Mel Gibson may be known as a nice guy on movie sets, but his reputation as something of a crank and religious bigot is growing.

The actor has shelled out some $25 million to produce a film titled “The Passion” about the death of Jesus.

Critics say it is “anti-Semitic” and portrays Jews as “Christ Killers” guilty of “deicide.”

One Catholic scholar and university professor repudiated the film for depicting Jews “as bloodthirsty” reported the New York Times.

Presently Gibson has no distributor and may be forced to assume that role himself.

In an attempt to build support for what increasingly looks like a financial flop and public relations disaster the Oscar winning director did selected screenings recently for people he apparently thinks are a friendly audience.

Gibson refused to show his film to critics.

Those who caught the film courtesy of Mel ranged from political conservatives like Rush Limbaugh to an assortment of religious right types including members of the controversial Legionaries of Christ.

The President of the National Association of Evangelicals proclaimed Gibson, “The Michelangelo of this generation,” after viewing the movie.

However, The Passion is unlikely to win the actor any new fans or accolades from amongst a wider and unselected audience.

Gibson’s current film crusade seems to be the product of his strange upbringing within a fringe religious movement that calls itself “Catholic traditionalism.”

The church the actor attends near Malibu is called “Holy Family,” but it is actually not part of any diocese and completely outside the Roman Catholic Church.

The star is bankrolling a new 9,300 square foot building for the group, which only has seventy members.

Hollywood types often heap money on controversial groups, some called “cults.” And super-rich Gibson can easily afford to blow millions, even $25 million on his eccentric movie project.

But it appears that this pop icon is becoming tarnished.

Instead of making his mark as “Michaelangelo” it looks like Mel is increasingly becoming known as not only a crank but also a bigot, which just might have a lasting negative effect at the box office beyond his current film crusade.

Postscript: See this follow-up regarding the marketing of “Passion” and its message.

President Bush may have made history by appointing a long-time follower of a billionaire “cult leader” to a top position of influence.

It seems no president has ever placed someone with such a “cult” portfolio this high in government.

Josette Shiner served Rev. Moon of the Unification Church for decades. After many years at the Washington Times, a newspaper controlled by Moon, she ended her service there as its managing editor.

But perhaps at her new job Shiner may help the self-proclaimed “messiah,” who once made payroll at her former paper possible.

As a deputy U.S. trade representative Josette Shiner will have considerable influence within Asia. Interestingly, this is exactly where her mentor Moon has considerable investments, in nations such as Korea and China.

But no one seems to care about this potential conflict of interest Shiner’s close personal association and historical allegiance to Moon might pose.

“Mrs. Shiner has a wide-ranging and strong background…and past work experience make her a very able candidate for the job in front of her,” crowed Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and chairman of the Finance Committee, quoted within The Washington Times.

However, other than working for Rev. Moon, Shiner has only had a few politically related jobs in the last six years, she also graduated college with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

There was no serious opposition from Democrats.

Shiner claims to have recently become an Episcopalian after leaving Moon’s employ in 1997, but has never commented publicly about her supposed change of heart or the Unification Church.

What epiphany persuaded this dedicated “Moonie” to change churches? And wasn’t her conversion just a little bit too convenient?

It appears that Rev. Moon has at last been able to cash in on the millions heaped upon President Bush Sr., not to mention his generous gift to the Bush Presidential library in Houston.

Has the billionaire “messiah” from Korea finally found his own little slice of heaven within the “Washington Beltway” courtesy of Dubya’s White House?

The Twelve Tribes is a notorious racist and anti-Semitic “cult” that has been fined for child labor violations and accused repeatedly of gross abuse.

The group often raises money by selling products made by its members. Once such goods were sold through Robert Redford’s Sundance Catalog.

However, public exposure of such connections put an end to all that.

But it seems you just can’t keep a bad “cult” down.

In an effort to make the cash flow once again, Twelve Tribes has taken its products to the Internet and is hawking its manufactured goods through eBay.

It lists items for sale under an assortment of names such as “Common Blacksmith,” “The Mate Factor Yerba Mate,” “Common wealth Wood Works,” “The Common Thread, Common Sense Natural Bodycare,” “elad” (baby clothing) and the “Common Ground Café.”

Listings have been up on eBay under the user ID “beesinahive.”

The “beekeeper” of these worker drones is Twelve Tribes leader Elbert Eugene Spriggs, a former carnival barker who now calls himself “Yoneq.”

And “Yoneq” seems to have harvested quite a bit of honey.

Spriggs lives a relative life of luxury, while his workers buzz around within group housing, largely in quaint upstate New York towns like Coxsackie.

And though former corporate friends have snubbed the “cult” the Twelve Tribes still brags about them.

“We used to manufacture very nice Pilgrim Primitive furniture…, which appeared in Robert Redford’s Sundance, Faith Mountain, and Spiegel Catalogs,” states their website.

The same site offers somewhat cryptically, “Our business ended suddenly and left us with extra inventory which we are offering for auction.”

That auction venue now often seems to be eBay.

Just think, you too can help Mr. Spriggs with the upkeep of his homes in France, New England and South America.

Of course this may require not thinking about the working conditions and hardships endured by his followers.

While Tom Cruise appears to be winding up his latest crusade promoting L. Ron Hubbard’s “technology,” his fellow Scientologists are “schmoozing” with politicians in an apparent effort to cultivate useful connections.

Florida State senators were spotted attending Scientology functions and one is the majority leader.

