This article first appeared in the News Watch column of the Christian Research Journal, volume28, number2(2005). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

Mention the concept of “forensic theology,” even among people who like to discuss theology, and you may hear a response of skepticism tinged with humor. The concept came to my attention through a report by former Sunday Times (London) journalist Stephen Grey in the November 2004 issue of Atlantic magazine.

On GetReligion.org, a weblog I edit about mass-media coverage of religion, two readers poked fun at the concept. Darrell Grizzle, a reader from Atlanta, wrote: “I can see the CSI team arriving at the scene of a murder: ‘This looks like the work of a pantheist.’ ‘No, the evidence suggests a team of theistic existentialists is responsible.’”

Anton Sherwood added to the fun: “We were meant to think it was a Fooist ceremony gone wrong, but the killer’s knowledge of Fooism was evidently shallow: these candle stubs are the wrong color for that date.”

As Grey reported, however, forensic theology is a real discipline in which, as the name implies, religion scholars help law enforcement investigate and prevent crime, and help the judicial system decide cases involving religious liberty. If you doubt the potential of forensic theology, consider the inferno that occurred when federal authorities invaded David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas.

As scholar Nancy Ammerman documents in her chapter of Armageddon in Waco, one problem with the standoff was authorities’ failure to understand the Branch Davidians in religious terms. Agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms did not “consult with outside persons in religious studies, sociology of religion, or psychology of religion,” she writes. “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.”

Ammerman told CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL that authorities should not necessarily consult theologians, who are trained to make arguments within a belief system. Religious-studies professors, who study many religions’ differing beliefs, are more likely to help authorities understand the theological dimensions of a group like the Branch Davidians.

Grey’s report concentrated on how forensic theologians have assisted investigators around the world in sorting out real Islamic terrorists from people who issue similar-sounding statements. Grey cites the example of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which translates sermons and mass media from throughout Islamic nations:

MEMRI’s analysts found that a supposed al-Qaeda statement issued on March 12, which claimed responsibility for the Madrid bombings the day before, deviated from Osama bin Laden’s scholarly Islamic style in several respects. Among other things, it termed the 9/11 attacks “events” rather than “raids” (a translation of the early-Islamic word ghazwah), and talked about foreign “agents” (a word common in the vocabulary of nationalist ideology), whereas bin Laden and his followers typically call their enemies “infidels.” It also referred to the Madrid attacks as “messages,” a word out of keeping with the way bin Laden casts his operations.

MEMRI’s work sometimes has attracted criticism from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). CAIR’s Ibrahim Hooper declined an interview request from the JOURNAL, but in 2002 he blasted MEMRI in an interview with Online Journalism Review. “They look for the absolute worst, most inflammatory rhetoric they can find in the Arabic press,” he told Tim Cavanaugh. “It’s kind of like if we translated Franklin Graham’s remarks [condemning Islam as a ‘wicked’ religion], and then went to the Arabic press and said ‘See, this is what they’re saying in America.’”

Yigal Carmon is a cofounder of MEMRI and former chief antiterrorism adviser to Israeli prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir. “The Arab press is indeed immersed in a lot of hatred for America that comes from Islamic religious leaders,” Carmon told the Washington Times in response to CAIR’s charges. “But what interests me most is the dissident voices, the moderate voices that are struggling to be heard from the margins of Arabic society. Islam must be reformed and there are many Muslims out there trying to do it. But the Saudi-financed news media keeps them shut out of the public discourse.” Grey’s Atlantic report described Carmon as a pioneer in the field of forensic theology.

For Frank Flinn of the University of Washington in St. Louis, being a forensic theologian has meant testifying in dozens of legal cases involving members of Sun Myung Moon’s Unificiation Church, Scientologists, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Hare Krishnas.

Flinn, a Roman Catholic, told the JOURNAL that his understanding of different religions led him to argue for their First Amendment rights. Flinn says that studying and defending minority religions has made him a strong believer in a strict separation of church and state.

Unlike some other fierce believers in the separation of church and state, Flinn argues less for a naked public square than for the government to leave religions alone, regardless of whether their beliefs are conventional or orthodox. Flinn says he first became involved in such discussions in the late 1960s, when he and a fellow scholar, Joseph O’Connell, began defending the International Society for Krishna Consciousness against charges of being a cult. Flinn said he and O’Connell wrote a letter defending the Krishnas as representing an ancient religion.

Flinn said he was once approached by a prosecutor who asked for advice on a case involving a Krishna practitioner who would not return any change on a $20 bill. Flinn said he would be happy to help if the prosecutor treated the case as a common theft; but if the prosecutor tried to argue that the Krishna stole the money because of his religious beliefs, Flinn warned him, he would face Flinn as a witness for the defense.

The prosecutor understood Flinn’s distinction, tried the case as a common theft, and won an easy conviction.

Flinn believes that so long as a group is truly a religion, which he says requires belief in a Supreme Being, it should enjoy the same religious freedom as established religions. He wonders whether America would have fewer problems today with violent polygamous offshoots of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints if the government had not outlawed polygamy. He believes U.S. v. Reynolds, the Supreme Court ruling that outlawed polygamy, will be challenged someday because of widespread polygamy among Muslim immigrants.

Flinn does draw a line, however: he recalls that he once declined a request from Satanists that he defend their rights. “Satan is not a Supreme Power,” Flinn says he told them. “He’s a counter-power.”

— Douglas LeBlanc

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