Building Scientopolis

How Scientology remade Clearwater, Florida—and what local Christians learned in the process.

By Jody Veenker with additional reporting by Steve Rabey

August 8, 2000

By all appearances, Clearwater lives up to its name. Located just outside of Tampa Bay, the city boasts palm trees, white beaches, sun, surf, and six cruise tour companies with "dolphin sightings guaranteed." Liberally supplied with spacious hotels within driving distance of the Busch Gardens amusement park and the Salvador Dali museum, Clearwater is a tidy burg with street names like Gulf to Bay Boulevard and Sunset Point Road.

Clearwater is also home to the most prestigious international instructional center for the Church of Scientology, one of the most controversial and aggressive new religions worldwide. In the past 25 years, the growth of Scientology in Clearwater has transformed the city's downtown corridor, reshaped its religious climate, and caused Christian churches to rethink their response to religions that proclaim an unbiblical message.

In 1975 Scientology owned two of the major buildings in downtown Clearwater. Now the Church of Scientology boasts 30, including a newly constructed center that will expand its ability to train new members by 400 percent. Scientology's influence is felt in city planning, community events, and service projects; many Clearwater Christians are stunned by how Scientology is redefining their community. To reach out with cultural sensitivity, the Church of Scientology employs many methods Christians have used over the centuries: showing compassion for the vulnerable and striving to be a model corporate citizen. But individuals and organizations tell stories of having been harassed, threatened, or sued.

Some Christians in Clearwater call Scientology a pushy, money-driven cult that preys on the vulnerable. Others avoid confrontation, striving to tolerate or even welcome Scientology as a member of the religious community.

Bill Anderson, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church of Clearwater for the past 25 years, says it has been difficult to treat Scientologists with love while countering their teachings with biblical truth. "This has really sharpened my focus about the exclusivity of the gospel," Anderson told Christianity Today. "Part of my challenge as a pastor has been trying to help my people live not only as good people but to live as good witnesses. Too often, I'm afraid, Christians are afraid to stand on the fact that only Jesus can save you."

After years of aloofness, several prominent Clearwater churches are recommitting themselves to work side by side in neighborhood evangelism to reach the entire community, including the Church of Scientology. As Scientology expands internationally, Clearwater's Christians hope that what they have learned from dealing with Scientology will help other Christians worldwide.

False religion?

J. Gordon Melton, a leading scholar of contemporary religious movements, says Scientology differs from many alternative religions because Scientologists aim to utterly remake the world instead of taking refuge from it.

"Unlike the Mormons [in the late 19th century] who only wanted to be left alone, Scientologists want to participate in culture," Melton says. "They have inherited a perspective from the 1960s social activists."

Scientologists have made persistent and persuasive efforts to win the favor of key officials and municipal leaders in Clearwater. When downtown Clearwater was in decline in the 1970s, the Church of Scientology bought real estate, investing millions of dollars in its properties.

Scientology members clean vacant lots, plant sea oats to stop beach erosion, and hang holiday decorations in December. They led volunteer citizen councils to prepare the city for Y2K and created their own Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. Scientologists hold annual parties for local orphans, support anti-drug education in community schools, and sponsor Winter Wonderland, a children's carnival, every Christmas season.

The Church of Scientology also opens some of its facilities, including the historic Fort Harrison Hotel's ballroom, to Clearwater residents and organizations.

"One of the concepts of Scientology is that you can't just survive and achieve happiness and spiritual understanding for yourself," Mike Rinder, director of the Church of Scientology International, told CT in an lengthy interview in Clearwater. "You also have a responsibility for the groups that you're a part of, the community you live in, the people you deal with, your neighbors, and a general responsibility for all mankind."

Rinder's statement hints at what Scientology holds out to spiritual seekers. Scientology:

• Aims to unleash the godlike potential of each person's immortal soul.

• Values both science and spirituality. Religion schol ar Frank K. Flinn has called Scientology technological Buddhism.

• Supports environmental causes and healthy living.

• Entrusts women, minorities, and young people with key leadership roles.

• Promises that members will accumulate power and position as they advance in training.

• Retains a hip aura. Film stars John Travolta and Tom Cruise are in the small but influential group of celebrities who publicly embrace Scientology.

In Scientology's early years, religion scholars considered it either a cult or a false religion. Contemporary scholars, who are less likely to use judgmental terms, call it a "new religious movement."

Beneath the pop appeal and carefully constructed image lies a central conviction of Scientology: individuals are to be loyal to Scientology first and foremost. Scientologists determine what is ethical based on whether the action in question contributes to Scientology's survival.

