Hobby Lobby in the Huffington Post

Religion in American History

I’m late on posting this, but I offered my opinion of the Hobby Lobby ruling at the Huffington Post. It was also picked up by AlterNet. Reprinting here for anyone who missed it:

It was the most difficult job I’ve ever had. I’ve been a history professor for years, toiled as a graduate assistant before that, and even did a stint as an IT technician. But the three months I worked at Hobby Lobby stocking googly eyes and framing baseball cards takes the cake. I wanted a break from academia but it ended up not being a break at all. I found myself deconstructing and analyzing all aspects of my job — from the Bible in the break room to the prayers before employee meetings and the strange refusal of the company to use bar codes in its stores. (The rumor amongst employees was that bar codes were the Mark of the Beast, but that rumor remains unsubstantiated.) Three months was enough to convince me that there is something larger at work and the SCOTUS decision only confirms my belief that corporate Christianity (and Christianity that is corporate) has made it difficult for Americans to discern religion from consumption.

As a scholar of religious history, I observe the way that faith intersects with culture. I study and publish on megachurches and my interpretation of this week’s events is informed not only by my experiences as an employee at Hobby Lobby but also my knowledge of recent religious trends. My biggest question after hearing the decision was not about the particular opinions or practical repercussions (which are significant and have far-reaching and dangerous consequences). Instead, my first thought was: “What is it about our cultural fabric that enables us to attribute religious rights to a corporate entity?” In the United States we have increasingly associated Christianity with capitalism and the consequences affect both corporations and churches. It’s a comfortable relationship and seemingly natural since so much of our history is built on those two forces. But it’s also scary.

Hobby Lobby is a for-profit craft chain, not a church. I’m stating the obvious just in case there was any confusion because — let’s face it — it’s confusing. It’s as confusing as those googly eyes (do you really need three different sizes, Hobby Lobby, really?). Today, we see giant churches that operate like corporations and now corporations have some of the same rights as churches. Many megachurches adopt “seeker-sensitive” approaches to attract members, relying on entertainment and conspicuous consumption to promote their services. After a while, the spiritual and secular lines start to blur and the Christian and corporate blend. Ed Young, Jr.’s Fellowship Church, for instance, started a “90-Day Challenge” for members. The church asks congregants to pledge 10 percent of their income and promises “that if you tithe for 90 days and God doesn’t hold true to his promise of blessings, we will refund 100 percent of your tithe.”

Megachurches advertise on television, billboards, the Internet. They have coffee shops and gift stores. Some feature go-cart tracks, game centers, even oil changes. Many are run by pastors that also serve as CEOs. So when Hobby Lobby seeks similar religious rights as these very corporate churches, we have to reconsider our definition of religious organizations and maybe even say “why not?” We have normalized corporate Christianity to the point that the Supreme Court deems it natural for businesses to hold “sincere” religious beliefs. The religious landscape in the United States, including our familiarity with megachurches and celebrity pastors, certainly contributes to the acceptance of the church/company conundrum.

The “why not” can be answered, however, with the real costs of the decision. Women’s reproductive rights are compromised. The religious freedom of employees for these corporations is compromised. The sanctity of our religious institutions is also compromised. To protect religious pluralism and freedom of the individual we need clear demarcations between what is spiritual and what is economical. Otherwise, we sacrifice the soul of American religion and all that makes it good and why I study it on the altar of industry. I can’t get those three months at Hobby Lobby back (or the praise muzak out of my head) but I can see more clearly the dangers of allowing corporate Christianity to become the norm. Without clear boundaries, we risk distorting the very idea of religious freedom and the rich, diverse religious culture that makes us who we are. And that’s tragic — maybe not as tragic as praise muzak, but tragic nonetheless.

I’m Too Sexy for My Church: Observations on Ed Young, Jr.

Religion in American History

At Religion in American History, I discussed Ed Young, Jr.’s Sexperiment in the context of evangelical trends.

I’ve got sex on the brain and I blame Ed Young, Jr. I’ve been watching way too many podcast sermons from this dynamic senior pastor and it’s starting to affect my work. Literally. I’m researching and writing a chapter on megachurches and sexuality and keep coming back to Ed Young, Jr.’s teachings at Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas. I’m trying to put his approach to Christian sexuality into a larger context of historical evangelical rhetoric and practices and it’s getting tricky. Young replicates the heteronormative religious teachings of the past (and present) but he does so while openly addressing sexuality and encouraging congregants to think and talk about sex in pretty explicit terms. In other words, to me it’s the same rhetoric that has dominated mainstream evangelicalism for decades but taken to another, overt level. Or, as Young himself says, “a whole nutha level!”

