Hollywood’s Celebrity-Lobbyists and the Clinton Administration’s American Foreign Policy Toward German Scientology

journal of religion and popular culture2002 Hollywood’s Celebrity-Lobbyists and the Clinton Administration’s American Foreign Policy Toward German Scientology
Stephen A Kent | Journal of Religion and Popular Culture Volume I: Spring 2002

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In this paper, the Canadian sociologist Stephen A Kent analyses Scientology’s lobbying of  the Clinton administration, with the aim of persuading it to intervene on its behalf with the German Federal Government.

Kent links this PR effort with Scientology’s ‘victory’ over the American tax authority (the IRS) in its protracted battle for charitable status. Now that the organisation was tax-exempt, they could  afford to spend serious money on lobbying efforts (for example, between 1976 and 1997 they paid $750,000 to a Washington lobbying firm, “Federal Legislative Associates” alone).

At this time, Scientology was under investigation by the German Federal Government, who concluded not only that it was not a religion, but also that the organisation constituted a thread to democracy. Kent argues that Scientology exploited both their new status as a ‘religion’ in the US and their enhanced income to persuade the Clinton administration to influence the German Federal Government. Their ultimate aim was to achieve the same tax-exempt and unregulated status in Germany that they has just gained in the US. Scientology’s strategy made heavy use of celebrity members Tom Cruise and John Travolta, who persuaded other prominent people to join an ill-advised attempt to influence German public policy by making a public statement.

n 1997, a German state official raised the issue of the RPF programs on American soil in response to a harsh “open” letter to Chancellor Helmut Kohl that equated the German government’s handling of Scientology with Nazis’ persecution of Jews prior to World War II.

Published as a full page ad in the International Herald Tribune, thirty-four Hollywood personalities signed it, including actors Dustin Hoffman, Goldie Hawn, director Oliver Stone, writer Mario Puzo, and CNN talk show host, Larry King (Boyes 1997). (Afterwards, the film director Constantin Costa-Gavras expressed regret at having given the letter his signature [Reuters 1997]).

It turned out that many of the signatories had close ties to prominent Scientology actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta (Whittell 1997). The analogy between the current plight of Scientology in Germany and the fate of Jews during the early days of Hitler proved so offensive that the U.S. State Department immediately denounced it, saying “This is an outrageous charge against the German government by an American group. It bears no resemblance to the facts of what is going on [t]here” (quoted in Boyes 1997). Likewise, German-Jewish leader, Ignatz Bubis, dismissed the accusations as “insulting to the memory of the [holocaust] victims” (quoted in John 1997).

Germany’s  sensitivity to organisations that may represent a threat to democracy is a consequence of the Nazi period, and of a  a national legal and moral commitment to ensure that such a calamity would never occur again. Consequently, this lobbying strategy was perceived by all of the parties that it attempted to influence as factually wrong, profoundly offensive and incompetent.

The practical and political effect was the exact opposite to that intended by the Church of Scientology – they could not have damaged their case more extensively if they had paid  a company to lobby against them. It is however, unsettling that, if Scientology ever managed to formulate an effective lobbying strategy, they have the resources to make a significant impact on public life.

Kent  does not have a high opinion of Scientology’s celebrity lobbying- nor of that practice in general.

The shortcomings […] of some of the celebrities’ efforts reveal the weaknesses that are associated with cultural elites entering political debates. As is common in other instances of celebrities’ political involvement, Scientology’s celebrities have contributed to the trivialization of serious issues that confront the international community.

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