Forged in Waco’s fires: The FBI and religion scholars reflect on their 25-year relationship

After a 1993 fire, accidentally triggered by federal authorities, killed 75 members of an obscure Christian sect in Waco, Texas, one of the 'lessons learned' was this: Call in religion experts in a crisis where faith is a factor.

Fire engulfs the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993. The compound burned to the ground after FBI agents in an armored vehicle smashed the buildings and pumped in tear gas. The Justice Department said cult members set the fire. (AP Photo/Ron Heflin)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (RNS) — After a 1993 fire, accidentally triggered by federal authorities, killed 75 members of an obscure Christian sect near Waco, Texas, one of the “lessons learned” was this:

Call in religion experts in a crisis where faith is a factor.

This month, nearly 25 years after the debacle now simply referred to as “Waco,” FBI officials and scholars from the American Academy of Religion gathered at Harvard Divinity School to reflect on how the crisis in Texas led to a new relationship between them – and on the challenges ahead.

Waco began when willing followers of self-proclaimed prophet David Koresh and his Branch Davidian sect barricaded themselves in a heavily armed compound. After 51 days, law enforcement moved to end the standoff by force but had “no qualified knowledge of how highly religious people would respond to the storming of (their) building,” said retired Harvard law professor Philip Heymann.

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As deputy attorney general at the time, he authored a report in the aftermath of Waco that emphasized the need for seeking out religious expertise in dealing with confrontations.

Since then, AAR scholars have advised the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group when dissident religious groups that are not generally well-understood come into conflict with law enforcement. Scholars also work with the FBI’s National Academy to equip new agents with a wider range of religious understanding.

“We don’t have an excuse not to ask for advice,” said David T. Resch, who was part of the FBI team at Waco and is now special agent in charge of the FBI National Academy. With the AAR, the FBI has “a mechanism to reach out of our comfort zone” in recognizing where offenders’ and victims’ actions are shaped by religious beliefs that “as a Methodist, I may not know.”

However, he noted, creating a “Religion 101” road map for current and future law enforcement officers is not so simple. Not everyone agrees on what the curriculum should be in this religiously diverse society, one where conflicts also arise shaped by racial division, varying political worldviews and disparities in power.

Meanwhile, other pressing factors figure into law enforcement’s decision-making.

“Loud bells are ringing,” said Resch, citing terrorism, hate crimes, police misuse of power, public corruption, organized crime and more. “The time from flash to bang and the trajectory toward violence has been sharply condensed. We need to move more quickly and choose the least bad answers.”

And they must do this while well-grounded suspicion of the FBI still threads through its history with religious groups and religious social justice activists, said University of Pennsylvania professor Steven Weitzman. He is co-editor of a new book, “The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11.”

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Weitzman looked back decades, when Quakers, Black Muslims and Catholic anti-war activists were seen as suspicious and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover positioned the agency as upholding Judeo-Christian values in opposition to “godless communism.” Hoover’s effort to degrade the reputation of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and to undermine the civil rights movement is still very much top-of-mind for many African-Americans, Weitzman said.

“FBI has been a major player, and sometimes a major disruptor in American religious life,” he said. Now, he sees the AAR trying to change the culture “for the good of all and the future of religiously motivated dissent” at a time when both scholars and the FBI are confronted by radical, violent groups that may root their actions in religious claims.

This is not a unique dilemma to the United States, said Eileen Barker, emeritus professor of sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom, where 1,000 religious groups have emerged just since World War II.

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Barker founded and leads a nonprofit called Inform that responds to requests from public officials about these little-known groups. The nonprofit doesn’t offer advice but it aims to give “accurate and unbiased information and put it in a cultural framework,” she said.

Boston University sociology professor Nancy Ammerman said the need for nuanced understanding that religion scholars can offer does not apply only to situations that can turn violent. “What do any people who want to engage in public policy need to know about religion and how can we help them get to know this?” she asked. “The answer is just like what’s happening in the FBI – the need for ‘Religious Literacy 101.’”

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