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.


Blurred Lines: Matt Pitt and The Basement Posts

Religion in American History

matt-pitt-the-basement-0726-11jpg-6cfe6f3a6374dc1dI’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.