More than 500 people at a hotel in Nashua, N.H., have just been treated to stirring gospel music from an interfaith choir. Archbishop George Augustus Stallings of the Imani Temple in Washington, D.C., now holds forth in a stem-winding speech worthy of a political campaign stop, preparing the crowd for the main speaker.
"Never in the history of America has there been a leader with such spiritual boldness, audacity, and fortitude to bring together all religious leaders," he says in a rousing voice. "I am thankful to God for having called Rev. Sun Myung Moon to lead us as a prophet and messianic figure to tear down the walls of separation.... Don't get hung up on your religion or race, we are one family.
"Tear down the walls!" he shouts. And the crowd joins in.
The Rev. Michael Jenkins, president of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, moves to the podium with the follow-on: "True family. True Parents. Say that!" Again, the crowd responds.
This is one of the last stops on a whirlwind 52-city, 52-day tour billed as an interdenominational, interracial effort of clergy to come together to "strengthen family values in America." Sporting a roster of backers ranging from a former director of Operation PUSH to a founding member of the Christian Coalition, the tour has drawn as many as 3,000 local ministers, politicians, and church members to some venues.
And squarely in the center of each event is the controversial founder of the Unification Church, who proffers, in a speech lasting more than two hours, his unconventional teachings on family and the future of humanity, including his role as the God-chosen leader who is to finish Jesus' work and set up a theocracy.
At a time when religion is playing a larger role in public life in the United States, Rev. Moon seems eager to raise his profile, and has reached out particularly to minority groups. Last fall, he joined with Louis Farrakhan, of the Nation of Islam, to cosponsor the Million Family March in Washington. This tour, called "We Will Stand!," is a well-orchestrated interfaith revival to build a network that can bring greater legitimacy and influence to the Korean evangelist and his teachings. The tour culminated Monday in a gala ceremony in Washington, D.C., and a three-day conference.
Today, a "declaration of interdependence" signed by 12,000 ministers is to be unveiled at the Lincoln Memorial. "This was a relationship-building tour to forge strong bonds of cooperation between religious leaders who realize we need to rise above doctrine and denomination to cooperate around fundamentals - rebuilding the family and restoring the community," says Phillip Schanker, vice president for public affairs for the Family Federation.
The next steps, Rev. Schanker says, include regional crusades, inter-church programs, and development of curriculum for family education around abstinence for young people and ending divorce. A Moon-sponsored AIDS/HIV curriculum has been introduced in a few schools.
Rev. Moon is already, some say, a powerful player in some conservative circles in the US, having provided financial backing at crucial moments to important figures of the religious right. And he has remarkable ability, despite the controversies that have surrounded him, to draw top-level politicians - including former Presidents Bush and Ford - to speak at his events.
Moon is perhaps best known among the US public for his mass marriages and for the indoctrination methods used to gain members for his church among American youth in the 1970s and '80s. His conviction for tax evasion in 1984 also made news, as did Congress's investigation of "Koreagate," in which testifiers told of connections between the Unification Church and the covert operations of Korean Central Intelligence Agency in the US.
Less well known is the prolific growth of the Moon organization in recent decades, through extensive business ventures around the world - including The Washington Times and United Press International - and a host of organizations building networks and projects in fields of education, religion, science, world peace, media, sports, women, and youth.
Several ministers lending their names to the tour have attended such gatherings.
"I was invited first to participate in a conference with religious scholars from around the world," says Dr. Hycel Taylor, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Evanston, Ill. "Theologically, there are many things on which I do not agree," he adds, "but Rev. Moon has genuinely set forth the idea that all our theologies should be placed on the table and we should attempt to find what is common among them - that I agree with."
"What has attracted me is the interfaith and ecumenical dialogue," says Don Olsen, pastor of St. Luke Lutheran Church in Miami, Fla. "He has said churches should help out churches of other denominations. I appreciate that."
Both men are active in forming the United Federation of Churches (UFC), a Moon-sponsored group. And both are aware of the controversies.
"I feel his differences are not the issue," Dr. Olsen says. "My hope is that the character of [the UFC] will come from the ministers themselves, that they are going to define it."
Dr. Taylor, a national black leader, says many African-American pastors are participating, and "wherever the sheep are grazing, the shepherds ought to be." But with a few exceptions, he adds, prominent black pastors with connections to the major denominations are not involved, and "that's not going to happen."
