The “church” of Scientology reached a strange kind of mainstream success this decade. Sure, Tom Cruise’s summer of 2005 and indoctrination video might have raised some eyebrows. But Scientology’s reputation seems to have become “the wacky-but-harmless religion that Tom Cruise and John Travolta belong to.”
I’d chalk that up to a few factors: Star power and obsequious entertainment media. American culture’s general shift toward multiculturalism and, for the enlightened majority post-9/11, religious tolerance. A shrug-your-shoulders, post-modern “Scientology is no more bizarre than other religions” attitude among potential cynics. And, of course, the fruits of the group’s notoriously litigious/personally invasive stance toward pretty much anyone who had anything bad to say about Scientology in the ’80s and ’90s.
The St. Petersburg Times’ recent expose, on Scientology’s staff culture of intimidation and abuse allegedly driven by leader David Miscavige, won’t change all that. But if Scientology’s fortunes and reputation decline in the coming years, the paper’s stories recounting defectors’ accusations should mark a turning point.
The group had one possible strategy for persuasively rebutting the Times stories: deny everything. Instead, the hapless response turned into a classic emperor-has-no-clothes moment — the ostensibly matured Scientology revealed (or re-revealed) as a pitiful personality cult that no one should even consider taking seriously again.