Scientologist author Regis Dericquebourg describes this ethical yardstick in Scientology, a reference work distributed by the Church of Scientology International: "The morality of an individual is judged with regard to the actions he accomplishes for survival. In such a perspective, goodness is what is constructive, badness what is against survival.

"Scientology ethics are not a set of recommendations. They are the result of an understanding and interiorization of the meaning of life, which acts as a personal compass. It would be an open moral system."

The cost of withdrawal

When Scientology arrived in Clearwater, it tried to participate in the community. But several congregations, determined to avoid Scientologists, stopped interacting with anyone outside of their immediate church community.

At the Upper Pinellas County Ministerial Alliance, Bill Anderson and many other pastors grew weary of bickering about whether Scientologists could join the council. Anderson says he left the association because the repeated Scientology debates prevented members from accomplishing the alliance's goals. Many Christian congregations followed this same pattern; they retreated to their safe sanctuaries and grew extremely wary of ecumenical activities.

"As a pastor, I'm regularly asked to accept them as local clergy," says Rick Foster of Clearwater Community Church. "I get lots of invitations to Scientology's charitable outreach events. I don't attend because I don't want to legitimize them as spiritual leaders in the community."

"There is a healthy sense of wanting to maintain a distance from them, because if you tick them off, then they are going to come after you full blast," Foster adds. "Once you arouse them, they have no love or charity on their part—which is kind of a good thing, because Jesus said his followers would be known for their love….. You tell people to watch their methods, and people pick up on their aggression pretty readily."

Outchurching the church

Scientologists say they were welcomed by some religious leaders, including Otis and Barbara Green of Everybody's Tabernacle, the rabbinic leaders of Congregation of Beth Shalom, and the United Church of Christ's hospice director, Doyce Wise. Largely unwelcome in most of Clearwater's religious circles, Scientologists created their own interfaith council and launched ministry projects for the community. Scientologists also actively engaged in community service, outchurching Clearwater's Christians.

But some residents question their desire to serve. "Their true agenda is control," Anderson says. "They don't really want to be known. They want to get along like a tiger wants to get along with a rabbit.

"A lot of their community projects are modeled after what Christians have been doing here all along," Anderson says, listing Calvary Baptist's prison ministry, children's programs, and special events.

Ben Puckett, dean of enrollment at Clearwater Christian College, agrees but adds that some Scientology outreach in Clearwater is not openly affiliated with the church.

"They have a great deal of good-will programs that are so general and euphemistic that unless you ask, you wouldn't know they are Scientology-run," Puckett says, citing Narcanon, Crimanon, and the True School, a Scientology elementary school, as examples. "Some things they are very public about and others they keep quiet for fear of community disapproval."

The importance of appearing earnest

The Church of Scientology presents an empathic, caring persona to outsiders. But some Christian leaders see that as a mirage. "The church is very intentional about its pr and its image in the community," says Ron Benefiel, a former Nazarene pastor who dealt with Scientologists in Los Angeles for two decades.

Scientologists burnish their public image, associating the movement with tradition, structure, and credibility. Not only did they purchase a historic hotel for their headquarters, but the design for the new training building and auditorium echoes the hotel's mission-style architecture. The distinctive uniforms worn by Scientology staff project an image of trustworthy authority.

Many Scientology ceremonies and symbols seem patterned after familiar Christian traditions. A key symbol, displayed on the covers of pamphlets, books, and even the roofs of many church buildings, is an eight-point cross that represents Scientology's eight dynamics: self, family, groups, species, life forms, physical universe, spirits, and infinity.

The church is also experimenting with weekly Sunday services to introduce newcomers to Scientology. Sermons, group exercises, and instructions about seating arrangements all appear in The Background Ministry, Ceremonies, and Sermons of the Scientology Religion. The book gives directions for five different types of Scientology weddings, two funeral ceremonies, and even a christening service that opens with the minister placing a drop of water on the baby's forehead.

Scientologists do not believe in a personal God but rather in an Infinity ("the All-ness of All"). Their formal prayer for total freedom, recited at meetings, includes the words "Freedom to be. Freedom to do and freedom to have. Freedom to use and understand man's potential—a potential that is God-given and godlike." The prayer ends with "May God let it be so." Scientology official Mike Rinder says that prayer expresses Scientology's vision for a new world; it is not a petition to a personal God.

"In Scientology the concept of God is really infinity, not a person that we pray to in the traditional sense," Rinder says. He adds that the cross and the Sunday meetings are not imitations of Christian practice.

