(This article originally appeared in the September 7, 1984, issue of Christianity Today.)

Full acceptance into the mainstream of American religious life is a cherished goal of Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. Ironically, Moon's recent imprisonment for tax evasion appears to be bringing that dream a step closer to reality.

"Religious freedom" rallies around the country are drawing thousands of unsuspecting Christians into emotionally charged meetings that portray Moon as a persecuted man of God. No ties with the Unification Church are mentioned in promotional mailings. The sponsors are identified as a coalition of Christian leaders including author Tim LaHaye; Robert Grant, of Christian Voice; and Joseph Lowery, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Greg Dixon and Everett Sileven, leaders of a coalition of independent, fundamentalist churches, are involved as well.

The sponsors view Moon as a persecuted ally in an escalating battle against secular humanism and government intrusion into church ministries. "One person's religious freedom equates to everyone's religious freedom," LaHaye says. "If one person's freedom is robbed, then potentially anyone's religious freedom can be robbed." Whether Moon is a victim of persecution or a felon is a matter of considerable debate. There is little doubt, however, that the entire affair is a public relations bonanza for his church.

"His jailing brought the issue home," says Joy Garratt, public affairs director for Moon's church. "We're not just talking theories anymore, and it's scaring people." Garratt says a fundamentalist pastor told her he no longer ignores appeals for money from Moonie solicitors. "I realize you've been targeted as a scapegoat by anti-religious people, and I'm next," she says he told her.

But a number of pastors are wary of the Moonies' motives. Darrel Malcom, senior pastor of Webber Street Church of Christ in Urbana, Illinois, accepted an offer for an expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to attend the massive "Pageant for Religious Freedom" on July 25. He learned of the event from two Unification Church members in Urbana. Their involvement gave him pause, but he says he accepted their invitation because he respects LaHaye. LaHaye is cochairman of the Coalition on Religious Freedom, the group that sponsored the event. Malcom says he enjoyed the lavish production, but returned home feeling "a little bit used."

"There are some issues we need to be aware of, but I personally do not perceive as great a threat as some who sponsored the rally," he says. "I felt there was a hidden agenda of trying to buy legitimacy [for Moon] within the Christian community. I'm not ready to grant that."

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When Malcom returned home, Unification Church members asked him to consider sponsoring a local rally in support of Moon. "They wanted to meet and discuss getting Christians together," he says. "I said I do not consider their group Christian."

Lori Antolock, deputy assistant to Moon's top aide, says half of the several thousand pastors who attended the Washington rally were offered expense paid trips. She says the pageant cost at least $250,000, a substantial portion of which was donated by the Unification Church. Neither Antolock nor Garratt would specify the amount. LaHaye says he does not know who paid for ministers to attend, adding, "I had nothing to do with the financing of [the rally].

"By no stretch of the imagination does my participation in that rally indicate that I support Reverend Moon's doctrine," LaHaye says. "Frankly, I don't really know what his doctrine is. But in America, Reverend Moon and [Nebraska pastor] Reverend Sileven and every other religious organization ought to have the freedom to communicate their doctrine within the framework of the law."

LaHaye's coalition is particularly upset about Internal Revenue Service scrutiny of church finances, government hostility toward church-run schools, and social security taxation. The plight of Sileven's church in Louisville, Nebraska, has become a focal point for them. In that case, Sileven and several parents of students at his church-run school were jailed for refusing to hire only state-certified teachers.

A newspaper distributed to participants at the "Pageant for Religious Freedom" listed these grievances, but failed to mention that Congress has approved a new law that tightly restricts audits of churches. Congress also has passed a measure that allows churches to opt out of paying social security taxes for their employees.

Inside Washington's Constitution Hall, the pageant linked Sileven and Moon with victims of persecution from America's past, including slaves during pre-Civil War days and Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon). Flanked by replicas of the Liberty Bell and Statue of Liberty, a 50-voice choir sang hymns and patriotic songs.

A narrator introduced actors portraying heroes of American religious history. At the end, a melodramatic enactment of Moon's trial and sentencing drew a chorus of boos and hisses for his prosecutor and sustained cheers for Moon.

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Following the performance, LaHaye spoke to the audience. "If we have the same percentage of religious freedom attacks in the next 15 years as we have had in the past 15 years, we'll no longer have religious freedom in America," he said. LaHaye did not mention Moon by name.

The evening's dramatic climax came when Moon's daughter, In Jin Moon, choked back tears as she spoke of her father. "I have almost never seen my father sleep. He is always up working and praying. I have never seen anyone so dedicated to America's dream and to God." She read a statement prepared by Moon for the gathering. It referred to America as God's final hope, "his precious jewel which he prepared for the final battle against atheistic communism in the last days."

