Scientology, Hollywood and the path to Washington

In the wake of Andrew Morton’s biography Hollywood actor Tom Cruise we look at how Scientology uses Hollywood celebrities to get what it wants in Washington. With leading sociologist of religious cults, Professor Stephen Kent of the university of Alberta in Canada.

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This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers.

Stephen Crittenden: Welcome to the program.

Tom Cruise Now is the time, OK? It is being a Scientologist; people are turning to you, so you better know it. You better know it. And if you don’t, you know, go and learn it. It’s like we’re here to help, and if you’re a scientologist, you see life, but you see things the way they are (laughs).

Stephen Crittenden: Actor, Tom Cruise, speaking about Scientology.

Did you know that Tom Cruise was briefly a Franciscan seminarian? It’s true. As a teenager, he spent a year in the Franciscan minor seminary in Cincinnati, and I have to say the gulf between St Francis and L. Ron Hubbard is so wide, it almost does your head in.

Well following the publication of Andrew Morton’s biography of Tom Cruise, I’ve been meaning to bring you a program about Scientology, and especially how it uses Hollywood celebrities to get what it wants in Washington.

Stephen Kent is Professor of Sociology at the University of Alberta in Canada, and he’s a specialist on cults like Scientology. Stephen, welcome to the program. Let’s start with Andrew Morton’s book. I wasn’t expecting it to be much good, but I have to say that on Scientology I found it to be extremely interesting. Did you learn anything new?

Stephen Kent: Well I too was pleasantly surprised by the book, especially given all the sometimes rocky pre-publication publicity it received. What struck me most about the book actually Morton’s discussion about the behind-the-scenes negotiations that went on involving Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Certainly a lot of us who observe Scientology wondered whether Kidman caused a problem for Scientology, because in part, her father is a psychologist, and also in part she never really seemed to be that committed. What I did not realise however was the extent to which the organisation apparently involved itself in that relationship.

Stephen Crittenden: They were there at the beginning, helping to set the marriage up. They were there when the children were being adopted, and they were there at the end when the marriage was falling apart.

Stephen Kent: It’s a very good observation. And it’s the case that many people take on the veneer of a partner’s marriage just for practical purposes and don’t internalise that particular faith, and that seems to be the pattern that Nicole Kidman followed. But of course her relationship with her parents, particularly her father, was going to be an ongoing problem. Scientology’s antipathy towards the mental health profession, psychiatry, but also psychology, is long-standing and well-known.

Stephen Crittenden: And what about Andrew Morton’s statement that Tom Cruise is the No.2 figure in Scientology; was that news to you?

Stephen Kent: I hadn’t thought of it in the way that Andrew Morton framed it, and his framing was something along the lines that Tom Cruise is the No.2 person. Now certainly in an organisational sense, that claim is just not true, but it may be true in the context of the prestige that Tom Cruise has for other Scientologists, and from that standpoint Morton’s statement made a great deal of sense.

Stephen Crittenden: A couple of other things that struck me in Andrew Morton’s book: one is that Tom Cruise appears to have gone through the same step-by-step initiation process that everyone else in Scientology goes through.

Stephen Kent: Well the question about the extent to which Tom Cruise’s experience mirrors the experience of ordinary Scientologists, comes up a lot, and almost certainly Tom Cruise’s experience of Scientology is absolutely unique. Beginning of course with his deep friendship with Scientologist leader David Miscavage and the access that Tom Cruise has to really elite facilities inside Scientology itself. It’s certainly the case that Tom Cruise, it sounds like, spent a lot of time doing courses – but it’s also the case too that Tom Cruise can afford these courses, and as you know, the courses can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But it’s also the case too that from other kinds of documents, and many of those documents are ones that Andrew Morton alluded to, ordinary Scientologists could not interact with Tom Cruise, so that when Tom Cruise was on a facility out in the California desert, called Hemet for example, Scientologists working on the facility were not even allowed to look at him, much less speak to him.

The Un-Funny TRUTH about Scientology

Stephen Crittenden: Steve, it strikes me that Tom Cruise is a bit like Scientology’s St Paul: he joins the organisation not long after the death of the founder when the cult is in disarray. In the late ’70s and ’80s Scientology had been in a whole lot of trouble with the FBI, and he really comes along as the figure who is going through his celebrity to make it all right again.

