a Slave effectively captures the diverse religious beliefs and superstitions of slaveholders as well as the adaptation of Christianity by enslaved African Americans.

There was no singular form of Protestant Christianity in the slave South—not among slaveholders or slaves, whites or blacks. The variety of interpretations of the Christian message and Bible is threaded throughout the film. One of the initial glimpses of paternalistic religion is with Solomon’s first master, Ford. In a scene taken right out of classic southern history texts (Wyatt-Brown, Genovese, Burton), Ford stands before his white family and slave “family” to preach a message on Sunday morning, reading the Scripture “I am the God of Abraham” to the plantation household. The tranquil scene is disturbed, however, with an overlay of the vocals of Ford’s white overseer/carpenter singing about catching and hanging a runaway. The juxtaposition highlights the fragile nature of Ford’s hold on his slaves as well as the role religion plays in promoting a precarious paternalism. Ford is a “good” master, protecting Northup from the murderous overseer, but his faith does nothing when it comes to intervening in Solomon’s condition or that of any other slave on the plantation. In another, similar scene that demonstrates the bizarre paternalism of the plantation, Ford preaches on God’s love for His children while Eliza (his slave) weeps for the children who have been ripped from her by her “generous” master.

Unlike Ford, Northup’s second master, Edwin Epps, demonstrates an abject cruelty towards his slaves. However, in keeping with what we know about the antebellum South, he also uses religion to undergird his authority on the plantation. For Epps, Christianity is both the solution as well as the threat. Scripture supports the institution of slavery and he is eager to share passages from the Bible that justify his holding human property. Every lash of the whip is his by heavenly right, according to Epps’ reading of the Word–“Sin? There is no sin,” he proclaims as he brutally whips Patsy, who he has singled out for both his favor and wrath. The film depicts the violent side of Christianity in a slave society, but it also contrasts that brutality with the paranoia that belief bred amongst many slaveholders. Epps sends his slaves away at one point because he believes that they are bringing about a biblical plague that is affecting his cotton crops. He speaks of prayer and “clean living” but he is also guilty of raping his slaves, depriving them of basic needs, and other unspeakable acts that he justifies by dehumanizing the men and women who live on his plantation. Epps so perfectly depicts the notion that many slaveholders were suspicious of both their slaves and their God. These kinds of superstitions and fears lasted in to the Civil War, when some white southerners believed God was punishing them for the sin of slavery. The retribution of the war is portended by Bass, a Canadian hired hand who declares that the day of reckoning is upon the South. Bass also shames Epps by asking “in the eyes of God, what is the difference” between black and white (to which Epps replies a la George Fitzhugh that is like comparing a man with a baboon).

Slaves, too, held their faith close and many turned to their Christian faith as a symbol of community and shared suffering. While there are fewer instances of slave religion in the film, the moments are poignant and extremely moving. After a member of their community dies, men and women gather around his grave and join in a chorus of “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” Religion is depicted as a comfort, an act of defiance, and as an expression of a common experience. This scene is also the first time where we see Solomon Northup participate in the singing of a spiritual and it seems to mark his emotional connection with the enslaved community of which he has become a member. There are no hush arbors or ring shouts in the film to further illustrate the many ways that slaves crafted their own beliefs to resist their bondage, but even this one, well-placed and meaningful chorus of “Roll, Jordan, Roll” sung in unison provides insight into the appropriation of Christianity by enslaved African Americans. (And this spiritual offers necessary contrast to the earlier singing of “Run, Nigger, Run” by the merciless overseer. While Northup and the enslaved community on the plantation do not physically run, they are mentally and spiritually fleeing the dehumanization of their bondage.)
When you go to see 12 Years a Slave, certainly you will be struck by the heartbreaking acts of cruelty endured by Northup and other slaves as they are ripped from their families, stripped and sold to the highest bidder, lashed for possessing a simple sliver of soap. And you will most likely be in awe of the determination and resilience of Northup and the many enslaved individuals that he encounters. One of the most necessary and important aspects of the film is its realistic portrayal of slave agency as they pushed back against the everyday problems they encountered on the plantation (from helping fellow slaves escape punishment to obtaining a piece of paper and improvised ink). But woven throughout this compelling story is an omnipresent religious narrative that speaks to the power of belief in a society in the balance. There were as many interpretations of the Christian religion in the South as there were slave owners and slave communities. This film accomplishes the difficult task of conveying that diversity while also portraying religion as one of the most valuable and dangerous tools in the slave South.

