When Your Religion is Considered Dangerous

Germany’s approach to minority religions makes me very uncomfortable. Word that Tom Cruise would star as Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg in Valkyrie caused a small scandal in Germany some time ago because of Cruise’s adherence to the religion of Scientology. The German government has taken particularly harsh steps against this minority religious group and initially made noise about not allowing filming at certain sites if Cruise depicted von Stauffenberg in the film.

Now, Valkyrie is in the theaters and it looks like it might be popular in Germany. The Timesonline reports that this is causing concern in Germany because the German government fears that it could somehow legitimate Scientology: “‘These Scientologists have two goals in Germany,’ said an official close to the BfV. ‘To get their message to children, and make their organisation respectable. The film does both: it has put a top Scientologist at the centre of a national debate about German history. That’s dangerous.'” This language is typical of government rhetoric about Scientology that has become commonplace in Germany’s prolonged campaign against this minority religion. The argument is that Scientology is an “antidemocratic organisation” that pursues “totalitarian goals”.

The Timesonline quotes the organ of the German government charged with monitoring terrorism and extremist groups, which also keeps an eye on Scientology, for an explanation: “‘Scientology shapes the political opinions of its members in a way that makes them hostile to the principles of the Constitution.'”

I have followed Germany’s campaign against the Scientologists for more than a decade with great puzzlement. Every development seems to bode ill not only for the those who have chosen to become Scientologists but also for adherents of other minority religions in Germany. Many Latter-day Saints in Germany are painfully aware that the government regularly scrutinizes their religion under the rubric of “so-called sects(“cults”) and psychogroups”. We are effectively lumped in with the Scientologists as a disfavored religious minority. It is chilling to consider what the German government would be doing to Mormons in Germany if Scientology and Jehova’s Witnesses weren’t currently preoccupying the government agencies charged with watching “new religious movements”.

In a free and democratic society, freedom of religion should be safeguarded. Germany’s actions with regard to new religious movements and particularly their relationship with the state and, more importantly, with the state churches, seem to violate the protections of conscience and religion guaranteed by both the German Basic Law (Constitution) (Article 4) and the European Charter of Fundamental Rights (<a href=”Article 10).

Naturally, many people will not agree with the tenets of the Scientology religion. But most religions, including the state churches in Germany, could be described as “antidemocratic organizations” pursuing “totalitarian goals”. The German government goes to great lengths to substantiate why Scientology fits both of these descriptions but representatives of the state churches sit, in their official capacities, on the committees and boards that make such determinations. I am skeptical that similar time is devoted to consideration of the ways in which the Catholic Church or the official Protestant Church in Germany are in their own ways antidemocratic organizations. In what way, for example, is the belief held by each of those two organizations in the millennial day when Christ returns and reigns personally on the earth less of a pursuit of a totalitarian goal than other beliefs peculiar to Scientology? In terms of danger to society, Scientology has never provoked a war that killed an estimated 25% of Germany’s population — but the religion(s) that arose from the Protestant Reformation did in the Thirty Year’s War.


  1. Scientology definitely gets a much worse rap in Germany than JWs or Mormons. That’s not saying that JWs, Mormons, 7th Day Adventists, Neu Apostolic, Muslims, etc. are accepted universally–they’re not. But Germans really hate and fear Scientology.
    I met an ex-Scientologist LDS pseudo-investigator in Germany; he blamed Scientology for screwing him up royally. One of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met, but also one of the most screwed-up people I’ve ever met.
    I doubt he’s a good example for what Scientology does to people in Germany…but if he is, I understand why the Germans feel the way they do.

  2. Last Lemming says:

    First, I totally agree with your point.

    30 years ago, when I served my mission, the Protestants at least made a clear distinction between seven “responsible Sekten” (us, JWs, SDA, Christian Science, Salvation Army, Worldwide Church of God, and I forget the 7th) and and five “irresponsible” ones (Scientology, Children of God, Hari Krishnas, Divine Light Mission, and Unification Church) that were taken more seriously. Do they no longer make that distinction?

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Just wanted to give a plug for Valkyrie. I enjoyed it very much.

  4. John,
    I love that this is your niche. I hope you can give a talk at EMSA Turin.

    Question: should any religious groups be watched?

  5. well, Germans hate and fear Scientology only because its doing quite well in Germany. But I actually appreciate the governments suspicion of religion here. I do think most of my german friends agree with your point here though.

    More importantly, I saw Valkyrie last night…just a few blocks away from where much of it was filmed. It was…meh. I think it would have been much better if the film was German, though I think its good to popularize the story of von Stauffenberg. Downfall was a much better film but I guess its probably not fair to compare the two. I didn’t think Tom Cruise was good in it at all, and the crazy mix of accents was really off putting.