Stephen Kent: If we’d had this conversation a couple of years ago, I would have said that the role you’ve described was really fulfilled by John Travolta. For a number of years, Travolta was the most public and vocal Scientologist, and in the early to mid-1990s, Travolta had access to the US government in ways that served as a forerunner for what Cruise had in the Bush Administration.

Stephen Crittenden: Just take us back and tell us about the FBI raid in 1977 and the criminal trial that followed.

Stephen Kent: Well Scientology had a rocky and rancorous relationship with the US government up to the early 1990s. In October, 1993, however, the US government’s tax organisation, the Internal Revenue Service, IRS, granted Scientology – and I believe there’s 136 Scientology organizations – charitable status.

Stephen Crittenden: These are sort of Scientology front companies.

Stephen Kent: That’s right, organisations that use various Scientology techniques and propagate Scientology out into society. Now a lot of people say the US government declared Scientology to be a religion. It’s not quite accurate, but the US government declared Scientology to be a charitable organisation, in part based upon its religious claims.

Stephen Crittenden: But take us back to the FBI raid when several key Scientologists were charged with breaking into the IRS. In other words, Scientology went from being charged with a conspiracy against the IRS, to getting special tax-exempt status from the IRS in the space of little more than a decade.

Stephen Kent: Well the activities of Scientology against the US government in the mid-1970s are pretty extraordinary. Scientology carried out what we learned eventually was the largest domestic spy operation against the US government in US history. Scientology agents were going in to various US government departments, the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service and so on, and photocopying tens of thousands of documents. Now Scientology said that these actions were defensive on its part, it was trying to find out the information – it would claim incorrect information – that the government had about the organisation.

But nevertheless, in ’79 and I believe into 1980, 11 high-ranking Scientologists were convicted of having been involved in this spy operation and they served anywhere from several months in jail to up to five years. One of those people who was charged and convicted, was Mary Sue Hubbard, who was L. Ron Hubbard’s wife at the time. Now after that relationship the US government was highly suspicious of Scientology and Scientology kept trying to get charitable status, and a series of courts continued to refuse to grant the designation. So in 1991 there was a significant US Tax court case, that continued to refuse to give Church of Scientology charitable status. That is to say, this decision continued to say that Scientology was not functioning in a charitable manner.

Then two years later, the IRS in an administrative decision, granted Scientology its status, which was in direct contradiction to the court case two years prior. To make the issue more complicated, the final negotiations of the IRS/US government agreement was secret, they’re sealed, and the government and Scientology here refused to release those final negotiations to the public.

Stephen Crittenden: You’ve written very interestingly, about the role of Hollywood celebrities and how Scientology uses Hollywood celebrities, and in fact how Hollywood celebrities were used to lobby the White House, in particular, to lobby the Clinton White House.

Stephen Kent: Oh yes. Going back to the mid-’50s, L. Ron Hubbard wrote a few of the policies that instructed his followers to target celebrities to try and bring in opinion makers, which included celebrities into the Scientology fold. And the program really took off in the 1970s and of course in Australia and other countries now there are celebrity centres. These celebrity centres are havens you might say for high-ranking, high-profile Scientologists to intermingle, to schmooze, to make professional, personal contacts outside of the public eye, outside of scrutiny of paparazzi. But it is also the case that in many ways, Hubbard was correct: celebrities, because of their high social status, can get access to the corridors of power. Certainly the American celebrities have gotten access to those corridors, including Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Chic Corea , Isaac Hayes and others.

Stephen Crittenden: Stephen, in one of your essays you refer to allegations that President Clinton was actually ‘played’. Played by John Travolta, in more ways than one, because it was Travolta who played Clinton in the movie ‘Primary Colours’ which came out in 1998, and it’s been alleged that Travolta had something Clinton wanted, because Clinton was hoping he would be portrayed in a benevolent light. Do you give that story any credence?

Stephen Kent: Um. It’s hard to know what the relationship personal and professional really was between Travolta and Bill Clinton. Clinton at one point, said that when he was in university he had a room-mate who was a Scientologist. Now a lot of the old-time Scientologists heard that fact and went, ‘Oh boy’. If in fact that was true then it’s very probable that Scientology had information about Bill Clinton’s college and university antics, that is to say the room-mate in the normal course of doing auditing and reporting about his social influences and contacts, would have talked about his room mate. So one suspicion was that Scientology knew some things about Clinton that Clinton didn’t want out.

