A Strange Unification
Back in the early 1990s, the Unification Church demanded an apology from a brash real-estate mogul they accused of using the church as “a scare tactic” in a “morally reprehensible” effort to get Palm Beach, Florida, officials to grant his zoning wishes. But that religious sect, founded by Sun Myung Moon — and thus often derisively called the “Moonies” — has apparently since made amends with that owner of Mar-a-Lago.
While many current officials and former presidents marked the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks last September at ground zero, former President Donald Trump instead offered commentary for a pay-per-view boxing match in Florida and virtually addressed a Christian Nationalism event at the National Mall. And he sent a recorded message to a conference held by the Unification Church. He thanked the Church’s Universal Peace Federation, and he praised the widow of the sect’s founder for her “amazing example of the power of faith in Almighty God.”
Then on Sunday (Feb. 13), Trump sent new video remarks to a Unification event deemed as the “Summit for Peace on the Korean Peninsula.” He recounted his “historic” meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, adding: “We got along. In fact, we liked each other a lot.” Trump also criticized “the weakness of our current leaders in the United States” for the fact that North Korea recently tested missiles, insisting that “would never have happened if I were president.” And he pledged to fight for rights given “by the hand of Almighty God.”
“America will be back and we will be back stronger and greater than ever before,” Trump added as he spoke in front of a backdrop that made him look like he was floating above the earth. “Please join me in working, striving, and praying for a Korea that is safe, prosperous, flourishing, united, and finally at peace.”
The former president wasn’t alone in adding his voice to the Unification Church over the weekend. Former Vice Presidents Dick Cheney and Dan Quayle also sent virtual greetings. And other prominent Republicans even flew over to South Korea for the summit, including former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and Trump’s top religious advisor Paula White.
Each of them lavished praise on the Unification group that hosted the meeting and on Moon’s widow who now leads the faith movement, Hak Ja Han Moon. The American politicians also peppered their remarks with religious references and biblical quotations, suggesting that the Unification Church shared their Christian faith.
Other than a few tweets and undetailed news reports, this religious-political gathering that attracted significant politicians from dozens of other nations went largely unnoticed. So, we watched hours of the Unification summit to offer a look at what’s going on and why it matters (but don’t worry, we didn’t convert).
In this issue of A Public Witness, we take you inside the Unification Church, its unusual religious teachings, and its quest for political influence. Then we listen to what U.S. politicians said at the most recent event to offer a word of warning about this heretical movement.
Promising the Moon
The origin story of the Unification Church, formally called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, goes back to 1936. On Easter Sunday that year, a 16-year old Moon (then known as Mun Yong-myeong) claims he experienced a direct encounter with Jesus. As his daughter, In Jin Moon, told NPR when Moon passed away in 2012, “What Jesus told my father back then is, ‘I did not come to die. I came to find my perfect bride, and we would create this thing called the true family, and we would encourage all of humanity to graft onto that true family through this thing called holy blessing.’”
Whereas traditional Christianity understands the cross as the ultimate example of God’s love and victory, the Unification Church perceives the crucifixion as a failure that stymied God’s plan to create “the true family.” This made Moon “a necessary second Messiah because Jesus failed to complete his mission on Earth.”
Such heretical claims regularly come under fire from Christian leaders and organizations. Back in the 1970s, the National Council of Churches denied recognition to the Unification Church, finding many of its beliefs “incompatible” with Christianity. The North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention provides an apologetics guide to engaging Unification Church members, noting that biblical scholars “are in universal agreement that Moon’s revelations and the church’s theological teachings contradict clear biblical teachings.” One of Christianity Today’s most provocative articles of the last decade was related to the Unification movement’s influence.
The Unification Church might be best known for its mass wedding ceremonies. The Church matches couples together and then will marry thousands of couples at the same time in a large blessing ceremony.
Despite their status as religious outsiders, the Unification Church and its leaders have long sought influence in American public life. Moon famously founded the Washington Times as a conservative news alternative that he declared to be “the instrument in spreading God’s truth to the world.” Beyond media holdings, the Unification Church has reached into higher education, political advocacy, and even automobile manufacturing.
Moon’s widow continues to guide the Unification Church as the remaining “true parent,” but it is one of their sons that is drawing attention within the United States. Sean Moon leads the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary Church and its “Rod of Iron Ministries” in Pennsylvania. Referred to by his members as “king,” he uses it as a perch to promote far-right conspiracy theories and a militaristic gospel. Steve Bannon and other MAGA figures have participated in events hosted by the congregation, which drew national attention in 2018 for mass worship and wedding services featuring guns as an integral part of the ritual. Vice reported the congregation bought property in Texas to provide “safe-haven for ‘patriots’ from what they believe is an imminent war brought by the ‘deep state.’” And the Tennessean reported they also bought land for a retreat center in Tennessee.
