Sun Myung Moon, 1920–2012: The Death of a Messiah Who Made It Rich

Moon typified what many American parents saw in a threatening age of cults and new religions. But his spiritual self-enterprise built an empire

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The Rev. Sun Myung Moon preaches to a crowd at New York City's Madison Square Garden on Sept. 19, 1974. Moon died from pneumonia at the age of 92 on Sept. 30, 2012

The Rev. Sun Myung Moon was proof that charisma is not necessary to start a religion: organization is. Born in 1920 in what is now communist-ruled North Korea, Moon survived the battles that split the peninsula to establish a mud-and-cardboard church in the refugee-packed South. Through decades of steady, meticulous expansion, his Unification Church became exceedingly wealthy; and while it was controversial and divisive, it also became the first global expression of resurgent Korean culture. Moon’s organizing principle was the family — with himself and his second wife as the true mother and father of all adherents, holding autocratic rule over marriage and sex — and it was an idea that would prove key to the indoctrination of members from the 1960s generation onward, who had grown estranged from their real parents but still idealized the archetype. Hailing from all over the world, the Moonies, as they were often derisively called, would help build the fortunes of Moon and his family — be it income from selling roses on the street or publishing newspapers in the U.S. and South Korea. At Moon’s death from pneumonia at the age of 92 on Sunday, however, his biological sons and daughters — all 14 of them — may be gearing up for a dynastic battle over their inheritance. It was evidence that even the most allegedly divine of families are unhappy in their own ways.

Americans would only confront Moon and his church in the 1970s, hurling the charge of cult against them and sending deprogrammers to take back young people who had been recruited by his missionaries. But Moon had sent his first representative to the U.S. in 1959 (the organization was already active in Japan); indeed, he would tour the States himself in 1965. His name — with the two celestial orbs so clearly evoked — may have added a layer of extraterrestriality to him for English speakers (sun and moon vanish in other transliterations of the original Korean, as in Seon-myong Mun). But at a time when young Americans — in fact, young people all over the postindustrial world — were questioning the bases of family and belief, Moon’s recalibration of those ideals must have come as particularly insidious. His appropriation of the marriage ceremony as the centerpiece of his new faith was both bizarre and revolutionary. In spectacularly staged mass rituals, Moon and his wife would preside over the union of thousands of couples being wed at once. Most had never met each other. Matches were made across nationality and race. He particularly liked to marry Japanese and Koreans, who share a deep historical animosity. It was in keeping with the founder’s ideas of unification on all levels. Marriage was just another arena to practice what he preached. What’s love got to do with it?

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Unification meant several things to Moon. The official name of the church when he founded it was the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity. And throughout his career, Moon would be constantly reaching out an ecumenical hand to the various divisions of Christianity. But unification also reflected the very modern Korean notion of reuniting the divided peninsula. Not only was his church called Unification, the business conglomerate that grew out of it was similarly named in Korean — Tongil. Indeed, though Moon’s politics converged with the rightist policies of the generals who ruled South Korea in the first decades after the war, he made trips to the North to befriend the dictatorial Kim dynasty of Pyongyang. Those visits rarely met with the approbation of the South, but Moon never stopped cultivating the leaders of the communist regime.

Moon had detractors from the beginning. His first wife reportedly chose divorce because she found herself incompatible with his religious philosophy and rituals. Other critics have said that the early days of the church were characterized by tenets that declared that Moon was designated by Jesus, who appeared to him in a vision, with continuing his work as messiah; and that ordinary rules of sexual conduct did not apply to Moon, who was, by virtue of his role, immaculate and incapable of sin. Those allegations do not seem to be supported by the puritanical and almost nonsexual approach of the church toward marriage — including the sublimation of desire among Moonie recruits. Moon himself, however, sired more than a dozen children with his second wife Han Hak Cha.

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Financial exploitation was always the gravest charge leveled against Moon. Indeed, several ex-Moonies explained that they eventually left the church not because of deprogramming but because they saw how opulently the founder lived while his foot soldiers hawked flowers on the streets. The U.S. government went after him too, and in 1982, Moon was convicted of tax-evasion charges and served more than a year in a federal prison in Danbury, Conn.

The church’s riches allowed it to become the foundation of a chaebol, the distinctive South Korean conglomerate that has other exemplars like Hyundai and Samsung. Tongil isn’t as big as those corporations but it too has many interests — from mining to publishing. A report by Forbes, however, has raised questions about the future of the Moon family businesses, reporting a schism between the sons who dominate Tongil in South Korea and another son who controls much of the U.S. operation, including the conservative newspaper the Washington Times.

And therein lies the shadow in the future of the Moons. Will they redirect the family fortune away from religious enterprises and focus on just making profits? Or will a son — or daughter — take up the role of junior messiah and try to invigorate their father’s vision of family as the organizing philosophy of religion? If the latter, there had better be no fighting among the heirs.

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