Just for the record, The New Republic has republished (with some changes) my website piece on the refusal of a Tennessee grand jury to indict a snake handler despite his blatant violation of the law. My revised piece is called “Snake handler not charged with abusing animals thanks to Tennessee definition of ‘religious freedom’.”
While looking for extra links for the NR piece, I found an absolutely stunningly dumb article from the Washington Post: “Mack Wolford’s death a reminder that serpent handler should be lauded for their faith.” WHAT? The author, Ralph Hood, says this:
As a long time student and even admirer of the faith of handlers, I am persuaded that there is a curious bias in America culture. This bias permits high risk behaviors among consenting adults for all kinds of dangerous activities, from car racing to hang gliding to football but excludes religious ritual. Why should religion be any different? Among believers, the plain meaning of Mark is clear. The imperative to handle serpents does not include the caveat that one cannot be bitten, maimed or even killed. The tradition documents this fact as does concern over the death of Pastor Wolford.
Yet from the handler’s perspective, the issue is not that one dies. I have heard it preached on more than one occasion that “nobody gets out of this life alive.” The issue for handlers is not that you die, but how you die. Dying obedient to the Lord is what is crucial and assures salvation. Handlers believe in an eternal with God and believing in and practicing the Word of God is what assures this. Most handlers die from causes other than serpent bites. But for those, whom God brought to his bosom by a bite, one need not mourn a loss of life, but applaud the handler’s belief that they have gone home to be with their God.
One need not legislate against a practice among consenting adults, comforted by their King James Bible, sincere in their effort to practice all that their God commands, and whose death like the bite of the serpent lacks the sting and futility that outsiders attribute to it. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Corinthians 15:55). ” These words from the King James Bible may ring hollow in a rapidly secularizing society, but not among those that believe in a literal transcendence. As Barb Elkins, the grand matriarch of the Jolo church once told me, “If you do not believe in handling, pray for those who do.” May God bless Pastor Wolford and his family.
Well, I agree that we shouldn’t pass laws preventing adults from engaging in dangerous practices in the service of their faith: that’s discrimination against religion, and takes away from adults the right to do what they want so long as it hurts nobody else. (Of course, we have to think about how this practice affects others, including the children who are taught it!). But it is by no means “laudable” to play with venomous snakes in the service of God. The difference between snake-handling and other dangerous practices, like race-car driving or football, is that with sports there is the possibility of a tangible reward at the end: you win, and can get lots of $$. You know that if your team wins the Superbowl, or you win the Indy 500 race, you’re gonna go home with a lot of dosh. But the “victory” in snake-handling is illusory: you supposedly go to heaven by playing with snakes for Jesus. There’s not an iota of evidence for that, and therefore the activity is profoundly stupid. If you want to handle snakes as a form of thrill-seeking, as did Steve Irwin (he ultimately died from a stingray barb piercing his chest), fine—so long as you don’t injure the animals—but to say it’s “laudable” when it demonstrates your faith in God is simply crazy.
Faith in fact is never “laudable,” for it’s not admirable to believe in something without evidence. But when that belief risks your life (and Mac Wolford had a wife and daughter), it is not only not laudable, but contemptible.
If you want a contrast with Hood’s ludicrous piece, read this moving eyewitness account, also in The Washington Post, by Lauren Pond, “Why I watched a snake-handling pastor die for his faith.” Be sure to see the photo gallery by clicking on the picture at the top (warning: it shows photos of Wolford after the bite and right before he died).