Despite outlandish agendas and heretical beliefs, Moon, his family, and his followers regularly gain access to the highest echelons of American political and religious power.
Friends in High Places
The leaders of the world had “declared to all heaven and earth that Reverend Sun Myung Moon is none other than humanity’s Savior, Messiah, Returning Lord, and True Parent.” Those words, spoken by Moon himself, were uttered not in South Korea but in Washington, D.C. They were not preached in the sanctuary of the Unification Church’s D.C. cathedral but proclaimed on Capitol Hill inside a U.S. Senate office building.
They were part of an elaborate coronation ceremony in March 2004 attended by members of Congress from both parties, with one — Rep. Danny Davis, a Democrat from Illinois — actually carrying one of the crowns used in anointing. According to John Gorenfeld of Salon, who broke the story, “Moon told his bipartisan audience of Washington power players he would save everyone on Earth as he had saved the souls of Hitler and Stalin — the murderous dictators had been born again through him.”
Once controversy erupted, those in attendance struggled to explain their attendance. Some professed surprise, claimed to be “duped,” or excused their presence by saying they didn’t stay for the ceremony. Roscoe Bartlett, then a Republican representative from Maryland, may have offered the most creative response.
“I remember the king and queen thing,” he told the New York Times, “But we have the king and queen of the prom, the king and queen of 4-H, the Mardi Gras, and all sorts of other things. I had no idea what he was king of.”
Members of Congress crowning a cult leader as the messiah in the literal halls of American power is the most extreme example, but similar scandals around the Unification Church and its controversial founder have arisen over the years. Gorenfeld has written about more of these in his 2008 book Bad Moon Rising: How Reverend Moon Created the Washington Times, Seduced the Religious Right, and Built an American Kingdom.
One incident sparked controversy among the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. As part of the festivities around the inauguration of President George W. Bush, prominent faith leaders were invited to a prayer luncheon hosted by the Unification Church and prominently featuring Moon, though it was apparently not advertised as such.
Morris Chapman, who at the time was the CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention, told Baptist Press, “I was shocked to see that Sun Myung Moon was on the program and in essence, the host.” James Merritt, a longtime SBC leader who spoke at the event, added, “I was even more surprised on the way out of the banquet hall to be given a propaganda book on the Unification Church.”
Yet, famous Christian Right leaders were hardly strangers to Moon. Organizations connected to the Unification Movement helped rescue Jerry Falwell Sr.’s Liberty University from financial ruin in the 1990s. Ralph Reed, Gary Bauer, Tim LaHaye, and Robert Schuller all graced Moon-related platforms. And one SBC leader kept participating in Unification Church events even after apologizing to Southern Baptists and Korean Baptists for doing so.
Back in 1998, the theologian James Beverly told Christianity Today that Christian Right leaders overlooked theological differences with the Unification Church because “they share many of [Moon’s] moral and political values.” The article also noted “speakers at such events often have their trips to exotic locales fully financed in addition to receiving generous honorariums.”
While much has changed over the last 20-30 years, much appears to remain the same.
Given the history of the Unification Church controversies, each of the politicians who spoke at the peace summit over the weekend should’ve known about the group with which they were aligning. This time, the sponsorship was clear in the promotions. The politicians who sent video remarks and who spoke in person specifically praised the sponsoring Unification group and Moon’s widow.
The theology of the Unification Church also showed up in the event and other recent ones. Over the weekend, Moon’s widow spoke about her sect’s beliefs on creation, human sin, salvation, Jesus, and how she and her late husband are the true parents “that God has sent.” With Pence, Pompeo, and Gingrich sitting in the front row, she said “it’s essential that all people be reborn through” the true parents “so that they can become God’s children.” She added, “God’s dream, our creator’s dream was to be able to embrace all his children through the true parents. And he has dreamt of the kingdom of heaven on earth, and that work began in 1960” (a reference to when she and the late Moon were married).
