“How do you know David Koresh isn’t Christ?” asked a friend and visiting journalist.

“Christ wouldn’t have gotten himself into this much trouble,” I answered.

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” he replied.

“Christ wouldn’t have any need to stockpile weapons. He also wouldn’t use them to kill people,” I said.

“How do you know?” he asked. “Maybe not before, but this may be different. Remember millions of people were killed in the name of Christ.”

“If Koresh is Christ, he could heal his own wounds, bring his dead followers back to life and strike down on all the surrounding ATF and FBI agent,” I said.

“But Christ was always reluctant to perform miracles,” my friend said. “And perhaps his intentions are yet to be revealed.”

“OK, how about the reports that Koresh has fathered babies with multiple wives and has had sex with very young girls?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s hard to understand,” he said. “But aren’t there still states where men can marry girls as young as 12 and 13? Besides, couldn’t Christ have a plan we cannot understand?”

Actually, my friend didn’t believe that David Koresh, the self-anointed messiah and leader of the Branch Davidian cult outside Waco, was really Christ. He was just making a point.

Sub: Many religions once cults

Take the word “cult,” for instance. Nearly all religions were once cults. Judaism surely was considered odd when it first proclaimed there was but one God. The early followers of Christ, as well as Prince Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), Confucius and Muhammad, were considered cultists. One definition of a cult is the distinctive system of worship and ceremonies that develop around an individual who proclaims a unique view of divine beliefs. The founder’s teachings represent the heart of a cult.

If a cult survives long enough, it will become an accepted mainstream religion and often spawn new cults. From Hinduism to Buddhism and Jainism. From Judaism to Christianity. And from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism and then on thousands of new Protestant churches. In America, Mormons, Christian Scientists and Seventh-day Adventists were recently considered cults.

With our constitutional protections of religion and speech, and our emphasis on individualism, America is a cult hotbed. I don’t think it is either incorrect or improper to refer to David Koresh’s Branch Davidians as a cult. But when the feds and the courts get through with Koresh, formerly known as Vernon Howell, I doubt if the Branch Davidians ever progress beyond the cult stage.

Sub: 5,000 religious cults

Experts have estimated that America has up to 5,000 religious cults. Most will die out. Some may progress to sects and then on to churches or denominations. Perhaps the world would be better off without some of them, but who is to say which ones? The government? Established churches?

Certainly if a cult endangers the health, safety or welfare of its members – or represents a similar threat to the public – then the government needs to step in. That’s one of the basic reasons to have government should have stepped in sooner when it was first warned about Koresh’s polygamy, sham marriages to thwart immigration laws, physical and psychological abuse of children and sexual exploits with young girls. Not to mention detailed reports of a massive weapons build-up.

Besides destructive religious cults, the government needs to look into the growing number of sophisticated white-collar cults that mistreat, manipulate and exploit followers in the name of self-actualization, human potential or personal growth.

But first and foremost, the government should never ignore warnings of a cult that combines God, guns and sexual exploitation of children. It did for too long in Waco. The results were tragic.

Rowland Nethaway’s column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.