Sunday, August 21, 2005

Tom Cruise Fred Phelps and ME The Sermon

Thank you for inviting me here today, and for not running away when you saw the readings I chose.

First of all, I’d like to congratulate you as members of this congregation and this town and county for the excellent way Plattsburgh responded to last Sunday’s protests.
Bullies came to town, and people denounced their message without incident. After years of interactions with this family, Americans have finally realized that confronting them, or attempting to dialogue with them is like trying to teach a bull to sing - it's frustrating for you and it only makes the bull more angry. I applaud communities that are able to respond as positively as this one.

I want to talk today about our Unitarian Universalist covenant to affirm and promote two particular principles:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person.
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

Last weekend a family with over 80 members, who, coincidentally are also most of the congregation of their church, sent 20 representatives to picket churches in Plattsburgh. They call it their hobby, picketing, although I’d call it their mission.

Last weekend was also Tom Cruise’s birthday. You may not have noticed. He recently made news as a true believer who jumped off a couch and very nearly onto Oprah out of his delight at having a beautiful girlfriend ½ his age. The next week he nearly leapt off a stool and onto Matt Laurer who was unwilling to believe Tom’s claims that Tom has a special knowledge of the real history of psychiatry and the evils of ADHD and anti-depressant medication.

Tom Cruise and Fred Phelps don’t look at all alike at first glance. Different religious systems -- one new religion, one old religion -- diverse personal styles; and certainly different levels of personal attractiveness; what they have in common is their claim to a rigid belief system that controls the totality of their lives.


As a Director of Religious Education I am frequently faced with people, usually young people but not always, asking me, So UUs can believe anything we want? We accept all beliefs and religions?

The answer is no. The UU principle is that we affirm and promote the worth and dignity of each individual. Not necessarily each individual’s belief system. Our fourth principle is that we both affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

I believe that we hold responsibility to assess and interpret our world, and to oppose religious beliefs or actions that denigrate individuals or make a responsible search for truth all but impossible. Our task is to name these perceptions in a way that doesn’t denigrate the value of the other person but does honestly name what we see.

It is a complex proposition to respect an individual’s worth and dignity while honestly assessing their beliefs, ethics, and impact on the world around them. Especially when they are people who can really push our buttons.


It is hurtful that The Westboro Baptist Church denounces my life with such bullying venom. It’s hard not to take it personally. Worse than hurt feelings though, is the spiritual violence (see below) they do and the danger they pose to young people who don’t have the life experience and self esteem necessary to let this vitriol roll off their backs.

It’s also silly, on a certain level. The Phelps family seem like buffoons, lemmings following the leader, their prophet, if you will, who makes insightful statements like this one quoted in the Press Republican, which was new to me--

“George Bush worships Mr. Peanut, whose name is the great God Goober.”

So Silly, Buffoon, or Bully, their beliefs about me, and, I would argue, about G-d and the bible, are wrong and completely counter to my personal value system and to UU Principles; but that isn’t the greatest problem. The problem, and subject of this sermon is the coercive means they use to instill those beliefs in their members, and to assail others.

Coercion is also the problem with Scientology. I could simply say that I think that Scientology beliefs about an alien life form implanting spirits in our bodies where they run amok and interfere with our mental health, and that a science fiction author invented a technology that could clear these spirits from our bodies—I could say this is silly. It would be an accurate reflection of my beliefs about their beliefs, and it might end this sermon early, but it would not get us anywhere useful.

Because silly or not, beliefs are just that, ideas we cling to help us make meaning out of the world. Meaning-making is the most human of endeavors, and the stories all cultures invent to create meaning out of their world may not be meaningful to me, but the existence of these stories does not hurt me or other non-believers.

The problem with Scientology is that their methods of proselytizing are coercive. Scientology actively discourages questions and critical thinking, and enforces compliance to an outside authority that takes complete control of the individual. Tom Cruise goes nowhere alone.


I am sure that you all are aware that Fred Phelps isn’t the leader of a typical Fundamentalist Church. Simple evidence of that is that only one person from the North Country joined his family at the protests last week, and other fundamental Christians, such as Capt. Cregan of the Salvation Army, counter-protested him. Rev. Phelps is a charismatic leader of a totalistic religious group that uses coercive and abusive tactics on its own members. The fact that he uses the biblical rhetoric of Christian Fundamentalism doesn’t mean that he is representative of Christian Fundamentalists.

At the Fundamental Christian Church where I grew up, the Cadyville Wesleyan Church, I remember being 12 and sitting in a pew and listening as the preacher told me that Jesus was my friend. And I listened closely, because I needed a friend.

I had made no friends at Saranac Central School, and it would be years before we would learn enough about ADHD to help me – that help would come long after I’d set fire to the IOWA standardized test scoring sheet with a magnifying glass just to see if you really could; long after I’d had my seat changed so many times kids started calling me Just Visiting. I was almost always alone and lonely, and often afraid.

