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    The Story: Pentecostal Snake Handler refuses help and dies. My Reaction: Surprising, even to Me


    For days now, since I heard about the death of Jamie Coots, the snake-handling preacher from Middlesboro, Kentucky, I've been struggling with my own thoughts about it.  There is no reason in the world why I should be involved in any of it.  I didn't know him.  I had never before heard of his church.  And I didn't know before this weekend, when I read about his death, that he had been the star of a National Geographic Channel series called "Snake Salvation".

    Photo Credit:  National Geographic Channel

    I read about his death--about how he had been bitten by a venomous snake during a church service on Saturday, about how his family carried his unconscious body to their home, about how the family refused help from the EMS team dispatched to their home with the needed anti-venom serum, about how Jamie Coots of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name died without ever waking up again--and before I had even finished reading the article a blog post was already taking shape.

    The more I read about this man, about his beliefs, about the origins of Pentecostal snake-handling in the hills of Appalachia, the closer I came to seeing it as a story ripe for ridicule.  And I wrote it that way.  I had some funny lines in there--laugh-out-loud, if I do say--and I had a link to a video that would make Jamie Coots look foolish.  He did look foolish.  To me.  But I couldn't get it right.  I kept coming back to the raw fact that a man had died.  A man was dead and I was trying to create a piece that would be a candidate for Wacky Story of the Week.

    It isn't that.  It's a story about belief and trust and how difficult it sometimes is to understand interpretations, perceptions, and faith.

    It's about the actions of generations of men who invented and relied on their own definitions of a few passages of the bible having to do with the handling snakes in order to start a new kind of church.

    And it's about us, the outsiders, and where we draw the line.

    For any church, for any religion, the outsiders are irrelevant. Unless we're directly affected, their methods of worship are their business, not ours. If we don't understand their rituals, they can live with that.

    My own sense is that we draw the line when it's evident that during their rituals people can be, and have been, physically harmed.  Then we step in and look around.  In this case, it should be easy to analyze the problem here:  Their religion causes them to show their devotion to God by handling venomous snakes.  As reported in a USA Today article, they don't believe that God will save them from snakebites.  That's not the point:

    Professors who study snake handling say worshipers are very aware of the risks they are taking and accept the consequences.

    Brian Pennington, a religion professor at Maryville College in Maryville, Tenn., has studied Coots during his research on snake handling in worship.

    He said the prominent leader of the snake handling community saw the practice as "an absolute command of God."

    "These are not irrational people. These are people who know very well what they're doing every Sunday or Wednesday night — whenever it might be they go into that church," Pennington said. "They know very well the fate that Pastor Coots suffered could be suffered by any of them who does this during a service."

     Throughout the history of the Pentecostal snake-handling movement, mainly based in rural Appalachia, many people have died from snake bites, including the movement's founder, George Hensley.  After being bitten numerous times, one of the bites finally killed him.  He wasn't alone.  There are no accurate records of the numbers of snake bite deaths during these rituals, but it was enough for some states to outlaw religious snake handling.

    In 2012, Mark Wolford, pastor at the Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus, died of snake bite wounds.  These deaths aren't nearly as publicized as that of Coots, who was the star of a TV show and thus better known, but they happen, and are expected to happen.

    "A common misunderstanding is that handlers believe they can't get bit or it won't kill them," [Ralph Hood, a religion professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga] added. "What they'll tell you is, `No one will get out of this alive.' They'll also tell you it's not a question of how you live; it's a question of how you die. ... This is how he would have wanted to die."

      The problem, then, and the reason we pay attention--beyond a natural curiosity about something as odd as serpent-handling for God--is that people seem to be willing to die for reasons we will never understand.  They are deliberately putting their lives in jeopardy as a supposed honor to God.  All based on a few slim passages nearly hidden away in the King James version of the bible.

    I was angry when I first heard about this--and maybe I still am.  People are dying over something that makes no sense.  But the longer I got into it, the more I came to realize--for my own self--that we can't help them.  We can't understand them and we can't help them. They embrace a literal translation of a few biblical passages and have created an entire religion around it.  A religion that's over a century old now.  That's pretty monumental.  In the end, it doesn't have to make sense to anyone else. 

    There is the snake's point of view, of course, and it shouldn't be ignored.  Some say that in order to keep the snakes willing and docile, they underfeed and underwater them.  They keep them tightly together in glass cages and their life span--three to five months--is far below the normal span of 10 to 20 years.  That is animal cruelty and needs to be addressed.

