By now, it should be plainly obvious to anyone who has followed the news about Baton Rouge-area pastor Tony Spell that he’s pretty obviously the worst kind of charlatan.

No, it’s not an attack on anyone’s religious liberties to point out the newly-minted celebrity is nothing more than an outlandishly delusional huckster who has commanded the predominately poor and working class members of his breakaway Pentecostal church in suburban Baton Rouge- Life Tabernacle- to break the law, endanger their health, jeopardize the lives of those in their community, and keep showing up every Sunday to hear him speak.

Disabuse yourself of the idea that Spell’s motives have anything to do at all with politics or the United States Constitution. He realized long ago that his gravy train runs on the collection plate he passes out once a week.

But if there had been any doubt that the man was about something other than enriching himself, that was put to rest after he recently encouraged members to also sign over their stimulus checks to him as a condition of insuring against eternal damnation. Today, Spell’s wife posed for a few helpful photographs, just in case you are more of a visual learner.

Guaranty Bank may want to consider asking the couple to move their accounts somewhere else. Photo credit: AP.

And until recently, he’d been able to simply over-apply some hair gel and memorize a couple of dozen verses from the Bible without anyone pointing out the obvious: That his routine is just a cheaply-produced, grotesque imitation of Houston mega-church pastor Joel Osteen.

Considering the backlash Osteen received after getting caught lying about why he refused to allow people to shelter inside of the basketball arena he converted into his church’s new home when Houston was devastated by Hurricane Harvey, he must be thankful Tony Spell is dumb enough to want to take over the role of villain.

Jimmy Swaggart, a few miles down the road from Spell, will never need to worry again about anyone claiming his adultery scandal was the biggest embarrassment ever for those in the Baton Rouge evangelical community. Swaggart never endangered the lives of his flock, and the overwhelming majority of his fortune wasn’t made by passing around an offering plate but through the church’s donation hotline.

The late comedian Phil Hartmann parodying Baton Rouge televangelist Jimmy Swaggart after the pastor’s tearful confession of an affair.

Yes, Brother Jimmy, you are forgiven.

TMZ has been having a field day with Spell; they specialize in mocking trashy wannabes, and this guy showed up already in costume for them, delivering lines more absurd and idiotic than they could have ever scripted themselves.

And amazingly, without even asking for it, Tony Spell got himself arrested on Tuesday, a necessity in any great tabloid story. Spell, to borrow a word from fellow hair gel enthusiast Donald Trump Jr., was triggered over a handwritten protest sign. What a snowflake!

If any of this seems hyperbolic or, pardon the pun, overindulgent, consider the parade of terribles that Spell has marched through the news recently.

He generated notoriety by being one of the first in the nation to exploit his status as a religious leader to undermine the efforts to curb the spread of a pandemic that has infected millions across the globe. In the United States, the pandemic has especially ravaged Louisiana.

As of Thursday, more Louisiana residents have been killed because of the COVID-19 pandemic than were killed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the failure of the federally-owned levee system surrounding New Orleans flooded 80% of the city. The current death toll is now nearly three times larger than the death toll in the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, and with the exception of the Civil War, has now killed more people on the state’s soil than anything since the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1853.

According to analysis compiled by the nonprofit group PAR Louisiana and based on data from the state Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control, when one compares the average causes of death from the same week in previous years with the deaths caused in 2020 by COVID-19, it’s not even close.

Frances Spencer, a freelance photojournalist and writer, has spent a considerable amount of time researching Spell’s distortion of the Christian faith. She’d been familiar with the kind of damage men like Spell can inflict on the institutions they lead. As a proud graduate of Louisiana College, Spencer had been horrified by the man who replaced the school’s longtime president. Fortunately, Joe Aguillard’s Reign of Terror has ended, in no small part because of the efforts of graduates like Spencer.

When Tony Spell began to defy the law and hold regular Sunday services, Spencer decided to perch herself at a safe distance to snap some photographs of the church’s front door and parking lot. According to Spencer, reports that as many as 1,300 people had heeded Spell’s mandatory attendance order were wildly inaccurate; the real number appeared to be about a quarter of that. And while it was true that Spell had a fleet of buses driving up to the church’s entrance, many- if not the majority- of the busses arrived without passengers.

Still, there’s no denying Spell has continued to attract an audience.

Late-arriving worshippers enter Life Tabernacle Church Sunday, April 19. The Central, La., church has continued to meet in large numbers despite state orders to limit gathering to less than 10 to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. The church’s pastor Tony Spell, who was previously cited for holding mass gathering, was arrested Tuesday, April 21 for allegedly trying to back a bus over a protester on the previous Sunday. Photo and caption credit: Frances Y. Spencer/Spencer Media Solutions.

