Thursday, April 02, 2015

Indiana And The Culture Wars

Cal Thomas | Apr 02, 2015

Indianapolis RFRA protest rally from Monument Circle to Indiana Statehouse, March 28, 2015. Photo by Darryl Smith

If I visit a kosher restaurant and order a pork chop, am I being discriminated against when the waiter says they don't serve pork?
If an establishment requires that men wear jackets and women dress in what that establishment defines as an "appropriate way," does that constitute discrimination?
When I visit the Vatican, the Swiss Guards won't let me in if I'm wearing shorts. They offer a cover-up. It is the same for women, if they bare too much flesh. Is that discrimination?
What about the sign "no shoes, no shirt, no service"? Is that bigotry against the shoeless and shirtless? Should the government force any of these entities to violate their standards?
That is the issue in Indiana, the latest front in the culture war. The state legislature passed and Gov. Mike Pence signed a law that says the government cannot force a business or individual to violate tenets of their religious faith, unless the government has a compelling interest in doing so. The language in the Indiana law is similar to a federal law, the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act," passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Though applicable to all religions, in '93, the motivating issues were the protection of sacred lands for Native Americans and the use of peyote as a part of religious tradition.
The backlash following the Indiana law's passage was immediate. Gov. Pence later admitted there was some "confusion about the law," and he has since asked legislators to change the measure to make clear, he said, "that this law does not give businesses the right to discriminate against anyone."
But facts don't matter when the media and gay activists believe they can find an issue that stirs controversy (the media) and advances their cause (the activists).
Then-Illinois state-Sen. Barack Obama voted for a version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1998. Several other states have similar measures protecting conscience from government intrusion. The religious conscience issue was before the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case. The Court upheld that company's right not to cover certain contraceptives for female employees as part of its health plan because of the owners' religious beliefs and their objection to abortion.
The uproar about Indiana's law is political theater. It is also a trap set by the Left, which Republicans risk falling into. It works this way: Find a Republican state (Gov. Pence is a Republican and the legislature is overwhelmingly Republican); pick an issue you can twist to your political advantage -- and Republicans' disadvantage; enlist the help of a gay-friendly media; threaten a boycott of the state by prominent individuals and businesses; use this issue in the next presidential campaign to brand Republicans as racists, bigots and homophobes.
In this theater of the absurd, any defense becomes indefensible. The die has been cast; the scarlet letter attached.
Gov. Pence wrote an opinion piece for Tuesday's Wall Street Journal. In it, he professed the absence of discriminatory DNA, saying he believes in and lives by the Golden Rule and that the law, which is scheduled to take effect July 1, merely sets a standard by which a religious objection to a law can be judged.
It doesn't matter. As reporter Stephanie Wang wrote in the Indianapolis Star, "The argument over what Pence has thus signed becomes not only intellectual, but visceral, vitriolic, ugly. Both sides dig in, because each thinks the other is flatly wrong -- in their hearts, and on the facts. And the debate rages on, sometimes spiraling to a place so far away from the law itself."
The debate has become far more visceral, vitriolic and ugly than intellectual, thanks to the secular progressives who have made it that way. A Wall Street Journal editorial correctly noted, "Indiana isn't targeting gays. Liberals are targeting religion."
Republicans have seen the potential for political damage. Nationally, Republicans don't want to debate social issues in 2016 because they see little advantage in doing so in a rapidly changing culture.
One potential good has emerged from this, however. Miley Cyrus has announced she won't be bringing her "twerking" self to Indiana, which is bound to have a positive effect on the state's moral climate.

Book Review - Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral

Death comes to gritty life in a fictionalized history of one of the most notorious events in the Old West, the stomping grounds of gun-slinging legends and heroes real and pumped up.

Epitaph: A Novel of The O.K. Corral by Mary Doria Russell

On a late October afternoon in 1881, nine men unleashed their fear, frustration, rage, and fatigue in a hail of bullets next to Fly’s Photography Studio. Three men died in those 30 seconds of violence, but the real bloodshed was yet to come.

The shootout at the O.K. Corral, as it came to be known (the narrow abandoned lot next door did not lend itself easily to a name), spawned legend and rumor almost as quickly as the bodies fell. As the survivors aged and tried to gain fame, fortune, or vindication through selling their stories, memory’s own gun smoke further obfuscated that half-minute in history.

