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Monday, December 14, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kay Mcfadden

Sect Appeal: A&E Examines The Scientology Phenomenon

Seattle Times TV Critic

Getting religion has never been easy if you're a member of the media.

A few years ago, in response to complaints that journalism was neglecting matters of faith, many newspapers expanded the space and staffing devoted to such topics. Television news also began doing more pieces devoted to Promise Keepers, papal policy, mega-churches and the like.

Yet most journalists still have a blind spot when it comes to the spiritual quotient in stories. Perhaps the problem lies in the average reporter's orientation; the world is too much with us, and it shows in our worldly approach to religious issues.

A&E's "Investigative Reports" special "Inside Scientology," which airs tonight at 10, is a perfect example. If you know little or nothing about the subject, you'll definitely want to watch - but you'll also walk away with some unanswered questions about the core of this new movement.

Few sects are as rife with news appeal as Scientology. In its 44-year history, the church has been embroiled in battles with the Internal Revenue Service, Time magazine and a half-dozen foreign governments; had top members jailed for criminal activities; and lists among its current members John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Isaac Hayes, Kirstie Alley, Jenna Elfman and Mimi Rogers.

A&E does a good job of chronicling such external facts, aided by a broad base of interviews with former and current followers (including Travolta), journalists (pro and con) and current church leader David Miscavige. Over the course of two hours, host Bill Kurtis escorts us through a solid history of Scientology, beginning with founder L. Ron Hubbard and his seminal 1950 textbook, "Dianetics."

The Nebraska-born Hubbard, who died in 1986 while under investigation for skimming church funds, was in the American tradition of such inspired eccentrics as Howard Hughes and physical-health guru Bernarr MacFadden. After a hazy career as a World War II Navy officer - special operations seem to have been his bag - Hubbard returned to writing sci-fi pulp fiction.

But he wanted something more and found it in "Dianetics," which laid out a formula for achieving mental health. The book made best-seller lists, riding the self-improvement wave that materialized in America after the war. "Dianetics" was not, however, well-received by the psychiatric establishment and sparked what became a longstanding feud with Scientology, which Hubbard founded as the Association of Scientologists in 1954 and re-christened as the Church of Scientology in 1960.

Why did Scientology rub psychiatry the wrong way and vice versa? Here is where "Investigative Reports" reveals its recurrent blind spot. A brief description of some of Hubbard's beliefs includes the notion that most illnesses are psychosomatic, that people sometimes react on the basis of childhood trauma, and that such woes can be "cleared" through a question-and-answer process called "auditing."

Bafflingly, it all sounds much like psychoanalysis, charged up with semi-scientific accessories such as a lie detector machine used during auditing. The process even recalls Roman Catholic confession. But A&E doesn't give us enough information about the practices of Scientology to understand why they roil psychiatrists and vice versa. And no representatives of other faiths are interviewed for the program.

More important, we're never given a handle on the theological belief system subscribed to by members. Travolta, an ardent spokesman for Scientology, does refer to an enhanced level of spirituality, which "Investigative Reports" never asks him to define. We're left completely in the dark about such phenomena as God and hell.

These considerations are crucial, because the central controversy over Scientology has been whether it is a religion or - as Time magazine's famous 1991 cover story asserted - "a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner."

Legal results aren't particularly telling. The church's libel lawsuit against Time was dismissed in 1996 (at a cost of $10 million in legal fees to parent Time-Warner Inc.), mainly because malicious intent wasn't proved. In 1993, the IRS finally gave the Church of Scientology tax-exempt status in exchange for a tax payment of $12.5 million, which "Investigative Reports" neglects to mention.

More serious are charges that the Church of Scientology has used threats and intimidation on members as well as on inquiring IRS agents and journalists. "Investigative Reports" charts evidence to support these accusations, though it's not clear if such activities are church procedure or the actions of extremist members. The scamming issue - members pay large sums for the process of getting "cleared" - may be serious or just a matter of disappointment to those for whom Scientology didn't have the answers.

The Church of Scientology does seem to have made a career out of attracting powerful opponents and conducting quixotic, damaging campaigns against perceived enemies. It's also done a good job in recent years of burnishing its image with a high-profile roster of successful members, who in turn have attracted others to the fold.

Too bad we still don't know what exactly makes it tick.

Kay McFadden's TV column runs Mondays and Thursdays in Scene. She can be reached at 206-382-8888, or at kmcfadden@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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