Looking To The Stars For Spiritual Answers

Source: National Post
Date: December 29, 1998

Celebrity believers: The Church of Scientology looks to big names to gain credibility

When John Travolta accepted the Golden Globe award for his lead role in the 1996 film Get Shorty, he was clear about who he wanted to thank first for the career enhancing performance.

Skipping over his wife, parents and agents, he acknowledged the powerful influence L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, had on his life.

In Mr. Travolta's case, it's a mutual admiration society. The allure of celebrity is not lost on Scientologists, any more than the need to be civic boosters as the church has been in its spiritual base, Clearwater, Fla.

"Scientology has specific policies to recruit celebrities into a public relations mode," says Dr. Stephen Kent, professor of the sociology of religion at the University of Alberta. "The end result is to use these celebrities to recruit new members or at least make the image of Scientology acceptable in society."

A church Celebrity Centre has even been established in Los Angeles where testimonials - from one star to another - can be heard.

And Mr. Travolta is but one member of a star-studded congregation. His wife, actress Kelly Preston, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Lisa Marie and Priscilla Presley, Kirstie Alley, Mimi Rogers, Isaac Hayes, Chick Corea, and Anne Archer are adherents.

Jenna Elfman (from the television sitcom Dharma & Greg), and Danny Masterson (from That '70s Show) have also offered testimonials to Scientology's power.

In this, the church has understood the power of celebrity, says Dr. David Reed, a theology professor at Wycliffe College, a University of Toronto affiliate. "Scientology targets the stars. It is used as a tool for recruitment and as a way of legitimizing itself as a religion. It is a means to attract the attention of the non-believer."

But star power is not without its controversy.

"They treat their celebrity members better than ordinary members," Dr. Kent says. He cites numerous interviews he has done with former members as well as allegations that ordinary members have at times been used as unpaid labour for stars.

In one 1994 U.S. court case, a former Scientologist alleged that recalcitrant members had essentially been used as forced labour.

However, those allegations were denied by the former member's own son, who still remained in the church.

Celebrity interest in religion - and the exploitation of it by church leaders - is not new. Nor is Scientology the only player.

Evangelical Christians like Billy Graham have long had football stars speak at mass rallies.

Richard Gere, Tina Turner, Steven Segal, REM's Michael Stipe, Herbie Hancock and Beastie Boys singer Adam Yauch espouse the wonders of Buddhism.

And the latest celebrity religious fad - the ancient mysteries of Kabbalah, the esoteric concepts of Jewish mysticism - has attracted Madonna, Roseanne, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand, Sandra Bernhard, Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern, Donna Karan, Isaac Mizrahi, Courtney Love, and others.

The search for spiritual answers, now more than ever, truly means looking at the stars.

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