By the time Western shoot-out movies captivated 20th-century American audiences, a white-washed, romantic myth replaced the complicated lives that pivoted in Arizona that day. Mary Doria Russell has set out to find the truth about what happened between the Earp, Clanton, and McLaury brothers and their respective friends, but the truth, of course, was gone.

Faulty memories, self-serving narratives, and the consuming maw of time made sure of that. Consequently, Russell chose the same weapon myth-makers do: story. Her novel Epitaph digs into the political and personal pressures driving those nine men, their friends, enemies, and lovers during the year before the shoot-out and for a half-century after.

The Earp brothers (James, Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan) have, by 1881, all converged on the booming silver mining town of Tombstone. They persuade John Henry Holliday, known as Doc for his degree in dentistry, to stay, too. There he can ease his wretched tuberculosis-ridden lungs while earning a bit of cash off the town’s rich gambling tables.

The Earps have also brought their women with them, although in Wyatt’s case he wishes he had not. Obstreperous, opium-addicted Mattie Blaylock is so deeply mired in her bitter insecurity that she can do nothing but harangue him. When the newly-arrived Josephine Sarah Marcus sets her sights on him, Wyatt is tempted, but he must resist. Especially since Josie is ostensibly — but not actually — married to Johnny Behan, a loquacious politician with ambitions of forging a local bipartisan coalition.

Behan’s task is as daunting in 1881 as it would be in 2015. The wounds of the Civil War still fester, pitting city-dwelling law-and-order Republicans against countryside stay-off-my-rights Democrats, while the Federal government is hamstrung in its ability to provide security in the Wild West. And though Behan’s political goal may be lofty, his means are sordid. His machinations to earn political office for himself while manipulating the guileless Wyatt end up creating much of the animosity that drives the novel.

Meanwhile, the outlaw Cow Boys rustle Mexican cattle from south of the border and then fence them in Arizona with complicit or cowed ranchers like the McLaury brothers. The Cow Boys grow bolder in their criminal exploits while corrupt politicians look the other way, leaving a few like Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp and his sometimes lawmen brothers, Wyatt and Morgan, to enforce the law.

It’s a complicated set-up, and Russell doesn’t pull any punches. She leads her readers through a viper’s nest of political ambition, jealous relationships, and unbridled greed, sweetened occasionally by the glow of loyalty and love.

The dog-eat-dog world is evident: “At least eighty professional gamblers had converged on Tombstone in its first year: wolves drawn to a herd of highly skilled hard-rock miners who got paid a stunning four dollars a day…Competition was fierce among those who wished to feast on their wages.”

The vast scope is tough going at first, as Russell delves into the minds of well over 20 characters. She moves with skill among the thoughts of nearly every character, who walks Tombstone’s streets, but such skill cannot compensate for the lack of grounding the head-hopping creates. It’s hard to know with whom to sympathize when every character has a say.

Slowly, however, the story coalesces. Like a stagecoach gaining speed, the tale is off at a full tilt by the time the bullets start flying. This does take nearly half of the almost 600-page book, but the cumulative effect is well worth the investment. The grief that ultimately defines Wyatt requires a deep and subtle sympathy to understand, and Russell provides that with artful delicacy.

This book might not inspire the love that Russell’s previous novel, Doc, did, in part because the scope here is wider than a simple re-examination of the misunderstood Doc Holliday. There are more characters, more perspectives, and more historical digressions in Epitaph.

A greater deference to the goddess of story rather than the devil of history might have served Russell well, but ultimately it’s hard to argue with a book that page after page proves its own epigraph. From Paul Ricoeur: “Beneath history, memory and forgetting. Beneath memory and forgetting, life.” Wyatt Earp could ask for no better epitaph and no more deserving memorial than this rich, complicated novel.

Carrie Callaghan’s short fiction has appeared in Silk Road, the MacGuffin, Weave Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a member of the editorial board of the Washington Independent Review of Books. Follow her on Twitter at @carriecallaghan.

Dante and Holy Week

The Divine Comedy is the most practical Great Book ever written.

March 31, 2015

Dante and Virgil are beset by demons on their passage through the Inferno, in an 1861 illustration by Gustave Doré for The Divine Comedy.

In the graveyard, I saw two men arguing. One of them, a proud older man, stood inside a flaming open tomb, trying with his authoritative manner to put the younger man in his place. His opponent could have walked on, but he stood there arguing pointlessly about their families and the place they came from.

I couldn’t take my eyes off those two. The older man was dead, but didn’t seem to know it. The younger man was alive, but seemed to have forgotten it.

Suddenly it struck me: I am observing this scene from Dante’s Inferno, the book I’m holding in my hands, but in truth, I am watching my father and myself.

This unforgettable moment, in which the pilgrim Dante spars with Farinata, a damned Florentine aristocrat, revealed the hidden source of the anxiety that had plunged me into my own midlife crisis. Over 30 years of struggle between a father and a son is not exactly news, but this episode from the Inferno showed me something more profound: that both my dad and I had made false idols of Family and Place.

We were both professed Christians, but the true religion of our Southern culture is ancestor worship. Daddy, like Farinata, was not capable of recognizing that none of that really mattered. I, like the pilgrim Dante in the poem, had the power to turn away from the idol and walk on, toward the living God.

This was the first breakthrough in a spiritual, emotional, and physical healing that God worked in me, chiefly through this miraculous 14th-century poem called the Divine Comedy. It was by no means the last. The poet Dante Alighieri composed it while he was in exile from Florence, trying to reconcile his suffering with his belief in a loving God.

I knew that the Commedia, as it is called in Italian, was a great book, which for someone like me means a book destined to be admired, not read. What I didn’t know until I stumbled into the Commedia unawares, in the middle of a midlife crisis, was that Dante wrote it to help ordinary people repair their lives by identifying their sins, turning from them, and embracing the life-changing love of God.

Everybody has heard of the Inferno. Most people think of it as nothing more than a moralistic medieval horror show, but that is profoundly wrong. The Inferno is indeed grotesque, but its method is both to shock the reader into awareness of the reality of sin, and to explore the subtle ways sin binds us to our own egos, and blinds us to love.

Many fewer people, I would bet, know that the Commedia has two more books: the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. You can’t understand the Inferno apart from its companions, which illustrate how God’s love restores and perfects those who turn, in humility, to His mercy.

The Purgatorio begins on Easter morning, at the base of the holy mountain that penitents — all forgiven, all bound ultimately for heaven — must climb to be purified of their tendencies to sin. The ascent strengthens them to bear the glory of God. For the reader, the Purgatorio symbolizes our mortal lives, in which we struggle to rid ourselves of the desire to sin.

It is a place of suffering, but it is also a place of joy, of hope. The penitents of the Purgatorio know they are saved by God’s mercy, and they rest in the Paschal assurance that their suffering is only temporary, and that God permits it to draw them closer to Himself and to each other, in love. They help each other on the journey to the mountaintop.

The advice the pilgrim Dante gets on the holy mountain is remarkably practical. On the terrace where the Wrathful have their anger purged from them, the pilgrim meets in a cloud of hot smoke a man named Marco, who tells him that all the problems of the world are caused by the willful human heart and the blindness of people to their own complicity in suffering.

It’s in our nature to sin, Marco tells Dante, but we also have free will. If we will use our will to resist temptation, and to open ourselves to the grace of God, we can learn to see ourselves as we are — and to change for the better.

We can’t save the world from itself, counsels Marco, but we can change our own hearts — and that may be the beginning of the change we want to see in everyone.

Marco’s discourse struck me like a thunderbolt. My own wrath over the difficult situation in my family, and my own impotence in the face of it, had imprisoned me.

Anger was a big reason I stood at the graveside arguing with my own Farinata, and stayed mired in depression and stress-related autoimmune illness. I had the power to set my anger aside, Marco was explaining; in fact, I would have to if I wanted to move toward God.

I would also learn in the Paradiso, where Dante explores heaven and converses with the saints, that my ultimate happiness depended on accepting the often-mysterious will of God, and attempting to do as Christ did: to turn injustice and suffering into an opportunity to grow in love.

The funny thing is that very little of this was new to me. I’ve been a serious Christian for over two decades. Yet everydayness had numbed me to these spiritual realities. I had to encounter them embedded in a terrific adventure story, and some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, to revive my faith, and draw me out of the dark wood.

