“Bad Religion” and Religion Scholars Gone A.W.O.L. (Part 2)

We’ve seen in a previous post how reticent the religious studies academy was to “interpret,”in Jonathan Z. Smith‘s terms, the Jonestown massacre. Did the religion academy respond any better 15 years later in response to the siege of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco? Sociologist of religion Nancy T. Ammerman, who consulted with the Justice and Treasury departments in the aftermath of the initial ATF raid and subsequent FBI siege, describes the experience in an essay titled “Waco, Federal Law Enforcement, and Scholars of Religion,” in Armageddon in Waco (University of Chicago Press, 1995).

Therein, Ammerman describes how “scholars of religion–with near unanimity–shook their collective heads in disbelief at the strategies being adopted by federal law enforcement.” Among the questions that were likely running through their shaking heads, Ammerman noted the following:

Did they not know that a group was more likely to rally around its charismatic leader than to surrender to his enemies? Did they not know that apocalyptic beliefs should be taken seriously, that they were playing the roles of the enemies of Christ? Did they not know that any course of action that did not seem to come from the Bible would be unacceptable to these students of Scripture? Did they really think that they were dealing with hostages?

In fact, Ammerman argued in the years just after the event, “I have yet to encounter a single sociologist or religious studies scholar who has the slightest doubt that the strategies adopted by the FBI were destined for tragic failure.” It is with this gap between scholarship and practice that Ammerman observed, “So the question arises, how could the FBI proceed with a strategy of increasing psychological and tactical pressure, if there was such a large body of expert opinion that would have advised against such strategy?” It was to address this question that Ammerman offered her scholarly expertise to the federal government.

In the view of this blogger, Ammerman’s stepping up (she was, importantly, joined by fellow religion scholar Lawrence E. Sullivan, then at Harvard Divinity School and Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions) was a service to her country and its citizens–a service that has become rarer in recent years, as some in academia have feared “cooptation” by the government in service of its more controversial endeavors. As leading religion scholar John L. Esposito described it in his recent presidential address to the American Academy of Religion, the concern dates back to the use of scholars by the military and intelligence forces in the Vietnam War. The questionable appropriation and application of scholarship, particularly of the social sciences in the Vietnam era, has led to protracted disputes over codes of ethics by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and other groups over the years. The AAA, for example, opposed the Department of Defense’s proposal to utilize social scientists in the Human Terrain System Project.

In the field of religious studies, debates continue today over the public role of religion scholarship. Some religion scholars have expressed considerable doubts about the entanglement of religion scholarship with the objectives of government and other sectors.  See, for example, these remarks by another recent AAR president, American religion historian, Robert Orsi on the relationship between religion and “policy agendas.”

For a set of perspectives more supportive of the engagement of religious scholarship with government and public affairs, listen to the audio file from the 2013 AAR conference plenary panel on “Public Understanding of Religion and Issues of Religious Pluralism, particularly the remarks of Shaun Casey, currently serving as U.S. Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs at the State Department and Ingrid Mattson, currently the London and Windsor Community Chair in Islamic Studies at the University of Western Ontario and former president of the Islamic Society of North America.

In her work with the federal government, Ammerman was specifically tasked with advising the departments on future dealings with “persons whose motivations and thought processes are unconventional.” The scholar-experts who were consulted seemed to have their work cut out for them. Ammerman reported:

During our first round of briefings, especially in our conversations with the hostage negotiators who had been involved in Waco, the most striking finding was the FBI’s near total dismissal of the religious beliefs of the Branch Davidians. For these men, David Koresh was a sociopath, and his followers were hostages. Religion was a convenient cover for Koresh’s desire to control his followers and monopolize all the rewards for himself. They saw no reason to try to understand his religious beliefs, indeed thought them so bizarre as to be incomprehensible by normal people.

