NYTimes frames snake handler issue — correctly!

Even though The New York Times is the newspaper I sometimes “love to hate” for its often-casual approach to religion news, there are occasions when the “Gray Lady,” as the paper is historically known, gets it right. Too much of this and I might just get the vapors.

Come with me now (click here for the story itself) to the steps of a courthouse in East Tennessee, where the forces of one famous form of fervent faith and the power of Caesar are butting heads:

JACKSBORO, Tenn. – In a mix of old-time religion, modern media and Tennessee law, a 22-year-old preacher who has become a reality television star because of his experience in handling poisonous snakes pleaded not guilty on Friday to illegally keeping dozens of them that he and his congregants routinely touch during worship services.

Andrew Hamblin, pastor of the Tabernacle Church of God in nearby LaFollette and a star of “Snake Salvation,” a recent series on the National Geographic Channel, said he hoped to turn the case against him in Campbell County General Sessions Court into a new front in the battle for religious liberty.

“This ain’t no longer just a fight for snake handling,” Mr. Hamblin, the father of five, told a group of supporters wearing red — to symbolize the blood of Christ — before his arraignment on a misdemeanor wildlife possession charge. “This is a fight for freedom of religion.”

As Mr. Hamblin, holding a Bible, spoke from the third step of the Campbell County Courthouse, several women cried and shook.

Looks as if your blogger isn’t the only one who might be vapor-prone.

But I digress.

After gaining national exposure on NatGeo, as the cable channel dubs itself, Hamblin’s church was visited by state wildlife officials, his snakes seized, and the pastor brought before a judge on several charges. His followers, to put it mildly, aren’t pleased:

But to Mr. Hamblin and his supporters, the case is little more than state-instigated discrimination against a religious practice that has been present in East Tennessee for more than a century.

“When those officers entered the house of God, that cooked it with me,” said James Slusher, who attends Mr. Hamblin’s church but said he does not handle snakes.

Mr. Hamblin’s legal troubles have attracted widespread attention in Campbell County, and they have revived a longstanding debate here about whether the Constitution offers protections for Christians who, as the Gospel of Mark puts it, “pick up snakes with their hands.”

The Tennessee Supreme Court said nearly 40 years ago that it did not.

“Tennessee has the right to guard against the unnecessary creation of widows and orphans,” the court said in its opinion, which also described one snake-handling congregation as “to say the least, unconventional and out of harmony with contemporary customs, mores and notions of morality.”

Now I’m not a lawyer — I don’t even play one on TV — but it seems that “contemporary customs, mores” and even “notions of morality” have changed more than a little in the past four decades, and as such snake-handling might yet be within the “notions of morality” for many people today.

Of course, this is a case on the bleeding edge of church-state law, where judges have traditionally asked if a particular practice produces profit, is built on fraud or constitutes a clear threat to life and health. It’s easy to see that handling deadly snakes tests that final question (as do churches that urge parents to ignore all traditional health care in the name of spiritual healing).

The Times report is pretty straight down the middle here, quoting people on both sides, in a relatively snark-free look at the topic. Hamblin is allowed to speak for himself, and those who see other motives for the higher profile of these latter-day serpent handlers are also treated respectfully.

“I think this younger group of people is just openly defiant of the law and wants to get the law and regulations changed,” said Ralph Hood, a professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga who has studied snake handling. “They’re using modern technologies to support what they see as an old-time religion.”

I’m impressed, New York Times folks, that you were able to treat this story clearly and with a minimum of sensationalism. That is rarely the case in media coverage of this issue (check out this tmatt column for one hilarious example of vapor-driven coverage). Heck, you even allowed the preacher-cum-cable-star to clearly express one or two key elements of his theology:

And Mr. Hamblin argues that he is as much a Christian as any of this region’s many Baptists or Methodists.

“Just because I take up serpents doesn’t make me no more or no less a Christian than anybody else in this room,” Mr. Hamblin said during an interview on Thursday night in his sanctuary, which includes a large photograph of him holding up a snake. “Snake handling isn’t going to get me into heaven. The blood of Jesus Christ is what is going to get me into heaven.”

As the story notes, the “Devil is in the details.”

Somebody pass me those smelling salts.

About Mark Kellner

Mark Kellner has been interested in religion since his pre-teen years, and has written about religious news actively since 1983. His work regularly appears in Adventist World and Adventist Review magazines, where he is news editor, and in The Washington Times, where he has contributed since 1991, most recently writing about trends in religion. He and his wife reside in the Maryland suburbs, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Apparently the only people endangered are the snake handlers themselves. So why Big Government’s interest? People are going on live TV tightrope walking over thin air, car racers are sometimes incinerated, football players are turning their brains to jelly, boxers are constantly winding up in the hospital, etc., etc.
    So why didn’t the Times spend a few words comparing these other very risky pastimes which are not protected by the First Amendment and its guarantee of freedom to worship as one sees fit .

    • Darren Blair

      Wasn’t the big issue the presence of minors in congregations in which this was taking place?

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

        That was one of the issues, yes. Minors in the congregation, lack of snake-handling license (yes, that is a requirement to own poisonous snakes in Tennessee), and mistreatment of the snakes (they were torpid from starvation and maltreatment).

        The government doesn’t stop you from having snakes in your religious practice so long as you get the proper license and treat the snakes well. It does stop you from owning snakes illegally and abusing them.

    • http://www.andrewhidas.com/ Andrew Hidas

      Mr. Bresnahan, I don’t think it was the Times’ job to bring up these other dangerous activities—that would have gotten them right into the editorializing mode for which GetReligion writers regularly pillory them. But you bring up a valid and interesting point, and I think the answer to it lies in the deeply entrenched revulsion to snakes that is part of our psychic heritage in the Christian west. (Not sure about other parts of the world—do Buddhists and Muslims regularly scream, flee from, or hack to death every snake that comes across their path?) To our minds, ultimate fighting and other forms of mayhem-as-recreation may be repulsive, but not terrifying as snakes are, with all their top-heavy religious associations from the Bible.

      • tmatt

        Actually, that is an issue that might add one sentence or half a sentence, even, to a basic background paragraph on the church-state issue involved.


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