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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?

September 10, 1996|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."

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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 Steve 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.

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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?"

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