Rise Of The 'Moonies:' Is The Unification Church A Cult?
Right: Unification Church leader Sun Myung Moon presiding over mass wedding ceremony in the early '80s. Left: Moon with President Nixon in 1974. Sources: Allan Tannenbaum/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images; Wikimedia Commons
Founded by the late Sun Myung Moon, the Unification Church is classified as a "new religious movement" -- and the same group is also referred to as the "Moonies," and labeled a cult. With a worldwide following of 1-2 million people, it is the largest active cult -- that is, if it's a cult at all. The categorization is hard to establish, and pejorative (as is the nickname "Moonies"). But with its messianic leader, unorthodox views on male-female relationships, and its members' abdication of self in service of the collective, the Unification Church certainly ticks many of the boxes on the cult checklist. Whatever it's labeled, the Unification Church is undoubtedly an unusual religious phenomenon of the second half of the 20th century, becoming extremely wealthy and widespread, and its leader, Reverend Moon, wielded immense political and economic power.
Given the strong connotations of the word "cult" and the nature of belief, we won't pass judgment on whether the Unification Movement is a cult here. Much has been written debating the issue, and the U.S. Senate even pondered it in the controversial "Cult Phenomenon in the United States" hearings of 1979.
In The Beginning
In South Korea, in 1954, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon started a religious movement called "The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity.” It became better known as the Unification Church or the Unification movement -- and dubbed "The Moonies." The term is actually one that the church has used at times, but when used by outsiders it is usually considered disrespectful.
Born in North Korea, Moon’s family converted from Confucianism to Christianity, joining a Presbyterian church. Moon claimed that Jesus appeared to him in a vision, tasking Moon with bringing peace to the world. In the 1940s, shortly after he began preaching his message, he was arrested and accused of spying for South Korea. He was imprisoned for five years.
Near the end of the Korean War (1950-53), he fled to South Korea and established his church, based on a mix of Confucian and Christian beliefs. He published his Exposition of the Divine Principle, a reinterpretation of the Bible that established the main goals of what has been called the Unification movement since the 1990s.
Mass Weddings And Other Quirks
Moon did not believe in the idea of romantic love but did claim that God intended that Jesus, a second Adam, would get married. This perfect union would undo the damage from Adam and Eve’s original sin. Because of Jesus’ crucifixion, a third Adam was needed. Members of the church regard Moon as the Third Adam and he, along with his second wife Hak Ja Han, are the “True Parents.” Married couples and their families within the church are considered the “True Children.” Moon left his first wife, who was pregnant, so he could form the church. Hak Ja Han was his second wife; he was 40 and she was 17 when they married.
Because of Moon’s rejection of romantic love, marriages are arranged and performed as mass rituals called the “Holy Marriage Blessing Ceremony.” During the ritual, couples are removed from man’s sinful lineage to become part of God’s. In 1982, Moon conducted the blessing ceremony in Madison Square Garden for 2,000 couples. The largest blessing ceremony Moon presided over occurred in 2009, when 30,000 couples were blessed at Seoul's Olympic Stadium. The individuals participating in the ceremony all wear similar clothing.
Though referred to as "mass weddings," the blessing ceremonies often are not weddings in the legal sense. The couples, who have been "matched" by the church, may get married before or after the blessing ceremony, following the requirements of their country's government.
Newlywed couples are to refrain from sex for 40 days. Then they are to consummate their marriage during a three-day ritual. The couple is instructed to use sexual positions dictated by Moon.
In 1959, Moon sent missionaries to the U.S., and gained a following in the San Francisco Bay Area, with a membership of about 500 by 1971. By 1973, all 50 states had a presence.
Unification Church missionaries would embark on world tours and engage in a practice called “love -bombing,” targeting lonely young people, making them feel included in a community. Some of those targeted would end up rejecting their own families and giving their possessions to the church. Steven Hassan was one of those college students who joined the Moonies. He later revealed details of his experience. He said that three young women approached him while he ate lunch and lured him in by talking of making the world a better place. Hassan, who would later found the anti-cult watchdog group Freedom Of Mind Resource Center, wrote in The Guardian:
Little did I know, within a few weeks I would be told to drop out of school, donate my bank account, look at Moon as my true parent, and believe my parents were Satan. I didn't even believe in Satan until I met the group.
The Big Church Is Big Business
Over time, as Moon’s followers increased and fundraised, Moon became one of the wealthiest religious leaders in the world and his empire included the conservative Washington Times newspaper. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the church created a multi-billion dollar business empire.
The Unification Church has spawned groups and associations that advance education and human rights, has purchased sports teams, has founded educational institutions, and owns valuable real estate. The number of separate owned entities or sub-entities certainly reaches into the hundreds, if not more. The Freedom of Mind Resource Center touts a 71-page document listing entities associated with the church.
Moon was staunchly anti-Communist and supported the reunification of Korea. His anti-communist stance aligned the church with conservatism in the U.S. and abroad.
In 1974, Moon organized “pray-ins” in support of President Richard Nixon as he was being pressured to resign over the Watergate scandal. Their motto during these “pray-ins” was “Forgive, Love, and Unite.” Nixon publicly thanked Moon, which brought attention to the church.
Prior to the death of Moon’s son Heung Jin, members were buried in traditional Christian funerals. After his death in 1984, a new format was put into practice, the Seung Wha. This ceremony is divided into three parts: prayer services for those closest to the deceased, a public ceremony featuring songs and testimonials, and finally, the burial service. At this final service, participants wear light-colored clothing, the body is dressed in his or her holy robe and buried with a copy of the Divine Principle. A unification flag is draped over the coffin.
Moon himself died in 2012, aged 92.
Tags: Cults | Moonies | Remember This?... | Sun Myung Moon | Unification Church | What Did He Do?...
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