In 1851, John Babsone Lane Soule proclaimed in the Terre Haute Express, “Go west, young man, go west!” Horace Greeley was impressed with the phrase and rephrased it slightly in an editorial in the New York Tribune on July 13th 1865: “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.” When I was eighteen years old, having graduated high school, I answered that call. I went as far west as I could fathom, landing in Stockton, California. I was enamored with a large church in my small Pentecostal denomination that had a Bible-training school for aspiring preachers. The church was dynamic and exciting, filled with vibrant young people; in fact, at the time, they had a talented youth choir that received national attention for their spirited singing. During my time there, the church services were typical Pentecostal fare with lots of enthusiasm and emotion and preaching that centered more on feeling rather than thinking. Often through the preaching and teaching, we were admonished to empty ourselves of all skepticism, as this approach was the way to access the “miraculous power of God.” We never contemplated the idea that a total absence of skepticism might lead to complete acceptance of any version of “truth.” But not everything should be believed, because when virtually everything is miraculous, nothing is then demonstratively miraculous. However, those kinds of thoughts would not occur to me then, and I, like many of my peers, was caught up in the wonderful feelings that surround perceived miraculous moments.
It was in one of those moments I first encountered the Reverend Timothy Spell. Spell was invited to be a guest soloist on a live recording for the youth choir. Spell, a talented gospel singer and preacher from Louisiana with natural charisma and good looks, charmed the live audience with the melodious hook, “Have faith in God!” Imagine if Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis had a baby (and Jerry Lee had taken his cousin Jimmy Swaggart’s religion more seriously) then you would have a pretty good idea of my impression of the talented persona of Timothy Spell. I mean that description as a compliment; Spell was and is an engaging and exciting speaker and world class gospel singing talent.
He would show up in my life again, now some thirty years later, as a frequent source of commentary on my social media postings. Spell and I disagree quite vigorously over the 45thoccupant of the White House, and he is quick to defend President Trump and right-leaning politics consistently and fervently. I always regarded Spell’s predictable punditry as stereotypically Trumpian, unoriginal, pedestrian, and relatively harmless—until last week. Spell and his son Tony, pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, received national attention for their refusal to comply with national and state mandates on not gathering as large groups in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Both made local and national news for their defiance, and they recorded a twenty-minute Facebook video defending their actions as an appropriate response in the face of government intrusion and overblown media hype. There were many Old Testament references taken out of context and a lot of conflation of American ideals and biblical values. Currently the video has views in excess of thirty thousand, and Pastor Tony has made appearances on Fox News and The Glenn Beck Program. If this act of defiance had not been made in the midst of a national health crisis, these Louisiana preachers may have been dismissed as comedic caricatures of themselves. But of course, in this case, their actions may literally be a matter of public safety.
I asked Spell on his public social media how exactly this large gathering served to fulfil the command of Jesus in Matthew 12:31: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He responded cryptically, “That’s low hanging fruit.” In another exchange, I asked more directly, “Would the President support your actions?” No answer to that question, only an exchange suggesting that if the “heat” was too much on his thread then I should leave the proverbial kitchen. But I hadn’t even broken a sweat. Social media exchanges aside, I think Tim and Tony’s refusal, along with a smattering of other churches in various denominations across the country, to comply with instructions to help diminish the impact of The COVID-19 virus on our nation is illustrative of a greater issue than imagined persecutions or infringements of First Amendment rights. Their actions illustrate an inconsistency in how the idea of faith is applied in the rudimentary values that govern our lives and behaviors as Americans—specifically, as Americans who embrace the Christian faith.
For example, I have no doubt that Spell and his son would be strong proponents of the Second Amendment, and would find it prudent to have armed security present at their services (a response to a rash of mass shootings in the last few decades across America, many of which involved churches and other places of worship). This security, like in most other churches, often involves volunteers who practice concealed carry of their weapons. I’m confident that Reverend Tim and Pastor Tony would see such preparations as a necessary precaution against a tragedy occurring at their church. They would not view this as a lack of faith, but as a matter of common sense in a dangerous world. But yet the same folks who would advocate for Second Amendment rights as a precaution against a dangerous world, continue to gather in large groups because the threat of the coronavirus is a production of liberal media biases. The inconsistency of when precautionary measures are applied and when they aren’t is telling, revealing a distinction of values that in turn reveal even greater allegiances than those consistently and traditionally pointed out by professed people of faith.
