On a cool, clear evening in mid-September, the Church of Scientology held a grand opening for its new national affairs office in Washington, D.C. Located in a handsome, 122-year-old mansion in Dupont Circle—a genteel neighborhood populated with embassies and well-appointed homes—the office had been established to lobby on various Scientology pet causes, such as religious freedom, prisoner rehabilitation, and the evils of psychiatric drugs. Three members of Congress showed up to deliver words of welcome, as did a FEMA official, who praised the Church's volunteer efforts after national disasters like September 11. Finally, Scientology's leader, David Miscavige, addressed the several hundred people in the crowd. Miscavige is 52 but looks at least a decade younger. Dressed in an expertly tailored suit, his slicked hair parted to one side, he spoke excitedly of Scientology's goal to have a presence in every city in America.
The message of the event couldn't have been clearer: The Church of Scientology was directing the full force of its persuasive powers at the Washington establishment. But who the Church courts and who the Church converts is a very different matter. And when Mike Rinder, Scientology's former chief spokesman, visited the Washington church last year, he noticed something strange. "Half the damn people there were Nation of Islam," he told me. "[It's] the weirdest, weirdest thing."
For a long time, the Church of Scientology has had the reputation of an impenetrable, invincible cult. Recently, though, it's been a little touch and go. Tom Cruise, once the Church's star asset, became its biggest liability following a cascade of truly bizarre behavior: the couch jumping on "Oprah," the in-home sonogram machine, the leaked motivational video scored to the Mission: Impossible theme during which he talks of Scientologists' obligation to "create the new reality." High-profile exposés, such as Janet Reitman's Inside Scientology, have revealed a highly paranoid, authoritarian organization in which families are broken apart and disobedient members are held at a remote Scientology outpost in Hemet, California. Scientology has denied these allegations, but as defectors and hackers have flooded the Internet with secret documents and videos, it has become increasingly difficult for the Church to control its message.
All of this has taken a toll. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, Scientology is shrinking; between 2001 and 2008 it estimates that the number of Scientologists in the United States fell from 55,000 to as low as 25,000. (A spokesperson for the Church dismissed this survey, claiming steady growth and millions of members worldwide.) Scientology has created the appearance of growth by opening expensive new facilities, but, "on the inside, it's dead," says Tom Felts, a former Washington staffer. And as the Church loses members, it has been grateful for new recruits wherever it can find them.
Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam for more than three decades, has said that he first heard about Scientology 35 years ago from a former Nation minister who became a Scientologist. But the story of how Farrakhan came to embrace it concerns a Nation minister in Los Angeles named Tony Muhammad. In 2005, Muhammad was beaten by the LAPD at a prayer vigil he'd helped organize for a young man killed in a drive-by shooting. The incident plunged him into an agitated, depressed state. A concerned friend introduced him to Scientology, which he credits with saving his life. When Farrakhan later met with Muhammad, he was amazed by the transformation and, as Muhammad tells it in an audio clip posted on YouTube, exclaimed: "Whatever you're on—I want some of it."
The first large-scale introduction of Scientology to Nation members took place in August 2010, when hundreds of believers from around the country traveled to Rosemont, Illinois, near the Nation's headquarters, for a seminar in Dianetics, a foundational belief system of Scientology. There, they were guided through auditing sessions—a kind of hybrid between hypnosis and confession—in which a Scientologist purges painful experiences from his subconscious in the presence of an "auditor." At the end of the seminar, Farrakhan told the group he wanted everyone in attendance to become a certified auditor.
Jesse Muhammad, a 34-year-old writer and community organizer who joined the Nation of Islam as a teenager at the urging of an older brother, had driven overnight from Houston for the event. He took this goal seriously. "Those who follow Farrakhan, we trust his guidance, so we jump to it," he told me. After three weeks of intensive training with Scientologists in Houston, he became certified. The Nation refused to comment for this story, but according to its newspaper, Final Call, as of this spring, more than 1,000 members have become certified auditors and another 4,000 were studying "some aspect of Scientology."
