Home/Rod Dreher/Rev. Spell Is A Selfish Showboater

Rev. Spell Is A Selfish Showboater

The Rev. Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle church in Greater Baton Rouge, preaching at March 31 services in defiance of the governor's order (screenshot from Central City News Facebook webcast)

Earlier today, the East Baton Rouge Parish district attorney charged the Rev. Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church for violating Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’s emergency prohibition on large public gatherings:

“He will be held responsible for his reckless and irresponsible decisions that endangered the health of his congregation and our community,” Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran said. “We are facing a public health crisis and expect our community’s leaders to set a positive example and follow the law.”

Despite being accused of the misdemeanor offenses, which carry a maximum punishment of $500 and up to six months in parish jail, Spell said he plans to continue holding services, including on Tuesday night.

“This is an attack on religion. This an attack on our constitutional rights. We have a constitutional right to assemble and to gather and there are no laws that I am breaking.” he said, as his wife, Shaye, hugged him inside the church’s main worship area.

Spell has held large public religious services with his flock despite multiple officials warning of danger to his congregation and the broader community. Medical experts have said that, to blunt the sharp increase in coronavirus cases and related COVID-19 illnesses that could strain the medical system, people should avoid large crowds as much as possible and reduce the spread of disease.


Spell asserted that he is operating under his constitutional rights and under a mandate given to him by Jesus Christ, “who said do not forsake to assemble together.”

Spell added that government authorities were throwing away the nation’s Constitution under a “COVID hoax” that hasn’t had the level of medical toll and death that, he says, experts had initially predicted would happen at this point. He called the fears about the virus that have been propagated were a “politically motivated scheme to shut the doors on America’s churches and we refuse to shut our doors.”

“Yes, we’re gonna have service,” he added, “and if I am arrested, the second man in charge will step in. If he is arrested, the third man in charge will step in. If he is arrested, the thousands of people who are members of this congregation are gonna step in, but you can’t take us all.”

Read it all.

Meanwhile, this afternoon, at the White House briefing, President Trump, Dr. Fauci, and Dr. Birx had very bad news. The NYT headlined it like this:

A couple of hours later, Life Tabernacle Church began its evening services. Woody Jenkins, a local Republican politico who headed up Trump’s 2016 campaign in Louisiana, and who operates a newspaper in Central, where the pastor’s church is, has been livestreaming services on his Central City News Facebook page. He promotes the services as patriotic and godly:


I listened to the service on Facebook (they tried to videocast it too, but the feed kept jamming up). It was quite a performance. Pastor Spell is a fervid preacher. He slipped in and out of speaking in tongues. Judging from the sound of the singing, there are a lot of people inside that church.

There was a lot of whooping and hollering and ululating and speaking in tongues from the congregation. Pastor Spell acknowledged all the media coverage he has been getting, and portrayed himself as a martyr for Christ. He said that he spent 90 minutes on the phone today talking to Alabama’s Roy Moore, who offered to represent the pastor legally pro bono. Spell said that everyone in the congregation that night is there because they love their children. Addressing all the kids that Life Tabernacle busses in to services, Spell said, “You lookin’ at a pastor who will die for you.”

This to children whose parents have sent them to church, where they may be exposed to a deadly virus.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a Republican-Party-at-Prayer, white-people kind of church. Like many Pentecostal and charismatic churches, it is racially integrated. I lost the audio feed for a few minutes at one point, but when I rejoined the service, someone — I don’t think it was Spell — was tearing up the room by preaching (shouting, actually) that “racism is of the devil.”

Well, he’s right about that, but so what? I bring it up here because surely there will be people who don’t understand the differences among Christians, and who will think that these must be Trumpy white Evangelicals. They’re not Evangelicals, they’re not all white (though Spell is), and though Trump’s Louisiana state campaign chief is webcasting and promoting these services, Spell said tonight from the stage that they are not gathered in the name of the Democratic Party, or the Republican Party, or anyone but Jesus.

Shouted Spell at one point: “The devil don’t like what’s happening now!”

Actually, I imagine that he’s delighted with it. Tony Spell’s drama is a great gift to the enemies of religious liberty. What they’re doing is not hurting the feelings of liberals. What they’re doing is threatening human life.

