I’m not a psychologist, but I think Matt Pitt is probably crazy. Or at least badly disturbed. He’s an independent evangelist in the Birmingham area who developed a huge following over nearly a decade. He’s destroyed his ministry now, and I think the story says a lot about people who latch onto charismatic narcissists.
Pitt is a former drug abuser who turned to God at some point while he was in college. In 2004, he started holding events in his parents’ basement to warn other young people about what he had gone through and turn them to God. In time, the event grew large enough that he had to move to bigger venues, eventually holding weekly meetings at a large area church. He was on top of the world with his ministry that he called The Basement.
Friends of mine who visited his meetings said his “preaching” was shallow, rambling and superficial. He has no serious theological training and those I trust say it’s obvious to them. But impressionable young people loved the flashy shows he put on. His events attracted thousands.
Pitt’s undoing started more than a year ago. He was driving along I-65 south of Birmingham when he began flashing blue lights on his vehicle, forcing other cars to pull out of the way for him. Police in the small town of Calera arrested him for impersonating a police officer. His only defense? A local sheriff had made him an “honorary deputy,” so he claims that made him a real police officer. “Honorary deputy” is a designation given by some sheriffs as a public relations move. It carries just as much legal authority as a child’s plastic badge. It’s merely an ego thing.
When it came time for his misdemeanor trial, Pitt pleaded guilty and got a suspended sentence with probation. He apologized to the court and said he had learned his lesson.
In August, he was charged with the same violation, this time in the next county — the one where I live and where Pitt is from. For awhile, he was allegedly going to turn himself in, but he kept dodging deputies. Finally, he went to television station WVTM in Birmingham and gave a rambling interview that will make you sure that he’s either insane or on some kind of drugs. (Please watch the unedited video below. It’s bizarrely entertaining.)
In the interview, Pitt lied about various things and avoided questions about others. He rambles and makes no sense at times. He claims his attorney didn’t show up for the previous trial, when all others involved say that’s not true. He also claims that the “honorary deputy” badge he’s about the show the reporter is going to make world news. When the reporter points out that it says “honorary” on it, he asks how he’s supposed to know what that means.
He rambles about various conspiracies against him — none of which make the least bit of sense.
Shortly afterwards, Birmingham police found out he was at the TV station and showed up to arrest him. Pitt ran. He even jumped off a 45-foot embankment, after which he was arrested and sent back to Shelby County, where he was originally charged the year before. Because he had had constantly tried to elude being arrested in the latest incident, he’s being held in the county jail without bail until trial.
Meanwhile, his ministry fell apart. He lost the vast majority of his supporters and the vast majority of his audience. But here’s the most interesting part of this — and the whole reason I’m telling you the story. The core supporters who didn’t leave have ended up being fanatical supporters who are convinced that this great man is being cheated.
His supporters have started a “Free Pitt” movement. They even had a protest outside the jail where he’s being held. And Tuesday, I saw several signs that the group has posted along roads near my neighborhood. (Here’s the group’s website demanding Pitt be freed. It also has the evidence they say exonerates him, but if you look at the details for yourself, it clearly does exactly the opposite.)
On one hand, this is just another story of an ungrounded man who attains some small success and starts thinking the world revolves around him. He probably has some some of psychological issue. But he’s charismatic enough that his charm holds some supporters, even though it’s clear that he’s crazy and about as far away from being “pastor material” as you’re likely to find. Why would they still support him?
In social psychologist Robert B. Cialdini’s great book, “Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion,” there’s a story about a group of UFO nuts decades ago who followed a woman who believed she was getting instructions from aliens. These people believed her and they followed her instructions to be prepared in elaborate ways for the aliens to pick them up at a specific time and place — after which the world would be destroyed.
A couple of researchers infiltrated the group, so we know what happened from their reports. Before the big event, the woman and her followers denied interview requests. They were confident about what they believed and they didn’t care one way or the other whether others believed, so they had no time or interest in interviews.
On the night of the aliens’ supposed arrival, the group waited. The time for the pick-up came and went. There was a lot of tension. As the night dragged on, many members realized they had been part of something ridiculous. They left. But a funny thing happened with the core members who remained.
These people suddenly became evangelical. At the very moment when facts had proven that what they had believed was completely false, they believed more than ever — and they started trying to convince others.
The woman who had previously declined interviews now called reporters to explain that because of their faith, the world was being spared, but that everyone needed to hear her message — dictated by the aliens in her head, of course. At the hour of their defeat, the group’s members became even more fervent in their support of their leader and in what the aliens were allegedly telling her.
As I’ve been thinking about Pitt and his supporters — stubbornly denying the evidence in front of their eyes — I haven’t been able to help thinking of the UFO group and their reactions. Psychologists believed that the UFO group’s faith was actually increased by facts challenging them. They needed to believe — because they had already decided to believe — so facts couldn’t overcome their need to believe.
We look at the UFO believers and the supporters of disgraced (and jailed) preacher Matt Pitt and we think this must just be something that happens to mentally unstable people who have a need to latch onto something, but I’d like to suggest it as a template for something else.
Many of those who read here have given up on the very idea of coercive government. We’ve evaluated the evidence and seen that such systems can’t work, so many of us are looking for something that will make more sense. And don’t you find yourself wondering why other people can’t see what’s so obvious to you?
Most people in this country still support the same kind of government that they’ve always had. They might want a government that’s slightly more Republican or slightly more Democratic, but they believe in the essential rightness of the system — despite all the evidence that it doesn’t work and can’t work. Why?
Could it be that when people have emotionally bought into a system, they have a need to continue believing? Could that be true whether it’s a group of UFO cultists or a group who followed a minister or the millions of people who were brainwashed in their youth to believe that the majoritarian system of government is the greatest thing the world has ever seen?
The more I thought Tuesday about Pitt’s supporters and then about the UFO cultists, the more they made sense to me. They’re no different from the millions of people who believe that a coercive government is finally going to deliver what they’ve always wanted — despite all the evidence to the contrary — if we’ll just “get it right” this time.
And now maybe you can understand why we can’t rationally convince people to see what we see. They have a psychological need to believe what they believe. They’re not going to change their minds until they’re ready — if they ever change at all.