Snake-Handling, Vaccines & Science Denial

Yes, so social media was aglow and more than a little snarky and even downright cruel over the death of Rev. Jaime Coots, a snake-handling pastor from Kentucky. After refusing treatment for yet another snake bite, Coots died last week, but media folks and outsiders to this particular subculture are wrong to think that this event will do anything to deter this small Pentecostal subculture from continuing to practice snake handling and drink poison as a sign of their faith.

So what is going on here? Over the last few months, the Coots death, and a series of other events have made me re-think the notions that historically Pentecostals accepted medicine if they could sacralize the process first.  As long as Pentecostals made clear that they were not being unfaithful in seeking medical treatment, they’d take their medicine. By and large, Pentecostals accept medicine, from everything from chemo for cancer, prescriptions for chronic conditions, to flu shots. Lately, there is a backlash of sorts against even the most basic form of medical treatment.

The first and most well-known is the death of reality t.v. pastor Jamie Coots, who died last week rather than seek medical treatment for a snake bite.
I have no doubt that this subculture is viewed as extreme, radical, and unsafe for anyone who engages in such transgressive behavior. But, like most forms of transgressive behaviors that do not harm others and are engaged in by consenting adults, especially under the cover of religious freedom, that behavior is protected. Rev. Coots had a right not to seek treatment, he had a right to practice his faith, and even though there was a law prohiibiting the transportation of poisonous snakes in the state, Coots thwarted that law, the same way he refused treatment–because he was being faithful.

I have written elsewhere about the snake-handling subculture and how outsiders, horrified at the practice, often revert to berating the practitioners as “ignorant,” “extremists” who ought to be forced to accept medical treatment and the entirety of the snake-handling culture be criminalized.

Such laws will not deter these small churches, localized in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, who are often generations into their particular traditions that not only call for the “taking up of serpents,” but the drinking of poisons like strychnine.

Then we have the anti-vaccination campaigns of some involved with prosperity preacher, Kenneth Copeland’s church near Ft. Worth, Texas, that resulted in an outbreak of measles last summer. Copeland’s daughter, Terry Parsons Copeland at first denied being the source of the anti-vaccination campaign at the church, saying that she was only concerned because of the supposed link in vaccinations to autism, (from a now debunked study), but that was not all.
In an online sermon posted following the outbreak, Parsons and her husband urged parishioners to get vaccinated, unless “you’ve got this covered in your household by faith and it crosses your heart of faith, then don’t go do it.”

The Texas case resulted in a localized outbreak of measles. A potentially more deadly anti-vaccination campaign arose in Cameroon, where a previously polio-free Cameroon, recently started seeing outbreaks of the dreaded disease again. Seems that a Pentecostal church in Cameroon told their congregants not to accept the polio vaccine and rely instead on faith.

What Copeland and the Cameroonian church have in common is both are advocates of another Pentecostal subculture called the prosperity gospel. Basically, what those affiliated with Copeland’s church and the Cameroonian church did was place their faith into action–decrying the need for vaccines, when all one needed was their own verbal intonation of faith that would summon God’s protection from communicable diseases. Only, it did not work.

Some prosperity gospel advocates today are advocating what Pentecostals advocated in their early years, which was to reject allopathic medicine in favor of God’s ability to heal and and protect from sickness. After World War 2, a combination of seeking middle class respectability and the accessibility of common medications made it easier for Pentecostals to accommodate their beliefs about faith healing and medicine. Pentecostals took medicine, as long as it was clear that they were not abandoning their belief that prayer worked as well, and that God also ordained doctors to heal. But before medicine gained acceptance, even after, especially within these two subcultures–snake-handlers and prosperity gospel advocates, both have at times questioned and even abandoned the consensus belief among Pentecostals that medicine was one of God’s ways to heal. Why snake-handlers like Coots abandoned that consensus may be easier to explain than why prosperity gospel folks at Copeland’s church or the Cameroonians did?

Perhaps it is a part of the whole science denial ethos so prevalent in many quarters of conservative Christianity. If you do not have a theologically appropriate answer to how vaccines work, how snake venom acts as a necrotizing agent that eventually withers your body down to unworkable collapse, even the cosmological issues of how the sun stays in the sky (gravity). How vaccines work (building up tolerance to active agents), or even building tolerance to snake venom (eventually it wears you down)–are all under suspicion, because they come from non-sacralized sites of knowledge.

In a time and a social place today where some religious folks are again convinced that the end is near, (gay marriage, legalized pot, Barak Obama), where the signs of a imminent moral apocalypse are right around the corner; a way to demonstrate faith over the secular, over the medical profession, over science–is to proclaim that you are cashing out. Whatever social and cultural capital gains Pentecostals received over the last few decades, that may have been  too much to pay for respectability, so much so that some decided that was not worth it, and like Coots, and others who have refused treatment for themselves and on behalf of their children–they will pay with their lives, and the lives of their children.


About Arlene Sánchez-Walsh