Two decades after serving time in federal prison, Rev. Sun Myung Moon had so effectively worked his way back into the political establishment that some congressmen attended his “coronation” on Capitol Hill.
In an unusual ceremony held in March 2004 in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) donned white gloves and placed a gleaming crown atop Moon’s head. Moon informed the group that Hitler and Stalin had, from beyond the grave, proclaimed him “humanity’s savior, messiah, returning lord and true parent.”
Davis, who has since distanced himself from the Unification Church, said he thought the ceremony was an attempt to “bridge gaps” between different religions, and didn’t learn until later that Moon interpreted the crowning as a symbol of his religious and political ascendance. “Did I think he was being incarnated into anything?” said Davis, a deacon in his Baptist church in Chicago. “No. I think it’s ludicrous.”
Inside the church, though, followers saw the coronation as evidence that world leaders were recognizing Moon as a messiah. “Members of the U.S. Congress gathered to crown me as the king of world peace,” he said in a sermon in May of that year. “How can this possibly be a human work?”
The ceremony was an example of Moon’s acceptance as part of the American mainstream, which has included having former President George H.W. Bush speak at the 1996 launch of a Moon-affiliated newspaper in Argentina, news accounts show. In 2005, another Moon-affiliated company donated $250,000 to President George W. Bush’s inaugural committee.
While some religious scholars say Unification Church membership in the U.S. has stagnated at roughly 5,000, church officials contend it’s stronger than ever, with 12,000 in the U.S. and several million members worldwide.
Derided as a cult in the 1970s and ’80s that aggressively recruited young people to sell flowers in airports, the church changed its emphasis a decade ago to forming alliances with other faiths around issues such as abstinence and resistance to gay marriage.
Born in 1920 in what is now North Korea, Moon was raised as a Presbyterian, according to his official biography. When he was 16, he says, Jesus came to him in a vision and asked Moon to complete what he considered Christ’s unfinished task; in failing to marry and have children, Jesus offered only partial salvation to the world–stances considered heresy by mainstream Christians.
The church’s most spectacular rite remains mass weddings, which the church calls the way “fallen men and women can be engrafted into the true lineage of God.”
In 1954, Moon registered his Unification Church under the official name, The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity. As his movement has matured, his church’s members have moved away from communal living to more conventional family arrangements, and public criticism has quieted.
“It’s been here for a generation,” J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in California. “The concerns about it have just sort of drifted away.”