Small, nonconforming religious communities make for fascinating stories, such as the Netflix docuseries "Wild Wild Country," but when media wield the label “cult,” it can lead to unintended but serious consequences, according to Catherine Wessinger, a professor of the history of religions at Loyola University New Orleans.
A prime example: 76 members of a religious movement known as the Branch Davidians who died in a government seige in the 1990s. Their deaths were unnecessary, she said, and the media acted as apologists for the government’s actions in the conflict.
On Thursday, Wessinger gave a talk entitled “The Cult Narrative and the Branch Davidians,” at UW-Madison, arguing for a more nuanced understanding of religious movements.
The talk was a product of a joint effort between the university's Religious Studies Program and School of Journalism and Mass Communication to help journalists better cover religious subjects. It’s the product of a two-year grant given to Susan Ridgely and Michael Wagner, associate professors.
Journalists may not realize that religious studies scholars can be valuable reporting resources and religious scholars may not know how to make their knowledge accessible to journalists.
“People in departments that historically haven’t spent time together are working together on an issue they both perceive,” Wagner said in April. “We’ve gotten so much out of the conversations that it feels like it’s already a success.”
The grant from Luce/ACLS Program in Religion, Journalism and International Affairs has allowed the programs to host monthly workshops on topics like “Building Relationships with Journalists” and “Religion’s Role in Fake News.”
Thursday’s talk zeroed in on one case study: the Branch Davidians. The religious group made the headlines in 1993, when a government siege of the group’s compound near Waco, Texas, resulted in numerous deaths.
The group, started in 1930s, was a split from the Seventh-Day Adventist Christian denomination and emphasized preparing for a coming apocalypse. Vernon Howell, who changed his name to David Koresh, was leader of the group’s compound in the 1990s.
In February 1993, government agents tried to raid the compound, believing there were illegal weapons on the property. A gun fight started, killing six Branch Davidians and four agents.
The FBI then took control of the situation. A massive military force camped outside the compound for 51 days attempting to enter, playing loud music to keep the people living in the compound awake, shutting off electricity and destroying property. They eventually raided the compound with tanks and tear gas. A fire started and almost all of the Branch Davidians, including some children, died in the chaos.
To the media, and therefore to much of the American public, the Branch Davidians were a cult and Koresh was the charismatic leader controlling brainwashed victims.
In her talk, Wessinger added details and perspectives missing from the accounts in the media, including interview videos of Branch Davidians. She interviewed survivors and dug into government documents from the time.
Totalism, when members of the group are separated from society and members and children are controlled or abused, is definite cause for concern, she said, but the Branch Davidians were free to come and go and held jobs as active members of society. They wanted access to the press so they could correct what they saw as “so many lies.” Some of the surviving adults are still believers, she said.
The original weapons investigation was “sloppy,” she said, and while Koresh wrote a letter explaining that he would come out of the compound after he wrote down some of his beliefs, the FBI said negotiations were at a “total impasse.”
“FBI officials ignored advice from their own profilers, negotiators and psychiatrist consultants to de-escalate the situation,” Wessinger wrote for The Conversation.
But because of how the raid was covered, journalists “helped contribute to a social context in which the vast majority of Americans put all the blame on David Koresh ... and that obscured the actions of the FBI agents that contributed to the tragedy,” Wessinger said.
“Granted, the FBI was misleading the news reporters also at their press briefings, and many reporters afterward realized that, but during the siege more reporters should have gone out and done more investigative reporting,” she said.
Even former President Bill Clinton said, at the time, “I do not think the United States government is responsible for the fact that a bunch of religious fanatics decided to kill themselves.”
Wessinger has written about the dangerous implications of the word cult. Once it’s known as a cult, a 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.”
Wagner said that journalists “strive to tell stories in ways their audience can understand,” and they may see the word “cult” as a shortand for their reading audience.
“But hearing this talk helps journalists think through the consequences of using that term. It might mean that it makes a violent outcome more likely than a negotiated outcome,” he said.
So should journalists ever use the term “cult”?
“I don’t think it’s needed,” Wessinger said. “You can write about religious groups who are engaged in suspected or actual criminal activities. You can report on the group, you can report on the issues, you can report on the crimes. There’s no need to call a religious community, a religious group, a cult.”