The Bible is replete with references of both supernatural and natural means of deliverance for those who enjoyed God’s favor. And often the Scriptures that provide us the most comfort are those that demonstrate God doesn’t always intervene to rescue His beloved, but rather chooses for His own purposes to let a natural course of events play out to an unknown end. Certainly unknown for those experiencing the events, but for those of us who believe, they are never unknown to God. The Christian faith instructs us to trust that God is good and will “work all things together for the good of them that love the Lord and are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). None of the Apostles escaped suffering or death, but neither did they seek it. And that is an important distinction. When the Apostle Paul learned of a plot to kill him, he did not confront those wanting to kill him, but rather changed his routine and was lowered over a wall in a basket to escape his persecutors. Paul also utilized the natural means of Roman courts to escape the persecution and murderous plots of religious leaders to execute him. Paul placed his faith in Christ alone, regardless of the outcome. I also find personal comfort in this God of the New Testament, in the person and work of Jesus who demonstrated at the cost of his own life that God doesn’t exist to serve our every whim or to rescue us from every disruption or inconvenience.
Now, Tim and Tony, and others like them, may lay claim to these religious texts in solidarity of their cause, but it misses an important point: the government is not forbidding Church, but merely one expression of church as we have come to experience it in our American context. Sunday gatherings of church congregations are not The Church, certainly not in the Biblical sense, but rather an extension of our consumer-driven version of Christianity.
Watching the Spells defend their actions, it is clear what they are defending is not The Church, but they are decrying a disruption of what they and most American Christians have come to enjoy as our version of church. Tim also ventures into a strange colloquy conflating a disruption to the economy and the ensuing potential political harm to President Trump—as a justification of their actions as leaders of the congregation. At one point in their video defense, Tim says their actions aren’t about money, then strangely, emotionally adds, “I’m losing money by sitting in this chair right now. I’ve had churches cancel me!” There can be no doubt that Tim is venting here, as much of his income is derived from his appearances at churches across America. As Upton Sinclair famously observed; “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
The French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu looked at how the cultural leaders convince the rest of society they are special, and how this keeps such leaders in power. Perhaps Bourdieu was on to something: we are living at a moment in history when cultural leaders adhere to certain values at the expense of others in order to identify with their constituency and to avoid disruption in the civil religion of American consumerism. Religious leaders like Reverend Tim and Pastor Tony seek to establish their bona fides by decrying government intrusion into the religious sphere and dismissing health science as a media-induced panic.
Additionally, political leaders, like Donald Trump, then continue to trade with the currency of fear and division. This political and social hubris was in evidence this past week when, at a daily briefing the subject turned to a possible treatment for the COVID-19 virus. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was adamant that there’s no evidence chloroquine—which has yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration—will work against the deadly virus. “The evidence you are talking about is anecdotal evidence,” he told reporters. “The information you are referring to is anecdotal, so you can’t make a definitive statement about it.” Moments later President Trump chimed, “I feel good about it. Just a feeling. I am a smart guy, we’ll see soon enough.” Watching this, I was reminded of my Bible school experience so many decades ago, “Let go of your skepticism.”
Donald Trump, with experience as a reality TV star and real estate mogul, wants us to trust his “feeling” over the facts delivered by science. Timothy Spell wants us to trust his “faith” over the facts. In this instance, sadly, the feelings of Trump and “faith” of Timothy Spell are insufficient to navigate the staggering challenges in front of us. In these difficult times, all of us want hope that life will soon return to normal. The desire to communicate hope on the part of our political and religious leaders is understandable. But simply wanting something to be true does not make it so, and optimism and reality should not have to be mutually exclusive. Good leadership communicates hope while telling the truth, not in spite of it.
Hope and science are not incompatible.
At the same briefing, Peter Alexander of NBC News, asked President Trump, “What do you say to Americans who are scared right now?” Trump responded, “I say you are a terrible reporter,” and then proceeded to lecture Alexander, accusing him of “nasty reporting and bad journalism” adding that “the American people are looking for answers and they are looking hope.” Neither of which the president, in that moment, was giving. Imagine if the president would have remained calm and answered by saying, “this is a very difficult and trying time, and we are doing the best that we can to provide answers to the American people.” Imagine if he would have taken the moment to talk sincerely about his professed faith and how that brings him comfort and guidance in these moments and will provide the same for all of us. Imagine if the President had shown an ounce of empathy in that moment, how different would the emotional temperature have been in the room? In the nation? In this moment, we need leaders who possess both authority and empathy, who are willing to tell the truth and give us hope—a balance that isn’t found in these misguided prophets or demagoguing politicians. This is the kind of leadership the American people deserve.
Perhaps, now more than ever.