A new Netflix documentary premiered this week, recounting one of the strangest and most tragic incidents in American religious history just before its 30th anniversary next month: the bloody ending of the siege between FBI agents and members of the Branch Davidian religious group in Waco, Texas.
For many people, Waco is a lurid story about a cult — a story that has lent itself to decades of sensationalist media coverage (and, recently, a television miniseries). It’s the story of a maniacal and apocalypse-minded cult leader, David Koresh, whose delusional stubbornness led to the deaths of 76 people. The 1993 media coverage of the Waco massacre — which depicted Koresh as a single-minded genius exerting power over his fellow Branch Davidians via mind control — has by now become the defining story of the siege. A 1993 Texas Monthly story captures this mentality well:
For 51 days federal agents camped outside the compound, paralyzed by their own ineptitude, while this notorious liar and con man was permitted to broadcast his incoherent message to the world. The authorities must have known that it was all a sham ... but Koresh had given them no choice. The feds were the hostages, the ones who were surrounded without hope. They kept assuring [the public] that they weren’t about to be drawn into a firefight, then permitted exactly that to happen. ... What happened at Mount Carmel was not suicide; it was Holy War. Just as Koresh had prophesied.
Media coverage almost uniformly referred to the Branch Davidians as a “cult” and was unsympathetic not just to Koresh but to his followers as well. A Newsweek article published during the ongoing siege, for example, uses as its closing kicker a quote from the estranged son of one Branch Davidian suggesting that the inhabitants of the Mount Carmel compound wanted to die: “They are waiting to get zapped up to heaven where they’ll be transformed and fight a war where they get to kill all their enemies. ... The only people that may be sorry are the parents who had to let their children be released.”
The prevailing narrative, in other words, presumed that all inhabitants of the Branch Davidian community were crazy, and that therefore, any violent means used against them would be justified.
Like the story of another so-called cult of the late 20th century — Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple, in which almost 1,000 people died by mass suicide — Waco persists in the popular imagination as a story about a group of people who brought their fate upon themselves. It shouldn’t.
The story of Waco is, without question, a tragedy. But it’s also much more complicated than a story about a cult. Indeed, some of the few survivors of the siege have expressed anger with the way they feel that official accounts of the siege removed Branch Davidians’ agency, portraying them as victims rather than believers. In his book Waco: a Survivor’s Story, David Thibodeau writes: “So many of the Davidians have been demonized by the media ... I felt it my duty to tell the true story of a group of people who were trying to live according to their religious beliefs and the teachings of a man they all considered divinely inspired.”
The story of Waco is also the story of disagreements over religious freedom, the rights and boundaries of the federal government, and what it means to be a legitimate religion.
The Branch Davidians didn’t start with David Koresh
While David Koresh is the figure most commonly associated with the Branch Davidians, the story of the group begins several decades before his ascent to leadership.
The group began as the “Davidians” (also known as “Shepherd’s Rod”), an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventists, a Christian religious movement that flourished in the late 19th century in America and that boasts 21 million members worldwide.
The Davidian movement was spearheaded in 1930 by a Bulgarian immigrant, Victor Houteff, who dissented from aspects of standard Seventh-Day Adventist theology. Houteff believed that the Messiah prophesied in the biblical book of Isaiah was not Jesus, but was yet to come. Houteff argued that he and his supporters would help bring about the future “Davidic kingdom” — mirroring the empire of the biblical King David — during the apocalypse. That apocalypse, he taught, was imminent.
It was Houteff who first purchased the compound in Waco, Texas, that he called Mount Carmel, after the biblical mountain of the same name. There, Houteff led a small Christian religious community that believed Mount Carmel would be the center of a new divine kingdom following the apocalypse.
After Houteff’s death in 1955, one of his followers, Benjamin Roden, claimed to be hearing messages from God telling him to continue Houteff’s work. Roden’s claims split the group, as did the claims of Houteff’s widow, Florence, who had prophesied that the world would end in 1959. After the world failed to end, Florence Houteff abandoned the Davidian group, leaving Roden’s followers — by now known as the Branch Davidians — to take over part of the Mount Carmel Center.
