Apparently, a better name for reality TV series Snake Salvation would have been When Faith Meets Reality (You Will Hear a Loud Smack). Pentecostal preacher and host Jamie Coots of Tennessee, believed that poisonous snakes could not harm him because he was anointed by God. The Bible, he believed, said so (Mark 15:16-17). I speak of Coots in the past tense, because he died Saturday night after being bitten by one of his poisonous snakes. He continued to believe this even after losing half a finger and witnessing, if you’ll pardon the expression in this context, the death of others who shared his beliefs.
In the hills of Appalachia, Pentecostal pastors Jamie Coots and Andrew Hamblin struggle to keep an over-100-year-old tradition alive: the practice of handling deadly snakes in church. Jamie and Andrew believe in a bible passage that suggests a poisonous snakebite will not harm them as long as they are anointed by God’s power. If they don’t practice the ritual of snake handling, they believe they are destined for hell. Hunting the surrounding mountains for deadly serpents and maintaining their church’s snake collection is a way of life for both men. The pastors must frequently battle the law, a disapproving society, and even at times their own families to keep their way of life alive.
As that infamous atheist Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
It turns out, no matter what you believe, that poisonous snakes will kill you. The old adage “Mind over matter ” often falls to the wayside when confronted by another old adage, that “Mother nature is a bitch.”
As noted, it is not as though there was a lack of evidence to suggest that poisonous snakes kill people. It turns out, relates the History of Campbell County Tennessee, that “between 1940 and 1950 six southern states banned the ritual of ‘snake handling'” because poisonous snakes were killing people in churches. “Those are Kentucky, 1940; Georgia, 1941; Tennessee, 1947; North Carolina, 1949; and Alabama, 1950.” In Alabama and Georgia, the practice was even deemed a felony.
The idea behind the laws was that the First Amendment rights be damned, it was just too dangerous for all involved. In Tennessee, where snake handling is a misdemeanor, zoos and schools can own snakes but not churches. Discriminatory or not, maybe this is because in schools and zoos snakes aren’t given opportunities to bite their handlers to prove a point.
And sure enough, Coots was arrested in Kentucky in 2008 and again last year near Knoxville when he was found to have a car full of poisonous snakes, receiving a year’s probation. Religion News Service (RNS) reported on November 12 of last year that “Officials from the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency raided the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollete on Thursday (Nov. 7) and seized 53 venomous snakes – including timber rattlesnakes, copperheads and several exotic breeds.” The pastor involved was the Rev. Andrew Hamblin, Coots’ costar on Snake Salvation. That was 53 counts based on the 1947 law and each count means one year in prison.
Rev. Hamblin said this was a violation of religious liberty because Mark 15:16-17 says,
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
But Coots did not recover. According to RNS, he was found dead at home at 10 p.m. Saturday after having turned away emergency workers. “Some, like Coots, refused medical care – saying God would heal him. If he died, that would be God’s will.” Hamblin was with him when he died.
Ironically, Coots’ claim to fame dated from the 1990s, when a book, “Salvation on Sand Mountain” featured himself and his friend, John Wayne “Punkin” Brown, who was killed by a poisonous snake in 1998.
I suppose a word is in order with regards freedom of religion and the First Amendment. Generally, I am chastising the Religious Right for privileging their own religious freedom above ours. I might surprise a few readers here by coming down on the side of the First Amendment where snake handling is concerned. I am no Christian, certainly, and my personal opinion is that the passage in Mark refers to what has happened in the past and not what must happen in the future (that most would likely agree with me seems to be proven by snake handling’s mere, century old origins). I am as repulsed by the idea of snake handling as most likely are by the idea of blood sacrifice, which is also sanctified by the Bible and which is a component of my own religion (though I do not myself practice it).
But ultimately, my approval isn’t relevant, nor is the fact that poisonous snakes bite and kill humans who handle them. What is relevant – and it is the only thing that is relevant – is the First Amendment, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” I will leave it to the Religious Right to try to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of us. I will not seek to impose my own on others. This is in keeping with my long-held belief that I don’t care what others believe as long as they leave my beliefs alone, and I have yet to have a snake handler try to force me to handle a snake.
I am just happy that my old Heathen Scandinavian ancestors were too clever by far to think Odin wanted them to pick up and pass around poisonous snakes. I much prefer Odin’s practical advice to:
Praise day at even, a wife when dead,
a weapon when tried, a maid when married,
ice when ’tis crossed, and ale when ’tis drunk.
The Old Norse does not translate well, so in the words of a Icelandic Heathen friend of mine,
Praise the day when it is over; praise the wife when she’s been cremated;
Praise the sword after you’ve tested it; praise the maiden when you’ve married her off;
Praise the ice on the water after you’ve reached the other side;
praise the ale, when it is in your belly!
The Religious Right refuses to tolerate my religion or yours (or your non-religion) and I do not think the Religious Right sets an example we should follow. Since the First Amendment does not say “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof unless handling poisonous snakes…” then we must, as when watching drunken snowmobilers meeting trees and insufficiently frozen bodies of water, allow nature to take its course. Consider it “natural eugenics” if you wish, but you can’t protect people from their own worse impulses, especially when those impulses are driven by religion.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.