The self-destructive bravado of the Covid snake-handlers

“And these signs will accompany those who believe…they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.” — Mark 16:17-18, NRSV

During my years living in Cincinnati, across the Ohio River from Kentucky, we would regularly see a news story from south of the river with a headline like this:

“Snake-Handling Pentecostal Pastor Dies From Snake Bite”

Snake handler

Source: ABC News.

The uniquely Appalachian tradition of handling poisonous snakes during worship services is a natural intersection of the literal reading of traditional scriptures meeting a religious tradition’s requirement for a very public profession of faith. Let me suggest that it is not that far from the nexus of white Evangelical Christian Republican males defiantly rejecting the Covid vaccines, and often Covid itself, even as they are being intubated. They are literally poisoning themselves with horse-drench to demonstrate their faith in news personalities, politicians, and scam artist “healers.”

One primary vector of American religious expression whizzes past most news writers, but it separates American Christians into two very distinct camps. That vector also links together, as Karen Armstrong has written, the most “fundamental” adherents of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam into “fellow travelers.” [1] The literal reading of Bronze-age and Iron-age stories from their scriptures while making a very public profession of them as settled science is a near-requirement in some of these religious traditions. Selective biblical literalism (all Bible readers pick and choose, by the way) has even become a defining characteristic of the American political battles in public education in general, and Covid mitigation in particular.

At least three radio hosts who were vocal opponents of Covid-19 vaccinations have died of the disease in recent months. The list of Christian pastors dying from Covid, despite fervent prayer and fasting from their parishioners, grows daily. [2] Please note that I am not mocking these pastors. They are obviously men (almost always men, not coincidentally) of great faith. But let me suggest that they pay big price for being intentionally blind to “God’s Real World” in which they once lived.

I have written several times before on the treacherous mix of “God language” with science, but I do like to quote a departed friend of mine who would say, “If you believe that God is real, then the more you learn about reality, the more you learn about God.” I recently came across the writings of the pioneering female mathematician Hilda Hudson (1881–1965), who explored this tension between theology and mathematics, and who was, not coincidentally, a trailblazer in the math of epidemics (a “prophetess” if you will). She wrote:

“[T]he thoughts of pure mathematics are true, not approximate or doubtful; they may not be the most interesting or important of God’s thoughts, but they are the only ones that we know exactly.”

Indeed, the math of “R-naught” (or R0), the rate at which viruses spread from person to person, emerged from Hilda Hudson’s research. However, this exponential math, that “fecundity” of virulent disease growth, can seem daunting to the innumerate, or it may simply be uninteresting to preachers. Countering the bravado of the radio host and the preacher, however, the coronavirus itself defiantly retorts, “Let me teach you about this Darwinian evolution that you refuse to teach in your schools!” This is Reality. This is True.

Here is some recent data showing current Covid death rates per 100,000 population versus vaccination rates, and color-coded by the 2020 election victor in each state. Do you see any patterns?

Covid Deaths vs Vaccinations

Source: Becker’s Hospital Review and Data visualization by the author.

The demographics of “Covid snake-handling”

Clearly something is going on in the low-vaccination “red states.” My contention is that this is largely due to a special kind of macho bravado “snake-waving” that has gotten out of hand. Correlation does not equal causation, but barring some better explanation, there is a significant intersection connecting the in-your-face male Evangelical Republican rejection of the three Covid vaccines and, well, “death by snakebite.”

All three of these demographic vectors have long demonstrated a propensity to value a “public display of asininity” over common sense and Hilda Hudson’s “Divine Math.” Start with the human male. The actuarial numbers so strongly correlate early death by self-driven speeding automobile and firearm (by self or others) that I have long called these “genetic diseases.” If you inherit an X-Y chromosome (most men), you are six times more likely to die by firearm than someone with an X-X pair (most women). And, of course, female mass shooters are a very rare occurrence. Males have a higher propensity for many risky health-related behaviors as compared with women, and Covid is no exception.

