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Posted by on May 31, 2012 in Guest Contributor, Politics, Religion | 0 comments

Snake Oil and Snake Bit


This post is doubly topical, since the “Mitt the Mormon” meme has inevitably entered the public arena, and this was written long before Romney became the GOP nominee (moving, last night, from “presumptive” to “presumptuous”). Thus, no “anti-Mormon” bias can be read into it, since there’s nothing about Mitt’s religion in this. But, more importantly:

Julia Duin • Washington Post • 29 May, 2012
Serpent-handling pastor profiled earlier in Washington Post dies from rattlesnake bite

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 …

Hoo boy.

The problem here is that not ALL questioning of religious precepts is out of bounds. When it gets practitioners killed and unleashes venomous serpents on the public, we DO have not merely a right, but an obligation to examine the Operating Systems by which those would would serve in public office operate.

The Limits of Religious Tolerance

September 9, 2008 or 09-09-08

There was a word that I was looking for, and I stumbled on it quite by accident. The word is “antinomianism.”

Antinomianism (from the Greek “against” +  “law”), or lawlessness (in the Greek Bible:  which is “unlawful”), in theology, is the idea that members of a particular religious group are under no obligation to obey the laws of ethics or morality as presented by religious authorities. Antinomianism is the polar opposite of legalism, the notion that obedience to a code of religious law is necessary for salvation.

The term has become a point of contention among those opposed to religious authorities. Few groups or sects explicitly call themselves “antinomian”, but the charge is often leveled by some sects against competing sects. … (Wikipedia)

But it’s said much better here, ‘The Innocents Abroad,’ Or, ‘Calvinism For Dummies’:

The basic principles of Calvinism, a doctrine held and promulgated by some of our earliest settlers, hold that all men are totally depraved, but some are saved and others damned, at God’s pleasure and not necessarily with any explanation. Furthermore, this grace is irresistible and permanent, so if you’re among the saved Elect, no action can place you among the damned Preterite. At its most extreme, this doctrine is known as antinomianism, the doctrine that the Elect are free of all constraint by laws.

To what extent does this principle still animate our politics? At home, we have a famously low-to-nonfunctional welfare state, almost as if we thought there fundamentally something wrong with helping those whom God hasn’t favored. Our entertainments (and sometimes, it seems, our police departments) are replete with the action hero who breaks all the rules and acts an awful lot like a Bad Guy, but is the Good Guy nonetheless.

Not all operating systems are optimal

You see, this seems to be the animating doctrine behind many of the Bush Administration’s policies, which continually reference a “higher purpose” — e.g.

These are NOT trivial matters.

When five Supreme Court Justices are Catholic — an increasingly large (25%) portion of the nation, but still a significant minority viewpoint — and Church doctrine explicitly forbids Roe v. Wade, it is fit and proper that we ask to understand the religious operating system of our candidates for public office, whether they be judges or presidents.

We believe in religious tolerance, but when a private person steps onto the public stage, we have a right and a duty to consider the beliefs that animate their actions. If, as with Bush, there is a Calvinist antinomianism at work, the mechanism of the secular democracy breaks down into something akin to Papal politics during the middle ages: endless intertwining of religious and political manipulation out of sight and yet all-influencing in the “decisions” that are made, almost inevitably and invariably without the informed consent of the governed, who are seen as “not elect,” and, therefore, not worthy of consideration.

Government of men and not of laws, in other words.

Which threatens ALL religious freedom and tolerance.

To blankly hide behind the idea of religious tolerance is to miss the point entirely. Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” blog makes the point — as did Rachel Maddow last night, as did her guest, the Bishop of a Dallas, Texas church (with a book coming out, natch), as have others:

PALIN’S BELIEFS DRAW CLOSER SCRUTINY…. At the outset, it’s important to note that Sarah Palin is free to embrace any religious beliefs she wants. It’s between her and her conscience what, or even whether, she believes. For that matter, the Constitution makes it abundantly clear that there is no religious test for public office.

But there’s been a push of late, most notably from the right, to make candidates’ spirituality an important aspect of evaluating those seeking national office. And with that in mind, Palin’s beliefs, which stray a bit from the mainstream, are drawing closer scrutiny.

This is right-minded but wrong-headed.

And it’s not meant as a slam of Steve Benen, who is the hardest working man in the blogosphere. (It’s the easiest to quote for a lazy typist. This sentiment has been showing up all over.)

She is “free to embrace any religious beliefs she wants. It’s between her and her conscience what, or even whether, she believes” doesn’t cut it. YES, in private. But when she steps very prominently into the public arena, we fail our duty as citizens if we don’t ask what those beliefs are.

Let me put it to you as reduction ad absurdum:

Independence Hall – photograph by Hart Williams. © 2008

Let’s assume that Sarah Palin’s church believed in drinking the blood of freshly killed babies at the full moon. Clearly her religious beliefs and practices would demand scrutiny.No rights are absolute, not even the First Amendment. We recognize that, in time of war, revealing military secrets is treasonous. We accept that falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is murderous. And we accept that destroying a private citizen’s reputation via slander and libel is ruinous and criminal.