So when Rev. Klob told me that Jesus would be my friend no matter what, my hand shot up and I practically raced down front to pray with the ladies of the church. I was getting Saved, not just from sin but also from loneliness and fear. I was invited to accept Jesus to hold a certain kind of fundamental absolute belief. I accepted that invitation willingly.

In the summers during adolescence, I attended Chazy Lake Camp, a dusty collection of old buildings and a field we weren’t allowed to play in for fear, I believe, of fornication.

My first summer I went with only one dress, for Sundays. I’d given up wearing dresses years before, and it didn’t occur to me or my mother that the culture at a fundamentalist camp would be that girls would wear a dress every night to the revival meeting. After three days with the same one, some girls were teasing me at dinner. I remember later that evening Mrs. Klob stood outside her cabin and called me over. She quietly explained that her daughter had too many dresses for her own good, and she loaned me two of them. It was the nicest thing ever, and it reaffirmed my belief system that friends were to be found in and through Jesus.

After dinner, evening entertainment would be a long revival service, complete with all the old standards of revival songs, hugging, hand holding and swaying. We would sit and stand and sing for 2 hours. A minister would preach about some pretty gruesome wages of sin, and emotionally manipulated us to make sure our souls were saved. I stayed scared, and accepted Jesus every night, just in case the previous times hadn’t took.

Sometimes instead of revival meetings, they would invite us to watch a movie, horror films about the end of the world and the Anti-Christ, always presented as prophesy of how the End of The World would Really Happen. They were similar to the videos of the Left Behind series, but with less quality control. These movies manipulated us children into accepting Jesus out of fear of hell or being left behind when the Rapture came, or having the United Nations take us away from our parents. Summer camp was about creating situations where it was more likely that we’d turn to the belief system they espoused, we were invited, cajoled, and manipulated. But it was not coercion or abuse.


Phelps’ children who have left the family, and to my knowledge there are three, describe Rev. Phelps’ venom, which you saw here demonstrated in the street by his family, as being worse against his family. They describe “persistent and poisonous child abuse, wife-beating, drug addiction, kidnapping, … and other forms of physical and emotional coercion” (Addicted to Hate)

This hatred which we see for a few hours at this soldier’s funeral or at a picket in that city, is directed 24 hours a day at members of his congregation and family. Rev. Phelps viciously beat his children to insure absolute obedience. One Christmas day he beat two of his sons a total of 260 strokes with the handle of a maddock, which is a tool that’s a heavy combination of a pick and hoe. One brother passed out after 40, but the other brother counted the strokes, which was his way of coping with the pain and terror.

Phelps uses various forms of coercion whenever his flock disappoints or disobeys him, and during his 4 hour long Sunday services, he takes them to task in the same way he took Plattsburgh to task. At the same time, his charismatic love and affection is turned on full force whenever they please him. And so of course, like any children, they want to please him.

The problem with the Westboro Baptist church isn’t that they protest against Gay people, or churches, or America, in the most despicable manner, or that they misrepresent the core messages of Hebrew and Christian Scripture, it’s that the members have given up their individual identities. They’re almost all lawyers, they live together in a cluster of houses in a large walled compound, they all travel to picket except for the submissive wives who must stay home with the children. It is a church/family of people who do everything they can to avoid the wrath of Rev. Phelps.

It is a group of people who no longer have the ability to embark on a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.


At age 12, while I was becoming a fundamental Christian, my partner Rebecca joined her brother and her boyfriend at an introductory Scientology meeting. Her parents had signed a liability waiver for her to attend. TR-O, which stands for Training Routine Zero, is the first level of scientology. They were told that it’s special knowledge, so they should get only a little at a time. Hence scores of Training Routines that built on the previous one.

She was seated at a table facing a coach, and the assignment was to stare in a coaches’ eyes-- not blinking, not moving, not twitching, not scratching an itch. When the student fails to control their bodily impolses, the coach identifies the failing and shouts “TWITCH, FLUNK!” or “BLINK, FLUNK” and they start over.

All that is asked of the student at this point is, literally, unflinching compliance.

Sometimes the coach will flunk the student for no reason the student can understand and refuse to explain. This creates an intense level of confusion and fragility in terms of knowing how to please the coach, how to comply. TR-0 can last an afternoon, or several weeks until the person is able to put themselves into what is basically an eyes-open trance.

Then, just when the person thinks they have succeeded, they move onto the next part of TR-0, and their coach begins shouting words and phrases that will make the student twitch or blink or laugh, to force them to flunk. This further increases the tension and unpredictability, which increases the student’s desire to succeed. Rebecca was in TR-0 for several months. She couldn’t do it. It made her sick to her stomach.

Her brother quickly continued onto TR-1. At this level his task was to read aloud out-of-context snippets of nonsense from Alice in Wonderland, they seemed to be the excerpts that appear to be the most drug induced, without reacting in any way. Again, hours or weeks are spent until the students can separate their critical thinking from what they are saying.

They spend hours and hours getting used to saying and hearing things that don’t make sense. Each TR level increases the cognitive dissonance and undermines the individuals’ ability to critically reflect on what is happening to them. It’s usually a couple of years, and hundreds or thousands of hours, before they find out, in OT III, about the alien commander Xenu, spirits under volcanoes, hydrogen bomb and human bodies.

