“They Will Take Up Serpents…”
Mack Wolford, a flamboyant Pentecostal pastor from West Virginia whose serpent-handling talents were profiled last November in The Washington Post Magazine, hoped the outdoor service he had planned for Sunday at an isolated state park would be a “homecoming like the old days,” full of folks speaking in tongues, handling snakes and having a “great time.” But it was not the sort of homecoming he foresaw.
Instead, Wolford, who turned 44 the previous day, was bitten by a rattlesnake he owned for years. He died late Sunday.
Mark Randall “Mack” Wolford was known all over Appalachia as a daring man of conviction. He believed that the Bible mandates that Christians handle serpents to test their faith in God — and that, if they are bitten, they trust in God alone to heal them.
He and other adherents cited Mark 16:17-18 as the reason for their practice: “And these signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
The son of a serpent handler who himself died in 1983 after being bitten, Wolford was trying to keep the practice alive, both in West Virginia, where it is legal, and in neighboring states where it is not.
I see this as a useful counterpoint to Tom’s Libertarian Cannibal Transsexual Penis Cafe.
First, I hadn’t known that snake handling was illegal. This seems obviously wrong to me. Given that it implicates a minority religious practice, it strikes me as just the sort of law that ought to be resisted with as much force as possible.
Second, a big part of the libertarian project is to remove personal dislike as a valid source of law. I find snake-handling and faith-healing both personally repugnant. I would never want to hold a rattlesnake without adequate protections. I thank people when they pray for my health, but I’d rather see a doctor just the same.
The point, though, is that these are decisions that can be left to individuals, and the result, I’d argue, is a type of society that’s more worth wanting. Even with the individual elements that we find repugnant. Why? Because it is only in accommodating tastes and values far beyond those of any one individual that society can be a home for all of us. It won’t be a reflection of all of our personal desires, and it shouldn’t be. Liberty — paradoxically — allows society to be larger than any one of us, more than just a certain set of preferences writ large.