A few weeks ago, Rock Center, a news show with Brian Williams and Harry Smith, reported on Scientology. Their show, The Defectors, aired the same day Lawrence Wright (a Pulitzer Prize winner) launched his new book, Going Clear, Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.
This book, based on Wright’s investigation of Scientology, included his interviews of more than 200 people, mostly former church members. Wright called them bright and interesting people, not freakish crackpots, but that while the religion has been a positive experience for some; it has long been shadowed by allegations that many have been emotionally and physically abused.
The shock of the interview was not as great as the shock of similarity between the Church of Scientology and the megachurch, the evangelical church from which I defected.
Harry Smith interviewed Paul Haggis, Oscar-winning writer and director of the film, Crash. Haggis is said to be the highest-ranking Scientologist to ever leave the church and speak out publicly.
The alleged horrors described in Smith’s interview may not be to the degree I experienced in the evangelical church, but certainly the resemblance is a strong one.
Haggis mentioned that allowing himself to be interviewed was insanity. Speaking freely, he also said it was incredibly stupid to speak out against Scientology, but that he has been ashamed of his stupidity and had been purposely blind for years. According to Haggis, everyone who has left Scientology has left quietly. But not Haggis. He decided to leave loudly.
For me, writing a novel about the dark side of televangelism may also be considered as a mark of insanity. Although fiction, Televenge was definitely inspired by my own experiences. The fact that my family was torn apart by the edicts of a pastor cannot go away, no matter the passing of time.
Now shunned by the church, Haggis says Scientology is a therapy session, with lots of one-on-one counseling. That it’s a long, slow walk toward believing.
Shunning is something you live with when leaving these congregations, evangelical or otherwise. For many evangelicals, the long, slow walk toward salvation starts the moment we enter our first Sunday school class.
Says Haggis, “If it (Scientology) hadn’t helped me, then it never would have got a hold of me.”
Many in evangelical churches claim to have experienced the miracle power of God. I believe God honors faith wherever he finds it. Our megachurhes are filled with good, hard-working, honest folk. The church was once the lifeblood of my existence for over twenty years. Leaving is not an easy decision but it becomes the only one you can make when you no longer wish to be controlled by the man in the pulpit.
“The idea of being part of a group that’s ostracized and hated, bands you together against the outside world,” Haggis said. Later, he says he learned of abuse at the highest levels of the church.
Of course, the Church of Scientology denies it all.
In large evangelical churches, the outer circle consists of honest folk unaware of the goings-on within the ministry. The inner circle (ministry team, choir, musicians, ushers, office and technical staff) knows the ministry’s secret sins. Even the indiscretions of pastors who preach against the homosexual lifestyle they practice. Of course, not all evangelical churches fit this mold. But it is this writer’s experience the corruption inside many televised megachurches may rival that of the Church of Scientology.
Because many call themselves Christians – members of a religion with a respectable position in society, they do not hesitate to condemn Scientology or Mormonism. The truth is, we’re so busy looking for the splinter in the eyes of others we can’t see the log in our own. Confusing the fiercness to protect God’s word with arrogance and pride, Christians often become worse than those they condemn.
According to Haggis and Wright, Scientologists were vindictive and litigious, spying on people and creating an atmosphere of fear. “They’re not people you want to mess with,” Haggis said.
As evangelicals, we had first class tickets to heaven. Our membership existed in fear. Fear of Hell, fear of the devil, fear of missing the rapture, constant fear of God’s everlasting wrath, and of disappointing our pastor. It was an unwritten sin to miss church, to question the pastor’s authority, or even walk out during a service.
Haggis indicated Scientologists believe the body is host to space aliens invading and infesting us by the hundreds, causing all kinds of physical and mental problems.
We evangelicals believe the same thing, only we call those space aliens—demons.
Finally, Harry Smith asked, “Why did you stay?”
To which Haggis answered, “It’s part of your life at that point. Your kids, friends, wife, they’re all there. It’s what you know.”
It’s the same for evangelicals. We also stayed because it was branded into us that leaving our church meant never amounting to anything for God; that we would die and lift up our eyes in Hell. Those were his exact words, over and over, burned into my memory.
Harry Smith then asked, “Is it a cult?”
“Of course it is,” said Haggis. “It’s your system of belief. You’ve got these folks inside this fortress who won’t look out. Won’t look at any criticism and can’t bear any investigation and think the outside world is against them. Yes, it’s a cult.”