Ishmael Bey, a former assistant Nation minister, told me that years ago he'd heard from a top official that headquarters was flirting with "a white church in L.A." Initially, Farrakhan never mentioned Scientology in public. Instead, he cryptically alluded to the "study" of "a technology" that would help his people. His caution made sense: after all, the Nation was explicitly conceived as a black separatist organization and a repudiation of Christianity, which Nation leader and prophet Elijah Muhammad derided as "the slave master's religion." Farrakhan himself has called white people "a race of devils" and the Nation teaches that the apocalypse will involve a UFO, or "mother plane," that will eradicate all Caucasians.
However, there are some striking theological overlaps that might help explain how Farrakhan came to adopt a religion invented by a white man. There is, of course, the attachment to science fiction: Scientologists believe in an alien dictator, Xenu; the Nation holds that the white race was created by a mad scientist named Yakub. More significantly, though, at the core of both religions is a never-ending pursuit of a better self. In the case of Scientology, that best self is "clear" of residual traumas buried in the subconscious. In the Nation, that self is free of the hang-ups of white culture that black people have internalized to their detriment. Scientology, Farrakhan seems to believe, provides a new path toward black empowerment. "I've found something in the teaching of Dianetics, of Mr. L. Ron Hubbard, that I saw could bring up from the depth of our subconscious mind things that we would prefer to lie dormant," he said to his Chicago congregation in early summer. "How could I see something that valuable and know the hurt and sickness of my people and not offer it to them?"
Farrakhan's interest in Scientology was especially fortuitous, since David Miscavige has long fixated on bringing black members into the Church for years. Scientology has recently opened new orgs, or churches, in two heavily black communities—Harlem and Inglewood, California. "[Miscavige's] whole thing was the ghetto is hip. ... In order to make us hip, we are going to infiltrate that sector," says Marty Rathbun, a former high-ranking official who defected from the Church in 2004.
In a video of a speech Miscavige gave at a black-tie Scientology event, he touted the opening of the Inglewood org. Dressed in a shiny tuxedo and standing in front of an iridescent blue screen, Miscavige extolled "a most influential culture. ... I'm speaking of those who truly set cultural trends, and across every avenue: fashion, music, you name it. So talk about a pervasive culture, talk about a permeating and penetrating culture, or to put it another way: Most white folks wouldn't have a clue of what it means to be cool if it weren't for black America."
Still, ascending the ranks of Scientology requires hours of auditing and courses that can reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Since its founding, the Nation has sought out young, lower-income black men. It doesn't seem like a natural fit, to say the least. But what these new recruits really represent is bodies. "Many of their orgs have come alive since the believers have visited," Farrakhan said in an audio-taped speech posted by the hacker-activist group Anonymous in the fall of 2010. Sylvia Stanard, the deputy director of Scientology's new national affairs office, told me that she first started noticing Nation members coming to the Washington church about a year and a half ago—not long after that first Dianetics seminar in Rosemont. And former Scientology staffers say the Church has waived costs for Nation believers. Felts, for instance, told me auditors were instructed not to give Nation members "the normal hard sell." "It was a goodwill kind of thing," he explained, "that had never been done before." (The Church denies giving special treatment to Nation members.)
Jesse Muhammad says he didn't pay more than $50 for the certification course he took after the first Rosemont seminar and that the Church offered the option of a payment plan. Soon, though, he started getting daily e-mails checking in on his progress or recommending new books and was informed that the initial course didn't actually confer permanent certification. Unless he gets a "gold seal" within a certain amount of time, he'll have to start all over again. "Scientology is a pay-as-you-go religion," says Bey, the former Nation minister. "It has never cared about African Americans. ... These are poor people and they are being exploited."
Farrakhan hasn't been deterred by such criticisms. In another video posted recently by Anonymous, dated fall 2010, Farrakhan addressed a small dinner crowd in a building identified as Scientology's Celebrity Centre. The 79-year-old minister talked of his plans to build a training center in Chicago just like the one in Clearwater. "Nobody can lead in our Nation until and unless they become clear," he said, referring to Scientology's most enlightened state. The alliance with the Nation, he hoped, would be a "long and beautiful relationship."
Eliza Gray is a staff writer at The New Republic. This article appeared in the October 25, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline "Thetans and Bowties."
Additional reporting by Hanna Trudo.