Twenty-five years ago, on June 1, 1976, Korean evangelist Reverend Sun Myung Moon stood before a half-filled Yankee Stadium and declared, "The world has lost faith in America, and New York has become a jungle of immorality and depravity." He went on to nominate himself as the cure: "Ladies and gentlemen, if there is illness in your home, do you not need a doctor from outside?"
The atmosphere was chaotic. "Youths hurled programs and decorations, let loose balloons from an upper tier and ran through the corridors shouting and laughing," the New York Times reported the next day. "Firecrackers and what appeared to be a smoke bomb added to the confusion."
The rally was the culmination of an intense promotional campaign which included the acquisition of a massive hotel, the New Yorker, as the impromptu headquarters. Renamed the "World Mission Center," the hotel went on to play a central role in the Unification Church for many years.
Meanwhile, Moon's "God Bless America" campaign rolled on into Washington, D.C. Speaking from the base of the Washington Monument on Sept. 18, 1976, with his covetous eyes on the Capitol building just one mile distant, Moon proclaimed the supreme importance of his Unification Church: "Judaism was God's first central religion, and Christianity was the second. The Unification Church is the third, coming with the new revelation that will fulfil the final chapter of God's Providence." However, he warned: "The menace of communism is everywhere." If America did not quickly embrace God's new revelation, he implied, that great nation would also be engulfed.
For their part, Moon's followers believed the Washington Monument rally was just the beginning of a sudden transformation of America, and millions would flock to study Moon's new revelation. Ultimately, they prayed for the election of a president who would be totally obedient to the religious leader.
This had been Moon's goal from the beginning. In a speech given to church leaders on May 17, 1973, he declared, "But in our age, we must have an automatic theocracy to rule the world. Separation between religion and politics is what Satan likes most." (Church members now claim that this is a poor translation of Moon's words; more likely it was just uncomfortably frank).
I was a follower of Sun Myung Moon from 1976 to 1986, and I remember clearly the many prayers we offered to God that the Unification Church would conquer America -- and ultimately the world -- with Moon's "new revelation."
Moon himself constantly excoriated Americans for their individualism, which he blamed for America's failure to follow him: "You must become small Sun Myung Moons" he declared in one speech I attended.
I was not present at the Washington Monument rally, having been a member for only two weeks when it happened. I was cloistered at the church's indoctrination camp in Boonville, Calif., where I had not yet been told about the rally or even of the existence of Sun Myung Moon. However, by the time the church transferred me to New York the following May, I was well-immersed in the prevailing psychology of triumphalism. As I told my parents in Calgary in a letter dated May 16, 1977: "Our objective is to turn New York on its head! If we can change New York, we can move the heart of America."
Moon had just launched a newspaper, the News World, into the crowded New York market and local church members were conscripted to promote it. Moon's aim was to dominate the American media. On Dec. 9, 1979, he vowed in a speech to church members, "We will buy the New York Times and Washington Post as well The New York Times will become 'Our Times' and the Washington Post will be 'Our Post.'" These boasts were never fulfilled, and in fact Moon's New York newspaper ultimately folded. He later founded the more prominent Washington Times, which has lost in excess of a billion dollars since its inception.
My stint as a newspaper vendor was quickly followed by a variety of other "missions" to which I was assigned. Through it all, the New Yorker Hotel remained the hub of church activities. Many of Moon's speeches were delivered in the Grand Ballroom on the mezzanine floor of the hotel.
This room was lavishly redecorated in brilliant white, with faux-French provincial chandeliers casting a bright glow over the room. Dominating the front wall, in raised white plaster mouldings, was an elaborate rendition of the Twelve Gates symbol of the Unification Church.
It was in the Grand Ballroom of the New Yorker that I met the woman whom Moon -- seemingly at random -- selected to be my wife forever. We were one of 843 couples who became engaged in this fashion during the final days of 1980. On Dec. 31, 1980, our engagement was formalized in the same room, and on July 1, 1982, we crossed the street to Madison Square Garden, where we became one of 2,075 couples who were formally wed there. However, I was never allowed to actually live with my "wife" and, in 1984, she quit the church, thus ending the marriage. I myself abandoned Moon's church two years later.