Stephen Crittenden: Indeed, in Andrew Morton’s book there’s an allegation made by Karen Pressley , another former celebrity Scientologist, that Scientology also had a file on Travolta and his personal sexual history.

Stephen Kent: Oh sure. One of the reasons Scientology remains so controversial is that its so-called counsellors, its auditors, record the information that the Scientologist gives to them in auditing sessions. So unlike say the Catholic church where people give confessions, those confessions in the Catholic church are not written down. Scientology keeps a written record, and the suspicion and the fear in some circles is that celebrities will have revealed some deeply intimate and personal issues in these auditing sessions that Scientology has on record. The concern often is that if celebrities leave and certainly if they left and started speaking out, some information might leak out of your supposedly confidential files.

Stephen Crittenden: Now around this time, Travolta and Isaac Hayes and Chic Corea, the jazz pianist, are testifying before – it seems so weird – the Commission on Security and Co-operation in Europe, and before Congress.

Stephen Kent: Yes.

Stephen Crittenden: How did that come about and what was the inquiry about.

Stephen Kent: I really puzzle over why the American government gave such access to a number of Scientology celebrities who really have no educational background to comment on international affairs. Part of the answer might be that one of America’s biggest exportable commodities is entertainment; the movie industry, music and so on. Consequently movie stars of a wide variety have a certain social cache, they become ambassadors of American culture.

Stephen Crittenden: So a cult which is all about turning yourself into some kind of demi-god, is publicly represented by the leading demigods in our culture, and when they walk into the room, even the masters of the universe in Washington go weak at the knees?

Stephen Kent: Andrew Morton gave a very interesting description about Tom Cruise’s interactions with Vice-Presidential adviser, Scooter Libby , and that kind of deferential behaviour and excitement and almost childlike giddiness, the major politicians got when they were around in this case Cruise, or early with John Travolta is quite astonishing to read.

Stephen Crittenden: Stephen is there something about Hollywood stars that makes them particularly vulnerable to the laws of Scientology?

Stephen Kent: Hollywood is a very peculiar social and working environment. Nobody really knows what it takes to get ahead. Is it good looks? Well, everybody is good-looking except for some celebrities whose bad looks make them marketable. Is it intelligence? Well there’s some pretty dim lightbulbs in Hollywood. Is it skills or talent? Hollywood is an uncertain environment. It’s difficult for anybody in that business to know what allows them to get ahead and what holds them back. What Scientology promises is that it has the skills and techniques to allow people to overcome those limitations that prevent them from reaching their full capacities. And now Hubbard’s policy about celebrities also indicated that you should get them on the way up, or get them on the way down. It doesn’t hold in all cases but in many cases.

Stephen Crittenden: Not in Cruise’s because they got Cruise right at the top almost, didn’t they?

Stephen Kent: That’s true. But he did get in through a marriage relationship with Mimi Rogers , who was a long-standing Scientologist. But for other movie stars and celebrities, Isaac Hayes is a classic example – his career was going down when they got him involved; Travolta’s was just starting to take off when he got involved. So what happens is a career gets saved, or a career improves, and a person’s taking Scientology courses, he or she may attribute their new successes to the Scientology involvement.

Stephen Crittenden: During the Clinton years, Scientology used these celebrities to lobby very hard in Washington, especially about the German government’s treatment of Scientology. That’s what they wanted the State Department to do something about. Now just tell us the background of that and tell us whether they were successful or not.

Stephen Kent: OK. Once Scientology received IRS designation as a charitable organisation, then it became an organisation deserving American State Department protection overseas, given the fact for example that a number of Scientologists, Tom Cruise, Travolta, Chic Corea, were involved in entertainment in countries like Germany that were hostile to Scientology, the US State Department from time to time, got involved in German internal affairs, criticising Germany for its hostility towards Scientology. Now the German constitution is unique because of its historical background vis-a`-vis Nazi Germany and as you know, Nazi Germany initially entered German politics through a legitimate democratic election. Consequently, the current German constitution requires authorities to be proactive to go after any threats against the German constitution before they develop, and Germany has looked at Scientology policies and has decided that it’s an anti-democratic organisation. As such, the Germans have something called the Verfassungsschutz – the constitutional police -, and it’s their obligation to monitor organisations that are likely potential threats.