  6. I think many democratic countries (including such places as Canada, even) have a significantly different understanding of freedom of religion than we do. I find such approaches dangerous, for the reasons you discuss here. It is a very short trip on the slippery slope from hating Scientology to hating Mormons. We should be aware of that and support freedom of religion, ie “we claim the privilege of worshiping almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where or what they may.” (Thanks to kids in Primary, I can almost write that by heart).

  7. Peter LLC says:

    I think it would have been much better if the film was German

    There’s nothing magic about being German. There’s already a made for TV German film titled “Stauffenberg” that isn’t much to write home about, though it does include references to Stauffenberg’s anti-Semitic side.

  8. Agreed with Geoff B. It doese not take to much to go down the slippery slope and start to persecute Mormons.

    Thank goodness for the 1st Amendment. AS the D&C states I believe that the Constitution was inspired.

    I find it humerous that the German state takes Scientology so seriously and has not added radical Islam to its list of Sects.

  9. There’s nothing magic about being German. There’s already a made for TV German film titled “Stauffenberg” that isn’t much to write home about, though it does include references to Stauffenberg’s anti-Semitic side.

    Well, I defintely don’t think it would be better being german because its magic. That being said, clearly their version was a little more honest.

    What I was thinking was that I would appreciate the characters much more if they were speaking in German and most of the films lately from German studios (not made for TV but large budget stuff) dealing with the subject of WWII have been quite excellent, like Downfall, which I mentioned. Really, if they could have at least been consistent with the accents instead of being a strange mix of British, American and German, it would have been much better but it still wouldn’t have saved the films utter lack of character development.

    I am anxiously awaiting Inglorious Bastards however, to see how a different American filmmaker and actor approach the subject.

    But really, while we are on the subject of German cinema (so much of which deals with their sticky history) and the magic thereof, you should all do your best to see Der Baader-Meinhof Complex which is nominated for an Acadamy award and is excellent.

  10. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    This article raises some good points and points to some threats to freedom of religion in Germany, but I would wish that it didn’t resort to sensationalism at the end: it’s not fair to compare Germany today to all the different states that existed at the time of the Thirty Years War — nearly 400 years ago in the Holy Roman Empire. That would be the equivalent of blaming Israel today for it’s conquest of Jerusalem from the Canaanites. There is no one in Germany today with a living memory of the religious wars of the 17th century and the Catholic Church and State Churches of Germany bear only a superficial resemblance to their early modern-era counterparts.

    That said, while I always used to cheer when I heard of Germany’s strong stance against Scientology, I’m very disappointed to hear how they are accomplishing their goals and that the LDS church is included in their list of “suspicious sects.”

    –Mr. Proud DOE

  11. Mr. PDOE,

    You can’t cheer for a strong stance against Christian Scientists and then act shocked when they come after us too.

    Religious liberty is always paid for by people you wouldn’t want over for dinner.

  12. Jonathan Green says:

    John, I don’t think you have enough direct experience with Germany’s treatment of minority religions to offer an informed comment, and your sources for this post are pretty poor. The British press rarely does a good job of reporting on German issues, and the article you link to manages to cite all of one, anonymous source about official opinion.

    When you write, “Many Latter-day Saints in Germany are painfully aware that the government regularly scrutinizes their religion under the rubric of ‘so-called sects(‘cults’) and psychogroups'”, I think you are factually incorrect. German members may perceive cultural apartness or scrutiny from their neighbors, and I have heard of isolated cases of uncooperative local officials, but none of the German Mormons I know have mentioned feeling like they are under official, governmental scrutiny. You link to a government report that is over a decade old, and does not (as far as a PDF search allows) mention Mormons in a 448-page document. Before I could teach a university seminar in Bavaria, I had to sign a statement saying that I did not associate with a long list of religious sects, primarily radical Islamic movements but also Scientology and other organizations. Our church was not listed on them. We are not, as you state, “lumped in with the Scientologists as a disfavored religious minority.”

    Finally, you are eliding the difference between official disapproval of religious beliefs (which would be inappropriate), and official concerns over a group’s actions. Some new religious movements really do do things that warrant governmental attention, regardless of their beliefs.

  13. Jonathan, the Mormons are in the PDF report. But it is refreshing to see you go to bat for the German government!

  14. And in one post, I now understand why anti-Mormons and anti-theists in general are so vehement against the churches they protest.

    There is extreme danger in the scientologist religion. If it can seize the auspices of freedom to do whatever it wants unmonitored by convincing people that it is somehow a legitimate religion when its purposes and very provenance are questionable at best and sinister at worst, then I have no support for the idea of religious freedom at all anymore.

