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On the Rebound

The Rev. Sun Myung Moon has been down, but never out. Now he’s focusing on family values with conferences and big-name speakers such as George Bush. But is he just trying to buy credibility?

By MEREDITH FERGUSON, Special to The Times

WASHINGTON, D.C.–Amid the grandeur of giant Corinthian columns and the soaring archways of the great hall of the National Building Museum, 1,500 smartly dressed men and women from around the world have convened to talk about family values and world peace.

Seated in rows of dainty, bamboo-style chairs, the mostly middle-aged attendees await speeches from an all-star cast of religious leaders, entertainers and former heads of state, including George Bush and Gerald Ford. Many delegates adjust their earphones as interpreters stand ready to translate into five languages.

A United Nations conference?

Far from it.

This high-powered Inaugural World Convention of the Family Federation for World Peace held this summer is sponsored by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, and his wife, Hak Ja Han Moon.

Yes, the same Rev. Moon who calls himself the Messiah and claims he is the second coming of Christ, with a special calling to unite all people, all nations and all religions to create a world centered on God and true love. Since Moon founded the Unification Church in Seoul in 1954, it has experienced more than its share of ups and downs. Starting in the ’60s, followers of Moon became a familiar sight on U.S. college campuses, where they recruited members and collected donations for flowers amid allegations that the church fostered controversial fund-raising practices and used mind-controlling recruitment techniques.

Moon was imprisoned for a year in the early 1980s for U.S. income tax evasion. He also has faced criticism for presiding over mass “holy weddings” and for his right-wing political views. But what almost did him in was the end of the Cold War, which all but undermined his identity–and primary drawing card–as a staunch anti-communist.

“The end of the Cold War just about destroyed Moon,” said G. Gordon Melton, director of the Santa Barbara-based Institute of the Study of American Religion, an independent research center that studies new religions. “He was as strong an anti-communist as there was. He had to deal with the fact that communism is no longer a threat.”

Yet Moon and the church have endured, displaying a resilience that few could have predicted.

Perhaps the best illustration of their staying power was evident here during the recent world peace convention, one in a series of conferences founded by the Moons. Moon, 76, sat just a few feet away from Ford as the former president delivered a speech on the importance of family.

That striking picture recalls what Moon said a year ago, upon receiving an honorary degree from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, which the Moon-founded Professors Academy of World Peace took over in 1992, investing $98 million in the school.

“The entire world did everything it could to put an end to me, yet I did not die, and today I am sitting on top of the world,” enthused Moon. Moon’s comeback can be tied to the whopping speakers’ fees that help draw marquee names to his conferences that showcase America’s cultural conservatism, helping him attain a respectability that some find troublesome. His conservative message–featuring some of America’s most well-known public figures–is gaining him new credibility, and perhaps expanding the church’s appeal.

“He teaches the importance of family,” said Andrew Bacus, an attorney and church spokesman. “We strive to be accepted as a mainline religion. We want to spread our religion in the marketplace of ideas.” “Family values is a salable commodity to get speakers and bring people out,” said Steven Hassan, a former church member and mental health counselor in Massachusetts.

In recent years, Moon and his wife have highlighted family values with a series of conferences sponsored by such organizations as the Women’s Federation for World Peace and the Family Federation for World Peace. Speakers have included George and Barbara Bush, Jack Kemp, Geraldine Ferraro, Jeane Kirkpatrick, William Bennett and Bill Cosby.

For the most part, they talk about noncontroversial subjects: the need for strong families, the dangers of drugs and crime, the importance of grandparents, the benefits of free enterprise. Yet critics say their presence at Moon conferences legitimizes Moon and his organizations.

When asked about her participation, Ferraro, the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1984 and now a commentator on CNN’s “Crossfire,” responded defensively.

“I speak to lots of groups I don’t agree with. Because I speak to them doesn’t mean I endorse their policies. What about people who read the Washington Times?” she said, referring to the newspaper that Moon founded here in 1982. “Do they give credence to Moon by reading the paper?”

