A headline in the paper last week posed the question of whether Rev. Tony Spell is a “man of God or attention-grabbing hustler.”

The answer is both. Since his income derives from tithing Pentecostals who abhor gays and speak in tongues, he is clearly religious fundamentalist.

At the same time, he has demonstrated attention-grabbing credentials by busing the faithful to worship en masse in Central and defying Gov. John Bel Edwards’s coronavirus lockdown.

Spell is thus an attention-grabbing hustler for Jesus, which in normal times might not make him a jerk. Right now, however, his recklessness spells mortal danger for his congregants. At least one of them has succumbed to COVID-19, which has also put one of his attorneys in the hospital.

That is the Louisiana attorney he retained to assist former Alabama Supreme Court justice Roy Moore in challenging the lockdown order. Moore, having twice been kicked off the court in his determination to turn the republic into theocracy, was a natural choice to challenge what Spell denounced as “ungodly, unconstitutional” measures.

They were clearly neither. Leaders of practically every other religious denomination accepted the right of secular authorities to impose reasonable and temporary restrictions so that fewer people would get sick, or worse. A federal judge, rejecting Spell’s claim that freedom of religion and association trumped gubernatorial authority, observed that constitutional rights are not absolute.

That is a pretty elementary point, but Moore is no great constitutional scholar, having refused to follow U.S. Supreme Court orders to accept same-sex marriage and to remove a marble slab inscribed with the Ten Commandments.
Man of God or attention-grabbing hustler: Who is Louisiana pastor Tony Spell?

Most litigants, needing an attorney to advance a constitutional argument, might prefer one who has heard of the Supremacy Clause and church/state separation.

Members of his flock say Spell does perform acts of Christian charity with the lucre he extracts from them — he insists on a 10% tithe from rich and poor alike — but he does appear somewhat lacking in empathy, as when dismisses the 100,000 Americans killed by the virus as “not a large number.”

His rationale for this crass and absurd pronouncement is that more abortions than that are performed in America every year. It doesn’t matter where you stand on Roe vs. Wade; if you don’t mourn 100,000 dead Americans, you are a deficient human being.

Spell, however, has a very high opinion of himself. He compares his mulish refusal to co-operate with the brave defiance exhibited by Rosa Parks, and hopes that the local cops keep booking him with minor offenses so that he can boast of beating Martin Luther King’s arrest tally.

He has been holding services at his Central church, unmasked and ostentatiously hugging and shaking hands. Such a want of consideration for the health and safety of others may fit in with his concept of Christian principle, but this is not how decent people behave in the midst of a pandemic.

Edwards, a regular at Catholic services in Amite, shares Spell’s opposition to abortion, but there the resemblance ends. A small-town lawyer who rose from the state House of Representatives to become governor must have some political chops, and Spell is fooling himself when he boasts of being a threat in Edwards’s own sphere.

“You know why King Edwards hates me?” Spell asks, although there again he appears to overestimate his impact, for Edwards does not give the impression of being motivated by hate. He may merely view Spell with the en contempt his behavior deserves.

Spell figures he enrages Edwards “because I’m taking his voters off of the plantation. I’m taking his voters base from him. It stands to reason. When a man starts coming to church and gets off welfare and government subsidies, he starts pulling the Republican ticket instead of the Democrat ticket.”

Why a man should become financially independent by dint of entering Spell’s charge is mystery, especially as he puts the bite on all comers for 10%.

Still, congregants will presumably take Spell’s word for anything, so pro-GOP sermons may influence a few votes.

Spell’s church is not just Pentecostal, but Apostolic Pentecostal, which appears to mean he can divide his loyalties between God and Mammon. We can only wonder which one he prefers.

Email James Gill at [email protected].