Then, he died on Labor Day weekend … when whatever top journalists are left covering religion for major newspapers and magazines were off with family and friends. The Wikipedia page for the man once described as the world’s most famous Korean is swathed in warning banners about “unbalanced” material in the one encyclopedic summary of his life that will be most widely read around the world. It’s a fittingly obscured transition for the Rev. Sun Myung Moon—an embodiment of the explosion of new religious movements in the 1970s. He was a mysterious, fabulously wealthy figure who set up his own newspaper in Washington D.C. to promote his political ideology—and didn’t mind losing tons of money to keep The Washington Times afloat. Most famously, of course, he seemed to lack even a shred of modesty in claiming ever-more-grandiose religious titles. He eventually declared himself—among other things—“humanity’s savior.”
His empire, estimated in the billions, now falls to his many children, business partners and his religious colleagues to sort out. In the end, his religious message of anti-Communism and a relentless focus on him and his family seem almost nostalgic—an exotic sub-chapter in future histories of 20th Century world religion and the Cold War.
As Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine, I recall watching his Unification Church seize front-page headlines especially in the 1970s and 1980s. Who could ignore his mass weddings—filling huge arenas with brides and grooms? Who couldn’t at least glance at the huge demonstrations he funded on behalf of various causes, including events described as promoting world peace and stronger families. In the early 1980s, religion newswriters nationwide also followed Moon’s hotly contested conviction on income tax evasion—a conviction upheld on appeal and resulting in Moon spending more than a year in prison. He worked in the prison cafeteria.
One of the top religion newswriters of that era, Kenneth Briggs summed it up: “The Rev. Sun Myung Moon was jailed on questionable allegations, and he took his punishment in a Connecticut prison with exemplary forbearance.”
Overall, though, Moon was and still is a mystery. Few American journalists ever had access to his inner circle, which was tightly protected in his Korean home base—not only a vast distance from American newsrooms but also protected by a daunting language barrier.
In marking his passing, I am drawing no judgments here about his status—either legal or divine. However, Sun Myung Moon already is wrapped in the mysterious shrouds that religious pioneers carry as they recede into the back-stage recesses of American culture. Yes, that’s right: Ultimately, I think, Sun Myung Moon’s rise was a very American phenomenon.
Go back and read our interview with historian of religion Mitch Horowitz in June, when we talked about Mitch’s recovery of the infulential role Christian Larson played in 20th century positive thinking. Or go back and read our 2009 stories with Horowitz about Occult America, where we talked about a whole host of now-forgotten religious pioneers in American life. The United States is a land rich in faith and equally rich in the individual right to express oneself on all matters of life, including religion. America is a prolific hothouse of unusual religious movements. That really is the epitaph for Sun Myung Moon:
He loved himself, he loved America and, together, Moon and America set off a religious tidal wave.
BEST NEWS COVERAGE OF SUN MYUNG MOON
NEW YORK TIMES: The best overview I’ve seen is Daniel Wakin’s New York Times report from the day he died (Sept. 2 in New York’s time zone). Wakin writes in part: Mr. Moon courted world leaders, financed newspapers and founded numerous innocuously named civic organizations. To his critics, he pursued those activities mainly to lend legitimacy to his movement, known as the Unification Church, although his methods were sometimes questionable. In 2004, for example, he had himself crowned “humanity’s savior” in front of astonished members of Congress at a Capitol Hill luncheon.
ASSOCIATED PRESS: Reporting from Korea, Hyung-Jin Kim is doing a solid job of following the unfolding story. Here’s a USA Today version of Kim’s story about the feud that is likely to follow Moon’s passing. Kim writes in part: The Rev. Moon and wife Hak Ja Han have 10 surviving children and in recent years, the aging Moon had been handing power on the church’s religious, charitable and business entities to them. But there have been reports of family rifts. One son sued his mother’s missionary group in 2011, demanding the return of more than $22 million he claimed was sent without his consent from a company he runs to her charity. (And here is the earlier Associated Press obituary of Moon, as carried in the Washington Post.)
BILL TAMMEUS IN KANSAS CITY: Veteran religion newswriter Bill Tammeus, like most of us in journalism throughout the rise of Moon, is sharing a personal memory in his online column. Bill’s brief anecdote is headlined “Grace after an Eclipsed Moon.”
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.