Columns Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

Why religious studies are needed

Detail from the entrance gate at the Mount Carmel Center (Branch Davidian compound), outside of Waco, Texas | Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull/Flickr (cc)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sightings is sponsored by the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Sign up to get Sightings in your inbox twice per week (on Mondays and Thursdays). You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

(RNS) — Academics possess a wealth of expertise that can be of use for the common good and there are many occasions when people in government and media fail to realize that.

One such instance was brought to our attention recently by RNS’ own Cathy Lynn Grossman.

If you were of age in 1993, you don’t need to be reminded who the Branch Davidians were and what the Federal Bureau of Investigation did to them on April 19th of that year.

For newcomers to the scene, these “Davidians” were well-known for their extremist activities in Waco, Texas. They were a typical “cult” during a decade in which intense and isolated religious groups were a threat to their neighbors, the relatives of their members and the public at large. In that April incident, the FBI, urged by public opinion, set out to discipline them and prevent them from creating public disturbances. Yet, create a disturbance they did.

The FBI, being bigger than the Davidians, and representing governmental authority, lost patience with efforts to drive these cultists back, or out, or down, without much effect. So the Bureau put to work an armored vehicle, which devastated the Davidians’ buildings, and followed up by shooting tear gas at the members. Everything that could go wrong, did, and when the incident was over, the FBI had killed 75 members of the cult. Of course, citizens were shocked, some bewildered, some awed, some cheering. What all had in common was some degree of ignorance with respect to the cult and little awareness of ways to understand them, deal differently with them and counter them as creatively as possible.

What did get noticed was that the FBI, other agencies and the public at large were unaware of knowledge and tools for understanding that might have helped produce a more positive outcome. Instead, they approached the group with understandable befuddlement, ignorance and often prejudice about and against cults and the people in them.

Most in the public simply scorned all “cultists,” and life went on. But some experts came out of the shadows and showed that they had light to shine, light which sometimes might prevent alarming and disruptive incidents from taking place. And what most of these experts had to offer was knowledge of and experience with religion in its many meanings and manifestations in 1993 — just as their successors do in 2017. Most publicized, according to Grossman, was the American Academy of Religion, which “revisited” the Waco disaster last month at Harvard Divinity School during its annual meeting in Boston.

It would be absurd to argue that all citizens should devote their years to studying cults and other complex — or even simple! — features of religion. But the AAR is setting up mechanisms and establishing links with, in this case, the FBI, to head off the worst and understand the best in a world where, in regard to religion, some misuse their freedom and are hazards instead of healers.

As Steven Weitzman of the University of Pennsylvania summarized, the “FBI has been a major player, and sometimes a major disrupter in American religious life.” Now he sees some scholars trying to change the culture “for the good of all and the future of religiously motivated dissent” at a time when much violence is promoted by people who make religious claims.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.

ADVERTISEMENTs