Luckily for my partner, she never passed TR-0, and her boyfriend got her out of Scientology. Her brother stayed in it for several levels, and to this day he can’t look people in the eye.


Tom Cruise only gives interviews now to people who will listen to him talk about Scientology for an hour first. He’s totally surrounded by other Scientologists, who are managing his career and controlling the information he gets. His wife and girlfriend seem to have to embrace Scientology to remain in relationship with him. Even when he is on the set, there are Scientologist Chaplains with him at all times. He is no more able to engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning than the Phelps boy counting strokes. Each has been told by people they trust and believe, and yes, love, that the society you and I live in is corrupt, filled with false science, with sin, with the seeds of their own destruction, and that there is only one true belief system that will save them. The people around them are unwilling or unable to allow them the freedom to see beyond that.


There are two challenges UUs and other liberal religious folks face in facing these kind of totalistic belief systems.

The first is to recognize and be able to name boundaries in religious belief and activity. We must be unafraid to respectfully name those beliefs that run counter to our principles, and those actions which run counter to the value of human autonomy and freedom of thought and inquiry. The city of Plattsburgh was able to honor the inherent worth and dignity of the individuals of the Phelps clan by ignoring them, ringing church bells, singing, or blocking them with Angels. No violence was done to them; not physical, not emotional, not spiritual. At the same time, truth was spoken about the destructive messages they carried.

The second is illuminated by Mark Rinzel when he wrote this about his sojourn into Scientology,

What can I say? I was raised Unitarian and remain fairly open-minded regarding spiritual matters. I have no ingrained mechanism for dismissing any belief system outright, no matter how silly some of its terminology or practices may seem on the surface.

The second challenge for UU’s is that we have to raise our young people to cast a critical eye on religious beliefs and traditions. As we teach about religious traditions and spiritual beliefs, and give our children reverence for the sacred in all faith traditions, we must teach students to examine these beliefs and actions with the minds that G-d gave them. We don’t want them to dismiss something out of hand, but we do want them to explore critically.

Unitarian Universalist young people are disturbingly vulnerable to totalistic and fundamentalist groups. As we encourage them to look around for insights and answers to the big questions in life, we have to teach them how to tell the difference between those who would witness or share their beliefs and those who would manipulate, lie, or coerce them into joining.


In a way, I think understand what it feels like to be Fred Phelps or Tom Cruise. Not that I know what it is like to feel such blind hatred, no. Nor can I imagine exactly being a heart throb ...
What I mean is that I had once, as a fundamentalist, that same absolute assurance that each and every belief I held was ordained from above. But unlike them, I had been trained in traditional fundamental Christianity, and believed in proselytizing, witnessing through persuasion, even really pushy persuasion – but not coercion or abuse.

After I let go of that fundamentalist belief system I had to revisit my education in critical thinking skills. My father had instilled in me a solid foundation of critical thinking skills, but I had what my friend Ava would later call “Ideology blindness.” I could only think critically about what was already inside my world view. I have had to learn to critically evaluate sources for both the content and context, and to be willing to personally check out citations. That’s but one hallmark of a responsible search for truth and meaning. I still think I’m right most of the time, but I’m willing to be proved wrong, in fact, I often seek out alternative perspectives.

What Fred Phelps, Tom Cruise and I still have in common is that we all think we’re right. The difference is that they are unlikely to change their minds about any aspect of their belief system in the next year. I almost certainly will.

I am a Unitarian Universalist, on a continuing journey toward truth and meaning.


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that the philosophy and practice of nonviolence has six basic elements.
First, nonviolence is resistance to evil and oppression. It is a human way to fight.
Second, it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win hislher friendship and understanding.
Third, the nonviolent method is an attack on the forces of evil rather than against persons doing the evil. It seeks to defeat the evil and not the persons doing the evil and injustice.
Fourth, it is the willingness to accept suffering without retaliation.
Fifth, a nonviolent resister avoids both external physical and internal spiritual violence - not only refuses to shoot, but also to hate, an opponent. The ethic of real love is at the center of nonviolence.
Sixth, the believer in nonviolence has a deep faith in the future and the forces in the universe are seen to be on the side of justice.

(Stride Toward Freedom Perennial Library, Harper & Row, PP.83-88)

The Road to Xenu online,

"Since 1986 authorities in France, Spain and Italy have raided more than 50 Scientology centers. Pending charges against more than 100 of its overseas church members include fraud , extortion , capital flight, coercion , illegally practicing medicine and taking advantage of mentally incapacitated people." - Time Magazine, May 6, 1991

A list of crimes. lawsuits and convictions can be found here.
I have not personally verified these, please check them out on your own.
A list of comments by various judges can be found here

(From The "Cult" of Many Personalities, Mark Rinzel Takes a Peek Into Scientology's Online Battle, Silicon Alley Reporter magazine, Issue 27, Vol. 3, #7 (Oct 1999) (

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