The Wall Street Journal has published a very provocative piece by Philip Jenkins on the federal government’s 1993 massacre of the Branch Davidians, a fringe religious sect in Waco, Texas. This Thursday marks 20 years since the initial attack by ATF agents that would lead to 50-day siege by the FBI and, ultimately, leave 80 sect members, including 20 children, dead.
What makes Jenkins’ article unique is that he emphasizes the extent to which Americans have historically allowed a high degree of toleration for fringe religious sects, a toleration that has become endangered by the consolidation of all political power into the hands of the centralized American state:
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.
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.
Why exactly the centralization of power should lead to the targeting of minority groups within society is an interesting question. On the one hand, the national government has often grown in strength while attempting to protect certain favored minority groups from discrimination: a very worthy goal, in most cases. But to the extent that it has done so, it has also introduced a minimum level of mandatory national conformity to which all groups- even fringe religious sects in out-of-the-way places- are held.
What makes the modern state different from every previously existent social-political association is that it reserves to itself a total, unquestionable authority to enforce its will. This absolute authority is equally threatened by the leader of a fringe sect as it is by a discriminatory employer. Both of these individuals, to the extent that they disconfirm the illusion of national conformity and challenge the authority of the state, pose an existential threat to the state, and thus neither can be tolerated.
And herein lies the danger of relying on the power of the centralized state to protect minority rights: the moment at which a minority ceases to be in danger of extinction and instead begins to try, however meekly, to assert some degree of self-determination, it becomes an enemy of the centralized state.
The great conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet provides one of the best articulations of this phenomenon in his timeless book The Quest for Community:
The State becomes powerful not by virtue of what it takes from the individual but by virtue of what it takes from the spiritual and social associations which compete with it for men’s devotions.
The absolute political community, centralized and omnicompetent, founded upon the atomized masses, must ceaselessly destroy all those autonomies and immunities that are in normal society the indispensable sources of the capacity for freedom and organization.