If, at the other end of the spectrum, if she were an athiest, the public would demand scrutiny.

In both cases, “religious tolerance” wouldn’t be an issue (although in the first case, criminal investigation would.)

For the most part, religious belief IS a personal matter. But we have to question, in the case of Palin, whether her duty to “God” supercedes her official, public duties.

(Although I will concede that her billing the state for nights spent at home — as the Washington Post reports today — doesn’t have anything to do with her religious beliefs.)

Now, I’ve reported on the tentacles of theocracy that already envelop the country, in overt secrecy, in Dominionist Hoedown in Salt Lake City and YOU ain’t Invited” (29 September 2007), and  “Dominionist Hoedown Links (update)(30 September 2007) and here is another piece you ought to read:

(the “tonic” was cocaine)

Palin’s Apocalyptic Nightmare?: The End Times and Christian Right Dominionism
By Chip Berlet
Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates
Tue Sep 09, 2008 at 09:00:40 AM EST

Does Sarah Palin share with millions of other evangelicals a nightmare vision of an approaching global battle between Godly Christians and evil Satanic agents of the Antichrist in the End Times? I hope some reporters ask Palin if she shares the vision of an apocalypse soon.

Many evangelical Christians believe in a rapidly approaching End Time confrontation between good and evil. Many liberals and progressives glibly dismiss these beliefs as whacko, but the believers number in the millions, are just as smart and sane as the rest of us, and act out these beliefs in the public square–shaping policies in the domestic and foreign policy arenas.

Pastor John Hagee believes in the upcoming apocalyptic battle, and Hagee and McCain endorsed each other before press reports (based on alternative blogsites!) revealed Hagee’s alarming End Times beliefs. So, let’s ask Palin. Does she really believe Jesus is returning in her lifetime as some have reported? If so, what other End Times beliefs does she have? [MORE]

That is left-minded and right-headed.

No one disputes anyone’s right to believe what they choose to believe. That point is moot. But we have a right and a duty to ask whether religious belief will influence public policy, and if the candidate can be reasonably expected to either keep their religious beliefs in the private sphere, or whether those beliefs will trump public responsibilities, and whether that candidate can tell the difference between the two.

This scrutiny NEEDS to go on in a non-hysterical manner — because, as the GOP turned its back on women a long time ago, but has the gall to scream “sexism!” so, too, will it, in the thrall of religious extremists of most bizarre stripe, scream “religious intolerance,” as a real dialogue about when politically-organized faith in American politics is appropriate, and where the clear lines are drawn.

There is ‘reason’ and there is ‘reasonable,’ but also there are ‘treason’ and ‘treasonable.’ The former, not the latter, please.

(Worse, we have those who sound reasonable advocating actions that are, in truth, treasonable.)

Just watch the 700 Club sometime. Pat Robertson has so intermingled public policy and “Christian” beliefs that he gives tax advice on retirement savings, and what pieces of legislation need to be pushed or halted in Congress. (Between praying for people to be miraculously healed and showing “CBN News” clips, that utterly intermingle public politics with private faith. )

There are a large number of persons in the public sphere who cannot distinguish between their private religious beliefs and their carrying out of public policy.

And it is poisoning our public square.

That is why we need to not only look into the whole “speaking in tongues” aspect of this affair, but in the larger, sub-rosa machinations of religious organizations to work behind the scenes in effecting changes in public law. Think of the Terri Schiavo mess. That was pushed and shoved into our faces specifically because certain religious leaders and Bush himself wanted to enact their religious agenda into law.

And the howling through the interconnected community was overwhelming. It is significant that Father Frank Pavone — an anti-abortion crusader BEFORE becoming a priest, who founded and now runs “Priests for Life” — was acting as the Schiavo Parents’ spokesman at the end of the drama, and that Rev. Rob Schenck was right there with him, as president of his own self-founded, astroturf National Clergy Council.* Schenck was called by the McCain campaign to be on the stage in Ohio when John McCain announced Sarah Palin’s selection the morning after Senator Barack Obama’s magnificent acceptance speech.

[* from Right Wing Watch (EMPHASIS added):

Rev. Rob Schenck, head of the National Clergy Council and Faith and Action (with his twin brother Paul), bragged about his face time with the candidates and how pleased he was with their performances:

I was able to get a read of these two men away from the cameras, the reporters and rah-rah audiences. These were honest, candid dialogues on critically important aspects of Governor Romney’s and Senator McCain’s personal and political principles. We got a pretty good assessment of where they are on the key issues for traditional Christians and particularly for Evangelicals. I was impressed by both, but especially Mitt Romney.

Schenck – who once walked out on a Billy Graham crusade after the famous evangelist was introduced by Bill Clinton and who implied that only Christians who are “moral failures” care about peace and justice — cited the same narrow platform as he did in a warning to presidential hopefuls almost a year ago: abortion, gay marriage, and “the public acknowledgement of God.”]

It will be interesting to see how Schenck is connected to this campaign.

The Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy
Council, leads anti-abortion advocates in prayer in front
of the Supreme Court April 18 2007. (Jonathan Ernst/Getty)

It will be interesting to see how Pavone is connected to this campaign.*

Er, whoops!