    This is not to say that we should abolish religion, because there’s extreme danger, as it is, in a lot of things. But yes, we should be monitoring. We should not be granting special privileges for just any group.

    I am now extremely disturbed.

  15. (See e.g. page 22 in the English report.)

    You are probably right that I don’t have the proper experience though — maybe there’s no big deal about Mormons in Germany. I’ve apparently just gotten different impressions than you from some of the experiences I have had.

    Mr. PDOE, good call on the hyperbole re the early violence of the Protestant sects. It was probably uncalled for but it was motivated by the fact that representatives of the state churches often sit in the committees that deliberate about which religions are harmful sectarian organizations (not just in Germany but in many European countries). Thus, if an official in the Protestant state church is contributing to that discussion, it is self-serving because it is doubtful that any criteria would be included in the discussion that could conceivably catch that church in the net of so-called sects.

    I do believe that the United States provides more robust protection of religious liberty than many European countries. I am grateful that members of the Church are free to worship as they see fit in Germany and that at this time the German government is not creating the same difficulties for the church as it is for Scientology. (Although, even if as Jonathan Green mentions, I don’t have appropriate experience in Germany to opine on this, it has been my observation that membership in the Church in Germany comes at a very high social cost that is very real and much higher than the social cost of being a member of the Church anywhere in the United States.) The point is that what is currently being done to Scientology might be done to Mormons next — it just depends on whether the government at any given moment decides that Mormon beliefs are dangerous to children etc.

    I think Jonathan sets a good example in implying that the German government can be trusted to never do something like that to Mormons and I recommend all readers to follow that view rather than the cynical view supported by my post. (But signing a statement that you’re not affiliated with certain religions to be able to have a job? Wow, that goes pretty far. Jonathan, what do you make of Gellenick’s argument re zweite Habilitation?)

  16. Seth R. (11),

    Maybe that was a typo on your part, but just in case — Christian Science is not the same as Scientology.

  17. Jonathan Green says:

    John, thank you for the page number. Now I see that some time before 1998, a German government commission invited representatives of the church along with representatives of several other small religious groups to some meetings. Is there somewhere in the PDF that explains why this should be alarming? I’m not seeing it.

    I don’t dispute the high social costs of church membership, but you’re slipping pretty freely from social costs to official surveillance or oppression, which just isn’t there in the way you’re implying.

    I also don’t see a path along a slippery slope that puts us in the crosshairs. What Mormon belief is going to face official censure, even hypothetically, that won’t also affect the country’s 30-odd-million Catholics? More than that, I don’t think that wacky beliefs are what attracts official concern.

    Who’s Gellenick?

  18. Peter LLC says:



  19. Jonathan, once again, your confidence in the justness of the German government’s campaign against new religious movements is refreshing since I have looked at it negatively for so many years now.

    I take it, therefore, that you more or less agree with Prof. Frhr. von Campenhausen’s approach as articulated in his book Staatskirchenrecht and his Grundgesetzkommentar, as well as in the pages of Kirche und Recht, among other sources.

    I am interested in your dismissive view of the import of the existence and goals of the Enquete-Kommission. Do you view its age as determinative? Has the German government released other findings with relation to “so-called sects and psychogroups” that displace the findings of the Enquete-Kommission?

  20. John Mansfield says:

    Germany’s restrictions on civil rights aren’t to my taste, but then my country wasn’t hijacked and ruined by the Nazi Party 70 years ago, so I have to leave it to the Germans to understand their own nation and balance matters for themselves. I suspect part of German suspicion of Scientology is amplified by the current depiction of Nazis as madmen that no one in his right mind would have given any attention, yet who inexplicably were voted into power.

    I have wary feelings about too absolute a reverence for freedom of religion. If freedom of religion is only the freedom to think what you want as long as it’s not in public, then that is thin stuff (all the “Can a Catholic be an EU officer?” business). And if a more robust concept of religious liberty is extended to any group that calls their tenets a religion, then you get the Church of Smoking Marijuana, Avoiding Taxes, and Bombing Federal Buildings, which association I really think someone ought to keep an eye on.

  21. Mansfield,
    I echo what you say.

    I have no per se disagreement with the idea that religious groups can be monitored. Obviously, if they ever monitor me, that will be another thing.

  22. Ronan, all you need are a couple of Bill Maher types working in the bureaucracy — you know, Mormonism is Scientology plus 150 years and all that. If an agency of the German government comes to believe that, then there is little to prevent Mormons from receiving the same treatment as Scientologists.

