|Rev. Sun Myung Moon|
If, like me, you grew up in the 1970s and 80s, you were probably aware, at least on some level, of the presence of the Unification Church, more commonly known in those days as The Moonies. They served as scary exemplars of the worst excesses of brainwashing religious cults, and brainwashing religious cults were popular in the press during this era. The mania extended into broader popular culture, and any number of shock-horror books were produced about “my time in the Moonies,” and I remember one of the sub-pots of the trashy Australian soap opera Sons & Daughters was the deprogramming of one of their characters after their exposure to a Moonie-like cult.
In truth, the Moonies didn’t do much to help their cause. They started a bizarre series of mass weddings, huge choreographed affairs where thousands of couples would be married at the same time in football fields, most of them complete strangers until their wedding day.
|Unification Church's distinctive mass weddings|
As you could imagine, this made for great TV, and I still have vivid memories of a 60 Minutes expose of the Moonies.
People were genuinely scared of this stuff, and believed that an unsuspecting youth could be handed a pamphlet in a public street and within hours be swearing undying adoration to an oriental guru and living in a bus, spreading the word. I don’t think any other religious body was subjected to such a sustained and widespread campaign of abuse as the Unification Church and, as many scholars of religion pointed out later, it was mostly unwarranted.
The recently deceased Rev. Moon, founder of the church, was in every way an eccentric and a crackpot, and it is hard to know if he believed his own hype or not.
He styled himself Emperor of the Universe and the second coming of Jesus Christ. He wore elaborate clothing and engaged in bizarre rituals of his own invention, he kept a retinue of mistresses and he spoiled and eventually destroyed his closest family members with the incredible wealth he collected as a religious leader.
|Rev. Moon in "King of the Universe" mode|
One of the most fascinating books on the subject is his daughter-in-law’s book In the Shadow of the Moons, in which she relates her horrendous years as part of the inner circle, subject to the violent abuse and sexual promiscuity of Moon’s ordained favourite son.
In the 90s the Unification Church went underground somewhat, feeling, probably quite rightly, that they were subjected to unfair abuse. Rev Moon, a violent anti-Communist who had been born in North Korea, established the Washington Times and turned it into America’s premier right-wing newspaper. The church pursued a policy of obfuscation and subterfuge, creating hundreds of front organisations with innocuous names like “World Peace Council” and “Global Families Unite.” These fronts then busied themselves around the world creating peace prizes and charity concerts and establishing a name for themselves in third world countries like Cambodia, where nobody had any idea who they were.
I actually knew someone in Sydney who became quite involved with one of these front groups, and she had no idea they were Moonies, and they never mentioned it to her. I must say that this technique seems fundamentally dishonest and reflects badly on the church. I think you should have the courage of your convictions and stand by your name, if that is what you really believe.
But in general I don’t believe the Unification Church is especially evil or manipulative. I do believe they follow an extremely peculiar theology, and that they are in most respects a right wing extra-Christian sect that is relatively harmless. I give no credence to the ideas of brainwashing potential new followers. If that actually worked they’d be the biggest religion in the world, instead of an exceedingly minor one whose numbers are falling rapidly. I expect the death of their founder and inspiration, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, will hasten this shrinking process.
The BBC recently had an excellent and balanced program on the state of the Unification Church post-Moon, and it is well worth a listen. I was impressed that they gave one of the followers a place on their panel, and I was impressed with how he acquitted himself. I also note the release of an absolutely intriguing new gay novel set amongst followers of the Unification Church – looks like a must read.
Certainly, the Unification Church marks a fascinating moment in religious history. And I expect it will come to exemplify many of the hysterias and myths of the 1980s.