My first internship in Hollywood was working for Tom Cruise's publicist. Part of my job was sending Cruise's fans Scientology merch; I never found it to be strange, as most celebrities just send headshots. At least Tom was giving his fans something to read.
One Christmas, Tom sent flowers and iTunes gift cards to the entire office. Now every year I tell my mom Tom Cruise gave me a Christmas present. By whatever cosmic coincidence, or grand plan, Scientology has become a part of my life in ways that have nothing to do with psychiatry or Xenu's galactic war.
I think it all started when I was in grade school and Tom Cruise became my favorite actor for his role as Cole Trickle in Days of Thunder, aka "Top Gun on wheels." He's now the most unpopular actor on my Facebook feed. Cruise doesn't even have the ironic appeal of a Nicolas Cage or Steven Seagal, which is just sad. Where are all the Richard Gere haters? Not in L.A., because Buddhism is trendy and Bikram Yoga saunas drive the industry of skinny. Cruise is unpopular because his religion is unpopular. Hipsters deride his beliefs. His megalomaniacal laugh is presumed to be a symptom of the ways Scientology has fucked with his brain. I now find myself regularly defending Cruise on Facebook, which means I'm an apologist for the Church. In other words, I became a Scientology apologist because I think Tom Cruise's star is worth defending, which I guess is part of Scientology's covert PR strategy. Yes, celebrities really can make people sympathetic to Scientology. It's strange, as I've never even considered the religious practices of any other actor, but when it comes to this one dude, where you stand on Scientology is where you stand on Tom Cruise.
Back to my strange, amicable relationship with Scientology: My favorite musical is Grease, and when I was in high school, my first experience on acid was watching Battlefield Earth at the AMC theater in Burbank. John Travolta means more to me than Leonardo DiCaprio, which means my friends all hate me — because Travolta is a "crazy Scientologist," and you're not allowed to like him.
Which is how we got to this point, where a pernicious over-confidence in any criticism of Scientology (a form of pop-culture McCarthyism, really) has turned the Scientologist into the hunted witch of modern religion. There's an HBO documentary, countless websites, a best-selling book — an entire cottage industry is dedicated to taking down Scientology. But who's defending it? Tom Cruise? He stopped because it hurt his career. I'll be his stunt double now, Tom's advocate, as I become the anti-hipster defender of the Church of Scientology and its entertaining virtues, which isn't very popular but quite necessary in a society that takes so much pleasure in shaming minorities and "others." The bottom line: Tom Cruise is cooler than Jesus and Scientology is really entertaining once you've disconnected from the zeitgeist.
In L.A.— a city that birthed the fraud of Pentecostalism, a city where charlatans on the Sunset Strip claim playing cards reveal the future — Scientology is no more "cultlike" than the Angelus Temple in Echo Park, whose founder, Aimee Semple McPherson, conned the local Mexican community into believing she had divine healing powers. Let me state for the record that I am not a member of the Church of Scientology — I'm just a fan. As of 2008, there were 25,000 members worldwide. Of those, about 5,000 were in L.A., the most of any city. In recent months, the coordinated energies of anti-Scientologists, or "Suppressive Persons" according to the Church's own lexicon, have led to an orgy of ire by Angelenos, a large percentage of whom are Catholic.
L.A.'s most immediate dangers, which include drunk drivers and street gangs (many members of which also identify as Catholic), are accepted members of the community, while the Scientologist, like the Mormon in 1838 or the Christian Armenian in 1915, is now the prey of the establishment. Lest we not forget the Armenian Church of Glendale, at St. Mary's on Central Avenue, which was once a site for the illegal sale of firearms in the '90s. But like the Mormons, the Armenian Apostolic Church worships Christ, and for that reason, all is forgiven. Conjuring Xenu, the galactic dictator in Scientology's origin myth, is perhaps the most popular way to refute Scientology's status as a religion. After all, a space emperor is not very Christlike and, frankly, sounds like something from a discarded Twilight Zone script. So Xenu is indefensible even though the same people criticizing Scientology's sci-fi origin myth also believe in talking bushes and snakes and that Jesus was crucified for our sins (which is a laugh).
