Seeing a man in Waco, Texas, claim to be Christ and lead his gun-toting followers into battle with police in the same month that zany Muslims bombed the World Trade Center, people were bound to discuss religious fanaticism in general. The tricky part—for people in a society that is slowly forgetting how to use private property and individual rights to demarcate the limits of permissible behavior—is figuring out what kinds of fanaticism to tolerate.
The issues of religious fringe groups and the erosion of rights came together unexpectedly in my life recently when I noticed followers of World Pastor Tony Alamo handing out pamphlets a few blocks from my apartment. The pamphlets revealed Pastor Alamo's views on God and his contention that the United Nations, the U.S. justice system (which has been harassing him), and the Third Reich are/were Vatican-run conspiracies. Alamo counts himself among the many opponents of the U.S. government's "Catholic, humanist/socialist, new world order, Catholic political goals [sic, I guess, unless the second one's for emphasis]."
But wait! This isn't just another conspiracy theorist. Mixed in with the religious content in the pamphlet are arguments that the U.S. government has overgrown its intended constitutional limits, defended with references to Thomas Jefferson, the Federalist Papers, and even 19th-century anarchist Lysander Spooner.
As a believer in limited government, I was intrigued and went to a meeting of Pastor Alamo's followers to learn more.
What I learned, of course, was that many religious meetings are among life's substitutes for group therapy, which is in turn a substitute for talking to your buddies about what a rough week it's been. Nonetheless, after various testimonials about how God had saved virtually everyone present from drugs and alcohol, I prayed with the gathering, and according to one member I am now "saved," which was surprisingly easy.
It would be tempting to pretend to have no kinship to these people now that I'm safely back home, but I think every person concerned about individual rights would do well to show his solidarity with the odd fringe-types of the world.
For instance, have you noticed how often religious kooks who end up in a cabin with a hunting rifle and a lot of canned goods, shouting threats at state troopers, are being hounded for reasons that many defenders of limited government would consider unjust? They're often trying to escape tax collection, gun registration, anti-bigamy laws, and the like.
When these sorts—not so different from the Waco guy—are lumped together with bombers, it blurs the distinction between wackos who initiate violence and wackos who are just peacefully wacky.
The importance of the distinction is easily overlooked if society doesn't see individual rights as crucial dividing lines anyway. A recent broadcast of ABC's Nightline provided a good example of the difficulties that arise when people attempt to come up with social-conflict resolutions without a context of strict individual rights.
Host Ted Koppel suggested incidents like those at Waco and the Trade Center may be the result of the fear police feel of stepping on the First and Second Amendments. His introduction to the night's debate referred to the two freedoms coming into conflict with each other, but everything else he said implied they're both hindrances to law enforcement, with the Second being particularly outdated.
Dr. Chris Hatcher of the University of California at San Francisco noted that human sacrifice is forbidden even as an expression of religious freedom and concluded that we have always recognized that "social need" can outweigh constitutional freedoms. It might have been simpler to conclude that the illegality of human sacrifice shows one person's rights don't permit him to violate another's. Using "social need" as a criterion introduces vagueness into the law, inviting battles over what constitutes a social need and who is to judge.
Scott Appelby of the AAAS Fundamentalism Project rightly noted that peaceful competition between sects in a stable civil society is healthy, but that there is danger when a group uses either state power or random violence to impose its blueprint on society.
It should be no surprise that people in today's philosophical climate are totally at sea when faced with a social problem like religious fanaticism. When clear, simple, individual rights-based rules are no longer used to decide conflicts, Americans are all put in the position of collectively crafting a (messy) blueprint for society. Will we try to keep out fanatical immigrants? Let them in but regulate their speech? Prevent groups like the Branch Davidians from owning guns? How about Pastor Alamo and company—not to mention me?
Todd Seavey is a writer in New York City.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "A Crazy Man's Utopia: Good Wackos, Bad Wackos".