The historian Philip Jenkins, who is an erudite and insightful observer of contemporary religion, writes a column for The Christian Century. In the issue of May 15, 2013, he has a piece reflecting on the twentieth anniversary of the attack by agents of the US government on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, during which eighty people, including twenty children, lost their lives.
The Branch Davidians were a sect started in 1930 as an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventists. They continued two of the core beliefs of the parent movement: an expectation of apocalyptic events about to happen in connection with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and the belief in the continuing validity for Christians of at least some commandments of the Old Testament (including the observance of the Lord’s Day on Saturday rather than Sunday). The term “Davidian” refers to their teaching that the Hebrew kingdom of David would be restored prior to the Second Coming. They were expelled from the mainline Adventist church because of this and some other peculiar doctrines and practices (such as vegetarianism and the establishment of an armory to defend themselves against the violent upheavals of the Last Days). In the 1990s, following a number of fierce (and occasionally violent) struggles over the leadership of the sect, it was taken over by Vernon Howell, a charismatic figure who changed his name to David Koresh and claimed prophetic authority for himself. Among other things he amassed a large stock of weapons in the Texas compound.
In early 1993 an armed force of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to execute a search warrant at the compound. As far as I can tell, there was no evidence that the weapons were used or planned to be used for any nefarious purpose; the ATF agents were just supposed to find out what was there. (The Bureau is a rather strange agency of the federal government. It was established, under a shorter name, as long ago as 1789 in order to collect a tax on imported liquor. It is part of the Department of the Treasury. It had its glory days under Prohibition, when it had a great time smashing barrels of illegal booze and pouring its contents down the sewer. Tobacco and guns were added later to its jurisdiction.) The attempt to carry out the search of the Branch Davidian compound ended in a gun battle, during which four ATF agents were killed. Thereupon the FBI took over the operation, under the authority of Janet Reno, the attorney general in the Clinton administration (a hard-nosed individual not easily thought of as simpatica). After a 51-day siege, during which Koresh refused to give up, the FBI launched an attack. In the course of this attack a fast-moving blaze was ignited and utterly destroyed the entire compound, killing those inside. A subsequent official inquiry essentially exonerated the FBI from responsibility for the conflagration; Jenkins claims that it remains unclear whether the fire was caused (presumably unintentionally) by the FBI attack, or was ordered by Koresh himself as an act of mass suicide.
Jenkins astutely describes how the Waco incident has supplied contradictory symbols to both the progressive and conservative camps in the ongoing American culture war. On the Left, Waco has come to symbolize the lethal potential of religious fundamentalism. The notion of mass suicide has obviously appealed to this constituency: Waco can then be interpreted as a companion piece of the Jonestown incident, when in 1978 another sect leader, Jim Jones, ordered the mass suicide of 918 people (also including children, and also in response to a perceived threat from the US government) at his so-called Peoples Temple in Guyana in South America. Then as now, this type of fundamentalism is associated by progressives with the Christian Right, the “gun culture” of the National Rifle Association, and conservatism in general. I suppose a proof text of this perspective could be the notorious statement by Barrack Obama, made at a fundraiser in 2008, saying that jobless people in small towns “get bitter [and] cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them”. (One may wonder what sort of religion Obama was “clinging to” during the twenty years he was a member of Jeremiah Wright’s church in Chicago.)
And on the Right, Waco symbolizes government overreach, tyranny and the attack on the Second Amendment of the constitution. On this side of the aisle, of course, there is the propensity to blame the FBI for the tragedy—a massacre by government forces rather than a mass suicide by the Davidians. It is then put in the company, not of Jonestown, but of Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where in 1992 federal agents (also from the FBI and the ATF) besieged the compound of the “survivalist” Randy Weaver and in the resulting firefight killed his wife and son.
I think that Jenkins is right when he suggests that the contradictory symbolizations of the Waco incident not only demarcate the boundaries of the two camps of the American culture war twenty years ago, but continue to do so today. He expresses the view that the tensions have lessened somewhat. I rather doubt it. Perhaps the ideological rhetoric is a bit less strident, but the polarization in politics has deepened, as the two major parties are more clearly aligned with one or the other camp in the culture war. Both moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans, the kind of politicians who make compromises possible in a democracy, have been marginalized if not eliminated in their respective parties. And survey data show that the religious profile of an individual is a major predictor of which side he or she belongs to. The polarization continues, as does the mutual demonization of the two camps manifested so clearly in the conflicting interpretations of Waco. Of course both stereotypes are distortive—most conservatives are not religious fanatics with guns, most progressives are not bent on federal thugs running roughshod over the Bill of Rights. Stereotypes can be empirically false, yet be very useful politically.
Three times a year I teach for a week or so at Baylor University, which is in Waco, Texas. The site of the Branch Davidian compound, more precisely what is left of it, is one of the three tourist attractions (the other two are the Dr. Pepper Museum, where one can follow the history of this locally produced beverage and imbibe it at the end of the tour, and the Crawford farm of George W. Bush, which is not open to the public but which adjoins a restaurant where one can obtain matchbooks inscribed “Texas White House”). I have been to the Davidian ruin. It is a sad and lonely place. Besides the remains of the buildings, there is a plaque with the names of all the victims of the conflagration and a little hut, which supposedly contains some memorabilia of the sect but which was locked when I was there. The locale is certainly conducive to contemplating the homicidal follies of which both religion and government are capable.
There are other scenes, showing a side of religion very far from either fanaticism or violence. A couple of years ago I was driving with a colleague from an event in Austin back to Waco. We passed a place called Temple. My colleague said that there was a big Hindu sanctuary in that town; he had not been to see it, and he asked me whether I would like to do so. Of course I said yes. (I never found out whether the location was a coincidence or whether it was chosen because the town is called Temple.) We asked for directions at a gas station, where the attendant readily told us how to get to what he called “the Hindu church”. It is a large building, unmistakably Indian in its architecture. Neither of the two resident priests was there, but we were shown around by a visiting layman. Two things impressed me. In the main building there is a large space for major rituals, sometimes attended by some two thousand worshippers from all over the Southwest. But then there were a number of small chapels (I counted eight), each devoted to one or two deities. This is an interesting case of Americanization: In India temples are typically dedicated to one or two gods, who they are depending on the region. This won’t work in America, with worshippers coming from all regions of India. The chapels make it possible for worshippers to find their preferred god or goddess. As I pointed out in a recent post, in America every religious tradition tends to organize itself in denominations. The other thing that impressed me is more directly related to the topic of this post. At the end of the tour I asked our guide whether they had experienced any hostility from the neighbors. After all, we were in the very heart of the Bible Belt, where one might expect some negative reactions to the erection of a prominent shrine to an emphatically non-Christian “paganism”. Our guide seemed puzzled: “Hostility? Not at all. People have been very friendly. They have been curious about us—what we do here, what we believe in. But hostility? Not ever”.
[Memorial outside remains of Branch Davidian compound, photo courtesy Getty Images.]