Prayer and Politics Do Mix, Says National Priests’ Leader

Contact:  Jerry Horn, Priests for Life, 540-220-0095
WASHINGTON, Aug. 28 Christian Newswire

… Priests for Life has established an election website at where one can find the voter registration deadlines and the early voting policies for each of the 50 states. Many other election-related resources, including a non-partisan voters’ guide for the Presidential race, are on that site.

[* Here’s a press release-cribbed story from yesterday:

Priests for Life Restructures to Focus on Pro-Life Work Over Ordaining Seminarians
by Steven Ertelt Editor
September 8, 2008

… Pavone says Priests for Life will renew its commitment to “mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people into every facet of the pro-life movement.”

That includes educating countless more through the media, building up the largest pro-life organization in the nation, fostering political responsibility among the People of God, healing women and men hurt by abortion and helping them speak out in organized ways, and inspiring and networking the clergy.

“We believe that this realignment will best assist us and our collaborators to more quickly and effectively reach the goal of restoring protection to unborn children,” Pavone concludes.

And, if you’d like to catch him on tour, he’ll be the featured speaker Monday at

The 16th International Week of Prayer and Fasting (October 5-13, 2008) featuring: Congressman Chris Smith, Sister Briege McKenna, Immaculee Ilibagiza — ‘Rwandan Genocide Survivor,’ Fr. Frank Pavone and Others. — from an actual press release.]

And this is how he reacted to McCain’s veep pick (from the Catholic News Agency):

Father Frank Pavone, President of Priests for Life, called Palin “strongly pro-life.”

Asked how the selection will be received by pro-life Catholics in particular, Father Pavone added, “It will no doubt be received very well.”

He noted that the pro-life community already was somewhat familiar with Palin because she recently gave birth to a baby with Down’s syndrome.

Father Pavone suggested Palin will bring more into play the “pro-life increment.” He explained that for the one-third or more of the electorate who consider the abortion issue in their votes, there is a two to one margin in favor of pro-life candidates … adding that the selection of Palin eliminates any concern about a possible pro-choice vice-presidential nominee.

“I think this will help us know [John McCain] really does embrace this issue in political practice as well as in his voting record,” he stated.*

This isn’t just about Sarah Palin, but she is a linchpin in it.

[* SPECIAL BONUS: Pavone and Schenck in a wacky mixup about Sarah Palin. (EMPHASIS added)

In my earlier post, I wrote that Father Frank Pavone, president of the militantly anti-choice Priests for Life, said that Sarah Palin is a more genuine Catholic than Joe Biden because she is pro-life and he is pro-choice.

Turns out Sarah Palin isn’t Catholic.

Rob Schenck, head of the National Clergy Council, sent one of the first of many press releases from religious right figures today praising Palin. Schenck’s release said that that Palin is Catholic. Later in the day, he issued a correction (which actually needs another correction), “Sarah Putin [sic] is not a Catholic as stated in previous release.”

But Pavone had insisted in a conference call with the media this morning that Palin was a better Catholic than Biden. I asked him to repeat it, because I had heard that she is not Catholic but an evangelical:

Q: I just wanted to clarify what Fr. Pavone was saying earlier in the call. Gov. Palin is Catholic, you were saying, and you were contrasting her Catholicism with Sen. Biden’s Catholicism?


Q: So you were saying because she’s pro-life and he’s pro-choice she’s a more genuine Catholic than he is?

PAVONE: Well, he’s a Catholic who is contradicting one of the key tenets of Catholicism and claiming that he’s practicing when that’s simply not true. You can’t practice the faith when you deny it.

It shouldn’t matter, obviously, what religion Palin is. Pavone might have been confused about whether Palin is a Catholic or not. But the fact that he turned out to be wrong about that made his claim that she’s a better Catholic than Biden seem even more ridiculous.

–Sarah Posner
Posted by Sarah Posner on August 29, 2008 6:12 PM

These aren’t the Keepers of the Faith. These are the Keystone Kops. — HW]

Religious alchemy obtains odd results sometimes

And the questions must continue to be asked.

Else, antinomianism may get its wish: bringing on the hoped-for Apocalypse.

Apocalypse now? Apocalypse: NO!

Back to the present day. The Washington Post story continues:

[Pastor] Wolford was 15 when he saw his father die at age 39 of a rattlesnake bite in almost exactly the same circumstances.

“He lived 10 1/2 hours,” Wolford told The Washington Post last fall. “When he got bit, he said he wanted to die in the church. Three hours after he was bitten, his kidneys shut down. After a while, your heart stops. I hated to see him go, but he died for what he believed in.”

According to people who witnessed Mack Wolford’s death, history repeated itself. He was bitten roughly at 1:30 p.m.; he died about 11 that night.


2012 Epilogue: Father Frank Pavone was restricted to his parish by the Bishop of El Paso, Texas, who maintained that he was neglecting his priestly duties in favor of his political activities. Pavone has appealed to Rome. Last time I checked, he was still under “house of God arrest.”


A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, a survivor of Texas and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog

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