Scientology has its own symbols, style, and practices, he says; for example, each individual attends Scientology courses and undergoes "auditing"—one of Scientology's most distinctive practices. During auditing, individuals are electrically monitored with a polygraph-like device as they recall crucial moments in their lives, hoping to free themselves from harmful feelings and reactions.

Scientologists believe their church has been maligned and stigmatized. Although their church has fought and won the legal battle for legitimacy in the United States, Scientologists say they still are subjected to prejudice and bias in other nations around the world.

But others say the Church of Scientology has only itself to blame. Calvary Baptist's Anderson told CT that Scientology's lack of candor is longstanding. Anderson says an organization known as United Churches of Florida approached him in the 1970s and offered free radio time. After Anderson started asking questions, the individuals acknowledged they worked for the Church of Scientology.

"My problem with them from the beginning has been that they did not tell the truth about themselves," Anderson says. "They came into Clearwater under the shade of night, and they have systematically attempted to take over this town."

Scientologists told CT they never tried to deceive Clearwater. "It is common practice for any large and influential organization about to establish itself in a new area to remain discreet until details of the move are final," says Scientology official Janet Weiland of Los Angeles. She compared Scientology's purchases in Clearwater to Disney's acquisition of Florida land for its theme parks.

As for United Churches of Florida, Weiland says it was a group launched by Scientology to unite members of all faiths in solving social problems. Scientology disbanded the group was disbanded because it was "misunderstood and distorted by ill-minded religious isolationists."

Civic tensions

As the Church of Scientology expanded its Clearwater instructional arm, the Flag Service Organization, mistrust intensified between local residents and Scientologists. The church's attempts to discredit local opponents heightened tensions. According to evidence uncovered by the fbi and reported in The Washington Post, Mayor Gabe Cazares was subjected to a 1978 smear campaign and was implicated in a hit-and-run auto accident allegedly staged by Scientologists. Cazares today considers the church an "international paramilitary terrorist organization."

Relations between the city and Scientology remained fractious during the 1990s. When Brian Aungst was elected last year, he was the first Clearwater mayor in a dozen years to welcome dialogue with Scientology officials. His opponent, former mayor Rita Garvey, says she made it a habit never to speak with church authorities.

Suspicions about the Church of Scientology's true intentions for Clearwater have been around at least since 1977. That year fbi agents raided Scientology offices in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., uncovering plans to take over parts of the federal government as well as controlling Clearwater.

Scientology officials claimed the plans were those of a rogue group within the church infrastructure that included Mary Sue Hubbard, the widow of founder L. Ron Hubbard.

The Scientology Guardian's Office group illegally wiretapped several federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), a perennial Scientology foe.

Eleven church members were convicted in 1979 of stealing government documents to cover up church activities.

As Scientology fought to be recognized as a church, reports surfaced about practices involving extrasensory perception and beliefs about alien life.

At that time, the IRS said Scientology was not a religion because members paid fees to attend courses and auditing sessions. The IRS refused to grant the Church of Scientology tax-exempt status until 1993. By then, after almost 40 years of lawsuits, the organization reportedly was spending $1.5 million per month in legal fees.

Legal wrangling

Scientology has earned a reputation for pursuing legal action against its critics. "We do everything within our power to keep cases from going to court," Rinder told CT, with the caveat that if negotiations fail, then Scientology will do what it takes to ensure victory. "We don't seek out fights, but if forced into one, we'll give it everything we've got."

But in some of Scientology's most prominent court battles, the out-of-court negotiations have raised questions about Scientology's methods.

For example, after years of Scientology's legal wrangling with the IRS, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in 1989 (Hernandez v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue) that the payments Scientology collected for training and auditing sessions were not tax deductible and could not be classified as charitable contributions. Undeterred, Scientologists responded with more than 2,000 individual lawsuits against the IRS.

Critics believed the church was employing a tactic founder Hubbard outlined in a 1955 magazine article:

The law can be used very easily to harass and discourage, rather than to win…. and enough harassment on somebody who is simply on the thin edge anyway … will generally be sufficient to cause his professional decease. If possible, of course, ruin him utterly.

David Miscavige, chairman of the board of Scientology's Religious Technology Center, decided to meet with IRS officials in 1991. He visited the Washington offices of then-IRS Commissioner Fred Goldberg and negotiated a two-year review process that ended with an out-of-court settlement.