    But if it can be proven that no snakes are harmed in the process, I'm all for moving on to something else.  They're going to do what they're going to do with or without our blessing--which, it should be noted, they haven't asked for.

    Even now, the next generation is moving to take over where Jamie Coots left off.  Jamie's son, Cody, will follow the family tradition. (Jamie's father and grandfather were both serpent-handling preachers)  Children in these churches are not allowed to handle snakes, but nobody stops them from watching.  If they're brought up in a culture where handling venomous snakes is a major part of honoring their God, it would be the rare kid who wouldn't want to try it as soon as they came of age.  Even the dying part is noble.  But once they're adults, our commitment to watch over them has ended.

    According to Knoxville's WATETV. com on Sunday:

     The pastor's son [Cody ]Coots saw the snake bite his father last night.

    "The snake that bit him, we've been carrying it for four months. It's been carried hundreds of times and handled all kinds of times. But when it's your time to go, it's just your time to go," Cody Coots said.

    Cody says while they're in shock, his family will stand strong in their beliefs.

    "I don't think it's dangerous. It's the word of God. We've always said it's a good way to live by and it's a good way to die by," Cody Coots said.

    Cody Coots is expected to keep his father's ministry going.


    Great post, Ramona.

    Such a difficult call: how much should we respect religious liberty when it leads people to endanger themselves?

    Indeed a huge and gnarly topic. It's the story of the Waco siege, the story of the Jonestown massacre, not to mention the story of the plight of women in Afghanistan and that of many youthful suicide bombers worldwide....

    Juan Cole once wrote a very interesting paragraph admitting some of the special legal problems in this regard in a blog post on the July 7, 2005 London bombings:

    Legislators in democratic societies who are thinking about how to respond to this problem should give serious thought to RICO-like laws that could be used to curb religious cults, which typically isolate members, indoctrinate them, manipulate them, and sometimes coerce them. Cults avoid scrutiny by harassing critics and whistleblowers, often in ways that police find it difficult to respond to. The enormous problems modern societies have had with groups like Christian Identity, the Koreishites, Aum Shinrikyo, and now al-Qaeda, suggests that current legal frameworks are inadequate to address this problem. Ex-members, victims and critics of cults need a legal basis for protection from the cults. The American Family Foundation is doing excellent work in this regard.

    Religion is how you treat others, what you do for others. It means respect for life, including your own. The passages in the Bible are metaphorical.

    Snake handling is gig, a show, like the fire whip guy at the county fair. It's a way to be somebody in a region lacking heroes and hope. It's a dangerous 'extreme sport' for people who 'believe'. Believe in what? Fooling around with deadly snakes makes them something special?

    Taken to extremes it means using deadly snakes as a 'truth test' to determine who lives and who dies. It's as fanatic a practice as any test or rite, religious or pagan, from ages past.

    Yes, it's all of that.  You could pick apart many religions based on their showmanship and flim-flammery, on their need to control, on their insistence on basing everything on faith or specific secions of the bible, but in the end the flock makes their choices.  They are choices.  That's the point.

    The latest from Peter Berger who studies religions professionally and is fascinated by the growth of charismatic Christianity:

    In August 2014 there was a meeting of the Pentecostal World Conference in a megachurch in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia—a rather audacious locale for such a gathering, the very audacity testifying to the self-confidence of the charismatic international. Malaysia is of course a distinctive case of religious diversity—a slim majority of ethnic Malays (“sons of the soil”) who are almost all Muslims, with a significant minority of mostly Christian ethnic Chinese—the political system kept going by a complicated regime of pro-Malay affirmative action balanced by concessions to the economically powerful Chinese community. I don’t know how this intrusion of militant Protestantism has or has not disturbed the delicate balance that has kept the peace in the country. Count on Pentecostals not to be overly concerned with interfaith sensitivities! The background of the meeting is spelled out: In 1970 Pentecostals were 5% of world Christians; today the figure is 25%! 80% of Christian converts in Asia are Pentecostal! I’m not quite clear how this arithmetic is worked out, but the Christian Century story asserts that one of twelve people alive today is Pentecostal! Not surprisingly, the gathering in Kuala Lumpur was “young, vibrant and confident”. No stepping around quietly so as not to offend Muslim sensitivities!

    Of course, not all charismatics nor all Pentecostals handle snakes.


    A commitment to snake handling would provide a useful counterweight to the otherwise exponential grown of Pentacostalism...sometimes the problem contains the solution within it.



