Twilight of the Moonies and Scientologists?

Parents are praying that the era of bizarre religious groups dies along with Sun Myung Moon.

Lee Jin-man / AP Photo

When Sun Myung Moon, the founder and self-styled messiah of the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, popularly known as the Moonies, was buried in South Korea this weekend, parents of teenage children around the world devoutly hoped that the era of the bizarre religious sects—of which his organization was a hugely successful specimen—passed, too.

Moon lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years and was the CEO of a private company, the Tongil Group, with interests in construction, heavy machinery, munitions, and much else. A subsidiary of that company is the biggest distributor of raw fish for sushi in the U.S. The Tongil Group has its own newspaper, the Washington Times, as well as a football team and a ballet company. The size of Moon’s fortune is a closely guarded secret, but was thought to be around $1 billion dollars.

His vast wealth allegedly helped Moon to get on friendly terms with both Presidents Bush, despite the prison term he served in the early 1980s in the U.S. for tax evasion. He also gained the trust of Kim Il-Sung of North Korea and the child and grandchild who succeeded him.

Yet first and foremost Moon was the leader of an outrageous sect founded on his claim to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, destined to rule the world. “God is living in me and I am the incarnation of Himself,” he once declared. “The whole world is in my hand and I will conquer and subjugate the world.” In 1976 he said in a speech that was recycled last week by the Church, “After my death millions of people in the spirit world and here on earth will testify to my deeds, and to what I have done in eternity I know that my deeds will shine...I intend to...surpass the suffering of all the past saints, so as to not only dwell among them but rise up above them.”

In 2004 he told a grand audience on Washington’s Capitol Hill that long-dead emperors, kings, and presidents, including Hitler and Stalin, had declared “from beyond the all Heaven and Earth that Reverend Sun Myung Moon is none other than humanity’s saviour, messiah, returning Lord and parent.”

Moon founded his church amid the squalor and misery of Busan, a rough Korean port town, in the wake of the Korean war, claiming that Jesus had appeared to him years before to explain that the crucifixion had prevented him from completing his work, and had given him the task of doing so, by spreading his blessings to create a world of faithful, sinless couples and families.

Moon blended the most enticing elements of the available traditions with the panache of a top chef: the Christianity of the conquering Americans, made palatable to his Korean flock by a neo-Confucian stress on weddings and families, spiced with a dash of pseudo-Buddhist mysticism. No wonder Christian churches in the West rejected his efforts to unify them.

But Western kids were another matter. Steve Hassan was a 19-year-old college student with a high opinion of himself as an “independent thinker,” but one day, he told the Guardian, “three women, dressed like students, asked if they could sit at my table in the cafeteria. They were kind of flirting with me. I thought I was going to get a date.” He says tThey lied to him, flatly denying they belonged to a religious group; in fact, they were missionaries for the Moonies, and quickly he was hooked. “Within three months I was a cult leader. I got very deeply involved, and I got to the point where I was being told to think about what country I wanted to run when we took over the world.”

Hassan eventually extricated himself and became a leading campaigner against such groups. On his website, he warns that today “the internet is… the primary vehicle for recruitment and indoctrination.” But it is also the primary vehicle for fighting back, as the online hacktivists Anonymous have demonstrated with their concerted onslaught against Scientology.

“Love-bombing” Moonie co-eds have gone the way of bell-ringing Hare Krishnas. And although the Unification Church still stages the occasional mass wedding, and tens of thousands are expected for Moon’s funeral, the reported pressure on new members to recruit and raise funds has eased: today’s Moonies live in their own homes and the Church is allegedly underwritten by the business empire.

Today the most high-profile of the old-time secretive sects is Scientology. It continues to respond belligerently when challenged—to the assaults by Anonymous, to Vanity Fair’s recent story about young actresses being auditioned for the job of Tom Cruise’s wife, to the acclaimed new film by Paul Thomas Anderson The Master, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a character that Anderson admits was based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Institutional grouchiness and reflexive recourse to lawyers do not help to persuade a new generation of a religion’s privileged access to wisdom. The Baby Boom sects just might be on their last legs.