“Culting”: From Waco to Fundamentalist Mormons

Anyone who was around to see the media coverage of the events that unfolded near Waco, Texas, in 1993 (when 21 children from the Branch Davidian community were evacuated from the siege of their Mount Carmel Center residence, while 23 children ages 16 and under died in a fiery inferno) cannot help but compare these memories to recent images of the children of the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) at the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) ranch near Eldorado, Texas. And surely it is the famous case of the Branch Davidians—a community also considered to be practicing polygamy, and accused of abusing children—that is on the minds of the Texas authorities now dealing with the YFZ children and their parents.

In the case of the Branch Davidians, intervention by authorities actually harmed the very children their actions were intended to protect. And while the children of Yearning for Zion have not been subjected to deadly assaults, that does not mean they are not being harmed by the actions of the authorities. Significantly, in both cases, the fact that the media names these religious groups “cults” creates a climate in which the public accepts what might actually be excessive action or force against these communities.

The word “cult” originally referred simply to an organized system of worship; it is still used in that descriptive manner by scholars (especially in the study of the ancient world). Since the 1970s, the word “cult” has been used in popular discourse as a pejorative term for religions people fear, or hate, or do not want to recognize as a “real religion.” The use of the word “cult” can also be seen to imply that it is only in small, unconventional religious groups that believers commit hurtful and illegal actions; socially dominant religious groups are somehow let off the hook, as if their members never transgress in this way. Use of the word conveys what sociologist James T. Richardson has called “the myth of the omnipotent leader” and the “myth of the passive, brainwashed follower,” both of which dehumanize believers. Moreover, once the label “cult” has been applied it tends to stick, and it can inhibit careful investigation of what is going on inside a religious group and its interactions with members of society; broadly speaking, it is assumed that people “know” what goes on in a “cult.”

The label “cult” has been applied to both the Branch Davidians and the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints at the YFZ ranch. In both cases, media representatives have turned to self-styled “cult experts,” who have no academic credentials in the study of religions, to provide explanations associated with the pejorative words “cult” and “brainwashing.” Such stereotypes increase public outrage against religious groups and help to make the believers seem like outsiders.

After the deaths of a total of 74 Branch Davidians in the fire at Mount Carmel on April 19, 1993, self-examination by reporters in the print media revealed that the application of the term “cult” to the Branch Davidians helped created a social context in which FBI agents could wage psychological warfare against the community and carry out the tank and gas assault that culminated in the devastating fire. Reporters in the print media realized that they had not been given the full story by government representatives, and that they had failed to investigate the case fully because they had assumed the word “cult” told the whole story. The Religion Newswriters Foundation advised that it was important for reporters to consult credentialed experts and avoid using negatively-laden terms such as “cult.” Reporters writing for major urban newspapers started to avoid using these labels when covering unconventional religions, but there was no evidence of a similar reflexivity on the part of people responsible for producing television reports and programs.

Currently, reputable newspapers are producing the nuanced and objective reports about the removal of 463 FLDS children from the YFZ community in early April 2008 and the continuing investigation. But as with the Branch Davidians, “cult experts” with no academic training in the study of religions are contributing to the construction of the view of the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints as “brainwashed cultists.” I do not argue here that there were not problems within both communities that were and are of legitimate concern to law enforcement authorities. I argue that the public perception of small religious groups and their behaviors as deviant is intensified when the “cult” stereotype is applied, and that has led law enforcement authorities to take actions against both the Branch Davidians and the YFZ community that could potentially, and in the Branch Davidian case did, cause harm to children instead of saving them from harm.

The Branch Davidians

The Branch Davidians were an apocalyptic religious group, an offshoot ultimately of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. In 1993 most of the Branch Davidians were residing in a single large residence on property called Mount Carmel about ten miles outside Waco, Texas. The Branch Davidians believed that their prophet, David Koresh (age 33 in 1993), was the Endtime messiah. Koresh taught that members of the community would be killed in an attack by agents of “Babylon,” a symbol in the book of Revelation for the evil social order and government aligned with Satan, and that Koresh would be resurrected as the Christ, the “Lamb” of Revelation, along with an army consisting of the 200 million martyrs of the ages to slay the wicked (Rev. 9:15-18) and set up God’s kingdom in the Holy Land.

