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This is a photo of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh.

Ask anyone to recall the tragedy at Waco, Texas, and one of three story lines emerges from the standoff between a religious sect and federal authorities that ended 20 years ago today in an inferno that killed 76 men, women and children.

One story line is that of an evil cult of bad people who got what they deserved. Another describes a government conspiracy to wipe out freedom-loving believers. And a third focuses on a megalomaniac who leads his followers to their deaths.

But to the religious scholars and historians who continue to research the tragedy, the truth is more nuanced and complex. "You start studying the events surrounding the standoff at Mt. Carmel and each of those (three) stories falls apart fairly quickly," said Gordon Melton, a professor of religious history at Baylor University in Waco.

While many religious scholars have differing interpretations of the event, they agree that Waco remains the case study on how religious literacy is critical to peacefully enforcing the law in a pluralistic society, whether dealing with apocalyptic groups like the Branch Davidians or the polygamous FLDS.

"Waco let (government authorities) know that religion matters and how people react based on their religious beliefs needs to be taken into account," Melton said.

Imminent surrender?

To the FBI, the religious ramblings of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh were gibberish and inconsequential. They had Koresh and about 100 of his followers, whom they suspected of child abuse and possessing illegal weapons, surrounded and were convinced government firepower and intimidation would force a surrender.

Across the state in Houston, Phillip Arnold, a religious studies scholar with an expertise in unconventional faiths, watched with concern and interest as the drama unfolded from a Feb. 28, 1993, raid on the compound that turned into a shootout claiming the lives of four federal agents and six Branch Davidians into a tense armed standoff drawing international media attention.

Arnold wasn't immediately familiar with the Branch Davidians, but from what was being reported he quickly deduced they were an apocalyptic splinter group from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. But Arnold was certain the government had no idea who it was dealing with.

"They kept calling this a hostage situation. But these people were protecting their home. They didn't want to leave," Arnold said.

Arnold would later write that the Branch Davidians' resistance wasn't a matter of guilt or innocence with regard to the law, but an unshakable belief that only God could tell them when to leave. "Obedience to God was more important to them than submission to human authority — when the two were in conflict, God was to be obeyed."

After conferring with colleague and fellow scholar James Tabor at the University of North Carolina, Arnold traveled to Waco to offer his help to authorities negotiating with Koresh. At first rebuffed, Arnold was able to leave his card. He eventually got a call from an FBI negotiator perplexed by Koresh's fixation on the seven seals mentioned in the New Testament book of Revelations.

Working with Koresh's attorney, Arnold said he and Tabor persuaded the Branch Davidian leader that the end times were not imminent and that he had time to write what would be another testament to the Bible. Most importantly, Koresh had agreed to surrender after penning his epistle expounding on the meaning and timing of the seven seals, events that mark the apocalypse and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Koresh had reneged on previous promises to surrender. But Arnold believes Koresh would have made good on his promise this time. He has since analyzed taped conversations with negotiators and talked with survivors, including one who salvaged a disc with the beginning of what Koresh had wanted to write.

"It’s called David Koresh’s seal. He wrote about 10 pages" before the feds moved in, Arnold said. "I have no doubt he would have surrendered now that I see what his grand vision was. He needed to first write something he felt was of tremendous importance to the world then turn himself over to human authority."

Red flags

But the FBI had different plans. It had secured the OK from newly appointed Attorney General Janet Reno to attack the compound based on a now-disputed claim that babies were being beaten inside the compound. Five days after Koresh said he would surrender, the assault with tanks and tear gas took place. Among those who died after the Branch Davidian compound went up in flames were 22 children.

While there remains disagreement on how the fire ignited, Arnold said Koresh's followers believed fire meant purification for them and protection from their enemies.

Investigations, books and articles examining the Branch Davidian tragedy largely criticize federal authorities for disregarding the religious dynamics at Waco, which scholars then and now contend led to the disastrous conclusion of the standoff.

