There has long been animosity between law enforcement officials and members of new religious movements, with each viewing the other as either a threat to religious freedom or to public safety.
But that chill may be easing up as law enforcement officials are making new attempts to understand and incorporate scholarly insights regarding unconventional religious movements. The journal on new religions Nova Religio devotes much of its October issue to the interchange between police, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, and scholars of new religions, particularly within the framework of such events as Waco and the standoff with the far right Montana Freemen in 1996.
In the aftermath of Waco, law enforcers were accused by scholars of ignoring the beliefs and practices of members of new religions and the scholarship about them and siding with anti-cultists, ultimately forcing a violent confrontation with those whom they considered deviant cultists.
Since Waco particularly, the situation has changed. Jayne Seminare Docherty writes that the FBI has opened up new channels of communication with scholars on new religions, as well as shown concern about balancing their duty to uphold the law with protecting religious freedom. FBI agents are now using religious studies scholars as advisors and “worldview translators” in cases involving religious groups. Scholars and specialists are also lecturing at the FBI Academy [anti-cult groups are likely to protest that the FBI and other law enforcers are being fed information from “cult apologists” — their name for the many academics who they believe hold favorable views on new religious movements].
At the same time, new religious movement scholars are moving beyond “demonizing the FBI for its handling of Waco. The new relationship was evident in the standoff with the Montana Freemen, where consultation with specialists prevented law enforcers from pressuring members to take drastic actions, writes Catherine Wessinger. Docherty adds that a considerable worldview clash still separates law enforcers from scholars; the latter take a non-judgmental, often “relativistic” position toward faiths, while police make clear distinctions between legitimate and non-legitimate beliefs and practices.
The FBI’s current attempt to monitor and squelch far right millennialist groups, known as “Project Megiddo” report, is one example of how controversy and conflict can erupt when law enforcers try to deal with unconventional religious and political movements. An FBI press release (October 20) says that the Megiddo report is the culmination of research by the bureau of individuals and domestic groups who “attach special significance to the year 2000 . . . Many extremists place significance on the next millennium, and may present challenges to law enforcement authorities.
The significance is based primarily upon apocalyptic religious beliefs or political beliefs concerning the New World Order conspiracy theory.” The Megiddo report (available on the FBI web site: htttp://www.fbi.gov/library/megiddo/publicmegiddo.pdf) was leaked in late October to USA Today, which sensationalized its contents. The leak forced the FBI to release the statement downplaying its conclusions.
The statement was ignored on the Internet, where many anti-government activists hold court and rumors of impending government oppression of patriots abound. Habitues of militia-sympathizing discussion boards invariably termed the Megiddo report as just another example of anti-Christian persecution by the “real” extremists — government agents. The 32-page report is really nothing more than a compendium of information that has been previously released in many forums — print, broadcast, and online.
However, one observer of the far right fears that the manner of its release may create a hysterical atmosphere among law enforcement — and anti-government sympathizers — which may lead to overreaction. This, of course, can lead to more tension between the right wing and federal authorities, especially since memories of Waco are still fresh six years later.
(Nova Religio, Seven Bridges Press, LLC, 135 Fifth Ave., 9th Fl., New York, NY 10010-7101)
— Lin Collette contributed to this report.