Moon's statement emphasized the need for churches to unite—a central theme of Unification teaching. "Here in prison God can use me to awaken America more powerfully than ever before. America's religious communities must be united to preserve religious freedom."

Garratt says members of the Unification Church in Washington number between 300 and 500, and many of them took part in the rally. A Moonie from New York estimates that 100 adherents traveled from that area. Most were soft-spoken, young, and earnest. They hovered near reporters and anticult protesters, interrupting conversations about Moon with spirited defenses of their cause.

Chris Nauser, a 36-year-old Moonie from Switzerland, viewed the rally as "just one part of the whole development of an awakening" that will sweep the world. He shares the belief of most of Moon's followers that Moon himself is the Messiah. The Unification Church teaches that Jesus Christ failed in his redemptive mission and, before his death, lied about his coming resurrection. Moonies teach that mankind is in need of physical redemption, which will come by the marriage of an ideal man and woman. The man is to be from Korea—Moon himself.

According to former Moonie Steven Hassan, members of the church shed their personal religious freedom upon entering the church. Although many members leave voluntarily, Hassan says they are threatened with supernatural reprisals for doing so, such as demonic possession, an early death, or the birth of stillborn babies.

When Moon stood trial for tax evasion in 1982, numerous denominations and Christian organizations filed friend-of-the-court briefs on his behalf. He was found guilty of failing to report $112,000 in earned interest and for receiving $50,000 worth of corporate stock without declaring them taxable. His trial turned on the questions of whether the money belonged to Moon personally or was being held in trust for the church. In prosecuting the case, the U.S. Justice Department characterized Moon as a business mogul rather than a religious leader. Explanations of his behavior based on his role as a religious leader were deemed inadmissible.

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That approach drew cries of outrage from many Christians who viewed it as unjust. A brief filed for the National Council of Churches and five other groups concluded, "Little of what even modern-day mainstream churches routinely do would survive intact if squeezed through a religion-extracting filter." It pointed out that many missionaries abroad and ministers in America hold nontaxable income for their organizations.

The case brought into sharp focus a central question about the Unification Church's primary reason for being. Critics perceive the organization as more of a multinational corporation than a church, pointing out that Moon operates three daily newspapers and hundreds of secular business enterprises.

Hassan, who coordinates support efforts in New England for former cult members from various groups, says the Unification Church is losing ground in its recruiting efforts. The church claims 30,000 American adherents and three million members worldwide. However, Hassan says fewer than 7,000 people could be considered active in the church.

Perhaps it is because enrollments are sluggish that the Unification Church is diverting resources toward establishing a firm foothold on the religious landscape. The church's efforts include hosting scientific, technical, and religious conferences worldwide at which noted authorities participate free of charge. The church's New Ecumenical Research Association recruits graduate students of different faiths who are perceived as future church leaders for expense-paid trips to the Holy Land.

Its march toward acceptability could signal some profound realignments. "I'm not concerned about the Unification Church advancing its cause here in America, because I'm convinced there are so many people being freed by the truth of the gospel," says LaHaye. "What I'm concerned about is the spread of religious persecution that will lead to a totalitarian state where we will lose religious freedom."

In Illinois, Pastor Malcom has been studying 2 Chronicles 19 and 20. "Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord?" the seer Jehu asked. Malcom finds the question particularly relevant, and he sees no pat answer.

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"I've got to think this thing through," he says. "I'm well aware there are forces against Christianity which use their power to wreak havoc. I'm also aware there were groups in Germany that didn't protest when minorities were persecuted, so I have mixed emotions about it."

This article originally appeared in the September 7, 1984, issue of Christianity Today. At the time, Beth Spring was a Washington Correspondent.

Related Elsewhere

Also appearing on our site today:
In Perspective: Why Are Pastors Flying to Moon | Recent black clergy firings are only the latest chapter in Unification Church's efforts to court Christian leaders.

CT Classic: Unification Church Ties Haunt New Coalition | Are followers of Sun Myung Moon expanding their influence among conservative Christians? (Feb. 5, 1998)

CT Classic: Sun Myung Moon's Followers Recruit Christians to Assist in Battle Against Communism | Funded by the Unification Church, CAUSA seeks an interfaith effort based on Moon's theology. (June 14, 1985)

CT Classic: The Unification Church Aims a Major Public Relations Effort at Christian Leaders | A mass mailing to 300,000 church leaders tries to clarify the teachings of Sun Myung Moon. (April 19, 1985)