Under the settlement, Scientology would receive tax-exempt status if it paid $12 million in back taxes (compared to $33 million for legal expenses in 1988, according to the St. Petersburg Times).

The suits by individual Scientologists were withdrawn.

Critics also raise concerns about the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson in 1995. McPherson died in the care of Clearwater Scientologists 17 days after a car accident left her exhibiting signs of mental illness.

Medical examiner Joan Wood changed her assessment of what caused McPherson's death from "undetermined" to "accident" in February 2000.

Scientology officials had urged the examiner to review her findings for four years. Scientology officials and lawyers compiled mounds of information for Wood's review, including investigative studies on ketone (an organic compound) and an elaborate reconstruction of the accident.

Rinder told the St. Petersburg Times that although the money spent on the case was "enormous," the church believed it was necessary to supply Wood with "the correct information."

Local prosecutors later dropped criminal charges against the church. Although the state has more or less closed the McPherson case, the woman's estate is proceeding with a wrongful death suit against the church.

Brave new city

In spite of strained relations, Scientology appears destined to become Clearwater's most conspicuous corporate citizen. The past 25 years stand as a social experiment in which a new religion is remaking an existing city in its own image.

With great tenacity, the Church of Scientology has become heavily involved in a community that simmered with hostility at its approach. Instead of shunning Scientology, some city officials now see it as a fixture in Clearwater and able to contribute to the city's growth and prosperity.

As legal cases have been resolved, a new era of cooperation between city leaders and the church seems to be unfolding, says William B. Horne II, Clearwater's assistant city manager.

"Our new vision for the city is 'One city, One future,' " Horne says. "It reflects our confidence that all members of the community have a stake in making this the best city to live and vacation in."

Horne's immediate predecessor, Bob Keller, called the Church of Scientology an economic asset because it draws people with expendable income to the area. Scientology has helped the city council embrace this view by sponsoring market analyses about which stores and attractions would best cater to Scientologists' needs.

"We're trying to treat all of our citizens with respect," says Frank Klim, communications director for the City of Clearwater. "We're a democracy, we care about public safety, and we aren't targeting any special efforts."

Beneath the construction cranes, Scientology's shuttle buses and uniformed students move between buildings. Most of downtown Clearwater's main thoroughfares are marked with reminders of the religious activity that takes place in the surrounding buildings.

"It's generally believed that fewer people visit the downtown area because of the hundreds of uniformed Scientologists walking the streets," says Marshall Van Dine, minister of First United Methodist Church of Clearwater. "But most people have accepted their presence in the community."

"A lot of what they have done downtown has been seen as positive and community-building," Pastor C. Philip Whitener of Grace Lutheran Church told CT.

But, he wonders, "How much control will they exert?"

Intimidated no more

Even as city officials become less anxious about the presence of Scientology, some Clearwater church leaders are growing more open in opposing Scientology.

But most Clearwater Christians have little direct contact with Scientologists. Some say their church is too far from the city center; others admit they avoid Scientologists for fear of unpleasant confrontations or reprisals.

Many of the largest churches around Clearwater, surveyed by Christianity Today, are committed to getting their members involved. These congregations are pooling their resources to assess how they can best present the gospel to all of Clearwater.

Nick Champlin, pastor of Faith Christian Church, says that instead of attacking Scientology, he would like to focus on exalting Christ.

"We would like to see our church explode right here in the center of Scientology city," Champlin says. "I don't want to protest against Scientologists. I'd much rather lift up the Lord and see the light of the church prosper and shine, proving where sin abounds, much more does grace abound."

These mobilized churches are calling on resources outside of Clearwater to better understand Scientology. Craig Branch of the Apologetics Resource Institute and former Scientologist Brian Haney visited Clearwater in April to encourage and educate church members.

Branch says he senses a new urgency in local pastors to stand up in a spirit of Christian love against Scientology.

"We're concerned about the balance between educating people on Scientology's false claims and yet still urging them to act with love and compassion toward Scientologists," he says. "These churches are committed to forming a prayer front and developing a heart for people who are really suffering spiritually."

Plans are also forming to host an interdenominational educational meeting this fall to help Christians know what resources and truths they can offer Scientologists. Some of the Christians who have been most outspoken about Scientology believe it will take great effort to change the spiritual climate of Clearwater.

"Many churches are afraid. But we aren't intimidated, because we have the truth," Anderson says.

"The point is that we need to witness to individuals as individuals. We believe firmly that you should be a presence for Christ wherever you are planted."

Jody Veenker is an associate editor with Steve Rabey is a writer in Colorado.