Bennett, a former U.S. drug czar and secretary of education, spoke to the Family Federation for World Peace four times in 1995. Don Walker, his agent, said: “He makes his living giving speeches. This group approached us. They met his honorarium. I looked into what the group was and they said they were sponsored by the Washington Times Foundation. Mr. Bennett told them ahead of time, before agreeing to give the speeches, that he would talk about what he wanted to talk about.”

Although the speaking fees paid by Moon are confidential, they are said by industry sources to top $100,000 per speech in a few cases. “In a sense they have bought legitimacy,” said Ronald Enroth, professor of sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara.

And that angers Cynthia Lilley, who founded Mothers Opposed to Moon after her college-age daughter was recruited, she says, by the church and subjected to mind-control techniques that left her severely depressed–an allegation the church denies.

“These conventions are being touted as being for the family. The recruitment practices of the Unification Church destroys families. They use clips of these famous people to convince parents that the organization is OK.” Despite the impressive list of well-paid luminaries at Moon-founded events, some believe that the impact of Moon’s conferences are marginal at best.

“Does anyone seriously regard the content of these meetings?” asked Michael Warder, a former Unification Church official who now is vice president of the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank in Claremont. The answer begins to crystallize at the recent convention for world peace farewell banquet, which is running late.

The famous speakers are long gone and the weary delegates are now seated at round tables in the Washington Ballroom of the Sheraton Washington Hotel, where they are finishing their cheesecake.

Pat Boone, resplendent in a sparking silver jacket, is delivering a stirring rendition of “The Song of Exodus.”

After a reverential introduction by Dr. Bo Hi Pak, one of Moon’s chief lieutenants, Moon steps spryly to the stage.

He stands beside the podium, one arm draped over its corner. Despite a slight cough, the sturdily built Moon begins to speak animatedly in Korean, preaching a seemingly endless sermon on his views of fidelity in marriage. A few feet away, a translator struggles to keep up in English.

Church theology holds that mankind is under Satan’s power because of sexual sin, and Moon’s sermon is right on message.

“A man’s sexual organ belongs to his wife, this truth will never change,” Moon says, waving his hands.

“Look at the world–all decaying because men and women don’t realize the sexual organ belongs to their husbands and wives. . . . Anyone who doesn’t agree is crazy,” Moon tells his rapt audience. Forty minutes later, he is still going strong. “He may go on for sometime,” says a devout church member. “It’s all inspirational.”

But Moon is more than just a charismatic religious leader. He is also a financial genius who has shrewdly adapted to changing times. Today, Moon is engaging his former enemies–such as the communists–in joint business ventures. The movement controls interests that manufacture cars in southern China, own fishing fleets around the world, operate casinos in South America, and is making inroads in the former Soviet Union, including sponsoring Russian students to study in America. It’s all part of a billion-dollar financial empire that is owned not by Moon himself, but by a network of Unification Church officials and members who provide funding for Moon-sponsored projects.

Here in the nation’s capital, the Washington Times continues to enjoy an influence far beyond its 100,000 circulation. Starting in the Reagan years and continuing right through the 1995 Republican takeover of Congress, the Times remains a must-read among the nation’s political power brokers.

Much of Moon’s core financial base is generated by donations and businesses in Japan, a nation where many nontraditional religions have held an appeal since government control of religion decreased markedly after World War II. But a rash of lawsuits and negative media attention have weakened his Japanese base and may be one reason behind Moon’s increasing focus on Latin America.

According to Bacus, there are only 200 full-time fund-raisers operating within the church in the U.S., which he said has a membership of 30,000 to 40,000, with at least two congregations in each state. Scholars who follow the church say membership peaked in the ’70s and has stabilized at about 6,000 members, with a total of 50,000, if former members are included. “One of the main goals of the Unification Church is to receive legitimacy by association. They constantly play up their association with the respectable mainstream,” said Enroth, the sociology professor.

Despite Moon’s efforts to gain legitimacy for his movement, the Unification Church remains quite isolated from the religious mainstream. “I expect the Washington Times will become another Christian Science Monitor,” said Melton, the director of the Institute of the Study of American Religion. “The church will grow very slowly through Korean immigration and by an influx of a modest number of young people. They will become like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Seventh-Day Adventists–another group on the fringe.”

Copyright Los AngelesTimes 9/10/96