    There does seem to be a rise in that kind of primitive magical thinking.  I wonder if, in this country at least, it has to do with our slide down toward poverty levels again.  Fear can cause people to look for fixes where they might never have looked before.

    From a Jan. 9, 2005 article by Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times Sunday Review

    The world's fastest growing religion is not any type of fundamentalism, but the Pentecostal wing of Christianity. While Christian fundamentalists are focused on doctrine and the inerrancy of Scripture,  what is most important for Pentecostals is what they call "spirit-filled" worship, including speaking in tongues and miracle healing. Brazil, where American missionaries planted Pentecostalism in the early 20th century, now has a congregation with its owns TV station, soccer team and political party.

    Most scholars of Christianity believe that the world's largest church is a Pentecostal one - the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, which was founded in 1958 by a converted Buddhist who held a prayer meeting in a tent he set up in a slum. More than 250,000 people show up for worship on a typical Sunday.

    "If I were to buy stock in global Christianity, I would buy it in Pentecostalism," said Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus of the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a coauthor of a study of fundamentalist movements. "I would not buy it in fundamentalism."

    Another excerpt:

    In much of South and Central America, exuberant Pentecostal churches, where worshipers catch the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues, continue to spread, challenging the Roman Catholic tradition.

    I remember having a discussion about this article with a sometime contributor at TPMCafe, a former CIA guy who had expertise in religious cultures, can't remember his name. We ending up agreeing that the trend seemed to be related to individualism, almost a libertarianism in a way, not just anti-hierarchical religion, but more so, with creativity involved, against religions with set liturgies. Where people were allowed to interpret the religion for themselves, to have an individually designed one-on-one relationship with the deity and with the holy text as well. And where, if looking for guidance at all, it was always up to the individual (or like-minded community) to chose their preacher or mullah or elder or advisor, to basically have the "hiring and firing" power with that.

    Edit to add: note in the article, Islam was #2 fastest growing, where a lot of the same individual freedom of interpretation applies: unlike the pope (or the Supreme Leader of the Socialist Republic), only a minority of believers care what the official Wahhabi cleric of Mecca has to say. Not a community following rules, but rather, individuals sharing their joy.

    What you say may be part of the condition of being a Pentecostal or a way of describing their relationship to dogma or whatever but I don't think it is the significant thing which separates them from any other way of being a Christian. For them it aint so much about learning what God wants and a service isn't per se even about caring what God wants or praying to him for what they want, but is rather just a group experience of getting high on spirituality. Pentecostals are into making a rapturous connection with the living spirit and and letting go to have an experience of being one with it.  A good church service for them has a crowd energy like a rock concert with a lot of inter-active audience  participation. They have a lot of fun and go home feeling good.
     I have never actually been to one of their services, my expert opinion which I apply to every one of them everywhere comes from sitting with a couple friends on the curb opposite one Holy Roller church on some Wednesday nights in Tulsa Oklahoma a bit more than fifty years ago. We had fun too.

    Excellent look at it, Lulu.  When we were kids we passed a store-front Holy Roller church many times before we finally had the nerve to go inside.  I think what drew us in finally was that sense of pure joy.  We had never seen anything like it.  We made fun of it, of course, standing outside and looking in.  They were singing and speaking in tongues and the best part--they actually were rolling around in the aisles.  We dared each other to go in, and when we did they stopped and welcomed us and then went on as if we weren't there.  Your comparison to the exuberance of a rock concert comes closest to explaining it.

    Two of my girlfriends in high school belonged to a Pentecostal church and I remember all of us laughing like crazy as they tried to explain "speaking in tongues".  I asked them to do it for me, and they laughed even harder.  What a dummy! You can't just "do it"!

    They were funny and totally at ease with talking about their religion with anyone who asked them about it.  Otherwise, they were quiet about it. They wore no makeup and didn't cut their hair, but other than that there was no indication they were any different from anyone else.  Except that they laughed a lot.

    It could be that those two experiences had something to do with my difficulty in writing this piece.  I didn't think of either of those things until I read your comment.  Thanks.

    has a crowd energy like a rock concert with a lot of inter-active audience  participation.

    Yes, that's why I said

    Not a community following rules, but rather, individuals sharing their joy.

    There is also similarity in that a rock concert crowd is mostly fans of that particular rock band, they have chosen to see that rock band (there is no one that says it is required to attend,) and if some don't like a song, they might even boo it. They chose the preacher, they chose the liturgy and the interpretation of the "text," and there are few communal rules.  I will add: there are no major community goals except sharing joy. Even faith healing is like sharing joy. Pentecostalism is, in the end, very individualistic, the opposite of many major religions, which are communal or totalitarian.

