Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

The Seeker-Consumer: Scientology and the Rhetoric of Consumerism

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

The Seeker-Consumer: Scientology and the Rhetoric of Consumerism

Article excerpt

The Church of Scientology is, apparently, very good at selling itself: a 2004 promotional documentary, This is Scientology, in its subtitle calls Scientology the "World's Fastest Growing Religion," and Scientology's August 2013 Web site boasts of considerable expansion. Its Life Improvement Centers and Oxford Capacity Analysis (personality test) are two points of contact that aim to draw newcomers to the religion. Yet another point of contact, vital these days to any organization targeting the digitally oriented, is its Web site. In this article, I examine how the Church of Scientology presents and "markets" itself through the Web site that was live from 2005 to 2010; (1) through rhetorical analysis, (2) I ultimately argue that the Church's Web site engages a "rhetoric of consumerism," (3) noteworthy in that it focuses not only on selling things but also on selling consumer capitalism itself.

Conceiving of religion as a commodity to be marketed places me in the company of scholars of history, advertising, religious studies, English, media studies, and sociology. (4) Within this context, four scholars in particular treat Scientology's rhetorical presence. Todd Frobish, in a 2000 article, "Altar Rhetoric and Online Performance," highlights Scientology's rhetorical relevance in the contemporary spiritual marketplace, and Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi in "Scientology: Religion or Racket?" (2003) reifies such: though not engaged primarily with rhetorical analysis, Beit-Hallahmi supports his vehement claim that Scientology is a racket by referencing the Church's recruitment discourse, which he defines as "written and oral presentations directed at potential members as part of recruitment efforts" (9). In "The Evolution of Religious Branding" (2011), Mara Einstein writes about the Church of Scientology's 2009 advertising campaigns entitled "You,""Search," and "Life," arguing that the Church used these slick ads to counterbalance negative publicity.

Most thoroughly and importantly, Hugh Urban's 2011 book-length treatment of the Church, Scientology: A Historyofa New Religion, also considers the Church's self-presentation. Urban's aim is not primarily rhetorical; rather, he presents his text as a genealogy of Scientology, arguing that "[a] genealogy of Scientology ... is in many ways also a genealogy of 'religion' itself in the United States from the late 1940s to the present" (17). Further, Urban (2011) offers Scientology as a "test case," an example of larger historical phenomena, and uses Scientology to reflect more broadly on themes vital to contemporary religious culture in the United States: "Not only does [Scientology] raise basic questions such as what gets to count as religion and who gets to decide; more important, it also raises profound issues of privacy and freedom of religious expression in a post-9/11 context of religious violence and rapidly expanding government surveillance" (5). (5)

Throughout Scientology, Urban (2011) pays close attention not only to how others "see" the Church (defining it variously as a "'cult,' a 'business,' a 'pyramid scheme,' or a legitimate 'religion'" [16]), but also to how the Church sees itself--or, more aptly, how the Church presents itself to multiple audiences. He writes: "Scientology is ... unique in that we can clearly trace the genealogy of its self-conscious attempt to make it self appear more like a religion and to fit more closely into the accepted definitions of religion in modern America" (Urban 2011, 16; original emphasis); and "[W]e can view much of Scientology history from the early 1950s to the present as precisely an increasing attempt to define itself in religious terms" (Urban 2011, 19; original emphasis). Indeed, throughout Scientology--and especially in the chapters "Scientology, Inc." and "The 'Cult of All Cults'?"--Urban considers the Church's very self-conscious self-presentation. It is here that my own work as a rhetorician, someone who imagines and subsequently analyzes discourse (broadly conceived) as a fundamentally persuasive endeavour, intersects with Urban's. …

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