After I finished the Commedia, I was a different man. Nothing in my world had changed — but my heart had, and that made all the difference. I am convinced that just as God sent Virgil to lead the pilgrim Dante out of his dark wood, so too did He send Dante to lead me out of mine. And Dante can do the same for all of us.

This week, Christians are re-living the Passion of the Christ. Lent has been a time of self-searching and repentance, of a journey through the caverns of our own sepulchral hearts. We are about to emerge into the light of the Resurrection, just as Dante and Virgil did on leaving Hell. And like those two, we are not yet in Paradise. The world remains as glorious and as fallen as it ever was. But our hearts are reborn, and we move through creation with new faith, new hope, and new love.

I have believed these things all my life, and could articulate them as propositions. But until I read the Divine Comedy — a book that is surprisingly accessible, even to amateurs like me — I did not understand them, not really. Dante’s poem taught me to own my sins and own my responsibility for my own healing, and to open myself to God’s love in ways I had not contemplated.

The Commedia is an icon, a window into spiritual reality and a doorway through which lies new life. Yes, it is a Great Book, an artistic pinnacle of Western civilization — and that monumental status is what intimidates people like me from ever picking it up.

That’s a shame. The Commedia has to be the most practical Great Book ever written. Dante the poet wrote a letter to a friend in which he said he created the Commedia to help his readers understand why they suffer, and how they can be released from that suffering, because he too had been on that trail of tears, which God turned into a road that bound him for glory. 

Dante’s method works, and it works because his extraordinary poem, seven centuries old, is not really the pilgrimage of an exiled Tuscan through the afterlife, but a journey for every reader into his or her own heart — as it is, and as it can be through the astounding grace of God.

— Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative, is the author of the literary self-help book How Dante Can Save Your Life (Regan Arts), which will be published on April 14.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Today's Tune: Little Steven - Trail of Broken Treaties [Extended Version]

HBO’s 'Going Clear' Is a Perfect Scientology Primer


It would be difficult to overstate the number of batshit insane anecdotes that appear in Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, or in the HBO documentary adaptation that premieres on March 29. There’s the time David Miscavige, the current leader of the church, conducted a game of musical chairs among officers—to the soundtrack of Queen’s greatest hits—telling them that all but the winner would be shipped off to remote Scientology bases. There’s the time L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, claimed to have access to an underground space station north of Corsica. And, of course, there’s Tom Cruise. So much Tom Cruise.

Born of interviews with 200 current and former Scientology members, Wright’sGoing Clear details Scientology’s 1950s origin story through its present-day troubles, and earned him "innumerable" threatening letters from lawyers representing the church. HBO's documentary, directed by Alex Gibney, covers a decent portion of Wright’s book, and features interviews with ex-Scientology members that include screenwriter Paul Haggis (35 years in the church) and actor Jason Beghe (13 years), as well as former Scientology higher-ups like Spanky Taylor, a member for 17 years who was John Travolta’s onetime point person; Mike Rinder, church spokesman from 1982 to 2007; and Hana Eltringham Whitfield, a founding member of the Sea Organization (Scientology’s clergy of sorts), who left the church in 1982 after 19 years.
"My goal wasn’t to write an exposé," Wright tells Gibney early in the documentary. "It was to understand Scientology…. I was interested in intelligent and skeptical people who are drawn into a belief system and wind up acting on those beliefs in ways they never thought they would."
Both iterations of Going Clear outline the church’s creation myth, which is always worth repeating: Seventy-five million years ago, according to Hubbard, people lived in a world very much like 1950s America, save for Xenu, the tyrannical overlord of the 76-planet Galactic Confederacy. Xenu sought to solve a burgeoning overpopulation problem by freezing people with glycol injections after luring them in under the auspices of "tax audits." The frozen bodies were then shipped in boxes via space planes to the prison planet Teegeeack (Earth), where they were dropped into volcanoes and blown up with hydrogen bombs. Being immortal, these disembodied spirits ("thetans") were then trapped in an electromagnetic ribbon and placed in front of a "three-D, super colossal motion picture" for 36 days, where they were forced to look at images called R6 implants. "These pictures contain God, the Devil, angels, space opera, theaters, helicopters, a constant spinning, a spinning dancer, trains and various scenes very like modern England," Hubbard wrote. "You name it, it’s in this implant."
Since then, thetans have been inserting themselves (often in multiples) into newborns on Earth, where Hubbard believed them to be the source of individual fears, neuroses and insecurities. Through Scientology—more specifically, through one-on-one auditing sessions using an Electropsychometer—these thetans can be dispelled. (The church says an e-meter can detect the "mass of your thoughts," while Wright describes it as "a third of a lie detector test.") This progression through what are known as "Operating Thetan levels" (OT levels) is called "The Bridge to Total Freedom." To "go clear" is to have rid oneself entirely of body thetans and their related "engrams" (traumatic memories).
While the book does a more nuanced job of explaining Scientology’s appeal, both versions of Going Clear suggest a certain grandiose altruism at play in constituents’ decision to join the church. Scientology, as envisioned by Hubbard, aims to create a world without war, criminality or insanity and that emphasis on global salvation has helped draw in thousands of converts. "I know of no other group that their goals are that clear," Travolta says in an interview shown in Going Clear. "I was deeply convinced that we were going to save the world," echoes Whitfield in an interview with Gibney. "I considered myself tremendously fortunate to be in that position." In footage from a Scientology gala shown in the documentary, Cruise, wearing a comically large "Freedom Medal of Valor" awarded to him by Miscavige, asks the assembled crowd, "So what do you say? Want to clean this place up?"
On a more individual level, Going Clear highlights the church’s promise of self-improvement, and its initially limited emphasis on dogma. "I can say that I understand [Scientologists] now," Gibney said at a Going Clear screening in New York this week. "Through auditing, Scientology offers a kind of therapy that's not that different from Freud's talking cure. You get things off your chest. You talk to somebody who provides a kind of empathetic ear."
The Guinness World Record holder for most published author, L. Ron Hubbard wrote more than a thousand (mostly science fiction) books in his lifetime, including Scientology’s canonical text, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Hubbard had a brief military stint—he was dismissed from the Navy after accidentally shelling a Mexican island—and then a brief magical one, having once been involved with the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), a magical order dedicated to the teachings of British occultist/magician Aleister Crowley.
In 1946, Hubbard married Sara Northrup and moved to New Jersey, where he began writing Dianetics in 1950. "He said the only way to make any real money was to have a religion," Northrup says in a first-person account that appears inGoing Clear. "That’s essentially what he was trying to do with Dianetics—get a religion where he could have an income and the government wouldn’t take it away from him in the form of taxes."
In 1966, Hubbard named himself commander of three ships and for eight years dodged an IRS investigation by sailing the Mediterranean with his crew—the original Sea Org—in search of treasure he had buried in past lives. During this nautical period, Hubbard also developed "Ethics Technology" as a means of doling out punishment for perceived thoughts or actions against the church. On board his "fleet"—the Enchanter, the Avon River and the Royal Scotman [sic]—punishments could include hard labor or being literally thrown overboard.
Current Sea Org members, according to Going Clear, sign billion-year contracts to "get ETHICS IN on this PLANET AND THE UNIVERSE" (emphasis theirs), and are subject to punishments that include disconnecting from so-called Suppressive Persons (SPs for short, this includes anyone considered a detractor of the church) and spending months or even years in "the Hole," a pair of unfurnished double-wide trailers on Scientology’s Gold Base in California. While the church emphatically denies any physical abuse at the hands of Scientology leadership, both Wright and Gibney also document firsthand accounts of Miscavige personally doling out beatings, and Wright’s book contains numerous examples of the church going after journalists, critics or members who have "blown" (left Scientology).
"What I have received is nothing compared to what's happened to the people who are in the film," Gibney said earlier this week (his lawyer receives near-daily letters from the church). "I know that some of them have received physical threats, I know some of them have received threats that their homes and financial stability would be taken away. I know they're followed by private investigators."
In a five-page letter to the The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month, the church—which has set up dedicated websites to discredit both the film and those interviewed in it—called Going Clear "a bigoted propaganda piece" and said it includes "at least one major error every two minutes." The letter goes on to question the trustworthiness of nearly everyone interviewed in the movie, but does little to address specific criticisms of abuse.
Although its founder died in 1986—Miscavige characterizes Hubbard's death as attaining an OT level "completely exterior from the body"—Going Clearsuggests that Scientology is still rolling in money. The church now holds some $3 billion in assets, despite a membership that has dwindled to fewer than 50,000 people. Much of that wealth is tied to real estate holdings, but Scientologists must also pay for coursework and auditing sessions needed to move up on The Bridge.
"The best traps, you get a guy to just keep himself in jail," Jason Beghe says in a 2007 video shown in Going Clear. "That's what Scientology does."
There’s so much to unpack in Scientology that to even give an overview of its 65-year history is a heavy burden. Wright’s Going Clear is a dense book with mountains of detail and Gibney’s documentary just doesn't compare when it comes to small colorful portraits of life in the church, like Miscavige making special Sea Org Captain vests for his five beagles and demanding that members on Gold Base salute them. Rather, HBO's Going Clear paints with broad strokes, and it is stronger as a corollary to Wright’s text than a stand-alone film. Mostly, its scenes lend humanity to some of the people involved. Here's a young Travolta calling Hubbard a "brilliant" man he’d be honored to meet. There's a defected Haggis laughing about the first time he read the story of Xenu. "I remember for one fleeting second thinking, Well, maybe it’s an insanity test," he says. "Maybe if you believe this, they kick you out."
Neither version of Going Clear is particularly sympathetic to the church, and both suggest that Scientology is more insidious than a kooky religion with good intentions and off-the-rails execution. As Gibney puts it, those speaking out now are "telling people the kind of damage that can be done by a group that puts itself above the welfare of the individuals within it."
But for all the church's bizarre doctrines and disconcerting scandals, some of the most interesting portions of Going Clear—book and movie—have to do with Hubbard himself, a man who seems to veer between magnetism and mania. "Do you ever think that you might be quite mad?" a reporter asks Hubbard in 1968 footage shown in the documentary, one of the few times he ever appeared on camera. "Oh yes," Hubbard answers without hesitation. "The one man in the world who never believes he’s mad is a madman."

A damning view of Scientology in HBO’s ‘Going Clear’

March 26, 2015
A still from “Going Clear,” the HBO documentary in which Alex Gibney examines the Church of Scientology.
A still from “Going Clear,” the HBO documentary in which Alex Gibney examines the Church of Scientology. (HBO)

Near the end of the new documentary “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” longtime members who decided to leave the church struggle with their emotions. “Maybe,” muses one, “my entire life has been a lie.”
The guilt, disillusionment, shame, and pain is etched on their faces. To a person, they are incredulous that they once believed in the more offbeat aspects of the religion — including the idea that prehistoric spirits inhabited their bodies. And several speak of a kind of willful suppression of their better judgment to avoid the possibility that, at best, they wasted their time and, at worst, committed terrible transgressions against others, including their own family members, in the name of their beliefs.
This is but one compelling vignette in the fascinating documentary from Oscar- and Emmy-winning director Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God”), which premiered on television Sunday at 8 p.m. on HBO. (The two-hour film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January and recently had a limited theatrical release.) The film combines interviews with former members, reenactments, and footage of Scientology events. It also includes archival interviews with celebrity Church of Scientology members and founder L. Ron Hubbard himself; no one currently involved in the church would speak to Gibney for his film.
Scientology has long been a subject of interest to many — if you want to go down an Internet rabbit hole of its critics and defenders, just Google “Scientology” and “cult.” That’s thanks to Hubbard’s pre-Scientology career as a prolific science fiction writer, de facto spokespeople like John Travolta and Tom Cruise — both of whom figure into the film — and to outspoken former members denouncing the religion. These include Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis (“Crash”), who details his journey from true believer to apostate in the film.
Is Scientology a religion that leads its followers to higher planes of spiritual understanding? Or is it a long con meant to bilk people out of their money and a tax scam perpetrated by Hubbard that devolved even further into a toxic corporation after his death? Could it be all of these?
The former members who speak out in the film are conflicted in some ways, saying that they benefited from the church’s teachings but ultimately couldn’t abide some of it practices. And when they chronicle what they claim were routine occurrences inside the organization — physical and mental abuse by leader David Miscavige, a harsh prison camp for the outspoken, separation of parents from children, retaliatory bullying of former members, even espionage, including the tapping of Cruise ex-wife Nicole Kidman’s phone — Gibney’s film paints a lurid picture indeed.
Gibney also delves into the IRS’s decision to grant the church tax-exempt status. The film draws a connection between that decision and a Miscavige-led campaign to file 2,400 nuisance lawsuits against the IRS and individual agents. The film implies the agency simply caved, forgiving the church its $1 billion tax debt. When Scientologists celebrated that decision, the victory party included fireworks.
The early part of the film — adapted from the 2013 bestseller by Lawrence Wright, who appears on camera and served as a producer — functions as something of a primer. It outlines the central tenets of Scientology, the “auditing” process — in which members confess their deepest fears, traumas, and secrets — and the dizzyingly elaborate levels on the church’s “bridge to total freedom,” each of which apparently comes at a financial cost, ultimately allowing a Scientologist to be deemed “clear.” It also delves into the life of the church’s late founder, Hubbard, a shrewd and imaginative man who, according to his first wife, founded Scientology for a single reason: “He said many times the only way to make any real money was to have a religion.”
For those who have read Wright’s book, there isn’t much new here, but Gibney skillfully weaves the stories and visuals, particularly an extended passage about Cruise, into an engrossing narrative.
What the film doesn’t have is the voices of current members, beyond old footage of people like Travolta extolling the church’s virtues. Gibney notes at the end of the film that he reached out to several people, including Cruise, Travolta, and Miscavige, and either got no response or was declined an interview. The Church of Scientology disputes that claim.
In addition to a letter written to the Hollywood Reporter by a spokeswoman — who claims the film is rife with “falsehoods, errors, embellished tales and blatant omissions” — the church has launched an online counter-offensive in hopes of “exterminating Gibney’s propaganda.” The site dismisses the “tiny group” of “embittered obsessed zealots” he interviewed and then systematically attempts to discredit each one with accompanying videos featuring titles like “a violent psychopath” and “the home wrecker.”
Who knows if viewers would feel differently had Gibney’s film included responses from Scientology’s defenders. But by focusing on the powerful and damning stories of the church’s most destructive practices, including the forced “disconnection” of members from family and friends, Gibney has made a forceful and memorable case.
Sarah Rodman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.

America’s Academies for Jihad

Fouad El Bayly
Less than a year after I moved to the United States in 2006, I was asked to speak at the University of Pittsburgh. Among those who objected to my appearance was a local imam,Fouad El Bayly, of the Johnstown Islamic Center. Mr. Bayly was born in Egypt but has lived in the U.S. since 1976. In his own words, I had “been identified as one who has defamed the faith.” As he explained at the time: “If you come into the faith, you must abide by the laws, and when you decide to defame it deliberately, the sentence is death.”
After a local newspaper reported Mr. Bayly’s comments, he was forced to resign from the Islamic Center. That was the last I would hear of him—or so I thought.
Imagine my surprise when I learned recently that the man who threatened me with death for apostasy is being paid by the U.S. Justice Department to teach Islam in American jails.
According to records on the federal site and first reported by Chuck Ross of the Daily Caller, the Federal Bureau of Prisons awarded Mr. Bayly a $10,500 contract in February 2014 to provide “religious services, leadership and guidance” to inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Md. Ten months later he received another federal contract, worth $2,400, to provide “Muslim classes for inmates” at the same prison.
This isn’t a story about one problematic imam, or about the misguided administration of a solitary prison. Several U.S. prison chaplains have been exposed in recent years as sympathetic to radical Islam, including Warith Deen Umar, who helped run the New York State Department of Correctional Services’ Islamic prison program for two decades, until 2000, and who praised the 9/11 hijackers in a 2003 interview with this newspaper.
That same year, the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism held hearings on radical Islamic clerics in U.S. prisons. Committee members voiced serious concerns over the vetting of Muslim prison chaplains and the extent of radical Islamist influences. Harley Lappin, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons at the time, said that “inmates are particularly vulnerable to recruitment by terrorists,” and that “we must guard against the spread of terrorism and extremist ideologies.”
Yet it is not clear what measures—if any—were taken in response to those concerns.
Testifying in 2011 before the House Committee on Homeland Security, Michael P. Downing, head of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Counterterrorism and Special Operations Bureau, said that in 2003 it was estimated that 17%-20% of the U.S. prison population, some 350,000 inmates, were Muslims, and that “80% of the prisoners who convert while in prison, convert to Islam.” He estimated that “35,000 inmates convert to Islam annually.”
Patrick Dunleavy, retired deputy inspector of the Criminal Intelligence Division at the New York State Department of Corrections, said in testimony that prison authorities often rely on groups such as the Islamic Leadership Council or the Islamic Society of North America for advice about Islamic chaplains. Yet those groups can and have referred individuals not suited to positions of influence over prisoners. As Mr. Dunleavy pointedly testified: “There is certainly no vetting of volunteers who provide religious instruction, and who, although not paid, wield considerable influence in the prison Muslim communities.”
The problem isn’t limited to radical clerics infiltrating prisons. Radical inmates proselytize and do their utmost to recruit others to their cause. Once released, they may seek to take their radicalization to the next level.
Kevin James formed the Assembly of Authentic Islam while in New Folsom State Prison in California. In 2004 James recruited fellow prisoner Levar Washington to his cause. After being released, James developed a list of possible targets including an Israeli consulate, a Jewish children’s camp in Malibu, Los Angeles International Airport and a U.S. military recruiting station in Santa Monica. The two men pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges; Washington was sentenced to 22 years in 2008, James to 16 years in 2009.
Michael Finton converted and radicalized in an Illinois state prison while serving time for aggravated assault. Finton wanted to attack a federal government building and spoke of the need to attack members of Congress. He pleaded guilty to attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and was sentenced to 28 years in prison in 2011.
In 2009 the “Newburgh Four”—James Cromitie, Laguerre Payen, David Williams andOnta Williams—were arrested for plotting to bomb synagogues in New York City. The men also intended to shoot down military aircraft with Stinger missiles. All four had converted to Islam in prison, where they developed radical sympathies. The men didn’t know each other while in prison but met after their release while attending a local mosque connected to a prison ministry. All four were convicted on conspiracy charges and received 25-year sentences in 2011.
In January 2010 John Kerry, who was then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a report warning that “three dozen U.S. citizens who converted to Islam while in prison have traveled to Yemen, possibly for al Qaeda training.”
Europeans have known for some time that prisons can be breeding grounds for Islamists. The British “shoe bomber,” Richard Reid, is thought to have been radicalized while in prison for smaller crimes. Two of the gunmen in the Paris terror attacks in January—Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly—came under the religious influence of Djamel Beghal, a convicted terrorist and charismatic Islamist, when serving prison sentences. Mohamed Merah, who killed three soldiers, three small children and a rabbi at a Jewish school near Toulouse, France, in 2012, apparently became a jihadist while in jail. The list is depressingly long.
The problem is that experts tend to be concerned about prison radicalization only to the extent that it ultimately results in some type of violent attack. Yet there are good reasons to be concerned about the inmates who come to cherish a radical interpretation of Islam while refraining—for the time being—from the use of violence. The boundary between nonviolent and violent extremism is much more porous than conventional wisdom allows.
What can be done to stop prisons from becoming academies of jihad? Here are four suggestions:
1) Choose better partners than the Islamic Society of North America and the Islamic Leadership Council to screen prison chaplains. The American Islamic Forum for Democracy, founded and led by M. Zuhdi Jasser, a medical doctor and former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, would be a good choice.
2) Prevent radical clerics from coming into prisons to spread their message to susceptible inmates.
3) Ban radical Islamist literature from being disseminated in U.S. prisons.
4) Stop placing inmates in proximity to radicalized mentors.
The fact that Fouad El Bayly, an imam who publicly called for my death, was chosen to provide “religious services, leadership and guidance” at a federal prison shows that U.S. authorities haven’t learned the right lessons from a growing list of prison-convert terrorists. Bringing in radical imams to mentor vulnerable inmates will not do anyone any good—least of all prisoners looking for a better path in life.
Ms. Hirsi Ali, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of “Heretic: The Case for a Muslim Reformation,” just out from HarperCollins.