Blurred Lines: Matt Pitt and The Basement Posts

Religion in American History

I’m writing a series on The Basement youth group in Birmingham, Alabama. The leader of the 5,000-member youth ministry, Matt Pitt, was just sentenced to a year in jail for impersonating a police officer. Here’s my take on the place of his organization in American evangelical history.

 

Blurred Lines: The Basement and Evangelical History (Part I)

The Basement is making waves in Birmingham again—and it’s not because of a new Christian rave or rap video. This time, the leader of the youth group (that now numbers over 5,000) is in county jail and the organization finds itself at odds with the local police over, well, the fact that very leader impersonated a peace officer on more than one occasion. The story of the Basement begins in 2004, when Matt Pitt founded a small youth group in his parents’ suburban home outside of Birmingham. Pitt saw this move as a turning point in his life, which had previously been characterized by substance abuse and trouble making. A former University of Alabama student, he OD’d at a football game, had to move back in with his folks, and then experienced a spiritual reawakening after failing drug tests and being hospitalized. Now the Basement’s official organization, Whosoever Ministries, commands massive youth meetings and retreats with thousands in attendance (and even more logging on to view the parties via webcasts). You can hear his autobiographical retelling here.
There is a lot to mine in the Basement’s history: its origins in the suburban South, the rapid megachurch-like growth of the movement, its connection to youth group culture, pop culture referencing and repurposing (with heavy reliance on reality TV), consumerism and the church, and even the intersection of evangelicalism and college football. I’m going to make my Basement thoughts into a short series so that I can deal with some of those other motifs, but think working backwards makes sense in this case as current events color the history of the organization and will surely determine its future direction. Look for additional analysis of the mega-youth organization in my next posts and I’ll delve in to the spacial and cultural facets of the group in relation to larger evangelical and megachurch trends Here’s a quick preview of their services and what’s to come:

For now, the fate of the Basement really turns on Pitt’s arrest. Because of his growing fame and influence in the Birmingham area, the police named him an honorary sheriff’s deputy, complete with a badge. Pitt tried to use this badge and the authority that he thought he wielded on several occasions, with incidents dating back to 2012. The youth leader had blue lights installed in his car so that he could (illegally) get around traffic and flashed his badge when confronted by law enforcement. After a brief legal battle, he pled guilty to the charges and returned to his ministry. This incident did not prevent him from using his badge again, however, and in June of this year the charismatic pastor impersonated a peace officer to confiscate a rifle that a Birmingham resident found in the woods. The resident had called the sheriff’s office but shortly thereafter Pitt and another man rode up on ATVs, said they were law enforcement, and took the weapon. On August 20, police went to arrest Pitt, whom they reported tried to resist arrest by jumping off a 45-foot cliff. It’s a complicated tale with many different sides and lurking in the background is a ministry that is waiting to get their pastor back—some even turning to presenting their own evidence on YouTube while Pitt awaits arraignment.