Only in 1981 did Vernon Howell — the man who would soon change his name to David Koresh — join the Branch Davidian community. A troubled child from an unstable family background, Howell had become a born-again Christian in the 1980s. He joined the Southern Baptist Church, then switched to a Seventh-Day Adventist Church, from which he was expelled after aggressively pursuing a pastor’s daughter. Only then did he encounter the Davidians. According to rumors repeated in Thibodeau’s memoir, Howell may have had an affair with Benjamin Roden’s widow, Lois, by then the de facto leader of the group.
Claiming the gift of prophecy, Howell gained increasing power within the Branch Davidian community, something that brought him into conflict with Lois and Benjamin’s son, George. When George Roden went to prison for murdering another rival, Howell — who changed his name in 1990 to commemorate biblical Kings David and Cyrus (Koresh) — assumed complete control of the group.
This is important because it contradicts a major element of what has by now become the Waco narrative: the idea that the faith of the Branch Davidians of Waco was inextricable from their relationship with Koresh. The Texas Monthly piece quoted above, for example, acknowledges the group’s history, but nevertheless places the blame for the outcome of the Waco siege squarely on Koresh’s cult of personality. As Gary Cartwright wrote:
For nine years Koresh had relentlessly drilled his followers to prepare for Armageddon, had preached its inevitability, had forecast its imminence. This was the ending that Koresh had prayed for and staked his reputation on — the final battle, the trial by fire. It didn’t matter if the fire came from automatic rifles or a match and a can of kerosene; this was what Koresh had promised. Anything less would have been a monumental betrayal of his claim to be David Koresh, Angel Warrior of the Armageddon. Did anyone really expect the prophet of Ranch Apocalypse to meekly surrender his sheep to the enemy and come out with his hands up?
While Koresh did, ultimately, possess an extraordinary amount of power within the Branch Davidian community, he was not its only representative. A number of Branch Davidians exist today, many of whom see Koresh as a splinter leader from their own legitimate tradition. And many of the Branch Davidians who ultimately died at Waco had been longstanding members of the community, practicing their faith long before Koresh was even born.
For example, Koresh’s first (and only legal) wife, Rachel, was a second-generation Branch Davidian, and both she and her parents remained with Koresh until the end of the siege.
David Koresh may have engaged in acts of sexual abuse — but that wasn’t the source of the FBI’s main interest in the community
David Koresh taught that he was a messiah and that, furthermore, any children born of the messiah would be sacred. Because of this, he engaged in multiple “marriages” with women in the Branch Davidian community, some of whom were underage, fathering at least 13 children. In the years following the massacre, a number of additional children who had grown up among the Branch Davidian community reported that Koresh had molested them.
That said, at the time of the Waco siege, the evidence to support any sexual allegations against Koresh was far more inconclusive. Multiple probes into alleged sexual abuse at the Mount Carmel site went nowhere.
The government’s primary interest in the Branch Davidians, according to later documents, was the alleged possession of a potential illegal arms cache on the site.
On February 28, 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) attempted to raid the Branch Davidian site in order to execute a search warrant. What happened next remains unclear — both surviving Branch Davidians and surviving agents claimed the other side fired first — but the raid resulted in a bitter gun battle that killed five ATF agents and five Branch Davidians, and injured an additional 16 agents.
What followed was all but unprecedented in American history: a 51-day standoff between the Branch Davidians and the FBI (which had taken over from the ATF). The FBI used a variety of tactics to breach the compound — including the playing of agonizingly loud music on speakers 24/7 in order to induce sleep deprivation in members — and participated in a full 60 hours of negotiation with Koresh in an attempt to negotiate access to the site. Malcolm Gladwell, writing on the siege for the New Yorker, captures the sheer scale of the operation:
Outside the Mount Carmel complex, the F.B.I. assembled what has been called probably the largest military force ever gathered against a civilian suspect in American history: ten Bradley tanks, two Abrams tanks, four combat-engineering vehicles, six hundred and sixty-eight agents in addition to six U.S. Customs officers, fifteen U.S. Army personnel, thirteen members of the Texas National Guard, thirty-one Texas Rangers, a hundred and thirty-one officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety, seventeen from the McLennan County sheriff’s office, and eighteen Waco police, for a total of eight hundred and ninety-nine people.
Finally, on April 19, the FBI raided the compound, using military-grade weaponry such as armored tanks, as well as tear gas. A fire broke out — the source of which remains disputed — and 76 of the 85 Branch Davidians, including Koresh and a number of children, were killed.
