The Nation, 7 November 2011

In this issue, Mark Oppenheimer (of Bloggenheimer fame)  recommends two books and a magazine article about the Church of Scientology.    The books are Janet Reitman‘s Inside Scientology and Hugh Urban‘s The Church of Scientology.  The magazine article is Lawrence Wright‘s profile of ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis.  Mr Oppenheimer writes that even “liberals for whom ‘tolerance’ is a sacrament” look for ways to ban religious practices that diverge substantially from social norms.  The interest of the review is Mr Oppenheimer’s own queasiness as he considers a relatively new and aggressively evangelical religion.  Time and again he squirms about, first praising religious diversity in general, then expressing his disapproval of Scientology in particular.  For example: “[E]mbracing the free market of religion requires that we be discerning buyers. We can be grateful that America is the country where Scientology may flourish, but we need not be grateful for Scientology.”  And:

Scientology may be one of those native religions that at first seems bizarre but adapts, grows and eventually thrives in our country’s fecund, undepleted spiritual soil.

Would that be a good thing? In many ways, no. It would mean more people reading L. Ron Hubbard’s tedious books when they could be reading real literature. It would mean more people suspending critical judgment, ignoring the factual record and insisting that Hubbard was a great warrior, adventurer, intellectual and teacher. It would mean more dollars misspent on auditing, instead of on good psychotherapy, badly needed prescription drugs or some really helpful classes at a community college.

On the other hand, if Scientology is still around in fifty years, some lucky Americans will discover in its practices the right cure for what ails them. For whatever reasons, either auditing or Hubbard’s “study tech” or Scientology communication classes will give them what public school—or a Freudian analyst or Judaism or Christianity or the Quaker meeting or the local Masonic lodge—could not. Scientology will give them a community. It will give them a way of life. Yet I remain worried about Scientology, worried enough that I can say this: I hope, fifty years from now, it’s not my children or grandchildren who turn to the church. But I also believe that freedom of religion is necessary. Without it, freedom of speech is a hollow guarantee.

Scientology may not last, but there will always be something like it. Reitman’s and Urban’s books are gifts to all religious people, especially Scientologists. They pay Scientology’s hierarchy the simple courtesy of holding them to adult standards of truthfulness and ethical behavior, and they confront Scientology lay people with some hard truths about their church. They also make the case—Urban’s book, explicitly so—that government and religion do not mix, and that perhaps it would be better, less entangling, to tax religious organizations. Reitman and Urban offer religions the respect they deserve in the form of the scrutiny they require. The Constitution, guarantor of free press as well as free religion, offers nothing less.

Mr Oppenheimer’s piece includes some interesting remarks about US tax policy.   To quote:

Most fascinating is Urban’s argument that Scientology has been instrumental in shaping how the US government defines religion. Beginning in 1967, when its tax-exempt status was revoked, the church fought a lengthy battle to have its exemption restored, infiltrating the Internal Revenue Service and harassing agents; in 1993 the IRS caved, offering Scientology a full tax exemption, sweetheart terms on back taxes and an unusual promise of secrecy (the deal was eventually leaked to the Wall Street Journal). Urban seems disheartened that Scientology bullied its way to victory—in Reitman’s book, IRS commissioner Fred Goldberg Jr. emerges as either a coward or a fall guy—but Urban powerfully makes the point that the IRS should not be in the position of deciding what is and is not a religion.

“The United States does not register religious groups and has no official hierarchy of religious organizations,” Urban writes. “And yet, federal income tax law does provide exemption for religious organizations, and, therefore, there must be some means to determine whether a group claiming to be religious is ‘genuine’ for purposes of tax-exempt status.” Supporters of religious tax exemption argue that it promotes religious charitable giving and prevents entanglement of government and religion. But if the government is going to grant religions special treatment, somebody has to approve that treatment, and it has turned out to be the tax man.

In 1977 the IRS promulgated a thirteen-point list of criteria for religious exemption (a recognized creed and form of worship, a formal code of doctrine and discipline, a literature of its own, etc.). It is probably no coincidence, Urban argues, that these guidelines were written “during the height of Scientology’s efforts to reemphasize its religious profile,” to complete its transformation from a philosophy, or self-help group, or whatever, into a religion. The IRS surely would have clarified its rules about religion over time, but it seems clear that the conflict with Scientology forced its hand. Urban writes, “As such, the complex legal and extralegal battles between the church and the IRS have been central to the shifting definition of religion itself.”

It would not be startling if, years from now, Scientology’s main legacy was its substantial contribution—if it can be called that—to tax law.

Professor Urban comment on a paradox which may be inescapable in a society that values religious freedom.  If “the power to tax is the power to destroy,” as Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall wrote in the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCulloch vs Maryland (1819,) then one would think that religious freedom requires special limitations on the government’s ability to tax religious groups.  Yet such limitations imply an official definition of “religious group,” which in turn implies an official ecclesiology. The “thirteen-point list of criteria” Mr Oppenheimer mentions is not the only test the Internal Revenue Service uses to determine tax-exempt status for religious groups, and that’s just as well.  Criteria such as “a distinct creed and form of worship,” a “definite ecclesiastical government,” “a formal code of doctrine and/or discipline,” and “schools or courses for preparation of its ministers” would all tend to rule out, for example, many of the Quaker groups that played such an important role in the USA in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Quaker ecclesiology in those days (and still, at least officially, for many Quakers today) regarded creeds, hierarchies, catechisms, seminaries, and ordained clergy as just so many idols and abominations, affronts to the Almighty.  If they had allowed themselves to be carried away by testosterone, such Quakers might have looked at the thirteen points of the IRS list and declared them to be a definition of a godless group.  Of course, if it were left up to people of that leading to replace the IRS list with their own definition of “religion,” I’m sure the result would be very nearly useless for purposes of deciding who should and who should not pay what tax.  “[I]f the government is going to grant religions special treatment, somebody has to approve that treatment, and it has turned out to be the tax man.”  Who else could it be, if not the IRS?  Congress would never dare pass a law defining what constitutes a religious organization, and without official definitions any person or group could claim the religious exemption.

In the same issue, Katha Pollitt’s column documents clueless remarks about Occupy Wall Street that media eminences made in the early days of the movement and contrasts them with relatively well-informed expressions of sympathy that similar people have made in recent days.  My favorite bit was this: “The more people join the movement, the clearer the message becomes. Former [New York] Times executive editor Bill Keller still doesn’t get it—“Bored by the soggy sleep-ins and warmed-over anarchism of Occupy Wall Street?” is how he began his October 16 column. (But then it took him till this summer to acknowledge that he’d been wrong to support the Iraq War, so maybe eight years from now he’ll apologize for snarking at OWS too.)”

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