Revisiting Waco: Prophets, Guns, and the role of the Government in Defining Religion

As part of its effort to launch Paramount Network (previously known as Spike TV) this week (Jan 24th) the new channel premieres the 6-part miniseries WACO, based on the dramatic and ultimately tragic siege by the federal government, Texas law enforcement, and even the military of the Branch Davidians, a religious group led by the controversial David Koresh. Koresh is portrayed by Taylor Kitsch, and the cast includes Michael Shannon, John Leguizamo, and Melissa Benoist.

How to Think about the Unthinkable

In his study of reverend Jim Jones and the (in)famous mass suicide that took place in Jonestown in 1978 (918 people died), the great Jonathan Z. Smith argued that the job of the religious studies scholar, even when faced with what it seems an irrational and terrible tragedy such as Jonestown, is to “interpret, to venture to understand,” what may seem incomprehensible,  which is, he adds, “not necessarily to approve or to advocate” the beliefs and actions of Jim Jones and his followers (“The Devil and Mr. Jones” in Relating Religion p. 102). The tragic events of Waco, although different in many ways to those of Jonestown (especially as it regards the role of law enforcement), also forces the scholar as well as any curious person, to ask questions about the nature of religion and human existence: why do some people decide to believe certain individuals even when their claims may seem irrational, or even dangerous? What is the difference, if any, between a cult and a religion? What is the role of government in regulating religious groups? Why are American evangelical groups so obsessed with the end of times? As Smith said, our need to understand is not the same as our approval of the practices we study, but as he warned us “if we do not persist in the quest for intelligibility, there can be no human sciences, let alone, any place for the study of religion within them.” (On a side note, a similar question is posed by David Fincher in his show Mindhunter, although focusing on our need to understand serial killers)

The mini-series Waco offers an attempt at answering some of those questions by looking at the Branch Davidians, David Koresh, and the actions of the Federal Government from multiple perspectives. Based partially on the accounts of a surviving member of the group, David Thibodeau, played by Rory Culkin, as related in his book A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story, as well as the point of view of Gary Noesner, played by Michael Shannon, the FBI’s negotiator who unsuccessfully tried to end the standoff, as discussed in his book Stalling For Time: My Life As An FBI Hostage Negotiator. The series also tries to weave the complex historical, biographical, social, and political context that could help explain what happened and why it happened.

Religious Authority and Charisma: Understanding the Appeal of David Koresh

One of the most interesting aspects of the show is its presentation of life within the compound, which mainly begs the question as to why people would willingly live and submit themselves to a person like David Koresh. His biography was already quite colorful by the time he became the leader of the Branch Davidians. He had an affair and ensuing relationship with the previous leader of the group, the sexagenarian Lois Roden, who instead of handing off the church to her son George Roden, decided before she passed away to give the position of leadership to Koresh. This resulted in an absurd and dangerous fight for power that included a challenge by Roden to Koresh to see who could resurrect a corpse, gunfights, and a protracted court fight. Koresh ended up being the victor and became the leader and self-proclaimed prophet of the Branch Davidians. One quick answer for his appeal is charisma, and the first few episodes show Taylor Kitsch portraying Koresh as a down to earth but persuasive and charismatic preacher, whose talents also included being a musician with his own rock band. As classically defined by sociologist Max Weber, charisma is a

“certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These as such are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader” (The Theory of Social and Economic Organization)

The followers around Koresh did not see a human being but the “Lamb of God,” a prophet, a person with unique qualities that separates him from the rest, which manifested in his unique ability (at least to his followers) to memorize and interpret the Bible, his talents to persuade people, to inspire them, to give them meaning and purpose. The problem with this assessment, though, is that it is not objective. Charisma, as defined by Weber is a social category and depends on the group of people who accept a particular individual as endowed with those special qualities. We cannot simply define charisma as an objective quality, but as a particular relation between, in this case, an individual, and a particular group of people. If we are to believe the accounts of surviving members of the group, there is no doubt that Koresh had charisma that was appealing to a certain group of people (evangelicals, seekers, etc)

