Scientology Is Not a Religion
Germany treats L. Ron Hubbard’s movement as a cult and a threat to democracy. The U.S. should follow its example.
Though the Church has won successive attempts by the German government, at both the federal and provincial level, to ban it outright, it still exists in nebulous legal territory, permitted to operate but not recognized as a religion or a nonprofit organization. (Germany isn’t stingy in its designation of tax-exempt status; according to the government, some 10,000 groups are tax-exempt, including the Mormon Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses.) The German government cites a history of court rulings claiming that the Church is in fact a commercial enterprise: For instance, a 1995 decision found that the Church is “masquerading as a religion in order to make a profit.” But the government goes further than the courts in arguing that Scientology represents a unique threat to German society. This is a view that cuts across partisan lines as the leading political parties—the Christian Democratic Union, its Bavarian sister Conservative Social Union, the Social Democrats, and the liberal Free Democrats—all ban Scientologists from membership. According to a 2010 report by the BfV, Scientology “rejects the democratic system; its long-term goal is a social order in which it is the sole authority.”
In 2007, Tom Cruise hoped to shoot the film Valkyrie, a docudrama about German officers’ plot to kill Hitler in which the Scientology star played ringleader Col. Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, in Germany. When German military officials attempted to prevent filming in the building where the plotters were eventually executed, all the hoary old arguments likening contemporary Germany to Nazism came back to the fore. But many Germans saw Cruise’s assuming the role of the German hero as galling. Berthold Graf von Stauffenberg, the colonel’s eldest son and himself a former general in the West German army, voiced widespread German feeling when he said, “The fact that an avowed Scientologist like Cruise is supposed to play the victim of a totalitarian regime is purely sick.” (The German government, in a surprising turn-around, later agreed to let Cruise film inside the Defense Ministry.)
Around the world, a handful of politicians have urged their governments to prosecute Scientology as a criminal conspiracy. Three years ago, a Paris court found the Church guilty of fraud and fined it $900,000. That same year, a member of the Australian Senate, Nick Xenophon, delivered a speech in which he described Scientology as “criminal organization that hides behind its so-called religious beliefs.” After calling for an investigation into the Church’s tax-exempt status during a television interview, he began to receive letters from ex-Scientologists across Australia detailing what he described as “a worldwide pattern of abuse and criminality,” including torture, forced confinement, and coerced abortions. (Xenophon’s call for a parliamentary inquiry into the Church was ultimately rejected by the Australian government.) In 2007, following a 10-year investigation, a Belgian prosecutor called for the Church to be labeled a criminal organization and recommended that up to 12 Church officials face charges for the illegal practice of medicine, violation of privacy, and use of illegal contracts. The State Department criticized the move, stating that the United States would “oppose any effort to stigmatize an entire group based solely upon religious beliefs and would be concerned over infringement of any individual’s rights because of religious affiliation.”
But it was not long ago that the U.S. government came close to cracking down on Scientology. In a New Yorker profile last year of Paul Haggis, the Academy Award-winning director of Crash who recently defected from the Church, Lawrence Wright reported that the FBI was investigating Scientology on charges of human trafficking. According to Tony Ortega, the editor of the Village Voice who has long written about the Church, the bureau was preparing to raid Scientology’s California international headquarters—using footage it had shot with drone aircraft—based upon evidence that a defector had given them about “an office-prison made up of two double-wide trailers where fallen officials were kept day and night, sleeping on the floor and being forced to take part in mass confessions.” The probe was ultimately called off for unknown reasons.
But a series of high-level defections over the past several decades demonstrates just how dangerous the Church has become. This month, Tanja Castle, the former executive secretary to Church leader David Miscavige, told the story of how, in 2004, she had to physically flee the Church’s California headquarters, jumping over a razor-wire fence. She had been forced by Church leaders to “disconnect” from her husband, who had been accused of financial misconduct. “We were first discouraged, and then not allowed to communicate with each other, or see each other, or be a married couple,” she told an ABC affiliate in California.
Earlier this year, a former Scientology executive named Debbie Cook told a Texas court that, in the summer of 2007, she had been held in a prison-like compound called “The Hole,” with 100 other Church members. According to the Tampa Bay Times, which covered the case, “They spent their nights in sleeping bags on ant-infested floors, ate a soupy ‘slop’ of reheated leftovers and screamed at each other in confessionals that often turned violent.” Cook further “described a 12-hour ordeal at the California base where she was made to stand in a trash can while fellow executives poured water over her, screamed at her and said she was a lesbian.”
For obvious reasons—beginning with the Constitution, and the fact the United States was founded by Europeans fleeing religious persecution—most Americans are loath to do anything that would appear to infringe upon someone else’s religious liberty. Though some of us may find each other’s religious convictions, or religion itself, strange, few believe that it should be the government’s role to tell other people how, if at all, to pray. And so while the consensus in the United States may be that Scientology is a bit nutty, the general attitude, owing to Americans’ dedication to individual liberty, seems to be: live and let live. The problem with Scientology is that it is not content to let other people “let live,” certainly not those who join the Church or criticize it from the outside.
The differences in historical traditions of American individualism and European communalism should not be used to discourage a tougher American approach to dealing with the Church of Scientology. Revoking its ill-gotten tax-exempt status is the obvious first start, followed by an end to criticism of foreign governments, such as Germany’s, for doing precisely what the U.S. government should be doing: investigating Scientology as a harmful enterprise, with the ultimate aim of shutting it down. Congress should establish a commission, as have many other governments, to investigate the Church and its activities and actively warn citizens about its dangers. Such policies should be seen as no different from a public-health measure, like long-existing, widely popular government campaigns to discourage smoking.
Nearly 50 years ago, the Australian state of Victoria launched just such an investigation into Scientology. “There are some features of Scientology which are so ludicrous that there may be a tendency to regard Scientology as silly and its practitioners as harmless cranks,” the Board of Inquiry into Scientology found. But the activities of the Church were no laughing matter. “Scientology is evil; its techniques evil; its practice a serious threat to the community, medically, morally and socially; and its adherents sadly deluded and often mentally ill.” The Church was gradually shut down in several provinces but fought back hard, winning nationwide legal recognition in 1983.
Scientology isn’t just about space aliens and brainwashed actors jumping on couches. The relative handful of high-profile adherents obscures its many everyday victims, people whose lives and families have been destroyed by this cult. It may not be the role of a government in a free society to prevent its citizens from making unwise decisions. But surely it should take reasonable measures to prevent the unscrupulous and deceitful from brainwashing and abusing people. As Katie Holmes can no doubt attest, it’s long past time Americans stopped joking about Scientology and started treating it like the Germans do.
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