The is the second installment of a three-part blog series on Religious Freedom, the topic of NT-NL’s Fall Leadership Convocation. The first entry focused on the current debate regarding religious liberty and stay-at-home orders that limit in-person worship. This second installment will explore how rights, including religious liberty, are best employed to protect the existence of the weak rather than the prerogatives of the powerful. The third will present a Lutheran perspective on the nature of freedom itself.
This pandemic experience has led me to watch a bit more Netflix than before (sound familiar?), including some things a little too close to my Oklahoma home. While couch marathons aren’t normally my thing, I am more than glad to have watched Waco, a miniseries about the events leading up to the 1993 US Government siege on the Branch Davidian compound located in McLennan County, Texas, between Waco and Axtell.
The events in that siege demonstrate a State’s lack of comprehension of non-dominant religious movements. Religious movements operate with different sets of knowledge (epistemologies) and values than civil governments. Even within modern theocracies (consider the Islamic Republic of Iran or, to a different degree, the State of Israel), governments will often take decisions counter to their most ardent religious advisers.
States and religions operate on different planes of existence. In Waco, those differences were exacerbated by mutual belligerence and willingness to use deadly force, all with horrific consequences.
Since Branch Davidians are highly apocalyptic Seventh-Day Adventists, what does any of this have to do with Lutherans? Lutherans are involved because Lutherans are called to care for our neighbors, both in their similarity to us and in their difference. Moreover, Waco and Axtell are within the territory served by the NT-NL Synod of the ELCA.
The Branch Davidian compound is part of our neighborhood. An earthquake took place there, splitting the foundations of American society. When the US government initiates an action that kills four federal agents and 76 Branch Davidians, including 25 children, the event must live in our memory, calling us to do better.
Lutherans have a mixed heritage when it comes to religious freedom. Martin Luther (1483–1546), the reforming church leader from whom our Christian tradition takes its name, lived in a time of immense societal change. Part of his expanding vocation during that time was to reflect deeply on the relationships between spiritual and civil governing authorities. Both “Freedom of a Christian” (1520) and “Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should Be Obeyed” (1523) are foundational texts; his conclusions continue to shape western forms of governance.
But that isn’t the whole story. One doesn’t need to look much further than the dedicatory letter of “Freedom of a Christian” or learn of the Lutheran World Federation’s apology to the Mennonite Community to find a different perspective. Given our fraught history with Anabaptists, it is fitting that the speaker for the 2020 NT-NL Leadership Convocation is Stephen Stookey, a Baptist scholar of church-state relations.
While Lutherans haven’t always been comfortable in the United States, that discomfort has been due primarily to ethnicity or language rather than the content of our belief system. For the most part, even later Lutheran immigrants have been successful in their desire to assimilate to the privileges of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) America. When compared, for instance, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Lutherans have had it easy.
At the same time, Martin Luther provided a theological and intellectual foundation for mutually limiting states and religions from interfering in the proper spheres of each. This idea of the “two spheres” or “two kingdoms”—developed through Luther’s theological reflections on the dual nature of law—was the foundation for modernity’s concept of the “separation of church [or, more inclusively, religion] and state.
The wisdom of that long intellectual tradition, embodied, in part, in the US Constitution, came to naught in the fiery conflagration of the Branch Davidian Compound on April 19, 1993.
On April 19 of this year, we marked the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. This single deadliest act of domestic terrorism in US history was perpetrated by Persian Gulf veteran and Bronze Star recipient, Timothy McVeigh.
A friend of mine not from the United States asked me about the Oklahoma City bombing and what led to it. I started my response with mentioning Ruby Ridge. They had no idea what I was talking about.
The next evening, scrolling through Netflix, I came across a show called “Waco.” I paused to watch the preview. To my surprise, the opening scene, featuring a conversation between FBI and ATF agents, wasn’t set at the Branch Davidian compound but in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. That botched operation launched the militia movement and made Randy Weaver into a right-wing folk hero.
Several years after both incidents, probably around the year 2000, I went to a gun show with my father in Oklahoma City. Randy Weaver was there, selling books about his side of the Ruby Ridge incident. It’s not every day one gets to meet a hero of the racist right militia movement, so I took the chance. This was the man whose undeniably tragic encounter with US federal law enforcement laid part of the foundation for McVeigh’s 1995 terrorist attack.
McVeigh chose April 19 to mark the anniversary of the Branch Davidian standoff’s fiery end. He chose the time of day to maximize the number of children killed.
All of this was on my mind in June 2004 as I piled guests into my family minivan for a visit to the Branch Davidian Compound. The site is still there, with a museum operated by representatives of the movement who believe that their Anointed One, David Koresh, will return.
The visit was part of a conference at Baylor University organized by CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions. New religions are what many people call ‘cults’ – small movements that are often breakaways from more ‘mainstream’ religious beliefs. CESNUR is a unique organization in that it doesn’t only talk about new religious movements, but speaks with them, hearing what they have to say. Often, the conversation is about religious freedom.
As a doctoral student through Baylor’s J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, I was assisting the conference in many ways, including by providing transportation for this offsite gathering.
I collected my assigned guests and the five of us trundled off campus toward one of the most profound academic experiences I have ever had. As we drove, my group of four guests was speaking intensively to one another, basically having a planning meeting.
Knowing that they were from one of the new religious movements, I asked which one. “We’re representing the Church of Scientology,” said the person in the seat next to me. “Oh!” I said. “Do you know Tom Cruise?”
“Uhh, yeah,” another person said. “He’s a great guy.” And then another: “What are you?” I felt four pairs of eyes on me as I drove straight ahead. “I’m a Lutheran pastor.” Unimpressed, they resumed their meeting.
