In a recent Tablet piece, Jamie Kirchick defends the German government's campaign against Scientology, arguing that the church, founded by American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1952, "is not a religion" but is instead "a cult and a threat to democracy." Can't it be all three? The distinction between cults and religions has always struck me as arbitrary and subjective, if not meaningless. In practice, the difference is mostly a matter of time. Weird, disreputable cults become bona fide religions if they stick around long enough. A century from now the Scientologists may be just as respectable as the Mormons, who not so long ago were widely perceived as a barbaric, brainwashing cult bent on overthrowing the government.
No, Kirchick insists, Scientologists are different. He portrays them as loony, avaricious, vindictive, and, most damningly from the German point of view, authoritarian. "Because of its history of Nazism," Kirchick explains, "Germany believes it has an obligation to root out extremists, and not just those of a political flavor. In the eyes of most Germans, Scientology is nothing more than a cult with authoritarian designs on the country’s hard-won pluralistic democracy." Hence the German government not only refuses to recognize Scientology as a religion but even considered banning it altogether—a policy favored by 74 percent of the public, according to a 2007 poll cited by Kirchick (who notes in passing that "a handful of sober German critics allege that their country’s attitude to Scientology resembles a societal panic akin to the McCarthyism of the 1950s"). The major German political parties are closed to Scientologists, "sect filters" exclude Scientologists from government contracts, and leading politicians routinely denounce the church. In 1996, Kitchick notes, "the youth wing of the Christian Democratic Union (then and now Germany’s ruling conservative party) called for a boycott of Mission Impossible," because the movie's star, Tom Cruise, is a Scientologist.
To American eyes, Kirchick concedes, all this looks like religious intolerance:
For obvious reasons—beginning with the Constitution, and the fact the United States was founded by Europeans fleeing religious persecution—most Americans are loath to do anything that would appear to infringe upon someone else’s religious liberty. Though some of us may find each other’s religious convictions, or religion itself, strange, few believe that it should be the government’s role to tell other people how, if at all, to pray. And so while the consensus in the United States may be that Scientology is a bit nutty, the general attitude, owing to Americans’ dedication to individual liberty, seems to be: live and let live.
Reflecting that attitude, the U.S. State Department regularly criticizes the German government for its hostile treatment of Scientology. But Kirchick believes such criticism is misplaced, since Scientology is not really a religion. Indeed, he concludes, "it's long past time Americans stopped joking about Scientology and started treating it like the Germans do."
Although the article is peppered with allegations of criminal conduct by Scientologists, including physically abusing members and holding them against their will, Kirchick is not merely arguing that religion should not be a shield for breaking the law. When he urges us to treat Scientologists as the Germans do, he is asking us to embrace a brand of anti-authoritarian authoritarianism that is antithetical to the classical liberal values reflected in the First Amendment. The same government that has targeted Scientology because of its alleged threat to "pluralistic democracy" also uses that rationale to justify bans on hate speech, Holocaust denial, symbols and books associated with the Nazi regime, and ethnically divisive political groups. All those policies would be unambiguously unconstitutional in the United States, where the government is not allowed to suppress opinions, religious or not, based on the harm that might flow from them.
The cult/religion distinction drawn by Kirchick is not only dubious but irrelevant. The question is whether the government should harass an organization because the ideas it promotes are deemed to be dangerous. The Germans say yes, while Americans traditionally have said no. Kirchick dismisses this crucial philosophical divide as a mere quibble, saying "the differences in historical traditions of American individualism and European communalism should not be used to discourage a tougher American approach to dealing with the Church of Scientology." Let the rooting out of extremists begin.