Scientology was established in L.A. in 1954 by L. Ron Hubbard, a prolific science fiction writer who died 30 years ago this Sunday. Based on my own research of Scientology, I find it far more benign than Catholicism, a faith whose oppressive schools have fanned the flames of self-mutilation, adultery, addiction, alcoholism, masturbation and plaid skirts in ways only Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard can without referencing flogging or porn: "Catholic school as vicious as Roman rule / I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black." Scientology schools based on Hubbard's teachings have been accused by everyone from hacker group Anonymous to the Village Voice of being an expensive church front for indoctrinating youth. As a child who was forced to follow a curriculum written by Reagan-appointed pseudo-historians, I could only have dreamed of going to one of Hubbard's Study Tech schools! L.A. punk pioneer Darby Crash did, and he later credited his obsession with wordsmithing and etymology to Hubbard's system, which he studied in University High's IPS program in the '70s. Crash also thought it was brainwashing, but Cruise credits Study Tech with curing his dyslexia. And who are we to say he's lying? And if it does work, why should we ignore it?
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A ground-zero moment for Scientology hating occurred on May 23, 2005, when Tom Cruise leapt nimbly onto Oprah's couch to the tune of hundreds of screeching women, who adored his childlike crushing on then-girlfriend Katie Holmes. But then the grabby entertainment media, outlets such as Access Hollywood, began to portray Cruise's outrageous laugh as "crazy," which was followed by a leaked video of him preaching over the Mission: Impossible theme.
His criticism of psychiatry turned the world against him. I found his argument reasonable compared with what believers of Jesus have told me. The fact is, psychotropic drugs are becoming a legitimate problem, and while I won't label psychiatry an "industry of death," I also won't refer to it as a science. And since half of L.A. is chasing anti-anxiety and ADD medication with copious amounts of weed, all supplied by their doctors, I think Scientology has a point: Maybe all these happy pills and funny cigarettes are why L.A. is such a hellhole of unhappiness. While followers of other religions spread messages of fear, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, who continue to knock on doors and warn people of an impending Armageddon, Scientologists merely offer benign personality tests and direct curious minds to their website's Meet a Scientologist section, where Kenton Gray, a race car driver, says Scientology improved his reaction time. Has anyone tested Kenton to verify his claims? Of course not, because Scientology doesn't even get a shot, while many in this country continue to believe the world is just a few thousand years old and casually give Mormonism a pass for its history of racism.
For me, Scientology is deliciously theatrical and has certainly helped a few people regain their confidence, sober up and get a job in Hollywood. At the molecular level, Scientology is what Hubbard described as "space opera" grounded in elementary ideas, blending Freud with mysticism with the imagination of a science-fiction writer who wrote 250 books, which are now encased in titanium nuclear-blast-resistant secret bases (which is where I'd like my baseball cards to go). In other words, Scientology is the Bond villain of religions, the one you want to cheer for, the keeper of 26 historic properties in Hollywood, including a Celebrity Center that houses Chick Corea's grand piano and the Renaissance Restaurant, which has a delicious brunch.
Until the day Fox News reports a Scientology-related mass shooting or unless church leader David Miscavige tries to blow up the moon, I say unleash your protean imagination and embrace Scientology, instead of whatever other religion you're gaining nothing from at the moment. After all, the real "cult" isn't Scientology, it's the hipster Gestapo who worship KCRW, turn their noses up at blue-collar families and have turned our communities into amusement parks for their snobbish enjoyment. Instead of fearing Tom Cruise and his custom Ducati, fear DJ Jason Bentley's daily attempts to coax to sleep at the wheel hundreds of craft-beer drinking, fiddle-playing, Buddhist trust-fund babies who believe crystals can be charged by the moon. Fear the pothead Satanist who operates heavy machinery and the tattooed barista with a GED who studies the occult and believes her future is indicated in an astrological chart. Scientology isn't dangerous. Stupid people are, and L.A. hipsters take the cake, man. So if going "Clear" can absolve us of some of the voluntarily broke rich kids in Echo Park, well, I say let's give it a try — because Tom Cruise worship is far more interesting than the current worship of bearded assholes who ascribe to whatever their Facebook feeds advise, including despising Scientology, loudly and publicly, rather than simply letting it go. It's trendy to hate Scientology — and that alone is a great reason to love it.