Twenty years ago, on Feb. 28, 1993, a firefight near Waco, Texas, began a weeks-long confrontation between members of the Branch Davidian sect and agents of the federal government. The conflict culminated at the sect's compound known as Mount Carmel on April 19, with the deaths, as a fire spread through the buildings, of 80 sect members, including 20 children.
Looking over the span of American history, we must be struck by what a radical departure the conflict marked in religious terms. Rather than ask what could have led believers to follow such a bizarre movement, we should see the Davidians as part of a well-established tradition of religious movements in America. It is the ferocity of the official response that still demands explanation.
From the earliest days of British settlement, religious secession has been a fundamental theme of America's history. Throughout that history, evangelical and apocalyptic ideas have been commonplace, boosted by repeated revivals and spiritual awakenings. Sometimes, religious fervor has spawned new denominations, and often it has driven believers to seek out new territories.
For the most part, these sects were tolerated. In upstate New York, the Oneida community survived for 30 years in the mid-19th century, despite the commune's unconventional sexual arrangements and the sexual exploitation of teenage girls. In the 20th century, Michigan's House of David kept going for 50 years despite repeated underage-sex and other scandals. The Theosophical settlement at Point Loma, near San Diego, also lasted for nearly 50 years, as it educated generations of children in esoteric and occult traditions (happily, the group avoided sexual imbroglios). Florida had a colony of flat-earther Koreshans—no relation to David—which persisted from the 1890s through the 1960s.
Though some religious groups (most notably the Mormons) have occasionally faced violent opposition, Americans have proved remarkably tolerant of religious separatists. If people who believe in imminent apocalypse feel the need to flee the wrath to come and seek refuge in the wilderness, why shouldn't they?
Only gradually, in the 20th century, did the state begin to encroach, as military conscription during World War I and the welfare state made it impossible for sects to maintain complete isolation. Even then, public tolerance strictly limited government intervention. When Arizona state forces assaulted the country's largest polygamist settlement in 1953, its Short Creek raid was a public-relations and legal debacle. Even in what we often think of as a highly conformist era, popular sentiment overwhelmingly favored the right of social dissidents to live their own lives and raise families as they chose, in this instance forcing the government to release several hundred sect members.
What made the 1993 Waco raid possible was the growing association of separatist compounds with extremist and violent politics. During the 1970s and '80s, neo-Nazi militants increasingly rooted their operations in the compounds of small sects and religious movements. As a result, federal law-enforcement agencies became highly suspicious of groups in secluded settlements that were stockpiling weapons, and officials dismissed their religious claims as camouflage.
Unwittingly, the Branch Davidians acted in a way that precisely fit the emerging stereotype of the antigovernment terrorist militia. In fact, the group was nonpolitical, having nothing in common with the racist far right (to the contrary, the Mount Carmel settlement was multiracial). Yet the group's theology made it essential to prepare for the armed conflicts that would ensue in the imminent apocalypse, and that meant acquiring and stockpiling weapons.
In official eyes, though, Mount Carmel was a well-armed, fortified settlement, and potentially a base for terror and mayhem. Charging that the Branch Davidians were converting legal firearms into illegal machine guns, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms launched the ill-conceived February raid that led to a deadly firefight. When the ATF withdrew, the FBI moved in and an embarrassing siege followed.
Officials dismissed David Koresh's theological ruminations as "Bible babble," irrational ravings that proved they were dealing with a madman. In its outcome, though, the attack all but destroyed the settlement itself and most of the Branch Davidian sect—an extraordinary act of violence.
The outcome of the Waco siege left people stunned by the sheer amount of bloodshed. But the broad popular hostility to Waco also suggests that Americans generally do respect the rights of believers to follow their own paths, however far removed from mainstream.
Over time, though, those rights have in practice been limited by the state's growth. If America's religious frontier is not exactly closed, then it is far more constrained than it ever has been.