Commentary: Religious freedom meets reality TV
November 19, 2013 10:30 AM
by DAN THOMASSON

Just when you thought reality television couldn’t get more bizarre ... How about a star who handles poisonous snakes? He’s not a herpetologist dedicated to risking his life to advance medicine. Actually, he is probably the diametric opposite — one who eschews rational explanations and follows a Bible-oriented faith in which he employs rattlers and cottonmouths and copperheads in a mountain church.

It’s not a new way of life for some of those who occupy the rural hills and fertile fields of Eastern Tennessee. Folks have been doing it there with varying degrees of success (which includes just surviving) for 100 years. What makes 22-year-old Andrew Hamlin different is that he has joined the “American Hoggers” and “Ice Truckers” and the bearded mavens of “Duck Dynasty” in the cable world of the offbeat and sometimes the just plain weird.

What makes Hamlin’s show a bit different is the fact “Snake Salvation” is the product of one of the most respected institutions in America, National Geographic, known for its global explorations in print and television.

That apparently hasn’t much impressed Tennessee authorities, however, who have charged Hamlin with keeping dozens of the deadly vipers in a room for routine touching during services at his Tabernacle Church of God (the trick is to keep them from touching you).

Hamlin has pleaded not guilty, and his followers complain that it is a contravention of their religious freedom.

The harrowing practice does seem to run counter to a Supreme Court ruling that the state has the right to protect people by banning creatures of this sort except in zoos. But Hamlin contends that the zoo exception should apply to religious practitioners.

Tennessee is a place where religious fundamentalism always has thrived. Consider the still controversial confrontation that took place in the same neighborhood early in the last century when a schoolteacher, John T. Scopes, was fired for exposing his class to Darwinism. The so-called “Monkey Trial” brought together such celebrated antagonists as William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential nominee, and legal giant Clarence Darrow, who battled over evolution vs. creationism under the watchful eye of the world’s press, including H.L. Mencken, the caustic, iconoclastic wonder of the Baltimore Sun.

While no one expects the current debate to reach that decibel, the presence of “National Geo” and the contested room full of nasty critters that probably would just as soon not be there is enough to make the alligator wrestlers and wild boar hunters and viewers of cable television take notice.

Channels that once set out with the loftiest intentions of bringing arts and entertainment to the great unwashed seem to have pandered to more basic instincts by producing endless hours of junk hunters and storage space speculators and gold seekers and even moonshiners doing their things. Why? It’s essentially because these programs are inexpensive to put together. A camera man, narrator and little script to force retakes keep the cost much lower than regular television reality programs based on unrecognized talent in more esthetic endeavors like singing or dancing.

Seemingly common among those who participate in the outdoor exercises for instant fame and fortune, whether they are cutting trees or prying open storage bins or handling snakes, are physical and language characteristics one might expect in these situations.

And although the more arduous endeavors like driving a truck over icy roads or manipulating heavy equipment or fishing for king crab off Alaska are conducted with some degree of peril to the “performers,” none appears more chilling than watching a preacher play with a 6-foot rattlesnake while exhorting his congregants on the ways of following God.

Why this becomes fare for entertaining the masses is relatively clear. It’s the same reason motorists slow down to view an accident or we are fascinated by the ugliness of ants attacking a tarantula or one enters a carnival tent to see a 500 pound, tattooed lady with a beard.

The other day I ran into a show called “The Governor’s Wife,” a pitiful exhibition of the ups and downs of a marriage between a 30-something beauty and former Louisiana Gov. and ex-convict Evan Edwards, an octogenarian who apparently doesn’t know it, and featuring her stepdaughters, his children from an obviously former marriage who are in their 60s. The wife is now pregnant.

Halleluiah, brother! So what’s next? How about tryouts for the lead in a musical about Terry Schiavo?

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