TV footage notwithstanding, snake handling is a tiny part of what goes on in these small, rural churches. They have preaching, prayer, offerings, announcements and worship like everyone else. Ralph Hood, a University of Tennessee professor and expert on this group, says most of these churches prohibit photographers and film crews because media visitors are fixated on the snakes. “They feel they preach for three hours and handle serpents for five minutes,” yet all the images are of people handling serpents, he told me.
In 40 years covering religion, I’ve rarely seen a religious group receive as much vitriol as the serpent-handler community. Yet the handlers have a fascinating ability to withstand torrents of abuse and ridicule. I was afraid of them myself once. But after spending time in their churches, I found kind, likable people who struggle to get through life like everyone else.
The First Amendment was made for believers such as these. In this era of debates over the rights of florists and cake-shop owners, these folks are willing to die for their unpopular beliefs. Whether it’s the Amish, the Adventists or the Appalachian snake handlers, it’s the people on the margins who protect the rest of us.
— ING (@ING_org) July 13, 2018