Blurred Lines: The Basement and Evangelical History (Part I)
Charity R Carney
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…