Global takeover conspiracy theories. Christian pastors and local sheriffs still pissed that Donald Trump lost the 2020 election. And the head of a group that even the reserved Facebook censors labeled a “violent social militia.”
Few Americans are even aware that the gun company Kahr and a rural Pennsylvania doomsday church—both run by the same ultra-rich Korean family—hold an annual “Freedom Festival” that attracts gun enthusiasts and the type of people who attach “Don’t Tread on Me” flags to the back of their trucks. But in the wake of the failed Jan. 6 insurrection, the event’s amalgamation of sovereign citizens and alt-truthers has taken on a new meaning. And now, it’s even got an all-star lineup.
This year’s top speakers include Steve Bannon, once the chief strategist for President Trump, Dana Loesch, the former aggressively vocal National Rifle Association spokeswoman who made millions while achieving celebrity status in the gun industry, and a smattering of alt-right figures known for championing Trump and the Second Amendment.
Ryan Busse, a former gun industry executive turned self-described whistleblower, told The Daily Beast that the presence of such high-profile speakers lends a dangerous credibility to the armed American fringe that is increasingly angry, vocal, and demanding of government policies that cater to their politics.
“It’s going to send a message across the country that this is normal, that this is OK. This is American fascism being developed right before our eyes,” Busse said. “This is like 1936 Germany in a symposium.”
“The one that concerns me the most is Dana Loesch,” Busse added. “She's treated by gun consumers like royalty and here she is legitimizing this insanity. That scares me.”
As Busse said, it wasn’t the first “doomsday cult” in the world. “But it's the first one that a former spokesperson for the NRA is speaking at.”
(Neither Bannon nor Loesch responded to requests for comment.)
The free festival’s itinerary includes live music, firearms training, a “machine gun shoot,” and a “patriotic fireworks display.” They also plan to auction off guns to raise money for the NRA and Gun Owners of America, which touts itself as being “the only no-compromise gun lobby in Pennsylvania.”
The weekend festival is taking place in Greeley, Pennsylvania, near the company headquarters of Kahr Firearms Group, a relatively small manufacturer that makes semi-automatic handguns. Kahr is run by a family commonly derided as “the Moonies” because of its more famous legacy: a Christianity-based religious movement started in the 1950s by the patriarch, Sun Myung Moon.
The elder Moon founded “The Family Federation for World Peace and Unification,” claiming to be a messiah and eventually moving to the United States. While Sun Myung Moon became a prominent figure in the American conservative movement—founding The Washington Times newspaper—one of his sons, Justin Moon, founded the Kahr gun company in 1995. And another son, Hyung Jin Sean Moon, inherited an offshoot of the church that goes by the “World Peace and Unification Sanctuary” and warns about “the End of Times.”
With the patriarch now deceased, his sons have largely merged their worlds. The reverend son now refers to his church with a more militant name—Rod of Iron Ministries—an allusion to his unification of disparate ideas: faith and guns. And churchgoers wear metal crowns on their heads, signifying individuals’ ultimate sovereign authority over themselves.
They also carry semi-automatic rifles like AR-15s and AK-47s, fashioning their guns like pious medieval knights would a sword. They are, as the church itself has called them, “the accouterments of the nation of Cheon Il Guk,” so much so that Rev. Moon wears a crown of actual bullets and carries a gold-plated semi-automatic rifle.
The church’s “rod of iron” theme is a direct reference to a Jesus Christ quote in the Bible’s apocalyptic final book of Revelation, in which Jesus foretells his eventual return to Earth: “Hold fast what you have ’til I come. And he who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations—‘He shall rule them with a rod of iron.’”
In this case, Moon has interpreted that to literally mean the barrel of a rifle.
As he laid out in a February 2018 sermon titled “The King's Report,” one of the most coveted powers in the world today is “the rod of iron," pointing at a black semi-automatic rifle positioned in front of him. "Governments will not give it to the people. America is the only exception. But it’s quickly running away…” Moon said. “And America can quickly degrade because of the democratic process and people like Hillary Clinton and the leftists, radical leftists taking power and disarming people.”
It might seem comical that the church puts together an annual firearms enthusiast meetup that features such events as a gun-toting fashion show equipped with a runway and all. However, J.J. MacNab, a research fellow at Georgia Washington University’s Program on Extremism who monitors anti-government movements, warned that it’d be unwise to laugh or dismiss what the movement has become—and its place in the national far-right wave.
“They’ve never really gotten the attention I think they should, because they’re not a white supremacy group. Anybody that’s pushing such a hearty mix of guns and religion are problematic to me. And the doomsday element is there. It’s effectively talking about death,” she told The Daily Beast.
Although most of the listed events at this year’s festival are related to “surviving the onslaught” of gun control and self-defense classes, others criss-cross the conspiracy theory landscape.
There’s a talk by an anti-vaxxer known as “Mel K” warning about “the great reset” of the United Nations “Agenda 23” and “Agenda 30,” references to a conspiracy theory about how the UN is working on a secret eco-totalitarian plot to force people to move to cities. (The “New World Order” is, predictably, involved.)
There’s Charles Sam Faddis, whose bio describes him as a former CIA operations officer and who is giving a seminar about “election integrity.” He’s pushed debunked election fraud claims on his show, episodes of which were booted from YouTube for violating community guidelines.
And there are “freedom awards,” hosted by Joey Gibson, the founder of the Patriot Prayers, which violently clashed with anti-fascist protestors across the northwest in recent years. The group was recently kicked off Facebook for being a “violent social militia.”
Two pastors are also set to talk about “bringing back the black robed regiment,” a reference to clergy used during the American Revolution that carries a more ominous tone when put into context of an overarching theme in the gun world: preparing for civil war.
And, of course, there’s going to be a “Trump AR-15 giveaway.”
A spokesman for the church declined to provide the pastor for an interview Thursday evening, noting that The Daily Beast’s interview request came as he was preparing for the event. When asked whether it was appropriate to mix gun ownership with political topics that espouse anti-democratic sentiment, the church spokesman pushed back.
“Pastor Sean… is a STRONG proponent of freedom and democracy and often speaks out against how ANTI-democratic ’cancel’ culture, ‘wokeness’ and identity politics are,” Regis Hanna wrote in an email.
The family-run gun company, Kahr, did not return a request for comment.
But Busse, who wrote a tell-all book that comes out this month titled “Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry That Radicalized America,” said it was “galling” that a firearms company would host this sort of event.
“It’s what I fear: anything that will gin up people to buy more guns, hate people more, and vote for people like Trump,” Busse said. “It’s all of that on steroids.”
“Doesn't the clan meet in the dark out back behind uncle's barn? This is right out in the open,” he added.
The NRA, which did not sponsor the event and maintains it represents individual gun owners and not companies, declined to comment.
Kahr announced in 2016 that it was “accepted as a voting member of the National Shooting Sports Foundation,” a gun industry trade group. So, the Daily Beast asked the NSSF if this kind of event was deemed acceptable by a company granted membership into the group.
NSSF public affairs director Mark Oliva noted that NSSF “was not asked to sponsor nor participate in the Rod of Iron Freedom Festival.” And he pushed back on the idea that the trade group bore responsibility for a member’s actions.
“Since this is an event that is being privately organized and not affiliated with or in participation with NSSF, there is nothing from which NSSF would be compelled to distance itself,” he wrote.