According to last week’s New York Times article, “Depending on who tells the story, Mr. Pitt’s fall is either that of a young preacher who rose too far too fast and thought he was above the law or, as his followers believe, a plot aimed at pulling down a man responsible for the development of their spiritual identities. Either way, it is a tale of central Alabama, a region dotted with churches and youth groups.” But there is another story here, too—the story of the conflation and conflict of ministerial power with police authority in southern communities. When I heard the reasons for Pitt’s arrest(s), it reminded me of the tensions that the separation of religious authority from legal authority can cause in a region historically known for its devotion to evangelicalism. The Bible Belt, in particular, has experienced turmoil over divided devotions and power structures and this case reveals the need for continued assessment of the relationships between major institutions in the region.
Thinking back to the research I did on 19th century ministers, I ran across several cases in which itinerants determined to act as both moral and legal authority when they believed no one else would. This phenomenon was especially true with dueling, where preachers (purportedly) would force their way onto the dueling field to try to stop the participants from following through with their murderous designs. In the 1830s a mysterious minister “Mr. M” shows up in the records having thrown himself in the middle of the two duelists to try to get them to stop. (Needless to say, he did not actually have any authority in the situation, so one of the principles ended up dying anyway, but it’s the effort that counts, right?)
When you pull in the history of the Birmingham in the 20th century, there is an especially stark portrait of the relationship between law enforcement and church officials. The SCLC and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and other Civil Rights leaders were persecuted and victimized by the white police force in the city—a history that is well-known and well-documented. While the relationship between police power and religious authority in the South (especially Birmingham) has an obviously racial component, the tensions between the two institutions in general continues demand additional reflection.
Matt Pitt’s run-in with the police is undoubtedly nothing like these historical events, to be sure. As a white man from the 21st century Birmingham suburbs, he shares only the moniker of “preacher” with these past individuals. However, it is worth considering where his bravado comes from—where does he get the notion that as a minister for God he also can become an enforcer or manipulator of secular law? Does this recent event reveal a continued strain between the religious community and police state in the South? Or is it simply an isolated situation where one wayward 30-year-old ran afoul of the law? I think the case certainly says something about perceived authority of megachurch leaders (which I can deal with in a future post). In all, the Basement and Matt Pitt represent many facets of religion in the South and I’m excited to explore the topic more—we’ll see where the party at the self-proclaimed “hottest club in town” leads us…

Blurred Lines: The Basement and Evangelical History (Part II)

In Birmingham, Alabama, the current trend is not Auburn or Alabama jerseys. Instead, young people are donning“#FreePitt” shirts and plastering their vehicles with Basement stickers in a show of support for the celebrity youth pastor, Matt Pitt. Yesterday morning, Pitt, the founder and lead minister of the Basement (a 5,000-member youth group) had his probation revoked and was sentenced to a year in jail for impersonating a police officer. Last month I introduced the current controversy surrounding the Basement and since then several developments have plagued the Basement organization, which has rallied its members to defend their spiritual leader. Regardless of the support he is receiving, the scenario has certainly tested Matt Pitt’s personal slogan: “We are not perfect, just forgiven.”    Since my last post, a local reporter released an interview taken with Pitt right before he jumped off a 45-foot cliff in an attempt to avoid arrest. The interview has caused quite a stir, but it also reveals Pitt’s own understanding of his place within American religious (and even civil rights) history, with a complicated racial component. Note, especially, the remarks on Creflo Dollar and Martin Luther King, Jr.:

I remarked on the odd connection with the Civil Rights Movement in my previous post: “The SCLC and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and other Civil Rights leaders were persecuted and victimized by the white police force in [Birmingham]—a history that is well-known and well-documented.” I also indicated, of course, that Pitt’s situation bears very little resemblance to the trials and struggles of civil rights leaders. By connecting himself with Martin Luther King, Jr., and then tying in Creflo Dollar, Pitt has positioned his religious leadership with well-known (and radically different) African-American ministers. I find this association fascinating as it demonstrates both a strange historical consciousness and complete lack of historical awareness, all fostering a sense of self-importance. Megachurch culture (of which I argue the Basement is a part) certainly glorifies the personality at the center of the organization. Pitt’s remarks combined with his following illustrate the power of that personality—however misguided it may be.  They also indicate the positioning of southern ministry against police power in the region, a continued theme in Pitt’s defense of his actions.