Many evangelicals don’t dance or listen to music other than what is produced in their church. We didn’t smoke or drink; we were sheltered from the world and its sins. Our children were discouraged from participating in high school sports as it interfered with church attendance. Our lives existed from one four-hour service to the next. Hanging on every word, movement, and gesture of a man who claimed that since his salvation he lived without sin, we believed in his confession of perfection. We had no deacons or board of elders, and belonged to no denomination. He answered to no one, and didn’t tolerate those who questioned him. But when we pulled away, the losses we suffered were no less than unbearable.
Haggis said leaving the Church of Scientology was an act of treason.
In my former church, to associate with anyone who defected is also treason. Those of us who left have been shunned for years. People we knew and grew up with ignore us in public. We’ve been stopped at the door of funerals and not permitted to enter. Even funerals of family members.
Wright says because the Church of Scientology is protected under the first amendment, it allows the church to build capital and power. Power the church has exploited. He says the church abuses its members by shaking them down for money, heaping vengeance on those who disagree, punishing critics, and holding people against their will inside the highest levels of the church.
Televangelism is a billion-dollar business. Scared religion and the prosperity doctrine keep us giving endless love offerings we can’t afford and paying tithes instead of bills. Some evangelical pastors have an amazing ability to make sure we give our last dime. Declaring us demon-possessed should we speak out against them, they build invisible walls, and hold us captive by convincing our family or our spouses that Hell awaits them should they defect with us.
The Church of Scientology says there is no credibility to Wright’s statements and that all complaints come from malcontentment. But Wright says there are too many collaborated stories from people who got out. Stories, it seems to me, he could not ignore.
And then, when you think it can’t get any worse, Harry Smith introduced Hayden and Lucy James, former Scientologists who got out with their immediate family in tact. But the James family worked for Sea Org, part of the church. They had signed a contract to work a billion years for Scientology. The problems came when they wanted to have a baby. Lucy became pregnant and was pressured to have an abortion. But they resisted and their daughter, Katrina, was born.
As part of the inner circle of our evangelical megachurch, we were highly discouraged from having children. Children meant less time and money you could give to the church, besides, Jesus was coming back soon; it was not the time to bring children into the world. Many young men were counseled to have vasectomies, and some women were strongly encouraged to have an abortion.
But before the James family could break out of Scientology, they were held in a windowless basement and prohibited from seeing their own daughter. Separated, interrogated for weeks, and placed under guard, the James family said this happens to many families who want out.
Harry Smith could hardly believe it and asked, “Why couldn’t you all just walk out?”
Walking out of a cult is not as easy as it looks. But the James family answered the same way I do. You don’t walk out because the consequences of your actions will result in having your family torn apart. The fear of what they could do to you, the intimidation, it’s overwhelming. It took years for me to finally walk out, holding tight to my children, and never looking back.
Hayden and Lucy James had to pay a huge bill for breaking their contract. They were made to feel guilty for breaking that billion-year contract and for back tithes owed.
Our extremely low wages did not cover the untold years of volunteer time my ex-husband gave to the church. There were no contracts to sign. They hold Hell over your head instead. I had sacrificed my husband and the better part of my youth to a pastor and his mega ministry. I had nothing left to give.
The James family remains disconnected from family members inside the church. They can’t speak to them or call them, and indicate those within Scientologist circles are aware this is what happens when you defect, which keeps everyone quiet.
I’ve met and interviewed over a hundred people who defected from all types of controlling ministries across the country. The common thread of suffering great losses weaves itself through all of our experiences. In some instances, the church was nothing less than a Mafia of holy men, with unexplained deaths, the horrors of shunning and manipulation, and the opulence of televangelism.
The Church of Scientology denies allegations by those like Paul Haggis and Lawrence Wright, and it seems some folks can list a number of good things Scientologists do and have done in today’s society. But the fact remains that the Haggis family and the James family, as well as many others have been victimized.
I contend that acceptance, tolerance, and forgiveness preached by many of the dogmatic evangelical churches are non-evident due to the hundreds of families it has destroyed.
An article, dated February 7, 2013 by Kyle Buchanan entitled, What You Need to Know About The New Yorker’s Paul Haggis—Scientology Article, quotes Haggis as saying, “These people have long memories. My bet is that, within two years, you’re going to read something about me in a scandal that looks like it has nothing to do with the church.”I hope you’re wrong this time, Paul. I hope you’re wrong.