    "We ending up agreeing that the trend seemed to be related to individualism, almost a libertarianism in a way, not just anti-hierarchical religion, but more so, with creativity involved, against religions with set liturgies."

    I am having a really hard time seeing libertarians immersing themselves in a communal religious ecstatic experience -- unless, of course, it is a Dead concert. laugh

    I seem to recall reading of some association between the suppression of Catholic Liberation Theology and the rise Central and South American Pentecostalism which in turn led to the advent of  Pope Francis. Mysterious ways indeed.

    Reglious ecstasy: not just for Pentecoastals


    Libertarians are against making like-minded friends? They don't often recommend neighbor helping neighbor in trouble as an alternative to the government coming to the rescue? Many new Latin American Pentecostals are not reveling in being released from the hierarchy and rules of the Catholic church?

    Depends on the libertarian, I guess, but those things are not the impediments. Libertarians and Liberals and Progressives and me are simply too self-conscious, to get caught up in a communal ecstasy unless they are drunk or stoned or otherwise medicated.


    Excellent blog post, Ramona.  I'm glad you decided to go with your instincts and write a serious piece.  And how timely that, as I logged into the My Yahoo screen to read the Dag post RSS feed, I see Yahoo News post this tonight at the same time. 

    It seems the lines between church and state get blurred in cases like this.  Child welfare takes precedence, as it should, but as you stressed in your piece here, Pentacostals have no interest in what we think, even to the point of ignoring our laws.  I don't know any solution, but I appreciate your taking the time to research and write about it in an effort to get the dialog started.


    Thank you, Lis.  And so nice to see you here!  The story about the parents allowing their children to die is so sad and so maddening.  Made even more maddening because the mother finally realizes she didn't do enough to keep her children alive.  Too late, too late.

    I don't know what makes those people tick, and once they're adults, I don't care.  But when they involve children, I want to see social services on the ball, ever watchful.

    This is just chilling:

    The Schaibles are the rare couple to lose a second child that way. Their pastor, Nelson Clark, blamed Kent's death on a "spiritual lack" in the parents' lives, and insisted they would never seek medical care, even if another child was dying.

    But then so is this:

    "It was so foreseeable to me that this was going to happen," said Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore, who prosecuted both cases. "Everybody in the system failed these children."


    That's what I meant about the separation of church and state in my comment above.  I wonder sometimes if they are TOO separate, to have let these two children die.  One authority  -- the one with the law behind it -- should have taken precedence, but somehow couldn't.  The other authority is under question...


    Welcome home Lis.  Where have you been.

    Oh, I've been keeping up with you all, Bslev :) 

    I read Dag and TPM and Crooks and Liars as regularly as I can, I just don't comment much.  But I'm still here. 

    I hope you are well, my friend. 

    "People are dying over something that makes no sense."

    Probably too much True Detective for me but... in the end, we all die over something that makes no sense to a good number of other people, right?

    I guess. . .

    The irony of this whole episode is too rich for words. But well done Mona. cool

    I hope someone knocks some sense into Cody though, cause it seems as though his chosen profession has no hazard pay or medical care.  

    It makes you wonder how many of the family has cut ties.  As a kid I didn't buy into my mother's religion.  I didn't like church but I didn't have to watch snake handling knowing it might kill me.  I would of ran a way from home as soon as I was old enough and never looked back.  

    I had a friend who died not long ago - she refused treatment for cancer and felt she could handle it through more "natural" means, and after years of struggling & multiple relapses, they opened her up and there was nothing left inside.

    But her family was behind her all the way - it was her style, she chose her path, she lost the battle, but then people die every day from car wrecks, skiing accidents, senseless murders, exposure to a toxic environment, et al.

    Choosing one's own way to live and die seems really basic to me. This guy handled snakes - amazing to all probably that he lived this long. Some lion tamers eventually get mauled by a lion. Oh well - still glad to live in a world with snake handlers and lion tamers and bungie jumpers/base jumpers/guys who sail down mountains wearing squirrel suits.

    Good points.  That video is amazing.  I couldn't do it myself, but I can understand the thrill.  Wow.

    Hard to believe there's that much lift in such a small span of material.

    Makes all the wing in hang gliding seem like over-kill.