Vaccine denialism had its early grounding in left-leaning demographics, championed by celebrities such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Jenny McCarthy. However, the embrace of “alternative medicine cures” to Covid, such as hydroxychloroquine, and more recently ivermectin, over vaccination have taken root especially in the “religious right” segment of the Trump base. The chart above is but one view of the result.

Mask mandates, vaccine mandates and defiant behavior

Reports of obnoxious behavior and disruptions at school board and city council meetings over proposed Covid mitigations such as mask and vaccine mandates have become routine. This large swath of the populace, denying mathematical and scientific data, not to mention hospital death reports, is egged on by its own media silo with its own “alternative facts.”

In order to counter the facts, their only way out is to rely on wild conspiracy theories, starting with their view of the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. The vaccines were brought to market under the Trump Presidency, but once the election was over, the right-wing media clearly began to bad-mouth the vaccines. Even through January, Florida governor Ron DeSantis was admittedly directing the first vaccines to favored 55+ upscale, largely Republican communities, but the tide shifted as soon as the vaccines were more widely available to the general public.

Many of these folks are convinced that my chart above is a lie, that there are far more deaths, unreported of course, from the vaccine than from Covid itself, which may not even exist. The vaccine carries a secret location chip from Bill Gates, they proclaim, even as they text from their iPhones (granted Steve Jobs injected this particular location chip into them). The flood of crazy theories, from QAnon and other sources, expressed at these disrupted public meetings, has few limits.

The Promise Keepers fad

It is also no coincidence that sports teams and sporting events are central venues for vaccine opposition. In the mid-1990s, a conservative Christian organization called Promise Keepers made a very strong pitch toward “masculinizing” the public profession of their brand of Christian faith. Large stadium events and a massive 1997 gathering on the Washington Mall brought in football coaches and other “manly men” to encourage overwhelmingly white Christian males to reassert their dominant place in both the family and the public sphere. The organization encouraged unapologetic opposition to expanded women’s encroachment into “their territory,” and they very publicly asserted political power expressly for their “dominionist” theology.

Even when the public professions of faith are from Republican women, physical intimidation is often a central theme. Take for example Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who manages to somehow combine her religious faith with QAnon conspiracy theories and the brandishing of high-lethality weapons. Her social media emphasis on her CrossFit physical conditioning has forced CrossFit itself to publicly distance themselves from her.

The Promise Keepers fad had largely faded, but the open dominionism of the Evangelical churches has not lessened in the Congress and some State Houses. Promise Keepers attempted a comeback with a revived large stadium event in June of 2021. This was intentionally risky in the still-spreading Covid environment, especially among the demographic most likely to eschew vaccination against the virus.

The most recent example of the intrusion of Dominionist religious sects in the public arena has been the recent draconian, Texas anti-abortion law, which intends to use self-appointed citizen vigilantes to sue people who aid a women in obtaining a still-legal abortion (although a radicalized Supreme Court seems intent on changing that).

What is real, anyway?

Perhaps it is I that is living in a fantasy world here, where math does not work and over 600,000 Americans have not died very gruesome deaths from Covid-19. I can only resurrect here my favorite Zen Buddhist kōan (or parable, if you are looking for a Bible analogy):

The master held out a large bamboo stick and asked the student “Is this stick real?” The student, trying to show his superior understanding, replied, “How can we know what is real? All of life is kenshō [note: ‘seeking to perceive the true nature’].”

Then the master began to strike the student with the stick. “Sometimes,” he said, “A stick is a stick.”

Poisonous snakes are real. So is Covid-19. So is the success of the vaccines. Get a grip, folks.


  1. Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. HarperCollins, 2004. Armstrong’s thesis is that religious fundamentalism is more “modern” and cross-cultural than we usually portray it.
  2. Pastors have been reported dying in Collierville, TN; San Bernardino County, CA; Dallas, TX; Lexington, KY; Plano, TX, to name just a few.

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