Recently I had a chance to return to New York, and I chose to stay for one night at the New Yorker, which in 1994 was converted back into an ordinary tourist hotel. The building is still owned by Moon but is now part of a well-known hospitality chain. The location is unbeatable: 34th Street and Eighth Avenue, only blocks from the Empire State Building.
My room was modest but comfortable, dominated by a large bed. This was an improvement over the times when I had stayed there as a Moonie, when the rooms frequently had neither furniture nor functional plumbing. Now I found it possessed all the amenities of a typical hotel -- air conditioning, a selection of towels and soaps, and a television that offered, among other things, no fewer than two pornographic channels. Yet, for me, one burning question remained: What had become of the Grand Ballroom? I dropped my bags and went downstairs to find out.
I discovered that the room was just as I remembered it, though the Twelve Gates symbol was obscured behind a slide-projector screen. Similarly unchanged was the balcony where I and my spouse-to-be had repaired after Moon had matched us together, so we could have a chat about whether we should accept the match.
But if the New Yorker has changed little, the same cannot be said for Moon's church. Indeed, a quarter of a century after he proclaimed his intention to save America from immorality and communism, little evidence remains of his overweening ambitions. The huge rallies he staged in 1976 and the intense recruiting campaigns that followed them only stirred up negative media coverage. Despite its high profile, the Unification Church at its peak probably never fielded more than 5,000 active members in the United States.
In Canada, it has likely never exceeded 100 active members. Moon's messianic vision reached its nadir in 1984, when he began a 13-month jail term for income-tax fraud. Yet if his opponents thought this was the end of his career, they were very much mistaken. The jail term merely served as a turning point, after which Moon changed his strategy to currying favour with prominent politicians, academics and churchmen. The vehicle for this new strategy was the Washington Times, along with a plethora of right-wing and family-oriented front groups. His new strategy was to win people over as allies, rather than converts, aiming in particular for those on the religious and political right.
As part of his new approach, Moon began to water down his previously elitist religious doctrines to make them more inclusive. The mass wedding ceremony (or "Blessing") was opened up to those who would consent to a vague affirmation of family values, rather than being restricted to those who had served Moon for years. In this way, he could claim an ever-expanding pool of participants in his mass weddings, despite stagnant membership numbers. Moon's new strategy to gain behind-the-scenes influence has been remarkably successful.
Chief among the trophy heads he has collected: former president George Bush. The father of the current president admired the entrenched conservatism of the Washington Times, and gave speeches at Moon-sponsored functions in Argentina and Japan in 1995, for which he received substantial honoraria. In 1996 Moon held a gala dinner in Washington, D.C., whose guests included not only Bush but such other former heads of government as Brian Mulroney and Britain's Ted Heath. Yet Moon's behind-the-scenes success has failed to console him for the fact that he never did convert America en masse. In recent speeches, Moon continues to condemn American individualism, particularly "free sex," in which men and women choose partners without his express sanction and approval.
In a speech to members on Dec. 7, 2000, Moon declared: "If a couple exists with that individualism, then the concave organ [the vagina] should be sealed with concrete."
Moon is certainly a curious choice for a champion of sexual purity. Now on his third marriage, he was identified by one of his own daughters on U.S. television as the father of an illegitimate son. Moon's peculiar family life was the subject of an expose written by his former daughter-in-law, Nansook Hong, in which she revealed that Moon's eldest son is a chronic cocaine abuser and wife-beater. Moon, predictably, blames his family problems on America's corrupting influence. If so, then America has conquered Moon, rather than the reverse.
In the past decade Sun Myung Moon has turned his attention to South America, where he has purchased large tracts of land in Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay, hoping to build the "Garden of Eden" that eluded him in the U.S. He also continues to go on speaking tours despite his advanced years -- he is now 81.
In March and April he completed a 50-state tour of the U.S. in which he spoke in a variety of small venues with the assistance of some Christian ministers. Like a fading rock band that returns to small clubs and coffee houses, Moon seems content to take whatever audiences he can get. The morning after my trip down memory lane, I checked out of the New Yorker and headed up Eighth Avenue.
New York, of course, has also not changed much in the 16 years since I last visited. Crowds of people still fill the sidewalks, impatiently crossing against the lights, disdaining trucks and cabs.
Passersby still discuss personal matters at the top of their lungs. Jackhammers chatter. Construction cranes swing. Horns blare. It is a glorious furore of individualism, and thank God for that.