In light of this, one of Ammerman’s primary forensic tasks became the exploration of “why religion was ignored.” She articulates four main reasons for the oversight:

First, for at least some of those involved, religion is itself a foreign category. They have little experience with religion themselves, and they do not really understand how anyone could believe in a reality not readily provable by empirical means. They are what Max Weber would call “religiously unmusical.” . . . People in positions of public service have perhaps come to believe that religion is not a part of the culture about which they have any need to be conversant, whether or not they themselves are believers.

Secondly, she argued:

At least some of those officials had significant religious upbringing, but now reject that past as benighted. They were not ignorant of religion or of its power to shape a way of life. They simply did not think that any rational person would choose to be religious. At best, they had a “live and let live” attitude about religion. Their history did not make them tone-deaf so much as it made them unsympathetic.

A third group were themselves religious, but evinced the need to distinguish “good religion” and “bad religion” in manner similar to the distancing response that J.Z. Smith noted in the wider religious studies community. Of this group, Ammerman observes:

As people of deep faith themselves, they knew that beliefs mattered· However, the depth of their own faith sometimes made it difficult for them to identify with someone whose faith was so different. Because Koresh practiced many things their faith forbade, they could only see his group as heretical or perhaps as a “cult.” They could not see the functional similarities between their own experience and the experiences of the Branch Davidians.

The fourth factor, in many ways an outgrowth of the third, traded in the popular media presentation of “cults” and how the differ from “religions.” Of this tendency, Ammerman writes:

Here it will suffice to note that when religious categories were invoked at all, they were categories derived from the definitions of cult leadership and behavior promulgated by the news media over the last two decades. A “cult leader,” according to these images, can be easily seen as a sociopath, and “brainwashed, members can be defined as hostages. By defining a “destructive cult” as a group with an egomaniacal leader and ego-deficient followers, one need not attend closely to the particular religious beliefs and practices of the group. All that matters is the psychological control being exercised by the leader over unwitting followers.

Thus, Ammerman concludes, “For the four reasons I have suggested, those directing the federal law enforcement effort in Waco were unable or unwilling to see that they should take seriously the religious nature of the social system they had entered. But they were also blinded by the structures of own agencies and their own standard operating procedures.”

By Ammerman’s account, it was the government that was deficient in seeking the expertise of religion scholars. On this point, she notes:

There were, for instance, persons in the Baylor University Department of Religion who had studied this particular group for much of its history; they were not consulted. The agency viewed this operation exclusively through strategic and political lenses, with no attempt to ascertain why this group had guns, what they might want to do with them, and how the larger citizenry might be assured that no harm would result from the weapons that had been purchased. In that atmosphere, I believe, it became easy to lose sight of the human dynamics of the group involved, to plan as if the group were indeed a military target.

But one can also wonder how these other religion scholars might have responded, if asked. Would they have stepped up to offer their expertise in a way that might have averted the human disaster of the Waco raid? Should religion scholars have done more to inform the policies underlying the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the ongoing “Global War on Terror,” beyond simply opposing these wars through well-placed petitions and editorials? Does opposition to government actions obviate the need for scholars to use their expertise to mitigate damages that are likely to occur? Or should they simply seek to maintain clean hands (and cleaner consciences) for fear of being “coopted” into a “policy” or an “agenda”?

These are ongoing questions for religion scholars–and the not-too-transparent motivation for these points on Jonestown, Waco, and 9/11 (coming next week) is to raise a set of questions about what, if anything, religion scholars should be doing and saying and writing about ISIS, religious violence, and the role of religion in conflicts and related phenomena. In a related way, they are intended to prompt reflection on the public role of religion and the professional responsibilities of religion scholars.

Some religion scholars, quite rightly, resist metrics of contemporary public and policy “relevance” when it comes to scholarship in religion, particularly in the context of the ongoing “war on the humanities” Indeed, it is interesting, and I would argue regrettable, that the “war on the humanities” has coincided with the “war on terror.” But the hope here is that scholarship in the humanities and human sciences that make up religion studies can be brought to bear in a “liberal” rather than a “coopted” way, in service of a better understanding of some of the more fearful phenomena of our time–particularly those that have important, but not exclusive, roots in religion.

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