Argument

I Knew Coronavirus Denier Landon Spradlin. His Death Wasn’t a Punchline.

The evangelical musician died of COVID-19 after calling it fake news. But he was a victim of forces much larger than him.

FRANCE-HEALTH-VIRUS
SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP via Getty Images

On March 25, an old friend of my family died of pneumonia and coronavirus. The next day, his story went viral. The local blues musician and small-time street preacher became a symbol and a punchline, presented as a pandemic-denying Trumpist evangelical who got what he deserved. But Landon Spradlin wasn’t killed by his misguided religious beliefs, and he deserves better than to be remembered as a punchline. He died because he came from a casually conservative rural America that has become worryingly detached from reality over the pandemic, and thousands of others could follow his path.

Landon was always a strange and controversial figure, even among the dominant conservative Christians of my hometown of Chatham, Virginia. He’d “witness” on street corners and try to get people to kneel on the sidewalk and accept Jesus, even if they’d been lifelong church-goers. He’d go to parties, condemn the drinking, and try to “save souls.” My earliest memory of him was the loud baptisms he performed in the lake in front of my neighbor’s house. He could be obnoxious and self-righteous at times.

But he wasn’t some prosperity gospel huckster or wealthy megachurch pastor. He was a traveling musician who frequently went out of his way to help the forgotten and the downtrodden, and he never had much money. He condemned drugs and alcohol, but he tried his best to help addicts recover and give them a place to stay when they had nobody else. I have no idea what he thought about me, the left-wing transgender niece of one of his closest friends, but he certainly never said anything negative to my family. I certainly preferred his preaching and music over the sheer hatred spewed in some of the churches around here.

Later in life, he’d moderated his tone somewhat and focused on secular music, though he maintained his beliefs and continued his mission trips. He loved playing the blues, and he loved people. He went to New Orleans, where he caught the coronavirus, in a misguided attempt to save souls, but he also wanted to see his old friends and experience another Mardi Gras.

It’s absolutely fair to criticize Landon for his reckless decision. He put himself and his family at risk. If his condition had worsened only a couple of days later, he might have inadvertently started an outbreak in my hometown and put my immunocompromised relatives at risk. He was a grown man who made a terrible choice and paid an awful price.

But he was no different from the average Republican in my hometown. They may not share his religious views, but they expressed the same skepticism regarding the pandemic, and some still congregate in public places without regard for social distance. They aren’t doing it because they think God will give them immunity to disease, and they aren’t going out to restaurants to save souls. They’re doing it because they don’t take the problem seriously enough, thanks to right-wing media outlets that downplayed the pandemic even as the numbers ticked up.

Some of them were shocked by Donald Trump’s nomination and election, and a few have left the party or sought alternatives. But the majority see him as just another president, a victim of crooked political smear campaigns spread by ridiculous jealousy-crazed liberals. When he told them that Russian meddling was a hoax, that climate change was overblown, that what happened in Ukraine was just typical diplomacy, they easily accepted it. To them, it was just common sense that Democrats were always going to lie and blow things out of proportion. It’s not something they spend all their waking hours thinking about. It’s just a set of beliefs they learned from their parents as children and rarely question. It’s frustrating and baffling, and arguing with them rarely gets anywhere.

Usually the damage done by these convictions is slow and long-term. But the pandemic posed a much more immediate threat. When Landon shared a meme calling the coronavirus pandemic an overblown hoax, he was following in the footsteps of millions of other conservatives who made the mistake of trusting the president of the United States and their favorite media outlets. Landon even acknowledged that the coronavirus was real, but he thought it would come and go with little effect. He probably doubted he’d ever be exposed.

Around the same time Landon was preparing for Mardi Gras, Trump was claiming that he had the coronavirus under control and that cases were decreasing in the United States. He implied only a tiny handful would get the virus and that most Americans would never need to worry about it. Anyone who saw Trump as a normal president and relied on Fox News and Facebook posts from their like-minded friends was seeing a constant stream of reassurances that the coronavirus wasn’t a big deal.

Like many evangelicals in the charismatic tradition, Landon thought that God would likely protect him from any serious disease. It’s a nonnegotiable belief for that subset of evangelical Christianity, and some believers even deliberately put themselves at risk as an expression of faith. But even that belief has limits. I don’t know what Landon was thinking, but I can’t believe that he would have put himself and his family at risk had he known the truth.

He began feeling sick sometime after Mardi Gras, but a coronavirus test returned a false negative. On his way home, he suddenly collapsed. Another test came up positive. He spent his last days in a strange city, sedated and face down in a desperate effort to keep him breathing. Whatever mistakes he made, nobody deserves that. I’m angry and heartbroken at his death and worried about the millions of others who continue to laugh off the virus.

These beliefs continue even after the president dropped his own previous claims about the virus. I don’t know how to convince people that Trump was lying to them or get certain evangelicals to stop putting themselves at risk. Maybe they’d be more cautious if they imagined their families mourning them, unable to even see them in person in their last days. Maybe evangelicals will realize that if a sincere believer like Landon can get sick while witnessing to crowds, nobody has unconditional protection from God.

This situation is infuriating, and I understand why people are taking out their frustrations on this random street preacher. But we’re all in this together, and the virus doesn’t distinguish between conservatives and progressives. We need to stop the spread, even if that means swallowing legitimate anger and reaching out to the misinformed and reckless. There will be plenty of time for blame after this is over.

Emily Brumfield-Hessen is a writer in Virginia.

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