    Thank you Ramona.  I really found this interesting and I needed something to deal with my latest bout of creeping middle age insomnia.  I especially appreciate the link you provide which gives an overview of cases in various jurisdictions that have addressed snake handling.  The bottom line is that, so far as I can tell, no court, federal or state, has held that a statute regulating the use of snakes for religious purposes runs afoul of that portion of the First Amendment that prevents Congress (and the states pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment) from enacting laws that interfere with the "free exercise" of religion.  To the contrary, such laws have been consistently upheld, including in Kentucky where Reverend Cook's church is located.

    Of course, in a pure literal sense, any prohibition on snake handling for religious purposes runs afoul of the "free exercise" clause.  But First Amendment protections are not absolute and are read so as not to interfere with legitimate state interests.   Kentucky's statute specifically prohibits snake handling for religious purposes, and so presumably would not apply to a circus snake charmer.  Because the law is specific to religious practice, it must pass constitutional muster under what is called a "strict standard of review," which is only met if it can be demonstrated that the law is supported by a compelling state interest.

    In 1942, Kentucky's highest court upheld the constitutionality of its religious-specific law, and in doing so applied strict scrutiny and found that any restriction on religious practice was justified by Kentucky's compelling interest in the health and safety of its citizens (poisonous snakes kill).  In a 2012 case, the same Kentucky court reaffirmed its 1942 decision in a case involving a challenge to a law requiring all slow-moving vehicles to have a bright orange sign on their rear.   In upholding that statute against a challenge brought by a group of Amish citizens, the Kentucky court noted that the law was broadly applied to all slow-moving vehicles and was therefore not subject to the strict scrutiny standard of review that was applicable to its earlier decision relating to snakes.  Instead, the sign statute was upheld based on the application of a far more lenient "rational basis" standard, which generally requires a showing that the challenged law is rationally related to a legitimate state interest such as highway safety.

    The United States Supreme Court has never considered a First Amendment challenge to a snake handing statute.  In various dicta, however, the Supreme Court has cited the state cases addressing snake handling with approval.

    So why would Reverand Cook violate Kentucky's law?  As I understand that law, the maximum penalty is a $100 fine.  Such a penalty is hardly a disincentive to practice one's religious beliefs relating to snake handling.

    Finally, why doesn't Kentucky amend the statute to include stiffer penalties?  That is a political question, and not one for the courts.

    Nice work Ramona.

    Thanks so much for looking at the legal aspects, Bruce.  I'm on my way out but I'll look at it again later.  I do remember the fuss by the Amish community over the orange triangles, but I'm sure it has saved lives.  They were moving targets before that, all in black as they were. 

    Bruce, what would be the purpose of a state law expressly prohibiting the handling of snakes in a religious setting but not, say, a carnival setting?  Wouldn't they be setting themselves up for a challenge based on religious rights?  And rightfully so?  Why not just prohibit snake-handling, period?

    I read somewhere in all that that most states having a snake-handling clause rarely act on it.  It no doubt only comes up when someone actually dies by snake bite, and then fades away once the hoopla is over. 

    It sounds like some lawmakers felt the need for some lip service but nobody's heart is in the enforcement.  So the laws satisfy no one.

    Sorry Ramona, catching my breath from reading another thread.  I don't know the legislative history behind Kentucky's law, but we do know that it was enacted quite awhile ago, as the decision upholding its constitutionality was issued back in 1942.  I think one can assume that the Kentucky legislators weren't thinking that hard about the constitutional dimensions of the statute, and were instead focusing on the reality of the snake handling stuff in certain churches.  Most of the principal cases dealing with the "free exercise" clause were decided after the Kentucky ruling, and the sliding standards of review for these cases were fleshed out in these cases as well.  I think it's also safe to assume that a similar statute passed today would not have the religious-based language, because it would be unnecessary -- unless the circus lobby is really really strong!


    Not to downplay the gist of this blog but:






    I find it hard to keep caring about people who go to extraordinary lengths (out of their way) to face dangers like this as a part of their religion or their need to prove themselves or their desire for a thrill.

    As long as they don't force others to do it...or especially children...I say, "Go with God." What else can you say?

    Yeah, there "outta be a law," and I guess there is, but I wouldn't spend much trying to enforce it unless they're endangering young 'uns or innocent bystanders.

    They did an X-Files episode on snake handling and had a great match cut between the snake opening its jaws to reveal its venom-dealing fangs and a staple remover. A very cool moment; it changed my view of staple removers forever.

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