The other interesting component of the interview and the “#FreePitt” crusade, as well as the overall aesthetic of the Basement meetings and merch, is the role of television and reality TV in defining evangelical culture. Pitt’s openness with the reporter makes sense (probably not to his lawyer, but certainly to his fellow megachurch-goers). His own organization (Whosoever Ministries) has a “Reality TV” station and does skits like “Americas Next Top Christian” and “Basement Cribs” fashioned after popular television shows. Pitt is used to being on camera, and the interview seems to stem from his familiarity with cameras. The evangelist has appeared on Trinity Broadcasting Network and there are hundreds of video interviews, sermons, and skits of Pitt littering the internet.

This emphasis on reality TV culture also coincides with actual reality programs about megachurch pastors. Oxygen is releasing a new “Preachers of L.A.” series this Fall that follows megachurch prosperity preachers in Los Angeles and Bravo’s “Thicker Than Water” reality show focuses on the Tankard family, prosperity gospel advocates and multimillionaires. Jewel Tankard has a ministry aimed at increasing women’s wealth and her husband, Ben, is a successful gospel jazz musician.

Appearances matter in the prosperity and megachurch culture, especially in a ministry focused on youth. Matt Pitt’s own appearance and the merchandise in the Basement store provide a glimpse at MTV culture repurposed for Christian youth. The Basement t-shirts mimic the fashion on the reality show Jersey Shore and are sold at all events and online so that members and fans can don the Basement logo and advertise for their “THE HOTTEST CLUB IN TOWN.” Right now they are even selling the “#FreePitt” shirts to raise funds for the fallen leader and bring attention to his case.
When Willow Creek introduced the seeker-sensitive model in the 1970s, the Basement could not have been what it had in mind. The Basement is the ultimate example of seeker-driven services targeted at a very particular audience with an emphasis on the commercialization and commodification of religious practices. As a youth ministry run by a younger preacher, the Basement may signal the next step in the megachurch, seeker-sensitive movement. Combined with new reality TV programs and internet ministries (see Kate Bowler’s post), popular religion is adopting more secular tools to reach larger audiences—and it’s working. Perhaps a better signifier would be plastic religion (rather than seeker-sensitive) for what’s going on at the Basement. In Chidester’s Authentic Fakes, he describes plastic religion as a commodified and flexible, a way to think about popular culture that is “biodegradable” and “shape shifting.” The Basement is unabashedly plastic while also claiming authenticity, which is a cunning way to reconcile the conflict inherent in its MTV/tent revival meetings. Drawing on the televangelist trends described by Bowler in Blessed, with emotional pleas that “ebb and flow” throughout the meeting, Pitt’s ministry takes the appeal one step further and amps up the revival atmosphere with smoke, lights, loud music, hip videos, and a liturgical call and answer that sounds more like a club chant.

And it’s not the end of the authentic, plastic revival at the Basement. Despite the recent scandal, the Basement is not closing its doors, but insists that it is “stronger than ever.” According to its official statement: “The Basement continues to stand firm on the Gospel message of the Bible. The Ministry is centered on a message; that is why it only grows stronger with allegations and persecution. This message has been passed down for over 2,000 years and not persecution, allegations, imprisonment, threats, or intimidation to be quiet could ever stop it. No one involved in The Basement is concerned about it ending or slowing down.” It appears that the large youth ministry is determined to stay alive.

Although I’ve tried to provide some (albeit limited) context for the current happenings in middle Alabama, it really is a unique situation in many ways. It centers on a youth group, the pastor is an admitted former drug-user, there are so many twists and turns that it is undeniably different than past evangelical experiences. However, the fact that Pitt himself draws on the history of other evangelicals—in a wide sampling—indicates that he views himself and his movement at part of the arc of American religious history. The Basement ultimately offers us a glimpse at how evangelicalism combines past with present and the potential for volatile results. Plastic, seeker, reality, authentic… whatever it is, it’s a new direction in American religion and megachurch culture and deserves our attention.