Sun Myung Moon, founder and spiritual leader of the South Korea-based Unification Church, died outside Seoul on Sunday at age 92 and will be mourned by his followers, who considered him a prophet and
called him their “True Father.”
Although the church, now headed by the founder’s son, Hyung Jin Moon, has millions of followers in the East, particularly in South Korea and Japan, only a few thousand members are in the United States. Many in the West considered him a cult leader whose followers participated in odd-seeming customs. Believers passed out flowers on street corners and held mass weddings, with thousands of couples taking their vows in stadium-size venues such as Madison Square Garden.
Moon, who preached a mixture of “fundamentalist Christianity, anti-communism and self deification,” was first noticed in political Washington during spring 1974, syndicated columnist Jack Anderson reported the following year, when Moon’s disciples “blitzed Capitol Hill, begging congressmen to forgive and forget any transgressions then-President Nixon may have committed.”
The story that Anderson, a muckraker, and other post-Watergate members of the media were following related to an investigation by the House subcommittee on international organizations and a Justice Department probe of influence-peddling by members of Congress. More than 100 members of Congress, administrative officials and even a few reporters were suspected of accepting bribes and inappropriate favors from the Korea Central Intelligence Agency via a shady businessman
and fellow countryman of Moon’s named Tongsun Park.
Park fled the country to avoid an indictment, and although the “Moon Organization” was strongly implicated in the House report, Moon survived the scandal. He was eventually charged with conspiracy and filing false federal income tax returns and served 13 months in prison.
The religious leader remained in the United States, where his church had run its headquarters for almost three decades. His organization acquired valuable real estate and founded the Washington Times newspaper. Purchasing a former Mormon temple church in the District, he established the Unification Church on prime real estate at 16th St. NW and Columbia Road. In a series on cults, The Washington Post’s Marc Fisher and Jeff Leen reported in 1997 that Moon’s empire had become “a robust, diverse business — especially in the Washington area.” At that time, the movement controlled “more than $300 million in commercial, political and cultural enterprises.”
Although he once sponsored a rally of 300,000 by the Washington Monument, by the mid 1990s, Moon declared that “the period of religion is passing away.” He returned to South Korea more than 15 years ago but maintained close relationships with American conservative political figures throughout his life.
In Washington, his influence is still being felt.
Follow Bonnie Goldstein on Twitter at @KickedByAnAngel.