This theology also includes a vision of uniting the world’s various religions. For instance, at the gathering last September where Donald Trump sent a video and Paula White, Mike Pompeo, and Newt Gingrich also spoke, Young-ho Yun, chairman of the organizing committee for that forum declared, “The substantial unification of religions may be possible. No matter what you call the absolute origin, God, whatever you call this entity, God, Allah, Jehovah, or the Amitabha they speak of in Buddhism, in the end this is our heavenly parent. If we can reveal God’s identity as our parent, I am confident this unification will be possible.”
Yet, despite the heretical nature of the Unification Church’s theology, American politicians speak of the group as a gathering of Christians. By showing up, influential public figures give the Unification movement political legitimacy. By parroting Unification buzzwords mixed with biblical passages, their speeches provide spiritual validity.
“I applaud you all for shining the light on universal values that all people can share,” declared Dan Quayle in his virtual remarks to the summit last weekend sponsored by the Universal Peace Foundation. “That is why I support one of the main themes of UPF. That we are one family under God. That is a positive and powerful message.”
Pompeo framed the main issue of the summit in terms of a shared divine mission in a speech that included biblical quotations and comments about helping those persecuted for their religion. This fit with how the Unification Church billed the event as focused on creating a “heavenly-unified Korea.”
“The moment for reunification will happen. That day will come. And as a Christian, I think that’s because the idea of reconciliation and reunification is at the core of the gospel as God welcomes us to himself. There’s a divine authorship of even the simplest emotions,” Pompeo said. “Continue your efforts. The Lord is at our back and he will welcome the reunification of the peninsula.”
Pence, who like Pompeo might mount a 2024 presidential run, similarly gave a speech filled with scripture citations and biblical allusions. Long known for his evangelical faith, the former VP gave speeches at the summit last weekend much like one he would give to his fellow evangelicals.
“Let us reason together with the time that we have. Let us work, and as we begin this gathering let us pray,” he said as he quoted verses from Isaiah 40.
In another speech, he quoted Jesus from the Sermon on Mount about peacemakers and said “we pray” for peace on the Korean peninsula “because nothing is impossible with God.” He added, “Remember, when we make peace our cause, when we make justice our cause, we make his cause on this earth our very own.”
Not to be outdone, Trump spiritual advisor Paula White spoke repeatedly at the summit over the weekend. And she made clear that she views the late Moon and “Mother Moon” as “Christian leaders.”
“I want to honor and thank you, Mother Moon, for your great work as a spiritual leader who loves the Lord and seeks to bring comfort to God’s heart in all the conflict areas of the world. Your faith and your courage is very moving,” White added. “You’re the epitome of Matthew chapter 5, specifically verse nine: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God.’”
Like Pompeo and Pence, she cast the mission of Korean reunification as a shared divine mission, claiming “true peace can only fully be achieved with faith” so “we must bring God directly into the equation.” White also espoused Christian Nationalism as she pressed this vision. After saying that “only by honoring God can we end this sad division of the beautiful Korean people,” she added: “We must go forward together with the political leaders as they are called by God to restore and reconstitute this nation and all nations into the ideal that God has always sought.”
This is where we have to ask: What in God’s name is going on?
We’re not necessarily saying that politicians should never speak to a Unification Church event. No group should be excommunicated from the body politic due to their religious beliefs. But given the precious commodity of time, it is a mystery why these leaders — who must turn down vast numbers of speaking requests — are spending so much time engaging a cultish organization, especially when attendees at the South Korean event aren’t eligible to vote in the next U.S. election. The weekend summit was at least the third time Pence and Pompeo addressed a Unification event over the past year. Are the speaking fees that lucrative? Is there another motivation?
Additionally, if a politician or faith leader decides to speak at a Unification event, they shouldn’t pretend to share a common religion. While the former president is famously irreligious, he identifies as a Christian. Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Dan Quayle, and Newt Gingrich are quite public about their Christian convictions. And while Paula White preaches a prosperity gospel, she still claims to follow Jesus. None of these leaders appear to believe Sun Myung Moon was either savior or messiah, nor do they claim the cross represents a failure on Jesus’s part. Yet, with their presence and especially their words, they provide the Unification movement with the legitimacy its leaders crave.
We don’t think all this should be overlooked as mere pandering. The comments at the Unification summit go beyond niceties. Their remarks rhetorically baptized the Unification Church by casting them as mainstream Christians through “we” language, assertions of divine support, and even invoking key Unification terms.
We suspect these leaders are counting on American evangelicals remaining unaware of their participation or ignorant of the theological disagreements involved. Which is why we must call attention to this summit and the rhetoric. We refuse to allow this odd confluence of religion and political power to eclipse the gospel.
As a public witness,
Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood
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