When Tony Spall was asked by John Sopel – the BBC’s North America Editor – if he encourages his flock to get vaccinated, the pastor of the Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana gave this answer:
“We do not. Our job is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and preach faith.”
Sopel tried again: “But won’t vaccines keep them alive?”
“They will not, that has not been proven.”
Mr Spall delivered his answers in a confident, soft southern drawl. Unlike most of his congregation, he is not overweight. His jawline is chiselled, and his remarkably smooth skin hints, either at a facelift, or an extensive skincare regimen. The greying hair atop his head has been so thickly slicked, greased and combed that it resembles strips of warped aluminium. His suit and tie look expensive.
The Life Tabernacle Church is of the Apostolic, Pentecostal denomination, which maintains the inerrancy of scripture. ‘The Bible’, states Life Tabernacle’s website, gives a ‘true history of the creation of heaven, earth and humanity’. The same paragraph adds, rather menacingly, that ‘there is no salvation outside what is taught in its pages’. The salvation of the faithful will come by way of Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Not from Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson.
Here is religion in all its morbidity and fatalism. Mr Spall and his followers are convinced that salvation and eternal life await them. That would be their just reward for keeping faith. But what becomes of this life, once you conclude that the best bit happens after you die? Faith in a heavenly after-party could well lead believers to spurn the medicine concocted to keep them tethered to this world. Anyhow, if the coronavirus is part of God’s plan, why limit his harvest of souls?
Personally, I can’t think of anything worse than eternal life. True, having to leave the dance floor is bad enough, but the thought of moving on to a never-ending disco is completely terrifying. With no temporal limits, everything would be meaningless. We savour the best of life’s moments because we all know – deep down – that it doesn’t last forever.
Pastor Spall has told his congregation that vaccinations ‘contaminate your bloodstream’. As a consequence, he estimates that ‘less than one percent’ of his flock have taken the jab. With the Delta variant advancing through the state, Louisiana’s COVID numbers are reaching new records. But as I’m sure Mr Spall well knows, this does not threaten his position. The faith of the believers insures against that. If most of Life Tabernacle’s followers evade the virus, then the congregation will believe God rewarded them for their worship. If many are struck down, then God was merely impatient to enjoy their company in person. Or, He was punishing them for faith of insufficient fervour. Faith can be a poisonous virtue not because it constrains your beliefs, but because it lets you believe whatever you like.
The mixing of religious doctrine with medical advice – epitomised by Pastor Spall – is a recipe for disaster. Thankfully, many rabbis, imams and priests know that believers cannot live on faith alone. It can provide comfort, but this pandemic will be beaten by well-regulated science, operating within a framework of reason and evidence.
If the people of Baton Rouge had read Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague (1947), then they would already know just how unhelpful men of God can be during times of disease. About a third of the way through the book, the citizens of the plague riddled city of Oran shuffle into the local cathedral to hear the verdict of Father Paneloux. Camus tells us that the people of Oran are not particularly pious, but their city has been quarantined, so there is precious little to do.
Paneloux is described as a man of ‘fiery and passionate temperament’. He does not hesitate in unloading divine rage on God’s behalf:
‘My brethren, a calamity has befallen you; my brethren, you have deserved it’
‘Since the beginning of history, the scourge of God has brought down the proud and blind beneath His feet. Think on this and fall to your knees’
And then a line which could have bubbled from the mouth of Tony Spall himself:
‘No earthly power – not even, note this well, vain human science – can shield us from this hand as it reaches out to you. Beaten on the bloody threshing floor of pain, you will be cast out with the chaff.’
Perhaps, like Father Paneloux, Spall also regards Covid-19 as a test of faith. A way of separating devout wheat from sinful chaff. But faith is the most overrated of the virtues. It is, by definition, belief by conviction rather than evidence. Further, Spall’s insistence that there is no proof of vaccine efficacy suggests that his faith is capable of contravening mountains of stats and expertise. His faith requires no external, empirical support. It is completely self-sustaining.
It’s quite possible that a handful of Life Tabernacle’s attendees will die needlessly because of the strength of Spall’s faith. Nonetheless, like every fanatic, he believes God is on his side.
Photograph by barnyz