Scientology has been in the news nonstop since the Tom Cruise promotional video was scandalously "leaked" two weeks ago. The Cruise news was followed by fellow Scientologist Kirstie Alley’s moment in the spotlight: her legal team threatened to have a photographer fired for making an inane crack about the religion. This past weekend saw international protests against Scientology, and seemingly every day brings a new Tom Cruise spoof video confirming the conventional wisdom: these Scientology culties are batshit nuts.
While some of their members might be crazy, though, the leadership of the church of Scientology is arguably anything but. The “leaked” Cruise video grabbed the attention of an information-addled audience afflicted with a notoriously short attention span. Osama Bin Laden famously mused that, while Westerners talked tough about Islam after 9/11, they also started buying a hell of a lot more Qurans. Likewise, while many people who watched the Cruise video may have found it bizarre or ridiculous, hordes of us also Googled Scientology for the first time. In 2008, this is surely the very definition of successful religious propaganda.
Was this dumb luck on the part of Scientology? Unlikely. What’s far more plausible is that David Miscavige, the leader of the religion, judiciously weighed the costs and benefits before signing off on this fortuitous "leak."
Tom Cruise is not crazy, either. In the video we see see a fiercely intense adult with an unbreakable sense of self and total confidence in the legitimacy of his own views. If we think Tom is a jackass and his religion laughable, he clearly doesn't give a shit. "I think it's a privilege to call yourself a scientologist," he declares at the beginning of the video, leaning forward and looking up at the camera. "You want to start shit?" he might have well asked. "Bring it." He appears less the fame-addled dipshit and more the persecuted heretic calling out the local clerisy.
No, Cruise isn’t crazy; but he may very well be dangerous. The Cruise we saw in the “leaked” videos is an extreme iteration of a particular type of religious fundamentalist: The "Grand Inquisitor,” scourge of all those whose faith is impure. The Grand Inquisitor is the fevered guardian of doctrinal purity who "looks into the eyes" of other men and knows that they are a danger to the cause. We've seen this type in many places and times: Tomás de Torquemada—the prototype of the class, who spent the latter 15th century torturing Spanish Christians to elicit confessions of disbelief; Che Guevara, the left-wing hero who spent romantic months in Cuba's Sierra Maestra mountains, eagerly shooting peasants in the head for suspected disloyalty; the henchmen of Al Qaeda, so-called “takfiri” Islamists who denounce other Muslims as non-believers, and kill them for it.
Every religion needs its Inquisitors, to be sure. In fact, any person—if they care at all about any religion, movement, or cause—must sometimes play the Inquisitor. For example: imagine that next Shabbat you attend New York's famously progressive B’nai Jeshurun synagogue, where you explain to the rabbi that you've chosen his synagogue because he understands that Judaism is a diverse and malleable tradition, and has always been adapted to the needs of its practitioners and the circumstances of time and place. So far, so good. But what if you further explain that your understanding of Judaism is that the Flying Spaghetti Monster governs the cosmos with great Grace and Majesty, and that on Friday evening we light two candles to symbolize our awareness of each of those two traits. The rabbi of B’nai Jeshurun, the very one who sings the praises of theological diversity and tolerance, must surely draw the line and tell you, well, "that's not Judaism."
So between the rabbi of B’nai Jeshurun and the most zealous evangelical minister there can be no disagreement on this one point: If our religion is to mean anything at all, we must exclude certain practices and ways of thinking. We must all play the Inquisitor—we disagree only on where the lines ought to be drawn, but on the necessity of lines there can be no disagreement.
Tom Cruise, as he convicts himself again and again through squinted eyes and gritted teeth to "Keep Scientology Working," and rails that "if you don't know [true Scientology doctrine], don't say you know," is, in one sense, no different from the current Pope, who once headed up the Congregation of the Faithful—formerly known as the Office of the Holy Inquisition. Both of them, like the rabbi at B’nai Jeshurun, seek to prevent people from polluting their faith with unwanted theologies and doctrines. Indeed, Keeping Scientology Working (a piece of scientology scripture) is one protracted plea by L. Ron Hubbard for Scientologists to stamp out incorrect interpretations of the religion. Scientologists, Hubbard says, should prefer to see someone dead rather than promoting incorrect beliefs about Scientology. Tough words, but no different from other such injunctions found in other scriptures. The anger Cruise demonstrates in this video and others, the pristine certainty and clarity with which he swears he will uphold the commandment to Keep Scientology Working, and most alarmingly, his certainty that he can detect lack of faith simply by looking into one's eyes: This is the mark not of a cult member, but of a personality type that haunts all religions and movements—an unnaturally ardent iteration of the Grand Inquisitor.
So the "leaked" Tom Cruise video may well have been a success for Scientology, but if it is true, as a recent biographer claims, that Tom Cruise is now ranked number two in the hierarchy of this growing religion, then this should give us pause. Most especially, it should give Scientologists pause. Tom Cruise will never again be the kid who danced in his underwear in Risky Business. But given real power to chart the course of a well-funded, well-organized, and rapidly growing religious movement, he may turn out to be something rather more formidable and more destructive, and the people least likely to enjoy the new Tom will be rank-and-file Scientologists themselves.