Americans have a suspicion, justified or not, of unfamiliar faiths. We like our spirituality comfy and upbeat, suitable for summarizing on a Hallmark card. Newfangled religions, outre theology, secret rituals — these are threatening and titillating in equal measure; the more a religion’s leaders block or deflect reporters’ probes, the more the public wants to know (and the more sinister the faith can seem).
Mormonism has suffered most recently and obviously from this bias. Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election because he was the lesser candidate; still, it couldn’t have helped that every time he stood before a crowd in his banker’s suit, the television audience was yearning for X-ray glasses, the better with which to see his sacred undergarments.
Scientology has been a target, too, of much derision. Its founder was the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who once told an employee that his adherents wanted him to appear in the sky over New York but that he declined, not wishing to overwhelm them. Its theology is built on the nuttiest of founding myths, involving incidents that Hubbard said occurred 75 million years ago in something called the Galactic Confederacy, in which an evil overlord named Xenu sent human souls (thetans, in Scientology jargon) to Earth in space planes resembling DC-8s.