Under God: Scientology’s Soul Man

Thank goodness Isaac Hayes wrote “Soul Man” before he became a Scientologist. Whatever would have become of Sam and Dave or the Blues Brothers if they had belted out a song called “Thetan Man”?

According to beliefs promoted by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the immortal soul — or “thetan” — passes from one body to the next through reincarnations over trillions of years. When a person dies, Hubbard said, the thetan goes to a landing station on Venus where it is programmed with lies about its past life and its next one.

Hubbard taught his followers to choose a location other than Venus. So here’s hoping that Hayes, who died Sunday at age 65, chose to keep his immortal soul in Memphis where it belongs, and where he made me question my own suspicions about all Scientologists.

That Hayes was a Scientologist was known to everyone who ever visited South Park, the animated show for which Hayes was the voice of the soulful cafeteria worker Chef, a role he quit in 2006 after an episode mocked his religion and fellow Scientologist Tom Cruise.

The church of Scientology has always seemed beyond bizarre — grounded more in a Me-ology than a Theology — but of all the celebrity Scientologists in America, Hayes was the only one who made me wonder if there might be something to it. He was the only one who didn’t fit the mold.

Hayes grew up in the Baptistcostal (equal parts Baptist and Pentecostal) streets of inner-city Memphis, where Jesus walks with hustlers and dealers. He was baptized in Soulsville, the heart of the Memphis soul music world populated by such stars as David Porter (brother of a Pentecostal bishop), Aretha Franklin (daughter of a Baptist preacher) and Al Green (who became the Rev. Al Green). Writing hit songs for Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and himself, Hayes became the Black Moses of Memphis Soul, a funky blend of gospel and blues, church and street, sacred and profane.

Scientology is as welcome in Memphis as Falun Gong is in Beijing. And yet in 1997, Hayes and Lisa Marie Presley funded a Scientology mission church in Memphis. Later that year, they threw a Christmas party at the church, which I covered. It was a surreal site watching the Black Moses and the daughter of The King promoting Dianetics while singing Christmas songs to inner-city children in the land of the Delta blues.