Now as the movement against Scientology was growing in the early ’90s, at various times there was talk in Germany about banning these celebrities, and on those issues for example, the US State Department got involved. Because now it was protecting American interests in the entertainment business.

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Stephen Crittenden: So these Hollywood stars are lobbying the Clinton White House in the mid-’90s, trying to get the US Administration to put pressure on Germany to soften its approach to Scientology. Did they succeed?

Stephen Kent: No, they didn’t succeed. Just in the past year, the German government has renewed the monitoring operation against Scientology. It is the case however that a number of the celebrities have been able to perform in Germany so even – what – a few months ago Tom Cruise finished a movie about the German World War II hero who tried to assassinate Hitler, it remains to be seen however, with that movie about Von Stauffenberg what its success or failure may be at the box office.

Stephen Crittenden: But the implication is that that movie is a deliberate ploy to soften up German government and public opinion towards Scientology, is that right?

Stephen Kent: Yes, Andrew Morton was fairly clear about the point that you just made, and he did convince me. Again, even someone like me who studies Scientology all the time, this forgets about the extent to which the organisation really tries to plot out and plan its global expansionist efforts, clearly the organisation would have been deeply interested, and it’s high-ranking member, Tom Cruise, doing a movie against Nazism in Germany.

Stephen Crittenden: Stephen, you make the point that in 1996 the State Department released its annual Human Rights Report, and its condemnation of Germany was so strong and the implication is that it was dictated from the White House, that the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, felt the need to personally apologise to the Germany government.

Stephen Kent: Yes that’s what one of my sources indicated. So it did look like that the White House somehow was taking a personal interest in promoting Scientology. Now it’s also the case too, that every major American politician, certainly on the Federal level, at one time or another winds up in Hollywood because of money and finances, and certainly Hollywood celebrities and some Scientologists have been generous to – previously at least – the Democratic party. Cruise for example and Nicole Kidman, I think in the year 2000, donated several thousand dollars to Hillary Clinton’s New York Senatorial campaign.

Stephen Crittenden: Can we expect that the same would be going on again now that she’s running for President?

Stephen Kent: Everyone has wondered if Scientology is involved in Hillary Clinton’s campaign. I’ve even tried to check myself in donor lists, and thus far, there isn’t any evidence that Scientologists did involve themselves supporting Hillary Clinton.

Stephen Crittenden: Stephen it seems fair to say that even someone with the celebrity status of Tom Cruise is now seeing his association with Scientology begin to backfire on him. How is Scientology viewed by the Hollywood establishment?

Stephen Kent: One indication about Scientology’s status in Hollywood came into Morton’s book regarding the negative reaction Tom Cruise started getting by bringing in Scientology too much into his film productions. So that Stephen Spielberg for example, seemed to have been growing quite irritated with Tom Cruise because his promotion of Scientology was trumping Cruise’s promotion of the movie ‘War of the Worlds’. A number of Hollywood celebrities who’ve been critical of Scientology and Scientology is now the butt of jokes by comedians around the world.

Man: L. Ron, it really is you. This is the greatest day of my life.

L. Ron: Oh dude – I needa go to bed?

Man: Don’t you understand L. Ron, it’s me, Tom Cruise.

L. Ron: Yes, I know who you are.

Man: Well haven’t I done well, L. Ron? Haven’t you enjoyed my acting? Which film did you like best?

L. Ron: Well, I mean, you’re not like as good as Leonardo di Caprio, but you’re OK I guess.

Man: What?

L. Ron: I mean you’re not Gene Hackman or that guy that played Napoleon Dynamite, but you’re OK.

Man: I’m nothing. I’m a failure in the eyes of the prophet.

L. Ron: Hey, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it.

Man: Go away .

L. Ron: This is my room.

Man: Go away, I said.

L. Ron: Dad, Tom Cruise won’t come out of the closet.

Dad: Mr Cruise, Mr Cruise, come out of the closet.

Man: No.

Stephen Crittenden: You know of course that Australian business mogul James Packer is a member of Scientology. I’m interested to know if, let’s just speak hypothetically, if a business corporation like, let’s just hypothetically use the example of the Nine Network, which is owned by James Packer, if you started to see senior figures in the company converting to Scientology, would that surprise you? Does Scientology operate that way? Is there any record of Scientology, if you like, colonising corporations in the United States, for example, at the most senior levels?

