After Katie Holmes suddenly filed for divorce this month from Tom Cruise, and then after the shockingly quick settlement two weeks later, the big question was immediately: Why is she ending this highly-publicized seven-year relationship? At the root of their irreconcilable differences was not infidelity, nor financial strain, but Cruise's religious fanaticism with Scientology. Holmes apparently feared for their five-year-old daughter, Suri, who is eligible to join a select group of devotees called the Sea Org next year. Cruise is perhaps the most famous Scientologist and is known for his close friendship with its chief leader, David Miscavige.
In the weeks since the split, rumors and allegations of the Church's physical and mental abuse have spread as ex-Scientologists come forward with their stories. Widely accepted as a religion just hardly more than a cult, Scientology has been a mystery for most Americans since its rise in popularity in the 1960s and 1970s. It was officially recognized as a religion by the United States government in 1993 with full tax exemption as a religious institution.This extensive article by the Hollywood Reporter reports that hundreds of Scientologists, including high-level leaders, have attempted to defect from the Church within the past decade as Miscavige's methods have become more extreme, accusing him of abusing labor laws at Hemet and of being violent. One couple reported that they were forced to spend time at the base in Hemet, California, as the husband fell out of favor with Miscavige, likening it to a labor camp and accusing the Church of keeping the couple apart for seven years with attempts to forcibly divorce them. Miscavige's own niece, Jenna Miscavige Hill, started a website several years ago that publishes testimonials of the mistreatment that former Scientologist children faced in the Church and their struggles to escape. Hill reports forced separation from her parents as a child and warned Holmes in a statement to secure protection for herself and for Suri in this statement from July 4. Co-founder Astra Woodcraft relates that the Church tried to force her to have an abortion, and dozens of other stories report alleged abuse by church officials, including isolation and neglect.
The Church of Scientology, despite being a sect of Christianity, has been widely regarded as hardly more legitimate than a cult due to its mysterious methods and extreme practices. While Hill's site was founded in 2008 and other allegations of abuse have been reported in recent memory, this inundation of media attention to the Church due to the celebrity status of Tom and Katie is sure to result in several lawsuits and possible convictions as Holmes' concerns are taken into account.
Another sect of Christianity is equally regarded by society as weird and different, and it too has a major celebrity on the public stage. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly known as the largest branch, Mormonism, has been at the center of popular culture for the past year thanks to South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker's masterpiece, the musical The Book of Mormon. The show is a religious satire using Mormons as a lens to critique American culture, including imperialism and consumerism, but openly teases a religion in which members must wear specific religious undergarments at all times and are sent to all corners of the earth as missionaries. While there are 6 million Mormons in the United States and only 25,000 Scientologists as of a 2008 survey, Mormonism shares some practices that may be considered bizarre and strange equal to those of the Church of Scientology -- and most Christians do not accept it to be as valid as the Catholic and Protestant sects, which are more popular and considered more vanilla. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has made significant gains winning over the Bible Belt by reasserting his belief in the basics of Christianity without ever having alcohol or caffeine and is now the glittering celebrity of Mormonism just as Cruise was for Scientology.
In America, we celebrate the freedom of religion. That is, for most people. Judeo-Christian tenants are more accepted than Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. (The Dark Knight Rises premieres Friday, the first night of Ramadan, forcing Muslims to choose between celebrating the first night of their most holy month and paying for 3D glasses. It is a probable accident, but no blockbuster would dare open on Good Friday or Yom Kippur, would it?)
Freedom of religion only goes so far. The Catholic Church has been under investigation for sexual abuse of children. The Church of Scientology will now be under scrutiny for illegal activities that break adult and child labor laws and other claims of abuse. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has been in the spotlight for comedic purposes, but may now be back in the public eye in a negative light due to its close proximity to Scientology.
While President Obama is wise not to make any correlation between Scientology and Mormonism (after all, they are apples and oranges), the public should question the mystery that engulfs Romney's religion and what role it plays in his life. Just as Obama was questioned for his relationship with Reverend Wright, the religious leaders in Romney's life should be found and interviewed. Hopefully it's not someone like David Miscavige. Romney should be prepared not to defend his religion or his right to it, but the legality of its practices, as Scientologists have scrambled to do.
Hundreds of people including high-level leaders have left -- or tried to leave -- the Church of Scientology, especially in the past six to seven years, as dissatisfaction with Miscavige has intensified. Many defectors, most of whom remain loyal to Hubbard’s legacy and teachings, have accused Miscavige -- variously in the press, in books and, in the case of Headley, in a lawsuit filed in 2009 -- of being violent, of abusing adult and child labor laws at the Hemet base camp and of focusing too much on fund-raising.