Melton said the Davidians broke away from the mainstream Seventh-Day Adventist Church in the 1920s and split again in 1959 when a prophecy of the end times didn't come to pass. The Branch Davidians were small in number but committed to understanding the Second Coming and saw in Koresh a leader who could teach them.

"They weren't much different from the Pentecostals and Adventists in the surrounding community who believed about 90 percent of the same things," Melton said. "(Branch Davidians) just had a peculiar reading of certain passages of scripture and they were separatists" who wanted to live alone.

Among those peculiar readings was that Koresh would propagate a pure posterity, which was why he fathered more than a dozen children with several women in the group, some of them teenagers. Some members were also gun dealers who did business at local gun shows, which experts said explained their large weapons purchases that initially caught the attention of federal authorities.

But the lesson to be learned from Waco, scholars say, is that when red flags prompt authorities to suspect wrongdoing within a religious sect, they should seek expertise from the academic community that studies the beliefs and behaviors of unconventional religions.

"If they are dealing with someone whose followers believe he is a prophet, they need to understand and respect that," Arnold said.

He explained that the constitutional doctrine of church-state separation has conditioned government not to meddle in or understand faith. But the Constitution is also intended to protect religious practice.

"The Constitution is to protect groups that are on the fringes and not in the mainstream," he said. "Your own faith could be under attack if the majority think you are unacceptable."

The FBI declined a request for an interview.

But Arnold and Melton said they believe law enforcement has since learned to take into account the religious dimensions of confrontations with groups it suspects of breaking the law. Arnold said that after Waco, he assisted FBI negotiators in peacefully resolving an 80-day armed standoff in Montana in 1996 with a Christian patriot group called Freemen.

News accounts of that standoff consistently mentioned that government authorities wanted to avoid another Waco.

Trump card

But Stuart Wright, a sociologist at Lamar University in Beaumont, said legal authorities still have a lot to learn. He has drawn comparisons between Waco and the raid 15 years later on the FLDS ranch in Eldorado, Texas, and found both were precipitated by suspect allegations that legal authorities acted on without consulting religion experts.

The initial raid on Waco by federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was based on evidence that the Branch Davidians had the ability to manufacture illegal firearms and were preparing for an armed conflict with authorities. The 2008 raid on the FLDS Yearning for Zion ranch was based on a hoax phone call from someone who alleged she was a pregnant, abused, polygamous wife of an FLDS member.

Another common element in both cases was allegations of child sexual abuse. Wright contends that sex-related charges have become a trump card for anti-cult advocacy groups and apostates of religious sects who pressure authorities to investigate suspected perpetrators.

He has conducted research going back 60 years in 12 countries and found that government raids on small religious groups shot up from just four in the 1980s to 32 in the 1990s, largely on claims the faithful were committing sex crimes against children.

"We think it has to do with a shift in strategy of allegations to get authorities involved," Wright said.

He said that the anti-cult movement initially pushed its cause through claims of brainwashing. But when religious splinter groups evolved into second-generation followers, charges of abuse began to surface and their detractors reported it.

In the case of the Branch Davidians, Texas authorities found no evidence of child abuse in a 1992 investigation of the group. But the ATF reportedly used those allegations as a justification for the firearms warrant it secured before its raid, and the FBI broached the topic with Reno before she approved the final assault on the compound.

In Eldorado, the hoax phone call prompted the state to take custody of 400 children, who were later returned to their polygamous parents when the Texas Supreme Court found the mass detention of the children was unjustified.

Michael Langone, executive director of the International Cultic Studies Association, agreed the government overreacted to bad information and fatally misdiagnosed the siege on the Branch Davidian compound as a hostage situation.

He said investigators need to sort out fact from fiction before taking action.

"Ex-members and current members can give distorted views, but that doesn’t mean it's all untrue," Langone said. "There is some truth in what they say."

And those pieces of truth can remove the problems that put a religious group in the sights of law enforcement authorities.

While the FLDS children were sent back home, their leader and prophet Warren Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison for sexually abusing underage teenage brides.

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com