If you think the actor’s behavior is a little, um, intense lately, members of his church got the first glimpse of it in a convention video to rally support.
Tom Cruise’s end-zone dance on the Oprah show and his scolding of Matt Lauer may have startled viewers, but it surely came as no surprise to his fellow Scientologists.
They had seen this side of Tom Cruise before.
Last October, in a recorded speech simulcast live to Scientology audiences around the world, Cruise passionately exhorted Scientologists to promote church programs and the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard.
To those not fully committed, he hotly said: Step it up or get out!
Don’t ask permission to help others, he said. Just do it. As Scientologists, he said, you have a special “tech” that works.
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He blasted psychiatry and the use of psychiatric drugs in the same biting tone the world saw on the Today show.
The video was shown at the annual convention of the International Association of Scientologists in Britain before Cruise was awarded a Medal of Valor by the church’s worldwide leader, David Miscavige. It later was made part of an exhibit on Scientology in the church’s Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, where a St. Petersburg Times reporter viewed it weeks ago.
Now that Cruise has emerged as Scientology’s cheerleader, with his behavior sparking comment worldwide, church officials declined last week to release a copy to the Times or allow a reporter to re-view it.
Church leaders were quick, however, to praise Cruise for speaking out. And they clearly welcomed the media attention he has generated.
So what, if anything, does the Church of Scientology get from all this attention?
And does Cruise’s behavior in October suggest his recent public displays were orchestrated to raise Scientology’s profile?
No question, Scientology has gotten a public relations bonanza from the Cruise coverage, said J. Gordon Melton, adjunct professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an expert on new religions.
“I think a major goal of the church right now is solidifying the image they are just another church,” he said. “They are trying to slough off that cult image, of a religion that does weird things.”
Media attention – even if Cruise’s behavior comes off as peculiar – meets that goal.
“For Scientology, they have gotten some of the best publicity they could have,” said Melton, who lectured Thursday at the University of South Florida. Coverage has been much more mild and matter-of-fact than the church would have received 10 years ago, he said.
But Melton doesn’t believe the church orchestrated the events. It’s more likely, he said, Cruise’s people cooked it up as a way to promote his summer movie War of the Worlds.
“I think it got out of hand,” Melton said. “They (Cruise’s team) lost control of it along the way. But overall, it served their purposes . . . His movie was No. 1 this week.”
That the church also got some publicity was a side benefit, Melton says
The church got 2.5-million different visitors to its Web site over the four weeks Cruise was making headlines, said Ben Shaw, spokesman for the church at its spiritual headquarters in Clearwater. That’s 10 times as many hits as the site got during the same period last year. Sales of Scientology publications worldwide also increased, Shaw said, from 10,500 books a week to about 14,000.
Shaw’s office has been inundated with media inquiries and requests for interviews.
Shaw praised Cruise for sparking discussion of psychiatry and the use of psychiatric drugs, both of which the church vehemently opposes.
“I think it’s great, personally,” Shaw said of Cruise’s outspokenness. “I think it has put an important issue in the forefront (of the world’s attention).”
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But Shaw doesn’t think it will translate to a spike in church membership. Gains in Scientology membership worldwide “come from word-of-mouth, not from media, necessarily,” he said.
“Ten years down the road, I don’t think we’re going to find the blip where this means anything for the church,” he said. “The only thing it has an effect on is the overall image. They (Scientologists) think how this affects their image in France and Germany and Italy and Spain and Russia, where the church is growing. They think in terms of how this plays in different countries.
“Religions have a saturation level,” Melton said. “If you give a religion free rein, they can only get so many members. New members join and others drop out. In America, they (the Church of Scientology) may have reached that saturation rate.”
But a celebrity can be a powerful ally.
That’s especially true in America when celebrities embrace religions, said USF religious studies professor Dell deChant. One powerful example is the attention paid to Muhammad Ali when he converted to Islam in the prime of his boxing career.
Scientology has dedicated celebrity centers where movie stars, musicians and other artists can practice without being bothered by the public.
For a segment of society, deChant said, celebrity endorsements carry weight.
“In the United States, you have power as a celebrity. People listen to what you say,” said deChant, who has toured Scientology facilities in Los Angeles, including its Celebrity Center.
What’s interesting, Melton said, is that Cruise’s outspoken attitude about Scientology is a recent phenomenon. Although a Scientologist for about 20 years, Cruise had been reluctant to talk publicly about it.
“Of all the celebrities Scientology has, only four or five are upfront and outspoken about it,” Melton said, pointing to Isaac Hayes, Chick Corea, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley.
Cruise has clearly joined those ranks.
“He’s suddenly come out of the woodwork,” Melton said. “It may be for Cruise, it starts with that award.”