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RICHARD J. MOUW
Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America
By James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher
University of California Press
242 pp.; $25.95
The self-understanding of a "sinful messiah."
Religious conviction is poorly understood by the folks who shape the patterns of international diplomacy. That thesis is articulated clearly and systematically in an important book of essays published last year by Oxford University Press: Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft, edited by Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson. The study of international relations, the essayists insist, is dominated by a "secularizing reductivism" that views religion as a declining force in contemporary life. This perspective has had disastrous results for Western diplomacy. The Middle East provides a good case in point: negotiating strategies that presuppose the universal appeal of a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis of human motivation simply do not work very well with Iranian clerics who see themselves as serving a God who finds utilitarian calculations distasteful.
But the influence of secularizing reductivism is not restricted to international diplomacy. One reason why we Americans export it so readily is that we have a surplus on the domestic front. In Why Waco? authors James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher demonstrate this surplus in dramatic fashion. They argue convincingly that David Koresh and his followers were systematically and tragically misunderstood by federal agents, who made no serious attempt to understand the religious convictions at work in the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidians' Mount Carmel community.
The government's handling of the Waco situation is a timely topic, and this book is a significant contribution to that discussion. But it is also valuable simply as an exercise in theological analysis. David Koresh has been widely portrayed as "the wacko from Waco," a demagogic, fornicating child abuser who provided a pious gloss to what was essentially an egotistical program ...