A theocratic vision
Critics say this approach is part of a long-standing strategy of the Korean evangelist to achieve ambitious aims, which include a worldwide theocracy under God.
"The Moon organization has spent billions hosting conferences, cruises, all-expense-paid events in which significant honoraria are given," says Frederick Clarkson, the author of "Eternal Hostility: The Struggle between Theocracy and Democracy." "They have also purchased the credibility of former US presidents, leaders of academia, and members of Congress."
Former President George Bush and his wife, Barbara Bush, for example, spoke at several Moon events in 1995, he says, and were paid a hefty sum - a secret amount, according to The Washington Post; 1 million said The Daily Mail (London).
Steve Hassan became a Unification Church member in the 1970s, and supervised their recruitment efforts for a while. He is now a licensed mental-health counselor, who has counseled others who have left the church, and writes on cults and indoctrination (www.freedomofmind.com).
"When I was a leader in the group, [Moon] literally talked about taking over the world and setting up a theocracy," Mr. Hassan says. "He said there would be an economic collapse and he would have an infrastructure set up, with the media, businesses, food, education, politics."
The Korean evangelist has never hidden his messianic claim, and his teachings - called the Divine Principle - are detailed on the Web (www.unification.net). According to church history, Jesus spoke to him on a mountainside and asked that he carry on his work. Moon represents the Second Advent, and he and his wife, the True Parents, who are sinless.
Last week in New Hampshire, the animated octogenarian emphasized the import of lineage and his ideal of the family. "Lineage is more important even than love," he said. Human beings are the children of Satan because of Adam and Eve, and can only find their lineage with God through connection to the True Parents.
Startling some with graphic sexual references, Moon defined family as man, woman, and child; prized faithfulness and sacrificing for family; and said that "if a woman deliberately avoids having children, she is a substandard animal."
Taylor takes issue with Moon's family paradigm - particularly the lack of respect given to single-parent families - and sees other ideas as "somewhat condescending."
Hassan, who was cut off from his family until a car accident led to his break with the church, takes a tougher view:
"He's not interested in family - but in his family." Church members were taught means of thought control to cut off any efforts to curtail allegiance to Moon, he adds. "When my real parents called me and tried to get me to wake up, I immediately began chanting, 'Crush Satan, crush Satan.' "
Schanker, who has been with the Moon organization for 29 years, says such criticisms are unfounded: "Rev. Moon teaches that the family is the first institution as created by God, [and put a premium on] true family values before it was a buzzword."
He explains the controversy over separating youths from their families by citing Jesus' teachings both on honoring the family and on calling disciples to leave the old life behind for an "absolute devotion." "When you make such a total commitment of faith," he says, "you may find those who support you opposing it."
Schanker suggests perhaps there was already a lack of closeness between some parents and children, and also that anti-cult organizations encouraged the fears of some parents.
Hassan, who says he still maintains contact with some members, says the church isn't doing the hard sell anymore, but recruiting through their various entities. They will approach community leaders, he says, and say: "We really love what you are doing and would like to give you an award. Can you come to this dinner and bring friends?" Or, "What does your organization need?"
Now evolved into the "interreligious" Family Federation, the church continues to draw adherents and conduct mass marriages with partners selected by Moon. Many are attracted to the idealistic goals of breaking down walls between races and denominations and establishing a global family.
But the Moon organization is emphasizing coalition- and institution-building. It finances the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, created a Professors World Peace Academy and a global student exchange program, and has poured money into The Washington Times and 20 newspapers in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. It has large development projects in fish farming, livestock breeding, and new agricultural technologies.
Even in the late '70s, the congressional subcommittee investigating Koreagate found it had extensive economic ventures and operated like a multinational corporation. "To achieve his theocracy," their report said, "Moon has mapped out strategies for gaining control and influence over economic, political, cultural, academic, media, and religious institutions.... Activities in [various] fields are ultimately designed to create political influence and temporal power."
"This is not a fringe group with no influence in society," says Mr. Clarkson, whose book explores where the money may come from as well as Moon ties to international and US groups.
"This is an agency that has aligned itself with other contemporary theocratic movements, particularly in the Christian right," he says. "And Moon has been very outspoken against American democracy. Any time you have an explicitly anti- democratic or theocratic movement, one has to take that seriously."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor