HBO’s Going Clear and the Cult of Scientology

By Robert Moeller Published on April 7, 2015

One of the most highly anticipated documentaries in recent years premiered last week on HBO and has been the talk of the town here in Los Angeles for months. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, written and directed by Alex Gibney, is a two-hour, in-depth, and utterly scathing investigation of the Church of Scientology.

Based on a Lawrence Wright book of the same name, Going Clear is equal parts mesmerizing, depressing and alarming. Much of the first half of the film is dedicated to the bizarre biography of L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, prophet and patron saint. The latter half delves more deeply into the unsettling personal experiences of former members who walk us through their own “I escaped a cult” stories with surprising candor.

Along the way, we meet Scientology’s current leader/dictator, David Miscavige, who has been running the organization with an iron fist since the 1980s. We also learn more about the key roles that prominent celebrities such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta have played in Scientology’s cultural and financial advancements in the past three decades.

You will not be able to watch Top Gun or Days of Thunder in quite the same way ever again after seeing this film.

Some popular pop culture figures, like Mike Rowe of CNN’s Somebody’s Gotta Do It, have taken to the internet to share their thoughts on the controversial documentary. Posting on his blog, Rowe shared a bit about his personal connection to one of the women interviewed in Going Clear, Spanky Taylor, who left Scientology in 1987 after discovering that her child was being physically abused and neglected by members of the church.

I knew Spanky’s story when I hired her, so when I watched her tale unfold on my unnecessarily large screen, I was not struck by the details of her personal ordeal, or by the incredible stories of other members who broke free and agreed to come forward. In truth, I’m no longer shocked by people who choose to follow a charlatan, or give away all their money, or forsake their friends and family to seek some greater truth, or drink whatever Kool-Aid is being served. The right to make bad decisions is an important part of being free.

For decades, the word around the entertainment industry was that no one should bad-mouth Scientology for fear of facing the church’s aggressive public relations and legal goon squads. Times have clearly changed and there seems to be a growing “strength in numbers” movement among public figures who are more and more willing to take Scientology to task on blogs and social media.

As a Christian who cares deeply about religious freedom, I was torn as I watched (and then re-watched) Going Clear this past week. Clearly, Scientology is at odds with so much of what I believe in and stand for. Even putting aside a discussion of their theology, Scientology’s liberal use of extortion and harassment is disgusting and shameful. The look of fear in the eyes of those who have tried to leave the religion speaks volumes about the group’s culture of intimidation and enforced conformity. What for many starts as a personal search for answers to life’s questions and desire for emotional health, ends in depression and prolonged harassment at the hands of the same people who welcomed them with open arms.

But on the flip side of this is the understanding that anyone with a camera, editing equipment and a little bit of elbow grease can make a film that depicts any religion, any widely followed worldview (or human being, for that matter) seem crazy and dangerous. The fallen state of mankind is a reality. I have done things that I am not proud of. King David did things he was not proud of. In the name of Christianity, horrible acts have been perpetrated on millions of people throughout history. Some of the stories about such things are accurate and some are embellished by those who have an agenda against religion in general, or Christianity in particular. Even today, we see the widespread mischaracterization of what the Bible teaches about homosexuality used as a bludgeon to attack political opponents.

And so the question becomes: What should Christians do who cherish religious freedom but believe that a certain sect of their fellow countrymen is warped and even dangerous?

Of course we are to pray for, and show grace to, those who do not believe in Jesus Christ, but what does that look like when it comes time for a pluralistic society to make decisions about things like a religion’s tax exempt status?

While the answers undoubtedly take more time and thought than a single short essay, what I do know about Going Clear is this: it is worth a viewing.

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