United States Congressman Mark Foley of Palm Beach was photographed receiving his very own leather bound copy of Dianetics and The Way to Happiness, with Republican State Committee member Nancy Riley.

The book by Scientology’s founder Hubbard is a basic primer for beginners on the path to becoming true believers.

The Church of Scientology ran a photo of Foley and Riley on its website smiling with their hosts.

This was quite a shindig that included 150 handpicked quests from Clearwater to meet with Foley. And it was staged within the opulent ballroom at the Scientology-owned Fort Harrison Hotel.

Scientology crowed on its website about its ability to defeat legislation pending in Florida regarding psychiatry, their ongoing nemesis, concerning prescription drugs.

“They had to tangle with our CCHR [Citizens Commission on Human Rights] Executive Director. And after two weeks of intensive work, she reported that CCHR had defeated not one, not two, but ALL THREE destructive psych bills,” Scientology boasted.

Looks like all the political partying and schmoozing by the church and its members is paying off.

On July 12th Dr. Julia M. Siverls died on Tiger Mountain, while participating in a Level Three “Master” initiation at the Dahnhak Yoga Retreat Center in Arizona.

Her family said, “We are devastated by her untimely death.”

Dr. Siverls’s sister-in-law posted this announcement on July 28th at a Yoga related message board.

Siverls was a professor within the Department of Social Sciences at Queens Community College of the City University of New York.

Her death appears to have been both sudden and unexpected.

Dahn Hak is a controversial organization that was founded in Korea by Seung Huen Lee.

Another New Yorker also once involved in the group warned, “Blind faith does not make you wise–beware of with whom you place your trust. It is entirely possible that a group may actually be a cult whose leader uses ancient references and exercises that have dynamic and profound effects to gain the trust of people–so that he or she may cultivate their own ego and riches.”

Seung Huen Lee, a self-proclaimed “Grand Master,” says that his practice of “Brain respiration strips away the mysticism from enlightenment.”

But for the family of Julia Siverls, one Dahn Hak retreat will always be associated with tragedy.

More controversy is swirling around the Executive Success Programs (ESP) led by a failed multi-level marketing guru Keith Raniere, now known to his devotees as “Vanguard.”

Raniere is pushing ahead with a proposal to build a 66,000 square foot NXIVM (pronounced Nexium) center in a small town near Albany, which would then be run by ESP.

But the townsfolk seem to dislike both the building plan and Raniere’s group, reports The Community News.

“Their Web (site) sounds like a brainwashing type of cult,” wrote in one resident.

In an apparent dedication ceremony to launch the project, before receiving Planning Commission approval, one perplexed resident witnessed ESP members “on their hands and knees kissing the ground, scooping up the soil and kissing it, some…rolling on the ground.”

The president of ESP Nancy Salzman, who was mentored by Raniere, told the planning commission that the proposed center would offer instruction for “people to maximize their potential through parenting, relationship and executive success classes.”

Does this mean the project is business related or a social service?

Salzman is called the “Prefect” by devoted “ESPians” and seems to be the second in command.

Right now the group is preparing to throw a weeklong birthday bash for “Vanguard” later this month.

Vanguard Week is a celebration of the human potential to live a noble existence and to participate in an interdependent civilization,” says Raniere.

So why is it named “Vanguard Week” and celebrated on Raniere’s birthday?

During this week of “celebration” there will be “forums every night with Vanguard and Prefect [Salzman],” notes the ESP website.

Sound a little creepy?

Does this mean reaching the “human potential to live a noble existence” is somehow dependent upon this dynamic duo?

Is that what Raniere means by an “interdependent civilization”?

Raniere’s last scheme was an interconnected multi-level buying club called “Consumer Buyline,” which collapsed amidst scandal and lawsuits.

It doesn’t look like many of the residents near the proposed NXIVM complex feel like celebrating Raniere’s birthday during “Vanguard Week.”

University Bible Fellowship (UBF), a controversial organization that has often been called a “cult,” is staging a regional conference at Wheaton College this weekend. The event is expected to draw 1,000 participants reports The Daily Herald.

Samuel Lee founded UBF in the 1960s in South Korea. Like Rev. Moon’s Unification Church Lee’s group found college campuses fertile ground for its recruitment efforts, which began in the US during the 1970s.

The organization is known for its extreme authoritarian control over members through “shepherds” and a strict hierarchical structure of totalitarian leadership. This has included arranged marriages.

Many complaints have arisen over the years and former members have established websites regarding the group’s alleged abuses. UBF has a history of bad press in both the United States and Europe.

The founder of UBF Samuel Lee is now deceased, but the organization continues to target students on college campuses around the world.

UBF currently has campus groups at Loyola University, Columbia University, John Hopkins, Northwestern University, the University of Illinois in Chicago, Northeastern University of Illinois, the University of Maryland in Washington D.C., the University of Toledo and Shippensburg State in Pennsylvania.

UBF’s International headquarters is in Chicago.

No doubt UBF is happy they have an opportunity to stage an event at Wheaton College, where many students may note their presence. They are also holding a summer conference in Canada simultaneously on the campus of John Abbott College in St. Anne de Bellevue, Quebec.

Other branches of the group in Canada include Waterloo, Toronto and Ottawa.

UBF has additional outposts around the world actively recruiting in France, Germany, Russia, the Ukraine, Japan, Switzerland, England, Korea and India.

A petition to the National Association of Evangelicals is currently on-line in an effort to have UBF’s membership to that body revoked.

Note: UBF’s NAE membership was terminated, but then later reinstated, despite its long history of serious problems, bad press and complaints.