Tony Spell and his accomplice Woody Jenkins are making Christians despicable in the eyes of the public, and bringing shame to the name of Jesus Christ. All over this city, believing Christians are staying away from church during this emergency, not because they are ashamed of Jesus (as Spell seemed to allege at one point), but because they accept that this is necessary to arrest the spread of this deadly virus. But not showboating Tony Spell, and his promoter, Woody Jenkins. They are potentially bringing death and suffering onto this community … and for what? So they can play martyrs and patriots? Their congregation is complicit too. To me, it looks like they care more for their opportunity to get worked up emotionally and speak in tongues than they care about the lives of their neighbors, and the work of the doctors, nurses, EMS personnel, and others who are putting their lives on the line to save lives and heal the gravely ill.

If that is what Christianity is, then who would want anything to do with it? Last year, I spent time with people who went to communist prisons because they would not deny Jesus Christ. I talked to a Christian in Moscow whose face is partially paralyzed because of the beatings he took in a Soviet prison. That’s what suffering for Jesus means. These Louisiana Pentecostals are not suffering for Jesus; they are potentially making other people suffer sickness and death so they can live out their idea of following Jesus. If they were only putting themselves in danger, I would think it foolish, but not wicked. But they’re not doing that. They’re putting the entire community in danger. Besides, when some of that congregation comes down with the virus, who is going to be trying to save their lives? Doctors and nurses upon whose professionalism they depend.

I’ve never thought these thoughts but I have to say: listening to this spectacle, I understand why people can come to hate Christians. There is nothing godly about any of what went on at that church tonight, or rather, what is godly about it was overwhelmed by what is ungodly.  That church has drawn national attention, and the pastor is reveling in it. In his sermon tonight, he talked about how the media attention makes it possible for him to preach the Gospel all around the country. Seriously? Does he actually think people will be attracted to Christianity because of this? What nobody will see, because it’s not news, is that the overwhelming majority of Christians in Baton Rouge are obeying the legitimate order of the governor, and sacrificing their religious gathering until such time as the pandemic has passed.

Elsewhere on this night, in this city, and in this state, people with Covid pneumonia are drowning in their own hospital beds, their lungs filling up with fluid. And look at those people, feeling so brave because they’re defying the legitimate order of the governor to temporarily avoid gathering, to try to get this pandemic under control.

Tonight in this city, owners of a food venue where a number of small business owners had their restaurants are dealing with the permanent shutdown of the venue. They can’t see a way to hold on through the next month of shutdown, especially because the landlord is trying to make them pay rent. Think of all the restaurant workers who are jobless tonight because of this virus. Are Tony Spell and Woody Jenkins going to pay their rent and feed their kids? Are they going to take care of all the people who don’t get sick, but who suffer the loss of their businesses and their livelihoods because the state of emergency has to be extended while authorities struggle to arrest the virus?

Selfish, selfish, selfish. Christians of the early church distinguished themselves by self-sacrificially caring for plague victims who had been abandoned by others. The Christians at Life Tabernacle are distinguishing themselves by prolonging the agonies of victims — those who will yet become sick, and those who are made poor by the pandemic. That’s some witness to the world. Again: there is no greater gift to the enemies of religious liberty than a church full of tongues-speaking shouters who demand their rights and spit on their duties of charity.

If the sheriff arrests Tony Spell tomorrow and holds him without bond, don’t you believe for a second that he’s any kind of victim.  Don’t you believe for a second that his arrest is any kind of persecution. I believe that persecution is coming in this country, and when it does, Tony Spell and his congregation’s demand for privileges in a time of unprecedented public health crisis will bear some of the blame.

And so, for that matter, will some ultra-Orthodox Jews of the Greater New York area, who by their selfish actions are showing the same kind of contempt for the wider community that these Baton Rouge Pentecostals are doing. There is never any excuse for anti-Semitism or anti-Christian bigotry, but in a time of mass death from a contagious plague, observant Christians and Orthodox Jews are fools to behave this way. They are going to make life much, much harder for the rest of us religious believers.

UPDATE: The director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security praised the White House briefing today. He said, in part:

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

leave a comment

Latest Articles