by Adventist Today News Team
One of the presentations at the symposium on the Waco tragedy of 20 years ago held at Baylor University in April has been published as an article in the current issue of Christian Century (dated May 15, 2013). Adventist Today published an overall report at the time of the event, but did not have access to manuscripts of any of the presentations.
The deadly confrontation between the Branch Davidian Seventh Day Adventists and law enforcement "forced religious believers to explore the consequences of apocalyptic thought and fundamentalist faith," stated Dr. Philip Jenkins, one of the most widely respected historians of religion in America. He puts the episode in the context of the interaction of religion and politics in the 1990s.
"Waco demonstrated everything that was wrong with 'extreme' religion: its fanaticism and sexual hypocrisy, leading inevitably to violence and sexual exploitation." This view was widely popular at the time, Jenkins said, "in reaction to the prominence of the Moral Majority and the Christian right during the Reagan era."
"A rival interpretation blamed the violence on the brutal excesses of an out-of-control federal government engaged in a systematic assault on the lives and liberties of free citizens, specifically Christians. … The Branch Davidians were not a cult but a persecuted church." In the aftermath, Jenkins points out, Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association labeled Federal agents "jackbooted government thugs."
Jenkins connects the key role that conservative religion plays in right-wing politics and the ongoing "culture war" to these two rival views of the Waco tragedy, and states the Oklahoma City bombing "on the second anniversary of the Waco firestorm … was widely taken as revenge for that event." Although he very briefly mentions the Seventh-day Adventist Church, he does not connect the religious-political entanglement that he analyzes in great detail to the way in which many Adventists have interpreted the prophecy of Revelation 13.
"Waco and its aftereffects continued to poison the political atmosphere, contributing mightily to the polarization of U.S. politics that we often lament today," he concludes. Beyond the tragedy for the families directly involved, Waco was "also a potent symbol of and contributor to a bitter and seemingly irreconcilable polarization" in America. It "still casts a very long shadow."