Death outside Waco: Did Mount Carmel believers die because the experts didn't get religion?

The subject of the class at Baylor University was contemporary movements in American religious life. On this particular day, the subject under discussion -- with the help of a guest speaker -- was debates about the meaning of the hot-button word "cult."

I was taking the class as part of my master's degree studies during the late 1970s in Baylor's unique church-state studies program, an interdisciplinary program build on studies in history, theology, political science and law. This particular class was important, since legal disputes about new religious movements have helped define the boundaries of religious tolerance in our culture.

To paraphrase one of my professors: Lots of people with whom you would not necessarily want to have dinner have helped defend your religious freedom. True tolerance is almost always tense.

The speaker in our class that day was a soft-spoken leader in a ground that would become infamous more than a decade later -- the Branch Davidians. His name was Perry Jones and it would be another five years or so until a young guitar player and Bible-study savant named Vernon Howell would arrive at the group's 77-acre Mount Carmel headquarters. Howell, of course, would change his name to David Koresh. Jones' daughter Rachel married Koresh, who would eventually become a polygamist.

The main thing I remember about listening to Jones that day, and talking to him after class, was his consistent emphasis on pacifism and biblical prophecies about the End Times -- remaining doctrinal ties back to Seventh-day Adventism, the movement from which the Davidians split decades earlier.

Why share this information? Well, this was the rather personal frame around the contents of my On Religion column this past week and the "Crossroads" podcast that followed. (Click here to tune that in.)

Both focused on religious issues -- in journalism and public life -- addressed in the six-part Paramount Network miniseries called "Waco," which will run through the end of this month.

It was, to say the least, rather haunting to see Perry Jones fatally wounded in the dramatic recreation of the first moments of the two-hour gunfight on Feb. 28, 1993 that opened the 51-day siege outside Waco by an army of federal agents. The hellish fire that ended it all -- its cause remains the subject of fierce debates -- claimed the lives of 76 men, women and children.

Were the Branch Davidians truly a "cult"?

Jones said "no," speaking to our class. He said the word "sect" was a more accurate term -- in a doctrinal context -- to describe how their faith had diverged from Adventism.

Ah, but did the Branch Davidians become a "cult" -- defined in sociological terms -- under the leadership of Koresh, who held himself up as a mysterious prophet mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Did he hold life-and-death authority over all the residents of Mount Carmel?

That was the crucial issue in 1993 and that was the crucial issue faced by John Erick and Drew Dowdle, the brothers who created the "Waco" miniseries. As I wrote, at the end of my column:

The Dowdle brothers said it was highly likely that the Mount Carmel firestorm could have been avoided if federal officials had listened to scholars who truly understood the beliefs of the Branch Davidians. This included their convictions that Koresh might be “the Lamb” and that one of the Seven Seal prophecies predicted they would be tested by an invasion of hostile forces.
Had the Feb. 28, 1993, raid validated that prophecy? Many Branch Davidians thought God wanted them to stay where they were, awaiting another sign. They also believed that the FBI would take their children, no matter what, because of child-abuse rumors.
However, local officials, hospital personnel, Baylor professors and others knew the Branch Davidians as people -- not violent cultists.
“The FBI was totally dismissive of what they called the ‘Bible babble’ of Koresh and his followers,” said Drew Dowdle. “They felt that if you let them talk about that stuff they would just go on and on all night. ... In the end, they just didn’t think that talking about the Bible had anything to do with what was happening at Mount Carmel. And that was that.”

So right there is the big idea of this edition of "Crossroads." Did all of those women, men and children die because journalists and federal officials failed to "get religion" during the siege at Mount Carmel? Were journalists and federal officials willing to seek input from scholars and local people who actually understood the beliefs of the Branch Davidians?

Watching the TV news coverage, back in 1993, I was grew furious as -- night after night -- I watched interviews with alleged "experts" who clearly knew little or nothing about the strange, complex and at times bizarre faith language being used by Koresh and his Mount Carmel followers (followers who included a Harvard-trained lawyer and a New Testament professor).

What's that saying your GetReligionistas have used several times?

If you want to cover real stories about real issues in the lives of real people in the real world, then you need to be real serious when you deal with religion.

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