You've got to hand it to Tom Cruise. Just when it seems he couldn't possibly make himself look any wackier, he pulls a world-class, over-the-top, fruit-loop-loony stunt. Scientology's avenging angel has gone to war with a cartoon.
It all started on March 13 when Isaac Hayes quit his job on Comedy Central's hit "South Park" series; he'd voiced the character Chef since 1997. Hayes, also a Scientologist, claimed that his departure was owing to the show's religious "intolerance and bigotry." The 63-year old soul man felt one episode in particular had crossed the line. Entitled "Trapped in the Closet," it poked fun at Scientology and fellow celebrity churchgoers such as John Travolta and Cruise. Apparently it was a slow-burn kind of situation for Hayes. The offending episode aired last November.
"Religious beliefs are sacred to people," he told reporters, "and at all times should be respected and honored. I cannot support a show that disrespects those beliefs and practices."
That was news to "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. "This is 100 percent having to do with his faith of Scientology," Stone responded in a statement to the Associated Press. "He has no problem -- and he's cashed plenty of checks -- with our show making fun of Christians. We've done a lot of religious material on 'South Park' and Isaac never had a problem with it."
It wasn't enough that Hayes would never play his beloved character again; the world's most humorless, paranoid and bizarro cult wasn't going to be satisfied until "Trapped in the Closet" was permanently yanked from the schedule. According to published accounts, Tom Cruise essentially blackmailed Viacom, the company that owns both Comedy Central and Paramount, the studio behind Cruise's upcoming Mission Impossible 3. If Viacom refused to shelve the show, Cruise would refuse to promote the film. And, just like that, the network announced the episode was gone for good.
"So, Scientology, you may have won this battle," Parker and Stone responded in Daily Variety after the network's announcement, "but the million-year war for Earth has just begun!"
The war between Scientology and its critics, of course, is anything but new. The church has a long and documented history of resorting to unseemly tactics in order to shield itself from scrutiny or -- apparently worse -- mockery.
Nearly a decade ago, the German government refused to recognize Scientology as a religion. It accused the organization of being a cult, using Mafia-like tactics to silence its critics and cheating members out of huge amounts of money. Somehow a resolution to press the German government to recognize Scientology wound up before Congress, but it was rejected. The next thing you know, Bill Clinton was all over the effort to get the group the recognition it craved.
Why? Because Super Scientologist John Travolta asked him to. The actor was about to play a character modeled after the president in the motion picture Primary Colors. In the book on which the film is based, the character is shown in a negative light. It seems reasonable to assume that Clinton would have preferred a more positive portrayal. After meetings between the star and the chief executive, what do you know -- that's exactly what happened! Travolta essentially admitted to the quid pro quo in an interview published in George magazine.
Rolling Stone has done a series of investigative pieces on Scientology over the years. Perhaps the most illuminating and unsettling is Janet Reitman's piece in the March 9 issue. The 13,000-word expose dissects the history of the religious organization's inventor L. Ron Hubbard and sheds new light on several aspects of the church, such as its belief in aliens from other galaxies; its network of brainwashing boot camps for children; the astronomical price tag associated with membership; strong-arm techniques used to censor unflattering media coverage, including litigation and intimidation; the harassment and ostracism of members who wish to leave; and the existence of a shadowy, secret police force.
That Cruise wanted the Rolling Stone article killed probably didn't come as a surprise to publisher Jann Wenner. The actor's sister, LeAnne Devette, and a church official showed up at the magazine's offices one day and informed Reitman that critics of Scientology are "wackos." When the piece came out and Cruise reneged on his agreement to appear on the cover of Men's Journal -- a Wenner Media publication -- that probably didn't surprise Wenner, either. Beware the wrath of Tom.
Interestingly, the recent showdown between the church of Scientology and "South Park" is not the first. An earlier skirmish preceded the MTV Movie Awards in 2000. The broadcast was scheduled to include a short South Park film parodying the John Travolta bomb Battlefield Earth -- based on one of Hubbard's sci-fi novels. In it the character Cartman was supposed to use a copy of Hubbard's 1950 book Dianetics to wipe his butt after having an unfortunate accident in his pants. Agents of the church's Office of Special Affairs were tipped off and went into harangue overdrive; they inundated MTV with calls and complaints protesting that the piece was a form of religious bigotry and would cause members of the church great harm. In the end, Cartman wiped his butt with a Scientology personality test instead. All-out war was averted. For the moment.
But things have continued to escalate on the Scientology vs. "South Park" front. After Hayes bailed, it didn't take Parker and Stone, the duo behind Team America, long to come up with a battle plan.
When Comedy Central's highest-rated show kicked off its tenth season on March 22, guess whose voice was conspicuously present? Yup, that of the Chefster himself. Had Hayes converted? No, Stone and Parker simply went into commando mode, raided the vaults for old Chef audio, and wrote a script around his sound bites. It was the program's biggest premiere ever.
The show's fans have joined the fray. A movement calling for a boycott of MI: 3 has been gaining momentum. An online petition to Viacom warning of the boycott and demanding the return of the banned episode collected more than 20,000 signatures in a 24-hour period last week.
So, will tasteless comedy triumph over celebrity-fueled delusion and organized mind control? It would be nice to think that "South Park" will have the last laugh, but it's too soon to say. Even as you read this, Tom Cruise could very well be planning a counterattack. It's entirely conceivable, for example, that he might enlist fellow followers Travolta and Kirstie Alley in a devastating assault on a public he may see as turning on him: a fourth installment of Look Who's Talking! It would be the entertainment industry equivalent of the nuclear option. Pray he doesn't go there.
On second thought, maybe you shouldn't pray. So much of the world's sorrow seems to stem from religious zealotry -- from the endless violence in Iraq, to the riots over Danish cartoons of Mohammed, to the case of the Afghan man threatened with the death penalty for converting to Christianity.
Maybe John Lennon was right. Maybe the world would be a better place without organized religion. It might be better if relationships with God were more personal and less tribal. A world in which nutballs such as Cruise and Travolta no longer wield power over presidents and global media is one I'm more than happy to imagine.