    And why are we assuming as a baseline that it’s okay for a state to treat Scientologists this way but not other religions? Freedom of religion is not supposed to rest on the question of whether the government and state churches find a particular set of beliefs to be “not weird”.

  23. Oh I know that that Mormonism could suffer from this, but I’m still not willing to say that the free state has no right monitor The Church of Federal Building Bombings.

    As for Scientology, I agree that their beliefs are irrelevant. Practice is all that matters, the judgment of which is undeniably thorny, I know.

  24. Peter LLC says:

    Scientologists might be the red-headed stepchildren on the German religious scene, but they do enjoy at least one advantage as members of a church without official status: the Finanzamt won’t stick its grubby hands into their pockets to extract Kirchensteuer.

  25. So you guys are aware, Armand Mauss wrote an article for Dialogue – Vol. 41, No. 4 Winter 2008 entitled – Seeking a “Second Harvest”: Controlling the Costs of LDS Membership in Europe.

    It goes into some detail about the discrimination against “sects” in Western Europe – including disadvantages in applying for building permits, social stigmas, and even how government payroll psychologists and social workers consider membership in such sects to be evidence of mental unfitness. He has a lot of footnotes to check out too, if you are interested.

    I’ve even heard of women losing custody over their children because they happened to be Mormon.

  26. Wow.
    Do Germans view the LDS church as strange? Yes. They view everything except the two state churches as strange. Are Mormons discriminated against in Germany? Not from what I’ve seen. And I never heard of any discrimination during my mission there.
    I think that being LDS there is kind of like men wearing long hair in the US. Some people will forever be suspicious of you, but the majority of people just don’t care.

  27. Tim, just because you don’t notice it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

    Discrimination isn’t usually obvious until the rubber hits the road. Like a child custody battle for instance. Just walking down the street, or mentioning it over coffee, yeah, you’re not going to notice much.

    But that doesn’t prove anything.

  28. I need to read Mauss’s article, but I wanted to touch on


    If we take out everything about beliefs…ignore that there is anything religious in play or what the names, beliefs, etc., of each organization is. Just look at the organization for what its actions are and what the organization is *known* to have done.

    That is why it is ok to treat scientology this way whereas other religions not nearly as much. Even for people who say Mormons have “just as weird” of beliefs as scientologists, most would still acknowledge that Mormons aren’t “subversive” or harmful. I mean, after certain things (cough cough prop 8, etc.,) people might be reconsidering their opinion, for the most part, but in general, Mormons do a much better job of a good show, instead of a horror show.

  29. Seth,
    Do you have more info about that child custody case?
    I knew a couple of LDS families that had the Brady Bunch thing going on. The ex-spouses (still alive) were either not LDS or not active LDS, and the LDS spouse had full custody over the kids.
    And I never once heard a complaint about mistreatment at the hands of the government because of religious affiliation.
    No mistreatment at the hands of the major churches, either. As missionaries, we even got permission to sing in a couple of Catholic churches, once for the funeral of a member’s parent, and once just for the heck of it.
    What I did notice was discrimination against Eastern Europeans, Africans, and people from the Middle East. Much like Latinos face discrimination here in the US.

  30. Seth is right about the child custody cases in Western Europe. In Belgium according to Wilfried @ T&S (a Belgian Saint) its not uncommon for the courts to take the side of the non LDS parent in a dispute over custody because the LDS church is listed as a “Sekt” by the Belgian Government. I am sure you can find similar cases in Germany

  31. Interesting. Thanks for the info. From the little I know about Belgium (the most underrated country in Western Europe, by the way), there’s probably a good chance that it’s similar to Germany in that respect.

  32. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 8
    Amen, bbell! Scientology is the least of Germany’s worries. It really is laughable that they’re freaking out over Tom Cruise filming a movie there.

    WeHo is next door to the Scientology equivalent of Temple Square, and I just don’t see them as dangerous at all. Ridiculous, sure. Silly, absolutely. Harmful to some, apparently. But a threat to Western democracy? Not so much. Personally, I’m losing sleep over the spread of

  33. MikeInWeHo says:

    ..the spread of Eckankar.

  34. The trend in American jurisprudence is to increasingly look abroad at how other countries deal with legal issues. This is one trend I would just as well the U.S. not adopt.

  35. #34, I’m curious as to what sources you could provide regarding such a trend in American jurisprudence. From what I have observed most countries’ judiciaries come to the U.S. to see how our legal system works especially with regards to civil and criminal courts.
    Given that American jurisprudence itself is an offspring of the English Common Law (except for La. and the Napoleonic Code) I find that interesting.

    sam K.