For some, the story of Waco is the story of government overreach
By and large, the public treated the ending of the siege of Waco as the story of a crazy cult that had gotten the end it deserved, similar to the mass suicide at Jonestown. Just a day after the raid, then-President Bill Clinton argued that the FBI bore no responsibility for the deaths at Waco, saying: “I do not think the United States government is responsible for the fact that a bunch of religious fanatics decided to kill themselves.”
But for some, the Waco tragedy was the foundation of a different narrative: a story of unlawful government overreach, and of the consequences of federal aggression. On the political far right in particular, Waco became something of a rallying cry for those who saw the federal government as a threat. Right-wing anti-government bomber Timothy McVeigh, for example, carried out his 1995 Oklahoma City bombings in part as a direct response to Waco, where he had been an eyewitness at the siege.
As a 2015 New York Times story looking at Waco’s influence on today’s far right put it:
For right-wing militias and so-called Patriot groups, Waco amounts to evidence of a tyrannical, illegitimate government unblinkingly prepared to kill its own people ... the specter of Waco has not faded. Right-wing extremists regularly invoke it as a defining moment, proof of Washington’s perfidy. “Waco can happen at any given time,” Mike Vanderboegh, a prominent figure in the Patriot movement, told Retro Report. He added ominously: “But the outcome will be different this time. Of that I can assure you.”
The Waco massacre challenges us to think of what it means to be a cult
The media tended to legitimized the FBI’s raid on Mount Carmel — despite its disastrous outcome for many innocent members of the Branch Davidians, including children — because Waco was a “cult.”
But all too often, notes Dr. Megan Goodwin, a scholar specializing in American minority religions, the term “cult” is used to delegitimize and diminish religious practices that don’t fit neatly into the American (Christian, often Protestant) mainstream, and justify violence that would not be used against more established religious groups. She notes that the term “cult” is itself controversial in scholarly circles (many prefer the more neutral term “new religious movements”).
“My standard joke is that ‘cult [equals] religion/community [you] don’t like,’” says Goodwin. But, she notes, “the political ramifications of identifying something as a cult are real and often violent.”
After all, there is no standard way to define a cult. As I’ve written elsewhere, the designation of “cult” is more often an aesthetic value judgment — a religious group that “seems weird” — rather than an academic one.
And when it comes to the experiences of the Branch Davidians, who belonged to an established religious community that predated Koresh, that designation gets even trickier.
After all, many surviving members of the Waco siege, such as David Thibodeau, report that their faith — and Koresh’s legacy — remains important to them. Does dismissing their experience as that of brainwashed cult members diminish their own agency to make free choices about faith?
“By resisting the term ‘cult,’ I’m not suggesting that David Koresh didn’t sexually exploit his community,” Goodwin told Vox, “I’m suggesting that using the term ‘cult’ to describe the Branch Davidians at Waco helped the ATF decide that the community, and Koresh specifically, were irrational or being held against their will and that they needed saving.”
It’s a point also raised by religion scholar Catherine Wessinger in an essay for the Conversation.
“When journalists and law enforcement agents use the term ‘cult’ to describe a religious group,” Wessinger writes, “it’s problematic. In fact, studies have shown that once the ‘cult’ label is applied, the group is more likely to be deemed illegitimate and dangerous. It’s then easier for law enforcement agents to target the group with excessive, militarized actions, and it’s easier for the public to place all blame on the supposed cult leader for any deaths.”
The fact that it was so easy to diminish Koresh and his followers as “unworthy victims,” she adds, made it that much easier for the public to accept their deaths. “Religion is a constitutionally protected category. ... And the identification of Waco’s Branch Davidians as a cult places them outside the protections of the state.”
Twenty-five years later, the complicated legacy of Waco challenges us to think about how the language we use to talk about religion — “victims,” “cult leader,” “fanatics” — affects the way we react to them. Would the FBI have used armored tanks and tear gas in an attempt to protect victims of, say, similarly institutionalize sex abuse in evangelical Christian or Catholic communities?
After all, Goodwin points out, “Americans frequently damage people we think need saving.”
Update, March 23, 2023, 1 pm: This story was originally published in April 2018 and has been updated to reflect the release of the new documentary.