Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Tony Spell: I’ll Cover Up COVID In My Church

Mums the word if anybody tests positive in my church, says defiant pastor committed to crackpot narrative

A new Houston video podcaster, Jess Fields, scored a lengthy interview with Pastor Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle in Baton Rouge. The whole thing is here, and I encourage you to watch it. He breaks some news:

It’s infuriating, of course, but also very telling. Let me say straightaway: if you think Tony Spell, who is white, is a standard middle-class megachurch Evangelical, you are wrong. Spell is a Pentecostal who pastors a church that is quite multiracial, and that reaches out to poor and working class people. He’s the real deal on that front. Trust me, in Baton Rouge, there are no social advantages to going to Tony Spell’s church.

At around the 13:00 point, Spell rages against the unfairness of the virus, and how it is hurting the feelings of so many people. Think, he says, about the people who are told that this or that person is “non-essential” or the high school senior who is told that she can’t experience the joy of walking across the stage at graduation, “all because of a false narrative.”

The parallel with progressive secular “critical justice” people is plain. He seems to believe that because facts (about the virus and epidemiology) offend a narrative he prefers to believe, than those facts must be part of a “false narrative.” He blames “media terrorism” and “government terrorism” for this.

Spell says that coronavirus has a “99.3 percent recovery rate” — a flat-out lie. The death rate is not 0.7 percent; according to the WHO, the global mortality rate is 3.4 percent — that’s five times greater than what Tony Spell claims. It’s greater in some places around the globe than in others, of course. The annual mortality rate from seasonal flu is 0.1 percent.

Fields asked what he, Spell, would do if he were Louisiana’s governor. He said, “We have to keep our nation going … we need hope … .” In other words, we have to stay in motion, even if it kills us. Where’s the hope in that? That’s false hope. Spell says he would say, “If you have symptoms, stay at home — that’s common sense.” But scientists tell us that people can be infected for 10 to 14 days without showing symptoms, during which time the infected person can infect others. Spell is just wrong here, and dangerously wrong.

He bangs on about the “rights” that the Constitution gives us, and that we all have the “right to happiness,” which for them means going to church. There you go: rights, rights, rights. Nothing about duties. Nothing about serving others, and the common good. Spell says they’re ready to die for their faith. OK, fine — but what’s at issue here is Spell’s eagerness to make other people die for the Life Tabernacle’s rights.

Not far past the halfway point, Spell says that he expects people to test positive in his congregation, but if that happens, he’s not going to tell others in the congregation, because he doesn’t want the sick to be stigmatized. He says, “I don’t want them to be excluded like they’re lepers when they do come back.”

Can you believe that? He intends to keep it quiet if someone tests positive. He’s willing to let people who have been exposed to this virus by contact with confirmed virus patients live in ignorance — and unwittingly spread it to other! This is malicious crackpottery. Later, Jess Fields asks Spell how he justifies busing in all those little children — 675 on a weekly average — knowing that those kids could be going back home and spreading the virus to their families.

Know how he responds?

“Our faith is so strong that we’re not going to live in the narrative of the ‘what ifs’. … This is such a false narrative that is being pushed by the media terrorists.”

Tony Spell is simply denying fact — the kind of facts that will get people killed. He goes on to say, “Children are carriers, but they’re not affected by this virus, from what we’re being told today.”

(Wrong. There have been at least three pediatric deaths, according to the CDC — which is good news, of course, but kids are affected by it, and again, they can carry it to those who are more susceptible.)

Listen to that entire interview. Tony Spell has created a narrative in which he is somehow an amalgam of George Washington and Ignatius of Antioch. He keeps bringing up both the early church martyrs and the Founding Fathers. In this Fields interview, he says that Christians who are staying home from their churches are a bunch of cowards.

The thing that keeps coming back to me as I listen to this pastor is how much he stands on rights. Nothing ever about duties, about self-sacrifice. Just a #MAGA Jesus version of, “I’m going to do what I darn well want to do, and don’t you dare try to stop me, or make me feel bad about it!” How is that all that different from the Social Justice Warriors?

What would you say to Gov. John Bel Edwards? Fields asks. Spell says:

“This is about a socialistic government taking our freedoms away from us as God-fearing Americans.”

This from a pastor who refuses to consider that all those little children he’s busing into his services could carry the virus back to their communities, and who said he would hide infections from others in the congregation, because he doesn’t want people to have negative thoughts. Where is the basic Christian charity here? The common sense? The care for the common good?

