The first "celebrity" Scientologist in Britain has come out - the Lib-Dem peer Lord McNair. He tells MARK HONIGSBAUM why he's joined stars like John Travolta and Tom Cruise in the bizarre "Church" that believes its leader went to Venus.
IN AMERICA it boasts such celebrity converts as John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Priscilla Presley, but in Britain, the self-styled "Church" of Scientology has had little success in persuading film stirs, or any other celebrity for that matter, to proselytise in its cause.
Now, however, that nay be about to change. Shortly before Christmas, the third Baron Duncan James McNair stood up in the House of lords and declared that he was a Scientologist.
Although the recruitment of a little-known Liberal Democrat peer to L. Ron Hubbard's ranks hardly compares on the international political Richter scale with that of, say, Sonny Bono, the Mayor of Palm Springs and husband of Cher, McNair's announcement certainly ruffled the ermine of one of two of his colleagues. Peers are used to many deviancies on the red benches - from drugs to bisexuality - but confessing membership of a reviled sect was something of a first.
If McNair, who is 49 and the director of a company that specialises in emission controls for the motor industry, is shunned in the corridors of Westminster, however, it doesn't show. McNair recently persuaded another peer, Lord Hylton, to accompany him to Germany where, with three academics, they conducted an investigation into alleged discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities there.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given McNair's involvement with Scientology, the committee's findings mirrors those of the Church and the signatories of last week's advertisement in the International Herald Tribune. Billed as "An open letter" to the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and signed by Dustin Hoffman, Goldie Hawn, Oliver Stone and Gore Vidal, the ad accused the German authorities of persecuting Scientologists in much the same way as the Nazis discriminated against Jews in the 1930s.
"The Germans are out of line, basically," says Lord McNair when we meet in his private room at the House of Lords.
"Scientology has been completely recognised in America and to a large degree in Canada. Not only are the German authorities behaving in a very paranoid way, they are behaving in a very evil way."
There is, of course, another point of view: namely, that the Germans rightly regard Scientology as a secretive business organisation masquerading as a religion with the potential to undermine the state's democratic institutions, in much the same way that Nazis undermined the Weimar Republic in the 1930s.
But more interesting, perhaps, is the question of why Lord McNair has chosen to come out as a Scientologist now. It is no secret, for instance, that despite accusations of the harassment and brainwashing of recruits, the church is seeking charitable status as a religion. But the Home Office denies that Scientology leaders are now allowed to enter Britain as ministers of religion, despite widespread rumours to that effect.
However, McNair insists that the timing of his announcement was entirely fortuitous. In fact, he first mentioned his affiliation to Scientology in a debate on education in the Lords last February but "nobody noticed".
In December he saw that Baroness Sharples had tabled what he considered a hostile question about the church's conduct in Britain and decided to intervene.
"It's customary if you're participating in a debate to declare that you have an interest, so I simply said that I was a Scientologist. I also said that I felt that Baroness Sharples should hear both sides of the story because she had obviously encountered people hostile to Scientology and that had informed her entire view of it. To me, that's the basic definition of bigotry.
McNair argues that hostility to Scientology is based on ignorance about the church's teachings, which he traces back to a disinformation campaign conducted by the American psychiatric profession with the help of various US government agencies, including naval intelligence.
Yet for someone so keen to share his experience of Scientology with his fellow peers, McNair is curiously reluctant to talk about his own experience of "auditing" - the lengthy and expensive question and answer sessions in which Scientology initiates are made to recall emotional experiences from their past.
All McNair will say is that he first discovered L. Ron's writings on Dianetics in the late 1980s in a bookshop in Manchester. Then, a few years later (he's vague about precisely when) he enrolled on two Scientology courses in Birmingham and in June 1990, a month after his maiden speech in the Lords, he visited a huge drug rehabilitation centre in Oklahoma run by the Scientology front organisation, Narconon.
Drug abuse and rehabilitation is a clearly an issue that moves McNair, but when I ask whether he has had personal experience of drugs he denies it.
"No, I'm very unfashionable in that respect. And in fact very few people who do the Narconon programme become Scientologists. As a recruiting tool for Scientology it's very hard work"
As he says this his wife, Margaret, who also is also a Scientologist nods in agreement. Throughout, she has been sitting silently in the corner. But every now and again she produces a glossy brochure extolling Hubbard's worldwide achievements and she becomes quite animated when the conversation moves on to the alleged slurs against his life and character.
By the end of the interview, however, I am none the wiser about what motivates this odd couple. And when you read what Hubbard actually wrote it's hard to believe that they are of this world.
According to Hubbard, human beings are receptacle for immortal forces called Thetans who were brought to earth by an evil lord called Xenn.
Scientologists who succeed in "clearing" themselves through auditing are known as Operating Thetans (They also believe that Hubbard once visited Venus and that psychotherapy is a creation of the evil Marcab Empire.)
Is it possible that Lord McNair somehow considers himself related to Lord Xenn, I wonder? "My own progress in auditing is something I won't talk about. No scientologist will talk about that," he says.
"But if you are interested in recovering spiritual qualities that one has lost then the idea of a Thetan makes perfect sense."
Perfect sense to Lord McNair, perhaps, but not, I suspect, to any of his political colleagues on planet earth.
Last updated 14 June 1997
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