There has been a great disturbance in The Force … or a mild setback. It depends on who you ask.
Last week, the Charity Commission for England and Wales ruled that the Temple of the Jedi Order did not qualify as a religious charity. The TOJO is one of several “churches” that borrow and build on elements of the Force, the ethereal spirit at the center of the Star Wars universe. And while in some ways it has been politically legitimized — Jediism was listed as an option on the UK census after a (semi-facetious) push in the early 2000s — the Temple of the Jedi Order fell short of the commission’s more demanding, traditional requirements. The decision, then, would seem setback for the IRL Jedi, but real life isn’t that simple.
“My impression is they really don’t want to say Jediism is a religion — I don’t know that, it’s just a feeling that I have,” John Henry Phelan, TOJO’s American founder, told Inverse. “However, their reasons are absolutely correct, meticulously done, and researched. According to the laws and regulations in the UK, they’re right. Their ruling was that we don’t operate as a charity and we’re not operating exclusively for the promotion of religion, because we also promote secular lifestyles.”
The Temple isn’t fussy about how its members view their participation in the small, internet-driven community; some call Jediism a religion, and others prefer to see it as a set of moral guidelines. The Force is a great mass of energy connecting everyone and everything, an existential web of life, and Phelan hasn’t felt the need to pin down a concept that borrows from many different religions and philosophies.
“It grows and it evolves and it changes, and we’re never going to have a rigid book,” he says. “As more information becomes available in the sociological sciences and in psychology, we’re going to change and evolve and grow, and that’s very much different than a lot of religions.”
The commission registered several objections to the group’s structure, which of which pointed toward the Temple’s embrace of different interpretations of the undefinable Force. The decision said that the commission was “not satisfied that the observance of the Force within Jediism is characterised by a belief in one or more gods or spiritual or non-secular principles or things which is an essential requirement for a religion in charity law.”
It didn’t help that TOJO largely congregates on the internet, instead of a central house of worship. Or, frankly, that they take their name from a science fiction film franchise that is still pumping out toys and billion-dollar box office returns.
“If we were some little building where people went to for an hour on Sunday and listened to some stuff and went home, we’d have no problems,” Phelan says. “What is really hilarious is what people can be devoted to — I won’t name a religion but there are a bunch of them — they’re absolute fiction, absolutely as fictional as Star Wars.”
A bit later on, he mentioned the Book of Mormon.
“When we say the Force, you could substitute that with the Dao, and it would work,” he continued, adding that his version of Jediism takes from a hodgepodge of more mainstream faiths and philosophies. “Yoda is like a zen master. And you see the elements of Christianity [in Jediism], that say no one is beyond salvation. Anakin ruthlessly murdered children, but got to go to heaven because he accepted redemption at the last minute.”
Phelan notes that in the United States, the Temple is a registered 501(c)3 non-profit and recognized international ministry, with members fully able to perform religious acts such as marriage ceremonies. And while its membership is largely online, it has engaged in charity work. Althea Thompson is an administrator of the Jedi Church, a clearinghouse that works to connect all the various factions of Jediism (there are many, with slightly distinct theology), and pointed out some of TOJO’s more notable efforts.
“They have progressively assisted the Jedi Community in terms of making a legitimate case for Jediism in various areas,” she said. “Here in the States, they have gone to bat for military members requesting the ability to worship in a fashion befitting the Jediism path. Small things like the ability to put Jediism on their dog tags (a huge point of contention in the US military), and space to meditate. Jediism isn’t recognized in the US Armed Forces, but some chaplains have grown to understand and accept us through more serious members inside of TOJO.”
Both Phelan and Thompson acknowledge some frustration with the commission’s decision, and lament that it did not spend more time learning about the tightknit Jedi community. But as Americans, they have a bit of a remove from the panel’s decision, a luxury that Daniel Jones, the head of the Church of Jediism in the UK, is not afforded.
“It damages us, it’s a kick in the teeth, because Scientology and Satanism, those are classified as religions, but they say Jediism doesn’t offer ethical or community-based improvements for society,” he told Inverse, scoffing over the phone. “The biggest problem is that we’re kept off the Religious Hatred Act. If someone’s picking on you, and you get in some kind of altercation, if it’s religious hatred-driven, Jedis would not be protected.”
There has long been tension between Jones and Phelan, who often compete to see whose organization has the biggest Jedi following (the answer depends on how you define “following”). Jones, who distinguishes his church by eschewing all Christian influences, alleges that Phelan and his group applied for charity status without vetting it with the larger community. The result, he says, is that it leaves his faction in a lurch across the Atlantic, susceptible to bullies and hate crimes.
Thompson and Phelan reject that conclusion.
“Daniel has nothing to worry about, he had no more or less protection than he did last year,” Phelan said. “Nobody has said Jediism is not a religion. They said this for purposes of organizing as a legalized charity, they didn’t say we weren’t a religion.”
Jones plans to apply for religious charity recognition on behalf of the Church of Jediism, and promises to do it properly and by paying professionals to do it, instead of “going in half-cocked.”
It’s a plan that in no way bothers the rest of the Jedi, as each group has a slightly different spin on the theology.
“They’re a totally different denomination,” Phelan said. “If you compare it, it’s as different as chicken pot pie and a prime rib roast. They’re both very good, I like both of those things, but they’re hardly the same thing. This thing had absolutely no power to hurt his Facebook group or to help them in any way. It did not set a precedent for that.”
Thompson drew a perhaps more relevant comparison: “It will be no different than having a Southern Baptist Church apply for charity status, and a traditional Baptist Church applying for their own charity status.”
As Jones prepares his application, Phelan says that the Temple of the Jedi Order is reevaluating its options, and will likely reshuffle its organization before reapplying for charity status.
We’re going to make an Order within an order for people who are willing to make some extraordinary commitments and people who are willing to say, ‘This is my religion,’ and it’ll be controlled by the Jedi order as far as management goes,” he promised. “It will be so tight that they won’t be able to find an excuse to not approve it. This is a project that I’ll get to closer to this time next year. It’s not an emergency.”