Davidian Tragedy Raises Concern for US Religious Freedom


By Dick J. Reavis

Simon & Schuster

356 pp., $24


By James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher

University of California Press 260 pp., $24.95

TWO new books on the Waco tragedy explore a critical element that has gotten only cursory public inspection: the religious beliefs of the Branch Davidians.

The books' authors are a Texas journalist, Dick J. Reavis, and two university professors of religion, James D. Tabor of the University of North Carolina and Eugene V. Gallagher of Connecticut College.

In their books, they conclude that federal agents failed to understand the role of religious beliefs in the Waco standoff. Four federal agents and 81 Davidians were killed during the siege.

Outside the Waco compound of the Branch Davidians, federal agents thought they confronted a cult leader, David Koresh, a latter-day Jim Jones. They believed he held captive people who could not fend for themselves. Money, sex, and power were his motives. Only a hostage-rescue mission could save the ''victims,'' agents thought.

In fact, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were dealing with true religious believers, the authors say. Officials misconstrued a community of adults who voluntarily and devotedly followed a visionary.

While the Davidians' beliefs may have been esoteric and apocalyptic, they were sincere. They believed that the hand of God rested on Koresh. The Davidians, steeped in the Bible, believed they were not only where they wanted to be, but where God wanted them to be.

Already, there is a national consensus that more than tactics was at fault two years ago when flames engulfed the Davidian compound. The authors say such an occurrence could have have been avoided. Not only was a religious community's door wrongly battered down, but the constitutional key that safeguards of all congregations also risked being thrown away.

For Messrs. Reavis, Tabor, and Gallagher, what played itself out in microcosm in Waco now must be seen on the national stage. Over it all looms the larger issue of what this means for the free exercise of religion in a nation that prides itself on its acceptance of diversity, especially religious diversity. They say a chilling message was sent.

Reavis's book focuses on the actions of law-enforcement officials and the assumptions they made or failed to make. As a journalist, he also challenges the way the press conducted itself throughout the siege. Afterward, reporters walked away from the story before the ashes of the compound were cold. Wrong assumptions about the nature of cults hindered objective coverage, he says.

Tabor and Gallagher focus on explaining Koresh's theology. Without accepting or rejecting it (but in no way condoning his sex with minors), they make evident how totally it was misunderstood.

The discussion of ''cults'' in both books transcends current congressional hearings. What new religion has not been called a cult? For Tabor and Gallagher, such groups ''make a signal contribution to American life by raising questions of ultimate value, by offering paradigms of commitment, and by challenging the status quo.''

To avoid another Waco, ''opposition to such groups must itself offer a compelling alternative, not merely exaggerated criticism,'' they write. This can best be done when ''other religious communities ... set forth a comprehensive view of the world and the proper place of human beings in it....''

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