Once at the compound, we toured the grounds with a Branch Davidian representative who had not been present for the standoff. We saw the charred remains of people still onsite. Their museum explained their belief system and the injustice they endured.
Following this tour, we had a panel discussion typical of academic conferences. But this was in no way typical. We were in the space itself where so many had been killed, discussing the dynamics that led to such a tragic outcome. Prof. Catherine Wessinger’s close analysis of law enforcement, government and media contributions to the crisis has stayed with me to this day. The Branch Davidians present were invited to share responses. From what I recall, they were grateful that their perspective on the incident was being taken seriously. Today, we would say that they felt “heard.”
The substance I heard that day regarding the unnecessary escalations that led to the tragedy of April 19 is largely reflected in the Waco miniseries on Netflix. I strongly commend the series, which is told through the eyes of two figures directly involved in the events, based on their published accounts.
David Thibodeau, a Branch Davidian survivor of the assault, shared his story in A Place Called Waco. Gary Noesner, FBI Special Agent in Charge of Negotiations at both Ruby Ridge and Waco, published Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator. Both people appear in the miniseries, alongside their characters.
As I collected my Scientologists for the return trip to Baylor, the mood was somber. We had been present with victims at the site of a massive injustice. The Branch Davidian Compound is a solemn shrine, no matter what you think of the group’s theology. We rode together in silence. After a few minutes, one of guests blurted out a phrase one never expects to hear from a Scientologist: “Man! Those people are weird!”
That statement—“Those people are weird!”—is, in a sense, the point of this essay. Freedoms established as rights are most valuable for the non-normative, the odd, the queer, those persons and groups normative society might view as mysterious and therefore dangerous. That is as true for Scientologists, Branch Davidians and atheists as it was for the Jews, Baptists, and Catholics at the founding of the United States.
The First Amendment to the US Constitution addresses religion by saying “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This means that there is no “official religion” for the US government, allowing a plurality of religious perspectives to flourish, including citizens who wish to be completely free of religion.
Recently, white evangelicals, the largest religious group in the United States, have taken up the cause of “religious liberty.” Rights exist to protect the existence of minorities, not salve the discriminatory conscience of those who represent an empowered class enjoying the benefits of de facto establishment. While there are important points to work through, using religion to preserve cultural power serves neither religion nor the rule of law.
The First Amendment provides space, breathing room for diversities of religious opinion and practice, ensuring that state power cannot limit religious communities as long as they are not breaking civil laws. Governing authorities must not enter into the business of deciding which religious beliefs are legitimate and which are not.
During the siege of the Branch Davidian compound, the US Government demonstrated its lack of capacity to comprehend the religious group it sought to control. The group did not capitulate, using deadly force to defend itself against federal agents. It was a dangerous mix; very few people the scene had little sense of how to deescalate the situation.
The miniseries demonstrates this exceedingly well. For the most part, FBI and ATF agents—especially the FBI tactical team—communicate primarily through threats of force, the logic implicit in any state. German sociologist Max Weber claimed in 1919 that the state, in essence, is a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a given territory.”
The tactical force employed by the FBI during the siege reinforced the FBI view that they were dealing with aberrant sub-humans, people who could not be reasoned with, much less listened to. Even as David Koresh sought to show their community as loving and in the right, the FBI constructed an image of the Branch Davidians as irredeemable savages. The final assault and its deadly consequences were thus a self-fulfilled prophecy.
The pressures placed on the Branch Davidian community have been experienced writ large by Muslims in the United States following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As aberrant as the Branch Davidians are perceived to be, the United States is normatively Christian (or, Judeo-Christian if one follows the 1950s construct). Muslims stand outside the normative American religious landscape. When joined with a heritage of Islamophobia, Muslims everywhere are perceived as a threat. Asma T. Uddin’s When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom provides numerous test cases for discovering the limits of contemporary American thinking on the freedom of religion.
Non-normative religious communities deemed outside the pale of American civil discourse have their perspectives submerged, their voices silenced. They have been deemed incompatible with rationality. But this rationality was determined by normative evangelical American Christianity, a rationality often imported into policymaking and law enforcement structures.
The state is often viewed by its normative citizens as a structure designed to protect their prerogatives and perspectives. This ‘common sense’ results in a de facto establishment of cultural norms, often justified through religion. When the state is then called upon to demonstrate its “monopoly on the legitimate use of violence” in relation to non-normative religious claims that de facto establishment becomes a source of religious persecution. The First Amendment’s role of protecting non-normative minorities should then be exercised to its fullest.
When viewed through this broader lens, the First Amendment has little to do with religious communities not being able to gather for worship during a pandemic. Only an intentionally obtuse “strict constructionist” reading of the Constitution would produce such an argument.
Historian Evelyn Beatrice Hall, inspired by her study of Voltaire, coined the phrase “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Religious leaders are notoriously competitive about their articulations of truth (along with being notoriously lacking in intellectual generosity).
When it comes to interactions with states, however, religious leaders would do well to cleave closely to Ms. Hall’s statement. There is no real religious freedom if only the dominant, culturally acceptable version of religiosity is allowed. While not guaranteeing success in the marketplace of ideas, no religious community should be suppressed, no matter how small or fringe.
During the ATF and FBI siege on the Branch Davidian compound, scholars of religion, lawyers, and radio show hosts came to their aid. Other religious leaders did not do so. That would have been true care for the neighbor, even in their profound difference. That Christian value will be explored through a specifically Lutheran lens in the next installment of this series.
The Rev. Robert O. Smtih, PhD, directs Briarwood Leadership Center (Argyle, Tex.).