Civil Liberties

A Matter of Time


Masada is the hilltop fortress in southern Israel where 400 Jewish rebels committed mass suicide in 73 A.D. rather than surrender to the Romans. It is the site where Israeli soldiers take their oaths and where Jewish tourists stare at the plain below and contemplate the heroism of their ancestors. It is an enduring symbol of defiance that has inspired Jewish resistance throughout history.

The charred ruins of the Branch Davidian fortress outside Waco, Texas, will have a very different legacy. It's instructive to ask why.

Let us accept, for the sake of argument, the official story of how the Davidians met their fiery end. Many people will reject the parallel between Masada and Waco, arguing that Eliezer ben Yair's zealots had a just cause, while David Koresh's followers had only delusions. The implication is that the Davidians, unlike the Jews at Masada, deserved to be under siege in the first place. Others will argue that both mass suicides were immoral, especially since they involved children.

But from a historical perspective, the Waco tragedy fails the Masada test mainly because there aren't enough Branch Davidians left to preserve a positive memory of it. That observation casts doubt on the conventional wisdom about the nature of cults. To judge from coverage of the Waco affair and anti-cult propaganda in general, there are clear differences between legitimate religions and groups like the Branch Davidians. A closer look reveals that the main difference is time.

A group's beliefs and practices can influence its longevity (witness the Shakers), and not every cult becomes a religion. But those that stick around long enough do. Were it not for the BATF and the FBI, Koresh's followers might have made it. Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Christian Scientists were once considered just as nutty as the Branch Davidians. Today they are more or less respectable, and eventually they may even attain Presbyterian status. Their practices may have changed a bit (the Mormons gave up plural marriage), but their underlying beliefs remain just as strange to an outsider.

For that matter, the tenets of such well-established religions as Judaism and Roman Catholicism seem normal only because we're used to them. Viewed afresh, they are no less weird than the idea that a seemingly ordinary man is actually God and can come back to life after the government kills him. (Actually, that one sounds familiar.) And the damage caused by truly respectable religions—especially those accepted by intolerant majorities—has been far greater than the damage caused by cults.

This is not to say that we cannot make valid moral distinctions among religious groups. But those distinctions have little to do with whether a group is called a cult or a religion. Instead, we should ask if the group uses force or fraud for profit or to gain and keep followers. Some cults probably do, but so do some mainstream religious groups (PTL comes to mind).

Fraud does not mean simply contradicting what some take to be religious truths, and force does not mean emotional pressure or persistent efforts at persuasion. Otherwise, all groups that proselytize would be beyond the pale.

In this light, what was it that made the Davidians intolerable? The psychiatrist who interviewed the children released from the compound before the fire told the Associated Press he found no evidence of sexual abuse. Nor did Texas authorities who looked into the allegations last year. But given the outrageous things that the press and public were willing to believe about mild-mannered preschool supervisors in California and New Jersey, it's not surprising that they will readily accept unsubstantiated charges of child abuse leveled at a fringe group.

For much of the press, the very lifestyle of Koresh's followers constituted abuse: spartan quarters, little contact with the outside world, military-style drills, and strict discipline, including paddling. The Davidian compound was "a twisted universe completely dominated by David Koresh," Newsweek asserts. "The cult leader controlled everything," reports The New York Times, including "school, play and even diet."

Any demanding religion can be made to seem sinister. Hassidic Jews, for example, obey and revere their leader, limit outside contact, run their own schools, and even dictate what their kids may eat. Does the Times know about this?

Lurking beneath the easy contempt for cults is contempt for other people's religions (or for religion in general). It's a surprisingly common attitude in a nation that was founded largely by religious oddballs.