Malcolm Gladwell takes on the question of what is, and what is not, tolerated in American religious life in an article in The New Yorker as well as the magazine's "Out Loud" segment (which I've embedded above). At the heart of his article is the question of what happens when religions step outside of the boundaries of what is considered "acceptable" in the United States:
Mainstream American society finds it easiest to be tolerant when the outsider chooses to minimize the differences that separate him from the majority. The country club opens its doors to Jews. The university welcomes African-Americans. Heterosexuals extend the privilege of marriage to the gay community. Whenever these liberal feats are accomplished, we congratulate ourselves. But it is not exactly a major moral accomplishment for Waspy golfers to accept Jews who have decided that they, too, wish to play golf. It is a much harder form of tolerance to accept an outsider group that chooses tomaximize its differences from the broader culture. And the lesson of Clive Doyle’s memoir—and the battle of Mount Carmel—is that Americans aren’t very good at respecting the freedom of others to be so obnoxiously different. Many Mormons, incidentally, would say the same thing. When the Mormons settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, local public opinion turned against them. Joseph Smith was charged with perjury and adultery, then arrested for inciting a riot. While he was in custody awaiting trial, in 1844, an armed mob stormed the prison and shot him dead.
In the case of Waco, the core problem was that the Davidians were too far out of the religious mainstream to be tolerated, particularly when their practices included such clearly illegal activities as gun trafficking and tolerating David Koresh's child brides. These were certainly things that should have gotten the Koresh arrested and brought the group under scrutiny, but as Gladwell points out, the FBI was not willing to attempt to deal with the Davidians on terms that would have enabled a peaceful settlement to the siege. Had they been willing to deal with Koresh and his followers on their own terms, they might have been able to end the standoff with no further violence.
This is a point that James Tabor makes as well. He describes the events of the siege in his book Why Waco?, and an article that reflects on the events many years later:
David Koresh did not repeatedly lie to the FBI during the 51 Day siege. There is not a single documented lie he told the whole time of the standoff. He wanted to come out peacefully but had two concerns—that his message would somehow be communicated to the outside without distortion and that what happened on February 28th would be fairly handled in legal proceedings. He sent out all the children but his own, and all his adult followers whom he judged might not be strong enough or have enough conviction to stay through to the end. He was worried that the Davidians would be arrested, charged with murder, thrown in jail, and evidence destroyed, plus the faith they held be cast as one more crazy cult message. He reversed his March 2nd pledge to exit after the radio broadcast of his message because it was not really broadcast widely and he believed he received a “Word” from God to wait. His pledge to exit on April 14th was in good faith and he was convinced that at least there was a way to insure both the purity of his message and the proper legal treatment of him and his people.
Tabor, like Gladwell, believes that, had the FBI taken the time to listen to what the Branch Davidians were saying on their own terms, and to negotiate with them in good faith, rather than assume that they were attempting to game the negotiators, they would likely have been successful in their attempts to achieve a peaceful surrender.
All of which is simply to say that questions of what is tolerable in American religion can get very dicey when they run up against the coercive power of the State. And the subtle negotiations that need to take place between religious idiosyncrasy and mainstream culture require a great deal of care and insight, something that was severely lacking in the Waco standoff.