The media continue to cover events like the current "Davidic" confrontation in Texas in the most simplistic fashion. Vernon Howell, now David Koresh, is treated like a stock figure on the contemporary American landscape--a mixture of Charles Manson, Jim Jones and some archetypal fundamentalist minister who has--once again--duped his followers and failed to read them their religious Miranda rights before subjecting them to fifteen-hour Bible sessions without an opportunity for a bathroom break. This misrepresentation of religious sects continues despite a 1985 Columbia Journalism Review article, "The Cult Beat" written by Leslie Brown in the aftermath of Jonestown and the Rajneesh Colony debacles, urging reporters to stop referring to religious groups (however bizarre) as "cults."
The press, including The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, continues to use this term (particularly in head-lines) even though it has lost much of its currency among scholars of religious sects. Between February 28 and March 10 my local paper (the Dayton Daily News) ran a number of stories from the Associated Press and Cox News Service in which the words "cult" and "sect" were used interchangeably. A better article in the Dallas Morning News, "Two Sides of Religious Leader Emerge," emphasized David Koresh's religious history.
The New York Times ran an almost schizophrenic pair of articles on March 7. In "At the Whim of Leader: Childhood in a Cult." Melinda Henneberger detailed the horrors of sect experiences visited on children in several groups (the Sullivanians, Brother Julius Group, People's Temple) without noting certainly more benign Hutterite or Amish practices or mentioning that, so far, the children released from the Davidian group show no signs of abuse. Meanwhile, on the editorial page Karl Meyer tried to set the historical record straight in "'Cults; Deconstructed" by writing: "In a free society, there's nothing inherently novel or un-American about a fanatic's ability to gain momentary control over the minds of a few pathetic believers." Meyer went beyond the religious diversity issue to point up the "scary" truth that "Waco's Messiah could purchase a murderous arsenal under laws viewed as holy writ by the National Rifle Association."
The experts who appear on television to explain this strange outbreak of religious enthusiasm are usually "cult deprogrammers" and psychologists serving up paradigmatic models. Nothing is ever explained in historical, religious or, most important, legal terms. Few reporters or commentators care or know much about religious phenomena. In the C.J.R. article Brown quotes Michael D'Antonio of Newsday, who had covered the fundamentalist Northeast Kingdom Community Church in Vermont: "I think reporters fall to understand how important religion is in people's daily lives." So the showdown at Waco was reported in a mindless vacuum of historical and religious ignorance.
Compare, for example, the stories surrounding the alleged bomber of the World Trade Center, Mohammed Salameh, who has consistently been referred to as a member of an Islamic sect and a fundamentalist. His mentor, Omar Abdel Rahman, is referred to as a sheik, not a "cult leader," and there is no talk of "brainwashing" or the horrors of spending long hours reading the Koran. (Of course, there are different stereotypes of Muslim fundamentalists.) Only a few commentaries, such as the March 8 New York Times article by Peter Steinfels, tried to place fundamentalism in a historical and social context.
It is inconceivable to many secular-minded Americans that people could swallow the line dished out by David Koresh or Sheik Rahman and follow some set of religious principles that might lead to their death, or at least toward a commitment beyond rational expectations. It is as inconceivable as someone becoming a Scientologist (despite this group's use of a method akin to Freudian analysis) or a member of the Rajneesh Colony (a large number of whose acolytes had advanced degrees in psychology). …