Most of my thinking on Scientology parallels last year’s South Park episode, which nicely parodied L. Ron Hubbard as both a second-rate writer and a third-rate god. I also view the organization he founded as a church only in the sense that it exploits childlike credulity on a breathtaking scale. I know: Companies like Apple or Amway do that too. But unlike those companies, Scientology has grown fat servicing celebrity egos and selling nothing for something — I refer here to the ludicrous but undeniably profitable concept of auditing. And unlike other successful companies, Scientology is tax-exempt.
Now comes the St. Pete Times to reveal a bit more about the organization. In a three-part series, its current leader, David Miscavige, emerges as something like Kim Jong Il in a better suit. Among other things, he is said to routinely abuse sycophants and conduct bizarre tests of loyalty. Readers might be reminded of other cults of personality — Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, for example, or David Koresh’s Branch Davidians — but the analogy soon pales. Scientology is so vast that all the believers wouldn’t fit in tiny Guyana, and if anybody’s going to drink special Kool-Aid or perish in flames, Miscavige and his minions would no doubt prefer it be nonbelievers. He may be a raving megalomaniac, but as CEO of a profitable business, he needs to grow the market, not shrink it.
You have to hand it to the St. Pete Times. Scientology is a formidable enemy, powerful enough to make the IRS grab its ankles on the subject of tax-exempt status. Its litigiousness is legendary, and these days few newspapers see a percentage in paying reporters to afflict the comfortable. And yet, here’s this series, carefully reported and solidly sourced, just like in the days of old. It may not hurt Scientology much, in the end, but it sure helps the case for professional journalism.