The End of the World is Now: American Evangelicals and their Millennial Obsession

A central aspect of David Koresh’s beliefs was his obsession with the Book of Revelation and the End of Times. This obsession gave his teachings a sense of urgency and purpose that was particularly appealing to an audience that was already receptive to that message and only needed a charismatic preacher to deliver it. Millennialism has been part of American Evangelical theology since its very beginning, and the Branch Davidians were connected to that tradition by being a split of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

A recent show that beautifully portrayed that American obsession with the End of Days was HBO’s The Leftovers (a show I have written extensively about). The show even included in its third season a small depiction of the Millerist movement, who in the early 19th century also focused on radical interpretations of the Bible and predictions of the imminent end of the world.

David Koresh did not create the idea of the End of Days, he only channeled it and used it as the central teaching of his unique brand of theology. People in his church were already predisposed to believe in it, and the sense of urgency created around that idea (the need to be prepared, the old testament ideas about gender roles, sexuality, etc.) only help create a religious environment in which alternative forms of thought and practices were accepted by the community.

American Religion and their Love of Guns

Another important factor that is also explored in the show is the connection between American Evangelical groups and the Second-Amendment right to bear arms. The Branch Davidians were part of an American evangelical culture that embraced individualism and self-reliance, including a passion for guns, and a mistrust of the government. This is clear in the very first episode, in which the run-up to the siege is contextualized as part of other incidents in other parts of the country during that period that involved the right of groups to accumulate dangerous amounts of weapons.

What are the Limits of Religion?

Finally, one of the questions that the show hints at more than answers regards the boundaries of faith. Is there a line between what we can consider proper, healthy religious behavior, and dangerous, abusive practices? Is there a separation, using outdated terminology in the religious studies field, between a religion and a cult? (the field prefers to define them as New Religious Movements). To some people, Koresh was a prophet, a man of God, an American who was defending the right to believe what he wanted, an individual who was protecting his family. To others, he was a monster, a liar, a blasphemous interpreter of the Bible, a man who abused children, had sex with minors, proclaimed himself as the only male in the compound who could have sex with any of the females in it. So what is it? The answer is not as easy as it seems, and the line between what is considered permissible and even legal and what is not, is constantly being negotiated through our cultural and legal wars. Polygamy, for example, was practiced by Mormons based on their interpretation of the Bible, and fought the government for their right to practice it for great part of the 19th century. Concepts such antithetical to basic notions of human rights as slavery were condoned by many Christian churches in the United States before (and some even after) the Civil War. There are some obvious legal lines that, as members of society, we all need to respect, but this alone does not help us understand what happens inside some of these new religious movements, and what are we to make of the behavior of their leaders as well as of their followers. To bring back Jonathan Z. Smith, our role as scholars is to understand why and how these new religious movements, their leaders, and their followers behave. Understanding this will help us comprehend important aspects not only of how religion and faith operates, but also what makes us human beings. But our understanding should not be confused with our acceptance of those practices. As members of a society in a unique particular culture, at a particular moment in time, and as part of an accepted set of laws, we also need to make sure we protect those who are innocent, and those who are vulnerable. The line may not always we clear, and its boundaries may shift from time to time, but it is our responsibility to constantly explore it and understand it.

The show (at least in the 3 episodes that I have been able to see) is, ultimately, an interesting attempt at understanding the dramatic events that led to the confrontation between a unique brand of a millennial evangelical movement like the Branch Davidians, led by a charismatic figure like David Koresh, and the federal government in their attempts to rein in what they saw as a dangerous religious group. All of us know how this confrontation ended, but most of us do not know how and why it happened. This show, with its obvious dramatic licenses and with the main goal of entertaining, offers some light into this unique moment of recent American history.


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