It all started with the Sexperiment. In 2008, Young encouraged congregants to engage in “Seven Days of Sex,” challenging his married church members to have sex every day for a week in order to improve their relationships, their jobs, and their Christian walk. A charge by a pastor to engage in sex (and this is for all married couples—including those dealing with adultery and needing to find forgiveness) is an interesting one, to say the least. Then, in 2012, Ed and his wife Lisa published a book on how married couples can strengthen their marriages through sex and, in turn, help build healthier congregations. To promote the book, the couple held a 24-hour “bed-in” on a rooftop. They stayed in bed all day (to the detriment of their health–the rooftop was not the best place to hang out for 24 hours) and were filmed answering viewers’ questions about sex and relationships. The purpose of the book and an accompanying sermon series are, according to Lisa, to learn how to “have sex His way, and… understand what it was meant to be.” The sermon series features Ed and Lisa Young talking to congregants from a king-sized bed about the church taking control of sexuality. Using the Bible as “God’s Sex Manual,” the couple explains how sex is not just physical but is spiritual. Young argues that sex is God’s idea and should be openly discussed by the church so that it can define the discourse (rather than letting the larger, secular culture control things). Recognizing that the church has often focused on the “prohibitions,” Young turns this idea around and describes what is permitted or encouraged by the Bible within marriage.

That last clause is important. While the Youngs openly discuss the sensitive subject of sex, they constantly refer back to a heteronormative, marital model. There are “no escape clauses, no fine print,” Young says, that indicate that sex should be anything other than between a husband and wife. In another sermon series (I told you… eventually these Ed Young, Jr., sermons will crash my computer), Young explains what Jesus would say to Ellen DeGeneres: “You’re awesome, but homosexuality is not my ideal.” The Sexperiment does not emphasize prohibitions in a direct way, but the undercurrent is to undercut other sexual choices/lifestyles. In other words, this part of Young’s message is very much in line with traditional mainstream evangelical teachings on homosexuality.

Since they are constantly a touchstone of mine (see book), I can’t help but think of how early Baptist and Methodist ministers would react to Young’s methods. There would be agreement on the heteronormative, marital emphases, but the message would most likely be shocking and disturbing. Young would be radical, would be disciplined, and would lose his position in the church. In fact, some of these ministers (especially Methodist itinerants) struggled with marriage and whether a pastor should have a helpmate. Could they afford a wife? Would a wife distract from their ministry? (Lyerly and Heyrman describe this issue and Bob Elder examines women’s roles in evangelicalism.) It’s interesting to see a shift over the past 150 years to pastors needing wives and then to Ed and Lisa Young sharing the pulpit to discuss the intimate subject of sex, while sitting on a giant bed no less.

American religion, however, has not always eschewed the subject of sex. There are well-known (and mostly ill-fated) religious groups in the United States that emphasized the importance of sex among congregants. The nineteenth-century Oneida Community comes to mind as well as the more recent Warren Jeffs’ FLDS compound. In both of these instances, however, the religious leader arranged partnerships and dabbled in, erm, the very illegal. What I’m getting at is this: There are occasions where religious groups will discuss sexuality in an open forum or encourage marriages and sex to promote the growth of their spiritual community.

Let’s be clear, Young is not creating anything like these communes. There is, however, something seemingly scandalous about talking about sex in church—and the mode of delivery used by the Youngs definitely garnered mixed reviews. And Young is not simply describing “healthy” sexual partnerships, he is also encouraging sexual acts among congregants, which does touch on some of the tactics used by other historical religious groups.

Speaking of scandal, another megachurch pastor’s words on the subject of sexuality made national headlines in 2006 when his own actions did not match his teachings:

In this sermon, Ted Haggard presents a traditional argument that the relationship between a man and a woman is intended by God to represent the union between Christ and the Church. Young is borrowing from this same reasoning but adapts this teaching in his Sexperiment: Not only does God desire a relationship between a man and a woman, but he desires a lot of sex in that relationship and not just for reproduction. God created sex for married men and women, he created it to be passionate, and he created it to strengthen the church. And Young created Sexperiment for me to have plenty of fodder for a chapter. So I guess it all works out.

