A 2008 survey by Trinity College estimated there are about 25,000 committed Scientologists in the United States. As the study’s authors admit, their estimate could be off target. But even if the number of Scientologists were twice as large, Scientology would still be the smallest religion people bother to loathe. There are more Wisconsin Synod Lutherans than Scientologists—most likely by a factor of ten. There are more Hasidic Jews of the Bobover sect. There are more Wiccans. There are, I am certain, more people who thought the world was ending on May 21, 2011, than there are people who believe in this sci-fi religion of e-meters, thetans and a prehistoric cosmic warlord named Xenu. When I say “Scientologist,” half the time people think I mean “Christian Scientist.” L. Ron Hubbard, Mary Baker Eddy: what’s the difference?
Yet we can’t ignore Scientology, if only because the Scientologists won’t let us. You can go a lifetime without being invited to a Roman Catholic Mass, but sooner or later, especially in urban areas, the Scientologists will find you. They open recruitment centers all over the world. They place leaflets beneath windshield wipers, invitations to take free “stress tests.” They brag of sending missionaries to disaster areas like Ground Zero and post-earthquake Haiti. For many years, the church relentlessly harassed journalists, sued critics and fought the Internal Revenue Service over its tax status. Its proud Hollywood adherents include, besides small fish like Jeffrey Tambor and Jenna Elfman, box office whales like John Travolta and Tom Cruise, both quite vocal about their love for the church. Other celebrities express their support with money. In 2007 Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson, was reported to have given $10 million to the church.
Scientology is, in other words, aggressively evangelical, and how one reacts to an encounter with it says a good deal about how one views religious freedom generally. We tend to think that freedom of speech and freedom of religion both live in the American soul, but the truth is that most of us value free speech far more than we value freedom of religion. Ask yourself: Should practitioners of Santería be allowed to sacrifice chickens? Should Native Americans be permitted to ingest sacramental peyote? Would you let Catholics send their children to parochial schools to learn their faith, or allow fundamentalist Mormons to take multiple wives? At various times, Americans have answered no to these questions. Even liberals for whom “tolerance” is a sacrament will find reasons consenting adults may not ingest harmless plants or enter plural marriages.
One danger of what might be called Abrahamic ecumenicalism—the idea that Protestant, Catholic, Jew and Muslim can all get along—is that it sets the bar for tolerance rather low. In the United States, where by the third generation every immigrant family succumbs to the English language and a pop-culture religion that venerates Angry Birds, Lady Gaga, Wiz Khalifa, Harry Potter and Entourage, most followers of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad can find a way to get along. Eventually, they locate a moderate mosque, a Reform temple or a prosperity-gospel megachurch. After worship, they agree by text message to meet up at Mickey Dee’s.
But what does the United States say to religious people who remain resolutely weird? That they may practice their beliefs but must expect to face bigotry and harassment? That they deserve legal rights but should also keep their distance—staying in Clearwater, Florida, a major seat of Scientology, but steering clear of our beach communities? Or do we, just maybe, fully accept these religious outliers, knowing that they are not just the price but the fruit of true toleration?