Spencer also happened to get a few photos of the lone protestor whose homemade sign had infuriated the pastor to the brink of violence.

39-year-old Trey Bennett lives in the same community as Spell’s church and had been understandably concerned that the pastor was recklessly endangering people’s lives. His concerns, as he learned personally last Sunday, were well-placed.

In Bennett’s hometown, which named itself Central, LA after incorporating in 2005 (somehow without having any awareness of its own geography in the state or the fact that there is an entire region 90 miles away that’s named Central Louisiana), simply being a nonbeliever is enough to inspire Woody Jenkins, the town crier and the sorest loser in state history, to declare you to be just as bad as someone as vile as Tony Spell.


Trey Bennett of Central protests Sunday, April 12 outside the grounds of Life Tabernacle Church, a congregation that has continued to meet in violation of state orders to limit mass gathering to combat COVID-19 outbreak. Bennett’s sign lists historical instances of what he sees as church-related atrocities and then credits Christians for COVID-19. Rev. Tony Spell, pastor of Life Tabernacle, was accused of trying run over Bennett with one of the church’s buses the following Sunday and surrendered himself before being arrested Tuesday April 21 at the Central police station. Photo and image credit: Frances Y. Spencer/Spencer Media Solutions

Jenkins, who is best known for losing a race for the U.S. Senate to Democrat Mary Landrieu and then spending months on a pathetic effort to contest the election’s results, posted a screed against Bennett on the Facebook page of his news publication, claiming, among other things, that the protestor was well-known as a ne’er-do-well atheist who had a long record of offending people in town.

He attached a few screenshots he had taken of the troublemaker’s personal Facebook account that he’d found particularly objectionable.

To most outside observers, Bennett’s comments were nothing especially noteworthy. If anything, Jenkins came across as more than a little creepy and unwittingly helped underscore the kind of petty and judgmental gossip that Jenkins tries to pass off as newsworthy.

All of that said, there’s no question Bennett understood the sign he held up outside of Spell’s church contained a provocative albeit unoriginal message facetiously thanking Christians for a series of historical atrocities. It’s a riff that Tony Spell may have heard before had he received any halfway decent education in religion.

Despite Jenkins’s characterizations of the protestor and his homemade sign, there isn’t any evidence that Bennett professes to be an atheist. His protest sign blamed people who professed to be Christians- not Christianity itself- for the horrors of the past.

Of course, so what if Bennett is an atheist anyway?

Spell deserves to be ridiculed and quickly released back to obscurity.

***

In the first of three letters the Apostle Paul wrote to his young colleague Timothy, he begins by reminding him of the advice he had given him the last time they’d spoken. “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies,” he wrote.

He was just warming up. “Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.”

Later, Paul warned against men who claimed to be preachers but “have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions, and constant friction between people of corrupt mind.”

People like this, he told Timothy, rob their followers from the truth because they use their self-professed “godliness as means to financial gain.”

***

Already, at least one member of Spell’s church has died from COVID-19, and a lawyer representing the pastor was hospitalized after becoming infected with the virus. His other lawyer is accused pedophile and former Alabama judge Roy Moore.

Remember, Spell only earned his notoriety by being one of the first in the nation to exploit his status as a religious leader and convince congregants that their physical presence during church services was mandated by God and to disregard the governor’s orders.

The real lesson here isn’t that the Christian faith is to blame for all of history’s worst atrocities, which is a fairly unsophisticated understanding of the past two millennia and one that just completely disregards anything that ever occurred on the other side of the planet. If you don’t think there have been self-professed Buddhists who waged war and murdered people, you’d be sorely mistaken.

The lesson here is that the only way to stop men like Tony Spell, who exploit religion to justify their own quest for wealth and fame, the only way to ensure their credibility is diminished and their fraud is finally revealed is by not being afraid to call them out.

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Lamar White, Jr.
Lamar writes about the people, the politics, and the magic of Louisiana. He is the founder and publisher of the Bayou Brief and a contributing writer for the Daily Beast. Lamar is best known for his investigative reporting on public corruption, racism, and civil rights. He has appeared as a guest on CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC, and he's been the subject of profiles in The Washington Post, The Advocate, and Huffington Post. Before launching the Bayou Brief, he published CenLamar, a popular blog that initially covered the drama of City Hall in his hometown of Alexandria. Lamar is a graduate of Rice University in Houston and the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Today he lives in New Orleans and is currently writing a book about the life of reputed New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello.