Rise Of The 'Moonies:' Is The Unification Church A Cult?

By Cyn Felthousen-Post
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. 

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