In 1986 Koresh began taking young women in the community as his wives, in addition to his legal wife, Rachel Jones Howell. At that time in Texas, a girl could marry with the permission of her parents at age fourteen, and since the Branch Davidian parents were giving permission the local sheriff considered these arrangements to be “common law” marriages. Koresh’s first extralegal wife was fourteen; several wives were older teens or in their early twenties. One, the sister of Koresh’s legal wife, was twelve years old. In 1989 Koresh taught that all the men in the community should be celibate and all the women were his wives, including women who were already married. This unusual sexual organization of the community was based on Koresh’s interpretations of biblical passages to the effect that the Endtime Christ should have 24 children, who would be the 24 Elders discussed in Revelation, who would assist in judging humanity. In 1993 twelve of Koresh’s children were residing at Mount Carmel. The oldest was eight, while the majority were under three years old. Additionally, there were two women about to give birth to children fathered by Koresh.

In 1991 the 12-year-old daughter of one of Koresh’s wives was removed from her mother’s custody and given into the custody of her father, who was not a Branch Davidian. In 1992 the girl’s father and a former Branch Davidian contacted Texas Child Protective Services and made additional allegations of child abuse at Mount Carmel. In testimony before Congress in 1995, this girl alleged that when she was ten her mother left her in a motel room with David Koresh, who had sex with her. She never pressed charges. Social workers with Child Protective Services investigated the allegations of child abuse in 1992 with David Koresh’s cooperation and closed the case for lack of evidence. Surviving Branch Davidian children have not confirmed allegations of harsh punishment of the children at Mount Carmel in their public statements.

In 1993 agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) were investigating the Branch Davidians on suspicion that they were converting semi-automatic weapons into automatic weapons without paying the required registration fees. David Koresh became aware of the ATF investigation and invited agents to come to Mount Carmel openly and inspect his weapons. When the undercover agents reported to their superiors that they had seen no evidence of illegal activity, an ATF agent wrote an affidavit to obtain a search warrant in which it was alleged that the Branch Davidians were a “cult” that abused children (although matters of child abuse do not fall within the jurisdiction of the ATF). ATF agents attempted to carry out a “no-knock” “dynamic entry” on February 28, 1993, which turned into a shootout that resulted in the deaths of six Branch Davidians and four ATF agents. As soon as the shooting started, Wayne Martin, an attorney and Branch Davidian father, immediately dialed 9-1-1 and begged that the shooting stop: “Tell them there are women and children in here and to call it off!” The surviving Branch Davidian children report that it was terrifying, with bullets flying through the windows, wooden walls and floors of their home.

The next day FBI agents took control of the site and presided over the 51-day siege. During the siege, parents sent some of the children out, but stopped when they realized they would lose custody. FBI agents waged psychological warfare against the Branch Davidians by blasting high decibel sounds and shining bright spotlights at the residence.

When FBI agents decided they wanted to carry out an assault against the Branch Davidian residence, Attorney General Janet Reno was not told that David Koresh had formulated and was carrying out a plan that would have enabled the Branch Davidians to surrender to authorities while he maintained his religious credibility (based on his interpretations of biblical prophecies) in the eyes of his followers. When Attorney General Janet Reno questioned FBI agents about the plan to insert CS gas (which burns the skin and mucous membranes and thereby compromises the respiratory system) and use tanks to dismantle the building, because of her concerns for the children, she was told that Koresh was abusing the children. (This allegation of abuse during the siege was retracted by federal agents after the fire.) Although CS gas is intended for use outdoors, Reno was assured that it would not injure the children. She approved the plan to assault the Branch Davidian residence, which was carried out on April 19 beginning at 6:00 a.m.

CS gas was inserted into the building through booms on the tanks and projectiles fired into the building by grenade-launchers. There were no gas masks that fit the children. Adult-sized gas masks were put on the children with towels filling in the gaps around their heads. The mothers and children took shelter in the safest room in the building, a concrete room (a former vault) on the first floor, which had survived a fire in 1983 with its contents intact. At 11:31 a.m., a tank entered the residence and drove up to the open doorway of the vault and gassed that area until 11:55. FBI agents never admitted that CS gas was inserted into the concrete room, but presumably the tank succeeded in delivering the gas there as ordered. At 12:09 p.m. fire became visible in an upstairs room close to where a tank had entered the building, and the residence was rapidly engulfed in flames. Eight adults and a teenager escaped the fire. None of the children or their mothers escaped.

After the fire FBI agents stated that they had counted on the mothers picking up their children and running out of the building to remove them from the effects of the CS gas. It is questionable if the mothers were in a condition to run out with the children, or if they would have been able to climb over the rubble caused by the tanks’ demolition of the building. An attorney for a relative of one of the Branch Davidians pointed out that gassing the children to get the parents to come out constituted applying “torture” to the children to elicit compliant behavior from the parents. The 1996 congressional report on the Branch Davidian case concluded that the deaths in the concrete room due to asphyxiation may have been caused by the CS gas: “the FBI failed to demonstrate sufficient concern for the presence of young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with respiratory conditions.”

