Building a business empire in South Korea and Japan, Moon used his commercial interests to support nonprofit ventures, then kept control of them by placing key insiders within their hierarchies. He avidly backed right-wing causes, turning The Washingtoon Times into a respected newspaper in conservative circles.
An ardent anti-communist who had been imprisoned by the communist authorities in northern Korea in the 1940s, he saw the United States as the world’s salvation. But in the late 1990s, after financial losses, defections and stagnant growth in the church’s membership, he turned on America, branding it a repository of immorality.
As Moon approached 90, not long after he survived a helicopter crash in 2008, three of his sons and a daughter began assuming more responsibility for running the church and his holdings.
In its early years in the U.S., the Unification Church was widely viewed as little more than a cult, one whose members, known derisively as Moonies, married in mass weddings. Such weddings were the activity most associated with Moon in the U.S.
In the church’s view, Jesus had failed in his mission to purify mankind because he was crucified before being able to marry and have children. Moon saw himself as completing the unfulfilled task of Jesus: to restore humankind to a state of perfection by producing sinless children, and by blessing couples who would produce them.
Marriage was a key part of achieving salvation, and for a couple the marriage was as much a commitment to the church as it was to each other. Often the couples had met only weeks earlier or could speak to each other only through an interpreter.
Moon struggled against bad publicity. He was sent to prison on tax evasion charges and accused of influence-buying and of maintaining ties to the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. He denied both allegations. In the late 1970s he was caught up in a congressional investigation into attempts by South Korea to influence American policy. There were battles with local officials over zoning for church buildings and tax-exempt status.
As his church grew more prominent in the 1970s and ’80s, it became embroiled in lawsuits over soliciting funds, acquiring property and recruiting followers. Defectors wrote damaging books. From 1973 to 1986 at least 400 of the church’s flock were abducted by their family members to undergo “deprogramming," according to an estimate by David Bromley, a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert on Moon. The church denied that it had brainwashed its followers, saying members joined and stayed of their own free will.
Moon said he was the victim of religious oppression and ethnic bias because of his Korean heritage. Established churches were angered, he said, because they felt threatened by his movement.
“I don’t blame those people who call us heretics," he was quoted as saying in “Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church" (1977), a sympathetic account by Frederick Sontag. “We are indeed heretics in their eyes because the concept of our way of life is revolutionary: We are going to liberate God."