More than Hobby Lobby: My Take as a Scholar of Religious History

Religion in American History

My blog this month at Religion in American History

Hobby Lobby was not my favorite work experience—it required long hours, ridiculous record-keeping, exposure to monotonous Christian muzak, and putting up with some creepy coworkers. It was, well, retail. Also, I worked there for all of three months. I’ve been a religious historian for far longer and thought I’d share my thoughts on the current case and the evolution of corporate Christianity in general instead of dwelling on those three months of stocking googly eyes. Huffington Post and Businessweek both interviewed me regarding the current SCOTUS case and, while they had good questions, I think that there are some points that have been missing from the discourse. Namely, how is Hobby Lobby related to larger trends? What is actually happening to evangelical religion in the United States? And why are reproductive rights/contraception at the center of this struggle?

Much of the discourse surrounding Hobby Lobby is, necessarily, about corporate Christianity. Of course, Hobby Lobby is a great example of this particular phenomenon and contributes to a larger

narrative of the blending of the corporate and religious that has been a theme in American religious history. As our own Darren Grem pointed out, “Religion has been a part of corporate America for quite some time.” I’ll leave this territory to Darren and fellow business and religion scholars—it’s an exciting field and there is obviously much relevance in this work right now. From my own developing research on megachurches, however, I’m considering a slightly different perspective on current trends.

Hobby Lobby may win this case because of the pro-business and conservative nature of the Roberts Court, of course, but there’s a larger cultural phenomenon that might be influencing public and political opinion as well. The case is significant because it represents the blending of corporate and Christian—and one very visible sector of American religion that mixes the same stuff is the rapidly rising megachurch movement. The public and our leadership have been primed to consider the religious rights of corporations because of the general growth of Christian industry and that industry is manifested in tax-free organizations like megachurches. In other words, megachurches and seeker-sensitive churches, in particular, are assisting in blurring the lines between business and religion so that it is difficult to determine where one ends and the other begins.

Recently, there has been some (additional) attention on how much money megachurches bring in as a result of the recent robbery at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. The thieves took $600,000 in cash and checks from the vault, which were the tithes from one weekend’s worth of services. Some folks started doing the math and estimated that, conservatively, the church brings in $32 million a year not including extra donations made on holidays or electronic donations or bookstore sales. Lakewood should not be specifically targeted for these large numbers—many megachurches bring in large amounts through tithes, donations, and sales throughout the United States. And it is largely due to the fact that megareligion has adapted so well over the past few decades to this mingling of the corporate and the Christian.

Megachurches and megareligion (a term I use to include televangelism and webcasts that incorporate even more followers into a congregation or movement) incorporate so many elements of business with marketing, advertising, entertaining, congregation studies, etc., that they confuse corporate Christianity and Christianity that is corporate for the larger culture. If a church is using flashy advertising, powerful

websites, is selling merch with their logo on it, then it’s acting like a business. And if businesses are promoting a specific religious doctrine and claiming exemption from laws as a result, it’s behaving like a church. They have blended the corporate and Christian beyond earlier permutations and the current religious landscape has allowed for it. This negotiation of corporate/religious boundaries leads to complications: If large organizations that pull in a lot of money are able to have their religious rights protected, then why can’t others? The difference is that some of those large organizations are churches and others are retail stores.

That begs the question [scandalous and hyperbolic question alert]: What is the difference between Hobby Lobby and some megachurches, other than tax status? I know, I know, a lot. But at a core level, is there a similar history there that ties these types of organizations together? I’d argue yes. Both have strong doctrinal beliefs, both spread those beliefs to the masses (either through broadcasts and services or through products and business practices). The difference, of course, is that megachurches evangelize in an open, intentional way and corporations like Hobby Lobby are more slippery in their approach. They want to be religious organizations but without the pulpit (or fancy glass podium that can be removed for the massive praise band, if you want to get technical).

Huffington Post reported that the “overt Christianity” of the Hobby Lobby environment “shocked” me when I worked there. But what’s missing from this observation is the fact that I was not shocked on a personal level. It was not a personal offense. It was really interesting to me as a scholar of religious history. Evangelical Christianity has taken some divergent paths in the 21st century. Many denominations (UMC, for instance) are becoming more open to cultural differences and others are more steadfast in their rejection of pluralism. Hobby Lobby, a corporate institution that relies on a diverse group of customers to succeed (supposedly), is blatantly disregarding the religious pluralism that has gradually consumed large parts of 21st century American society. While corporate Christianity has a long history in the United States (as correctly pointed out by my colleagues), the 21st century is a different era with increased diversity and different demands.

