The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, self-proclaimed messiah, founder of the Unification Church and funder of various Religious Right political causes, died on Monday.
Moon, who was 92, was familiar to many Americans because of the rather esoteric beliefs of his church – the mass weddings, the flower sellers on the streets and the allegations that the church was really a “cult.”
There was another side to the story. In the early 1980s, Moon began pouring millions into Religious Right organizations. Over the years, he used a network of front groups to channel cash to people like Tim LaHaye, Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, Gary Bauer and others.
Moon’s ties to Falwell, although often overlooked, were especially important. In 1998, The Washington Post reported that a Moon front group called the Christian Heritage Foundation bought $3.5 million of Liberty University’s debt. A separate Moon group lent the school $400,000. Moon’s millions propped up the flagging Falwell empire during a time when it might otherwise have collapsed.
Moon money was also used to buy favor with a number of political leaders. Over the years, Jack Kemp, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, William Bennett, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and even former presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush have accepted Moon money to speak at conferences.
One of the most curious episodes in Moon history occurred in March of 2004, when Moon was crowned “King of America” at a bizarre ceremony that took place in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C.
A number of D.C. luminaries attended the event, among them several leaders who were then members of the Senate and House, including U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) and Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.), Christopher B. Cannon (R-Utah), Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), Harold E. Ford (D-Tenn.) and Sanford D. Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.).
During the “coronation,” gaudy and glittering crowns were literally placed on the heads of Moon and his wife Hak Ja Han as they stood attired in flowing robes. Moon gave a rambling address during which he claimed that several dead figures from history, among them Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler, have been “reborn as new persons” after studying Moon’s teachings in the “spirit world” and referred to himself as the messiah.
A Moon aide, Chung Hwan Kwak, later remarked that the ceremony amounted to America asking Moon, “Please be my king.” Kwak added, “The ‘inside’ view of the event was that America surrendered to True Parents in the king’s position.”
It was later reported that U.S. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) arranged for Moon’s group to use the room, although Warner did not attend. Several politicians and religious leaders who attended the event later claimed they were duped and didn’t know it was connected to Moon.
None of this surprised long-time observers of Moon’s movement. Unification theology includes some elements of Christianity, but the main focus has always been on Moon. He believed that all religious groups should merge under his banner. According to Moon, Jesus Christ failed in his earthly mission and there was a need for a new messiah – Moon.
By the time of the crowning, Unification theology was increasingly promoting the idea that only Moon could save humankind. Throughout 2002 and 2003, advertisements had been appearing in the Moon-owned Washington Times reporting on a series of conversations Moon followers had with dead presidents in the “spirit world.” To no one’s surprise, the presidents all endorsed Moon and his theology.
During one such conference, Thomas Jefferson reportedly cried out, “People of America, rise again! Return to the nation's founding spirit. Follow the teachings of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Messiah to all people, who has appeared in Korea. There is no inconsistency between our founding spirit and his teachings. Well-known presidents and kings from history are excited by the greatness of his philosophy of peace.”
(Rutherford B. Hayes also got in on the action. The 19th president remarked, “People of earth! People of America! I cannot record here everything that I have experienced. I can only say that the Unification Principle is a great truth and that it is unmistakable that the Rev. Sun Myung Moon holds all the keys to human salvation and peace.”)
As strange as beliefs like this seem, they’ve never stopped Moon and his money from making great inroads into the right wing. Moon’s Washington Times, for example, was founded in 1982 and has never made a dime in profit. The church continues to subsidize it, and the paper has become a leading voice for inside-the-Beltway conservatives.
Moon’s people know how to play the political game. After the 2000 election, Moon groups sponsored a series of “unity rallies” that were supposedly designed to bring the nation together after a divisive electoral contest that had to be resolved by Supreme Court intervention.
In reality, the events were designed to get people used to the idea that George W. Bush was the legitimate winner. During Bush’s tenure, a Moon group in California raked in taxpayer money under the “faith-based” initiative.
So what happens now? Moon leaves behind a large family as well as a dizzying array of political groups, religious organizations and secular businesses. (Among Moon’s holdings are a seafood company that provides many restaurants with fish for sushi, a firearms manufacturing firm and a dance troupe.) The Times may not be profitable, but many of these other outlets are. The Moon fortune may run into the billions.
With money like that at stake, I expect there will be a power struggle. And while it’s too early to determine how it will all shake out, I expect Moon’s millions will continue to prop up Religious Right groups for many years to come.
And who knows – we may not have heard the last of Moon himself. He may still have some parting instructions for us, which I’m sure he’ll eagerly impart from the spirit world.