The effectiveness of the “cult” label in stigmatizing the Branch Davidians was indicated by a CNN/Gallup poll taken in 1993, which found that 73 percent of Americans thought the decision to gas the Branch Davidians was a “responsible” decision, and 93 percent of Americans believed that David Koresh alone was to blame for the deaths.

FLDS at Yearning for Zion Ranch

While no one has been killed as a result of law enforcement action against the Yearning for Zion ranch last month, authorities again appear to have taken overreaching actions to the detriment of the children. Anti-cult actors who influenced the public and law enforcement perceptions of the Branch Davidians have contributed to some media depictions of the YFZ community.

There are many examples: a story published on ABCNews.com April 16, 2008, countered the measured voices of H. Newton Maloney, professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Nancy Ammerman, professor of sociology at Boston University, critiquing assumptions about “brainwashing,” with statements from an anti-cultist with no advanced degrees in the relevant fields of religious studies, psychology, or sociology. Joe Szimhart, a former deprogrammer, now an “exit counselor” and “a cult information specialist for more than 25 years,” was quoted as an authority on “brainwashing.” On April 17, the Dallas Morning News published an editorial by Jacquielynn Floyd in which she defended the “risk” the state of Texas took in removing all the children from the ranch and separating most of the children from their mothers, arguing that the children needed protection from “a secretive cult.” On April 18—the day before the fifteenth anniversary of the fire at Mount Carmel—self-styled “cult expert” Rick Ross, a former deprogrammer who has no credentials in the relevant fields but was involved in the Branch Davidian case, was interviewed on Good Morning America in a segment entitled “Children of the Cult: 15 Years after Waco.” This report explicitly alleged similarities between the Branch Davidians and the YFZ community. The April 28, 2008 issue of People had a cover story on YFZ entitled “Inside the Cult.” An article on YFZ in the May 5, 2008 issue of Time stated, “At first glance, the YFZ ranch has the look of other compounds built by apocalyptic cults led by charismatic tyrants.”

But there is a big difference between the situation of the Branch Davidians, also labeled a cult, and that of the YFZ community—and that is the believers’ degree of access to the media. The Branch Davidians were not permitted outside contact after the FBI took control of the site, and were unable to convey their side of the story to the public. During the siege, the FBI did not release a videotape of the wounded David Koresh introducing the children, so the children were largely invisible to the general public, as were the Branch Davidian adults, who were also videotaped. According to the Justice Department report: “The [FBI] negotiator’s log shows that when the tape was reviewed there was concern that if the tape was released to the media, Koresh would gain much sympathy.” This videotape became available only after the fire as a result of the legal proceedings.

In contrast, the YFZ residents have created Web sites presenting photos and videos of the children and the lifestyle in their community. They have uploaded videos expressing their views on YouTube, and some of the YFZ mothers were interviewed on CNN’s Larry King Live. YFZ residents are making use of video, television, and the internet to tell their side of the story and to attempt to humanize themselves in the eyes of the public.

A nation or state has the obligation to protect children and investigate suspected illegal and hurtful actions carried out by members of a religious group. However, such investigations should be carried out according to law and a standard of professionalism, both of which tend to be compromised when the “cult” stereotype is applied to a group. The assumption that a religious group—especially a very unconventional one with practices that members of mainstream society find abhorrent—is a “cult” can prompt law enforcement agents and other authorities to take excessive actions that can have adverse effects on the children the government is obliged to protect. When the “cult” stereotype is perpetuated in the media about a religious group, its members are stigmatized and dehumanized and citizens may fail to question excessive actions taken by authorities against it.

A recent report from Texas Child Protective Services states that of the 53 YFZ girls between ages 14 and 17 in state custody, 31 have children or are pregnant. However, authorities in Texas took the measure of removing all the children from the YFZ community. At first their mothers went with them, but then the children were separated from their mothers. After breastfeeding advocates and others protested the separation of mothers from the children they were nursing, the judge said that mothers breastfeeding children under 12 months old could stay with their children, but the nursing children older than 12 months were separated from their mothers. Some of the children have gotten sick and nine have been hospitalized. The initial telephoned allegations of abuse of a 16-year-old girl at the YFZ ranch married to an older man now appear to have come from a mentally ill young woman who was never a member of a FLDS community. Texas authorities do not seem to be cognizant that the removal of 263 children from the FLDS community at Short Creek, Arizona, in 1953 ultimately resulted in the return of most of the children to their parents.

We will learn more about the FLDS community as the investigations and news coverage continue. In the meantime, the FLDS parents in the YFZ community are utilizing access to media to humanize themselves and make their cases for the return of their children. The children of the YFZ community are alive and one day they will tell us about their experiences, unlike the children who died at Mount Carmel.

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