Some of that diversity also stems from sexual and reproductive preferences. By fighting over birth control options, Hobby Lobby is indicating that it rejects the notion that employees should/would have alternative beliefs on the subject. The corporation’s “religious rights” are superseding the employee’s rights, in other words. It’s the company’s religious rights (which are constitutionally debatable, obviously) versus women’s rights over their own body and reproduction (which we’ve dealt with in previous decades). While we discuss the shifting sands of corporate/religious identities, it’s also worth exploring the place of women (particularly their reproduction and sexuality) within this constellation of tricky constitutional issues.

I keep conjuring the visage of Ed Young, Jr., explaining the “Sexperiment” to congregants when I think of this tension, too. Young encourages married couples in his church to have sex as much as possible and in “Sextember” to have sex every day. One wonders where the pastor lands on the birth control debate, considering his desire for frisky congregants. If it’s Hobby Lobby’s approach hopefully his Fellowship Church has a large nursery facility. All kidding aside, there are some pretty serious issues at stake with the Hobby Lobby case and some interesting correlations to blooming megachurch culture in the United States. It’s worth exploring.

Meyer, White, and Women of the Prosperity Gospel

Religion in American History

Here’s my blog for March on megachurches, female pastors, and the prosperity gospel. Dig it.

Meyer, White, and Women of the Prosperity Gospel

This is an idea that I am playing with for my manuscript on megachurches. Any comments/suggestions/ideas are, of course, welcome.

It is time for the truth to be told and for people to realize the attack on women is actually from Satan himself.” Joyce Meyer makes this provocative proclamation in her 2006 book The Confident Woman, in which the celebrity preacher argues that women are equal in God’s eyes and must fight for their rights within the church and society. In fact, often men’s “egos” prevent women from fulfilling their calling to minister or teach. “Historically, women have often been allowed to do a lot, if not most, of the praying and servant-type work in the church,” she points out, “Meanwhile, the same men who refused to let them preach or teach stay home and rest.” This dichotomy is unacceptable for Meyer who believes that churches rely on women to fill certain “feminine” roles while preventing them from realizing their full potential. She contends that men abuse the Scriptures (like Paul’s writings in II Timothy) to hem women in, when those teachings were written within a certain cultural context—women today should not be punished for the unique circumstances of the past. 
 
This focus on women’s rights and empowerment, however, is blurred with other passages that detract from Meyer’s seemingly feminist perspective. The bold female pastor also makes note that women bless the world by being “creative, comforting, sensitive.” They can also follow the model of the woman described in Proverbs through creative cooking. “I fed my family hamburger 1,001 different ways,” Meyer recalls, “I must admit I wasn’t too creative… our lady in Proverbs challenges us to go the extra mile and make things as good as possible.” And even when women feel called to church leadership, they still should allow men to become the spiritual head of the home, without opposition. The Confident Woman reveals the curious contradictions inherent in female prosperity preaching as embodied by Meyer and fellow female evangelists like Paula White. This kind of rhetoric raised some questions for me as I dug deeper into the messages and histories of these women. Are Meyer and White models of postfeminist preachers? Does the prosperity gospel actually help ameliorate the contractions that these postfeminist preachers present in their sermons and writings? This potential connection (between postfeminism and prosperity teachings) is one dichotomy that I’m toying with in my current manuscript about megachurch culture. 
 
The prosperity gospel seems to provide an interesting cohesion for the messages of some female
megachurch leaders. It directs both their strong emphasis on women’s leadership and their constant stereotyping of women’s roles in the home and consumer culture back to the notion of God’s blessings. Paula White, in particular, demonstrates an ability (unconsciously or not) to blend the theology of Kathryn Kuhlman and the charisma of Sister Aimee Semple McPherson with a modern postfeminist message and consumer focus. A self-proclaimed “former messed up Mississippi girl,” she uses her tragic childhood and even present-day troubles (including a publicized affair with Trinity Broadcasting star Benny Hinn) to minister to women about overcoming the devil’s influence in their lives and increasing their prosperity. Like Kuhlman, White emphasizes the power of faith healing and leads Charismatic services, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit to fill her services and to give her prophesies. Breaking from Kuhlman’s commitment to leave men in lead pastor positions, White leads her own congregation—New Destiny Christian Center, a megachurch in Apopka, Florida with membership in the thousands. She actually first became a senior pastor in 2009, when she took over her former husband’s position at Without Walls International Church. Since she entered into the spotlight, the “Mississippi girl” has demonstrated the power of prosperity preaching when wielded by a woman.
 