UPDATE: “Greater love hath no man than this: that he would refuse to tell his friends that they have been exposed to a deadly virus, because it’s more important to own the socialistic libs.” — the Gospel According to Tony Spell

UPDATE.2: I wonder what Tony Spell, who thinks this is all pretty much a big hoax, would say to this ICU nurse, Jennifer Cole, who posted on Facebook:

I lost a patient today. He was not the first, and unfortunately he’s definitely not the last. But he was different. I’ve been an ER nurse my entire career, but in New York I find myself in the ICU. At this point there’s not really anywhere in the hospital that isn’t ICU, all covid 19 positive. They are desperate for nurses who can titrate critical medication drips and troubleshoot ventiltors.

I’ve taken care of this man the last three nights, a first for me. In the ER I rarely keep patients for even one 12 hour shift. His entire two week stay had been rough for him, but last night was the worst. I spent the first six hours of my shift not really leaving his room. By the end, with so many medications infusing at their maximum, I was begging the doctor to call his family and let them know. “He’s not going to make it”, I said. The poor doctors are so busy running from code to code, being pulled by emergent patients every minute. All I could think of was the voice of my mom in my head, crying as I got on the plane to leave for this place: “Those people are alone, you take good care of them”. I was the only person in that room for three nights in a row, fighting as hard as I could to keep this man alive. The doctor was able to reach the family, update them. It was decided that when his heart inevitably stopped we wouldn’t try to restart it. There just wasn’t anything else left to do.

Eventually, he gave up. It was just him and me and his intubated roommate in the next bed. The wooden door to the room is shut, containing infection and cutting us off from the rest of the world. I called the doctor to come and mark the time of death. I wished so much that I could let his family know that while they might not have been with him, I was.

I shut the pumps down (so horribly many of them), disconnected the vent, took him off the monitor. We didn’t extubate him, too much of a risk to staff. Respiratory took the vent as soon as I called. It’s just a portable one, but it’s life to someone downstairs. The CNA helped me to wash him and place him in a body bag, a luxury afforded only to those who make it out of the ER. Down there the bodies pile up on stretchers, alone, while the patients on vents wait for the golden spot my gentleman just vacated. We’ll talk about the ER another time. My patient was obviously healthy in his life. I look at his picture in his chart, the kind they take from a camera over a computer when you aren’t really prepared. A head shot, slightly awkward. I see someone’s Grandpa, someone’s Dad, someones Husband. They aren’t here with him. My heart breaks for them.

I fold his cute old man sweater and place it in a bag with his loafers, his belongings. I ask where to put this things. A coworker opens the door to a locked room; labeled bags are piled to the ceiling. My heart drops. It’s all belongings of deceased parents, waiting for a family member to someday claim them. A few nights ago they had 17 deaths in a shift. The entire unit is only 17 beds.

These patients are so fragile. It’s such a delicate balance of breathing, of blood pressure, of organ function. The slightest movement or change sends them into hours long death spirals. The codes are so frequent those not directly involved barely even register them. The patients are all the same, every one. Regardless of age, health status, wealth, family, or power the diagnosis is the same, the disease process is the same, and the aloneness is the same. Our floor has one guy that made it to extubation. He’s 30 years old. I view him as our mascot, our ray of hope that not everyone here is just waiting to die. I know that most people survive just fine, but that’s not what it feels like in this place. Most of the hospital staff is out sick. We, the disaster staff, keep our n95 masks glued to our faces. We all think we are invincible, but I find myself eyeing up my coworkers, wondering who the weak ones are, knowing deep down that not all of us will make it out of here alive.

A bus takes us back to the hotel the disaster staff resides in, through deserted Manhatten. We are a few blocks from Central Park. We pass radio city music hall, nbc studios, times square. There is no traffic. The sidewalks are empty. My room is on the 12th floor. At 7pm you can hear people cheering and banging on and pans for the healthcare workers at change of shift. This city is breaking and stealing my heart simultaneously. I didn’t know what I was getting into coming here, but it’s turning out to be quite a lot.

Jennifer Cole, from her Facebook page

UPDATE.3: Jess Fields just posted his interview with me, about Tony Spell, the Benedict Option, and so forth. I think we can all agree that the lockdown needs to end so I will feel compelled to trim my hobo beard: