In recent months, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church has hosted at least 25 Idaho Republican legislators at ``communism awareness seminars'' in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and Denver. The perception that communism is a threat to religious and political freedom is the common thread that draws together Republicans from a conservative Rocky Mountain state and members of the controversial evangelical Korea-based Unification Church.
But these conferences may yield political dividends for the church by helping to improve its public image. The Unification Church, which claims a worldwide membership of about 3 million, has been widely criticized for its recruitment practices. In 1982, its leader, the Rev. Mr. Moon, was convicted of income-tax evasion. He was released from prison to a halfway house Thursday and will have completed 13 months of an 18-month sentence when released from federal custody in August.
``Through these [conference] connections, they have built up a coalition -- they really have gotten some political clout,'' says Priscilla Coates, director of the Cult Awareness Network, based in Albany, N.Y.
Causa, the activist arm of the church, paid room and board and, in most cases, travel expenses for the legislators and a host of ministers to attend its three-day seminars on combating communism.
The conferences are an investment to promote Causa's world view, says Causa USA president Phillip Sanchez.
``It is initially an expensive proposition. I feel the payoff is good in that . . . if you have conferences with communicators [legislators and ministers], hopefully they can communicate with their communities, homes, families, churches, whatever,'' he says.
``We were delighted, of course, at the group from your state,'' Mr. Sanchez said, adding that the number of lawmakers from Idaho was unusual. ``The stress [at the Causa conferences] is not on legislators, by the way; it very certainly is on ministers.''
Legislators who attended the conferences say seminars covered the history of communist thought, the spread of communism in the Western world, and Causa's fight against the spread of communism.
Some legislators said there was little mention of the Unification Church and no pressure to join or talk about the church.
State Sen. Atwell Perry said he had misgivings about accepting a free trip to Los Angeles, but his misgivings were put to rest when he heard workshops on Causa's perception of the communist threat. ``Not at any time was there any pressure, any mention of the Unification Church,'' he said.
Sanchez says that at an evening session of the conferences, a film is shown that documents the role of Col. Bo Hi Pak in the Koreagate congressional influence peddling scandal. Colonel Pak, who is president of Causa International and is Moon's deputy, was implicated, but acquitted.
One Idaho legislator, Rep. JoAn Wood of Rigby, said she had misgivings about accepting airfare, room, and board from Causa for her trip to Los Angeles, but changed her mind after the conference.
``I have come away with a great deal of respect, and I'm not willing to accept these charges [of wrongdoing by the Unification Church] without any proof,'' she said, adding that she was ``quite sure the Unification Church would get more positive treatment after this.''
Other Idaho lawmakers who attended remain skeptical. ``We all went on a look-see basis,'' said Rep. Dolores Crow. ``I still feel a little antsy about having the Unification Church involved.''
Idaho Democrats have begun to make political hay of the trip, asking the legislators who attended Causa conventions to explain to voters what the church wants in return and what taxpayers gained by the trips.