Stephen Kent: Oh, it’s Scientology policy to do so. Scientology wants to spread its influence in all areas of society, including business. Consequently it has an organisation, World Institute of Scientology Enterprises, that tends to translate Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard’s so-called technology into business applications. So that attempts –

Stephen Crittenden: I mean can you give an example of any company that has been infiltrated in that way?

Stephen Kent: Oh sure. The best-known example of a company that was infiltrated by Scientology with disastrous consequences was All State Insurance in the late 1980s and the early 1990s.

Stephen Crittenden: And what happened there?

Stephen Kent: Well the fallout from Scientology’s involvement was so devastating to the organisation, that the Wall Street Journal carried a major article about it in March of 1995. In essence, as AllState administrators learned Scientology’s techniques and technologies and started imposing it upon the AllState Insurance sales people. The salespeople grew increasingly stressed. Part of the reason they grew increasingly stressed is that Scientology always emphasizes growth, growth, growth, it talks about rewarding up statistics and punishing down statistics. Consequently the salespeople were under tremendous pressure to produce, produce, produce. Moreover, if they failed or if they even grumbled about these new techniques, other people were encouraged to write what are called ‘knowledge reports’ about the complaint. So the whole internal atmosphere of the company soured, in part because of the pressure, in part too because –

Stephen Crittenden: So the managerial techniques of the company were Scientologised, if you like?

Stephen Kent: Oh yes. Scientology wants to gets its techniques in on managerial levels, and then require companies to use Hubbard’s technology and then send a percentage of the company’s profits back to World Institute of Scientology Enterprises.

Stephen Crittenden: I suppose there are two main approaches to Scientology. A lot of academics, sociologists of religion like yourself, tend to treat Scientology as an innovative New Age religion that’s worthy of scholarly attention. In other words, at some level it’s a bona fide religion. The other view is often taken by the media, and it’s the view that Scientology is a criminal conspiracy, a scam. Time Magazine for example, called it ‘a highly profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a mafia-like manner’. Which of those two sides do you come down on?

Stephen Kent: Oh, I’ve said it in print that Scientology is a totalitarian organisation; it’s certainly anti-democratic and it can be religious but it also can pose a real threat to society and many other people who follow its teachings. Now in terms of the upper level leadership, there are a lot of interesting stories about the state of Scientology right now, and every indication that I’ve seen and heard and read and picked up in interviews, is that the organisation is in real significant crisis. For example, just a few months ago, one of the highest-ranking Scientologists, Mike Rinder, defected, and when people at that level leave, they leave secretly, at night, and even now, months later, Rinder has not resurfaced. So to have major defections on that level is a real problem. The internet’s been a significant problem for Scientology. So for example Scientology often uses the figure that it has got 8-million to 10-million members. You’ve got former high-ranking SeaOrg people now who are coming out on the internet saying Maybe worldwide Scientology’s membership could be as low as 12,000, 13,000, no more than 50,000. So you’ve got people who were in for the highest of noble reasons, who now look back with some pain and anguish about all the years and decades they lost in the organisation, but they’re talking about the internal ethos. David Miscavage, by many many accounts, is brutal towards his workers. Numerous people have talked about either being hit by him, seen him hit other people, or accounts about Miscavage spitting on SeaOrg members, and so on. So the internet has posed a real problem for Scientology and I think it’s under significant pressure at this moment.

Stephen Crittenden: Steve, an amazing conversation. Thank you very much for taking part.

Stephen Kent: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thank you.

Tom Cruise: It’s rough-and-tumble, it’s wild and woolly and it’s a blast. It’s a blast. It really is fun. Because dammit, there is nothing better. I don’t get those spectators. You’re in the playing field or out of your league. Really, that’s how I feel about it. I do what I can and I do it the way I do everything. There’s nothing part-of-the-way me .. it’s just .. (laughs).

Stephen Crittenden: And just remember we’re here to help. Actor Tom Cruise, and before that, my guest on The Religion Report, leading sociologist of modern religious cults, Professor Stephen Kent of the University of Alberta in Canada.

Well that’s all this week. Thanks to producers Noel Debien and John Diamond. Goodbye now from Stephen Crittenden.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday April 18, 2008.
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