White’s prosperity gospel is saturated with gendered anecdotes and analogies, which she uses to make the message relevant to diverse or largely African American audiences. Men and women alike are attracted to the energetic blond, who at once plays into the stereotypes of southern femininity but breaks through traditional barriers of female leadership. She openly references her father’s suicide (often labeling this event as the source of her “daddy issues”), being sexually abused as a child, and former struggles with anorexia and bulimia, using past troubles to contrast current blessings. At the same time that White preaches about spiritual empowerment and confronting the past to achieve present success, she impresses upon her followers the need to obey male authority within appropriate boundaries. “When I give honor I fill the terms of my commitment,” White teaches, “All of us have a father. So all of us have an obligation according to biblical standards and principals to honor our father. Now maybe you lost your father and he’s not living but you have a spiritual father (for me it’s Bishop Jakes). You have someone in your life that’s a figure of authority. If not, you have anarchy.” White presents an interesting blend of traditional evangelical motifs (the spiritual father is a figure revered since the revivals of the early 19th century) and modern consumer religion that promotes self-help and fulfillment.
 
Blessings are a constant thread that runs throughout White’s sermons, which rely on consumer culture as reference points. In one 2010 sermon, for instance, White compared God’s blessings to a shipping company, confiding in her audience that she “orders a lot through the mail.” When she wanted “cute shoes for a conference,” she was not there when the company tried to deliver them, much like God tries to send messages to his followers but they do not always receive them. As a result, her shoes, and God’s plans, can be delayed. “The enemy has been trying to discourage you,” she exclaims, “make you disbelieve by DELAY. BUT DELAY doesn’t mean denial.” By comparing God’s blessings to modern consumerism, White makes the prosperity gospel relevant to many women in her congregation but at the expense of playing into and promoting dominant gender stereotypes. At the same time that she admits to her shopping habits, she also presents her destination as that of a conference, indicating her professional status. 
 
Joyce Meyer breaks from the healer/prophet identity promoted by women like White. The St. Louis
preacher focuses on building women’s confidence and health as a reflection of God’s favor. Like White, Meyer often references consumer culture in making the gospel relevant and she has published over forty books that are largely Christian self-help. Meyer also manipulates common female stereotypes but uses them to try to build women up, concentrating on self-esteem and how women can better manage their marriages and households. Meyer has gained a large following by speaking to notions of female empowerment and expanding the concept of prosperity beyond finances into areas like relationships and having a positive attitude. Her writings and sermons are predicated on the contradiction inherent in postfeminist rhetoric, however, as she often argues that women have unique weaknesses in an attempt to help shape female behavior. In her series the “Confident Woman,” for instance, Meyer argues that “women have more of a tendency to be emotional where men are more logical” and the devil can prey on these emotions. She also contends that dominant social attitudes also diminish women’s abilities and talents, destroying their confidence. Meyer’s expressed desire is to “release women to be all that God wants them to be.” Thus, while contradicting traditional cultural restrictions on women, the preacher actively relies on negative stereotyping to make her argument. This dichotomy is also present in her challenge to women to find fulfillment and independence by increasing their dependence on the patriarchal figure of God.
 
I attended a sermon given by Meyer at Lakewood Church in Houston (Osteen’s congregation) back in February 2013. The message was about complaining. Meyer listed reasons why should could have complained over the past two months, ranging from spraining her toe when it got caught in her underwear, losing her pants at the spa at a five star hotel, her staff not being able to find an open Starbucks for her morning coffee, and receiving the wrong bedspread that she ordered through the mail. Meyer’s message focused on the problem of the modern Christian constantly complaining but her larger point was muddled with references to her economic status, consumer culture, and gendered notions of beauty. She bragged about looking younger than her age and the number of squats that she can do at the gym, giving God praise for her physical body. Christians should not complain about their houses are cars because they asked for them and God gave them those blessings. “If gas prices rise, believe God will give you money to pay for how much you need to get to where you need to go.” Meyer uses neo-Pentecostal touchstones of “name it and claim it” (like claiming the gasoline or a house or car) theology but incorporates her own, almost boastful, praises to help build her image as a successful and confident woman.  
Like with Meyer and White, as I explore the lives of more megachurch leaders (including Matt Pitt, Joel and Victoria Osteen, T. D. Jakes, and Ed Young, Jr., among others) I’m looking for ways that their rhetoric reflects and interacts with secular culture and larger social movements. There are some excellent studies out there on some of these pastors (I’m looking at you Shayne Lee and Phil Sinitiere) and on the prosperity gospel (and you, Kate Bowler) and on megachurches, too. I’m hoping to connect some of the dots in the literature—just some of them—to try and discover how megachurches were made and why they are consuming the religious imagination of the nation. I’ll keep you posted.

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.