Ronald S. Godwin is a senior vice president of The Washington Times. His title was misstated in an article in Saturday's religion section. (Published 2/23/88)
A new conservative lobbying organization, working closely with activists from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church movement, has launched a nationwide campaign aimed at winning a pardon for Lt. Col. Oliver L. North.
The American Freedom Coalition, chaired by former representatives Richard Ichord (D-Mo.) and Bob Wilson (R-Calif.), recently sent more than a million letters asking recipients to stop the "persecution" of the former National Security Council aide and sign a "Pardon Colonel North" petition to President Reagan.
The letter offers, in exchange for donations to the coalition, color glossy photographs of North or a videotape containing highlights from North's congressional testimony last summer.
"We think North is a hero and he ought to be treated as such," said Robert Grant, chairman of the lobbying group Christian Voice and president of the coalition.
The mailings, conducted by direct mail specialist Richard Viguerie, have generated a "phenomonal" response, giving the group a membership base of more than 300,000 and resulting in the distribution of more than 50,000 North videos, Grant said.
It is a base that, according to Grant, the group hopes to use to eventually promote a wide array of issues, ranging from profamily legislation to the Strategic Defense Initiative.
But as it gathers steam, the coalition also is stirring increasing controversy within religious and conservative political circles over its close ties to Moon's Unification Church movement. Bo Hi Pak, Moon's top deputy and president of the Moon-owned Washington Times, was instrumental in founding the group and one of Pak's chief political aides, Phillip Sanchez, president of Causa USA, is a member of the coalition's national policy board.
In addition, Grant said, Causa has "turned over" to the freedom coalition a network of activists in all 50 states -- most of whom are Unification Church members -- to help build local support for the coalition.
Although Grant has acknowledged in recent interviews some of the group's ties with Moon, the coalition's literature never mentions the Unification Church and Pak's name is not listed as a member of the group's five-member board of directors, which includes veteran civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy.
In recent weeks, some critics have alleged that the coalition is the latest in a series of well-financed efforts by Moon's movement to gain credibility by forming alliances with evangelical Christians and New Right conservatives.
"We think evangelicals need to know just who is currently targeting them for volunteers and financial support," said Robert P. Dugan, director of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 50,000 churches, in a recent bulletin criticizing the coalition. "The inside word is that, when organizing is complete, Moonies will be in charge."
The debate over the Unification Church's involvement in conservative and religious activities is not a new one. Operating through a variety of organizations, such as Causa, the American Leadership Conference and the World Media Association, Moon-affiliated enterprises have funneled millions of dollars to conservative activists in recent years and to anticommunist conferences, trips and seminars, according to officials familiar with the group's activities.
Under the banner of halting persecution of unpopular religious groups, it also has sought to make common cause with many evangelicals and black ministers -- an effort that began three years ago during the campaign to gain a presidential pardon for Moon from his conviction on tax evasion and conspiracy charges.
Pak has been out of the country for two months and has been unavailable for interviews on the subject, said Ron Godwin, the publisher of The Washington Times who also has been serving as an unpaid adviser to the American Freedom Coalition. But Grant and other group leaders bristle at criticism of their ties with Moon's movement, saying they are willing to work with any group that shares their conservative goals.
"One thing about the Unification Church -- they are the strongest anticommunist church in the United States," said Ichord, who operates a Washington lobbying firm that works for a number of leading defense contractors. "As such, we share their beliefs."