The Reverend Sun Myong Moon, a self-proclaimed messiah whose media empire included the
Washington Times, has died in South Korea at the age of 92. The cause of death was announced as pneumonia.
Moon, who used his media outlets to fight Communism, headed a cult that claimed millions of followers. The rival Washington Post had this to say about him:
His stated ambition was to rule the world and replace Christianity with his own faith, which blended elements of Christianity, Confucianism and Korean folk religions. A leading symbol of the 1970s cult wars in America, he attracted a great deal of attention and ridicule for holding mass weddings for Unificationist couples whom he had paired, often without the prospective partners ever having met.
But his success in business and involvement in American politics “demanded that people who could care less about his peculiar doctrinal views pay attention to him,” said James Beverley, a professor at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto who has studied Mr. Moon’s church since the late 1970s.
As a young man, Mr. Moon was twice jailed in the 1940s when his sermonizing attracted the attention of authorities in what is now North Korea. Emerging as a staunch anti-communist, he built the foundations of what became a global business network with labor provided by his devotees.
He made his most strident inroads into American culture in the 1970s. The Vietnam War-era counterculture was beginning to fade, but college students were still looking for an alternative to the conventional lives of their parents. Drawn by the promise of salvation through clean-living self-discipline, they flocked to the Unification Church despite the fact that Mr. Moon was known more for his sermons’ longwindedness than for public displays of charisma.
His critics described him as a frustrated megalomaniac who donated millions of dollars to political causes in exchange for the mainstream recognition and acceptance that he never enjoyed as a spiritual leader. Meanwhile, his supporters saw Mr. Moon as a prophet unfairly persecuted by xenophobic journalists and politicians.
The Washington Times, which he founded in 1982, published a 6 page, glowing tribute to Moon:
A visionary businessman and lifelong champion of the free press, Rev. Moon founded newspapers, magazines, electronic media outlets and digital publications in the U.S., Japan, South Korea and many Latin American, African and European countries.
“As controversial as Rev. Moon was in the United States, I got to know him as a man whose heart was focused on bringing together people of different faiths to bridge divides. His call on people of faith to serve others is an important legacy,” said Neil Bush, chairman of Points of Light and son of President George H.W. Bush.
“He will always be remembered as the embodiment of loving and sharing without limits, sacrifice and suffering without limits, courage and service without limits — and all this not for family, race, community or nation, but for humankind as a whole,” said Ambassador K.V. Rajan, former permanent secretary of India’s Ministry of External Affairs.
The energetic evangelist traveled the world numerous times and went on speaking tours as recently as 2011. He started or inspired hundreds of organizations and met with countless world leaders, notably such communist leaders as former Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev and North Korea’s Kim Il-sung. On a trip in July 2008, he and his family survived a helicopter crash in Korea.
But throughout his life, Rev. Moon’s teachings and his church’s practices sparked criticism, suspicion and persecution. He was jailed six times and survived numerous beatings and a North Korean labor camp.
There were reports down through the years that news reports were re-written, or shaped by editors to reflect the views of the Reverend Moon. I knew several staffers from the paper in those early years who swore that wasn’t the case, that they never felt pressure to write anything except straight, hard news.
That may be so. But other employees tell a different story.
The Times earned praise and attention from conservative political leaders but battled a public perception that it was a mouthpiece for the Unification Church, particularly when top editors resigned, citing church interference with editorial decisions.
Mr. Moon and other church leaders were unabashed about their ambitions for the newspaper. “We are going to make it so that no one can run for office in the United States without our permission,” Col. Bo Hi Pak, Mr. Moon’s top aide and the founding president of the Times, reportedly told conservative activist David Finzer in 1988.
If nothing else, the Times became something of a training ground for conservative journalists in the 80’s and 90’s. Notable writers include Donald Lambro, Bill Gertz, Kerry Pickett, Rowan Scarborough, Bill Sammon, and David Brooks.
How to remember a cult leader who poured billions into a conservative media organ and gave voice to a point of view previously silenced? As long as the relationship was arms length, the Times was on solid ground. But persistent reports through the years of editorial interference by church members gave the Washington Times little credibility in the journalistic community, and condemned the paper to virtual obscurity outside the right.