(Please welcome in the comments John Gorenfeld, author of Bad Moon Rising: How Reverend Moon Created the Washington Times, Seduced the Religious Right and Built an American Kingdom — jh)

My first encounter with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church and its influence within the Republican Party came back in 1984, when I was the assistant news editor at the Twin Falls, Idaho, Times-News. Our ace investigative reporters, Rick Shaughnessy and Hal Bernton, had been working for months to try to uncover where Republican Rep. George Hansen — a Bircherite who once called Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination "the chickens coming home to roost," and whose most notorious moment in a long career of headline-grabbing had come in 1979, when he flew to Tehran and attempted to personally negotiate the release of the American hostages with the Ayatollah Khomeini — was getting his money.

Hansen had endured many years of legal trouble because of his proclivity for cheating on his taxes (he’d already been convicted, but the judge gave him no jail time because he found that Hansen’s actions indicated stupidity, not criminality), and yet his campaigns in the ’80s were always well financed. It turned out, as Shaughnessy discovered, that he was rolling in large sums of dough from the largesse of one of Moon’s front groups: CAUSA, an organization whose chief mission was the destruction of communism, and whose activities to that end included funding gun-running and financing of right-wing death squads in Latin America.

Hansen, who’d been politically indestructible up till then, was finally defeated that year. But that hardly ended the association with Moon; the next year, at a banquet honoring Moon after his release from prison for tax evasion, Hansen sat at the head of the table next to Moon.

But Hansen, as the years went on, was only the tip of the iceberg. For those of us dedicated to watchdogging the activities of the far right and its effects on the mainstream, there was an ever-mounting litany of similar examples in which Moon’s money not only propped up various right-wing outfits, but gave him considerable influence within movement conservatism generally and the Republican Party particularly. The litany includes those that are well-known — the continuing power and influence of the Washington Times, and the Bush family’s involvement with Moon’s organizations — but it extends well, well beyond that.

It’s difficult, really, to overestimate the depth and breadth of the influence wielded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon on movement conservatism and the Republican Party. John Gorenfeld’s new book on the subject, Bad Moon Rising: How Reverend Moon Created the Washington Times, Seduced the Religious Right and Built an American Kingdom, is one of the best explorations of the subject yet: It is an engaging, detailed, and thoroughly documented account, at times amusing, but in the end profoundly disturbing.

And for all that, it probably doesn’t tell everything that those who’ve investigated Moon’s Unification Church, and where its power and influence lie, have found over the years. Which is just as well, because as crazy as things seem in Bad Moon Rising, the hard reality is even crazier. If Gorenfeld had tried to cram it all into his book, people probably would have thought he is just crazy.

Wisely, he adheres to the aspects of Moon’s empire that are factually undeniable, though even those seem crazy too:

  • The coronation ceremony in the Senate Dirksen Building in 2004 in which Moon ostensibly "replaced Jesus" as the new Messiah, attended by various American politicos and arranged by Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia.
  • The Moon-financed campaign to "Trade Your Cross For a Crown" in which numerous evangelical pastors, many of them inner-city black pastors, actually took down crosses from their churches and bury them. (Moon, you see, preaches that he has superseded Jesus — who he describes a mere carpenter who turned in substandard work in the first go-round — as the Messiah.)
  • The astounding array of right-wing politicians and pundits who have lined up to take Moon’s money and lend him credibility by appearing onstage with him and his associates, as well as speaking at events sponsored by him.
  • The substantial (and absurdly outsized) influence of his news organ, the Washington Times, which not only has proven a major vehicle for his right-wing propaganda, but has provided employment for a wide range of conservative pundits and "journalists," from Tony Blankley to David Brooks.
  • The substantial and continuing influence of his various front organizations and their conferences and gatherings, including a 2005 media conference put on by Moon’s World Media Association in which journalists were urged to stop thinking of themselves as "watchdogs" and instead assume the task of being "guide dogs." The conference included as speakers such figures as Jan Schaffer of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism.
  • The continuing practice of not merely attracting followers but of separating them from their families and holding them in virtual captivity, a practice that long ago earned them the title of "cult". Closely associated with these activities are the various moneymaking scams that Moon’s organizations operate, many of them ripping off the elderly and various other vulnerable members of society, both here in the U.S. and elsewhere.
  • The astonishing breadth of his financial empire, which ranges from massive land holdings in South America to the massive seafood business, True World Foods, that he operates (if you eat sushi, there’s a high likelihood you’ve been buying food supplied by Moon) to the arms-manufacturing business he runs.
  • The deeply disturbing and genuinely extremist things that Moon has preached, many of them profoundly anti-American and anti-democratic, not to mention ethically and theologically dubious. Among Moon’s more bizarre preachings: His claims to be able to speak to famous world leaders of the past beyond the grave, including many American presidents who testify to Moon’s greatness and his importance as the New Messiah.

Of course, this is just an abbreviated list of the topics that Gorenfeld covers in his book. At times, it can get dizzying — the array of Moon’s empire and its influence is not just broad and deep, it also has a long, long history (as the George Hansen case illustrates).

Gorenfeld only briefly alludes to some of the more disturbing and darker aspects of Moon’s empire that some researchers have uncovered over the years, including most notably the origins and foundations of his empire, which have been linked to Japanese yakuza figures who themselves have ties to far-right Japanese militarist/authoritarian figures. This is probably just as well, since some of these aspects seem so far out that, despite their foundation in fact, they could lead readers to dismiss the rest of the work as crazy.

Moreover, most Americans and media observers mistakenly see the Unification Church — which has renamed itself the Family Federation for World Peace, indicative of its intent to cease being considered a mere religion — as a religious "cult," when in fact it has become a clearly political entity intent on imposing its ideology not just on America but the world.

But Moon’s operations would not be possible without the complicity of the mainstream media — and the ostensibly mainstream conservatives who enjoy his largesse and fear his wrath. David Brooks, now writing at the New York Times, dismisses discussion of the Bush family’s ties to the Moon empire as "bizarre." Jan Schaffer, when confronted about her participation in the 2005 WMA conference, briefly answered: "Clearly you have a point of view," and then hung up on her questioner. Nearly every journalist who works at the Washington Times adamantly denies that Moon influences the newsroom directly — but Gorenfeld in fact illustrates clearly that the paper’s top management in fact reports directly to Moon or his lieutenants and guide the paper according to his dictates.

James Whelan, the paper’s first editor who fled after finding that he could not escape Moon’s control, laid this out in 1993:

They are subverting our political system. They’re doing it through front organizations — most of them disguised — and through their funding of independent organizations — through the placement of volunteers in the inner sanctums of hard-pressed organizations. In every instance — in every instance — those who attend their conferences, those who accept their money or their volunteers, delude themselves that there is no loss of virtue because the Moonies have not proselytized. That misses the central, crucial point: the Moonies are a political movement in religious clothing. Moon seeks power, not the salvation of souls. To achieve that, he needs religious fanatics as his palace guard and shock troops. But more importantly, he needs secular conscripts — seduced by money, free trips, free services, seemingly endless bounty and booty — in order to give him respectability and, with it, that image of influence which translates as power.

Gorenfeld’s book — which, it must also be noted, is not just a well-documented piece of reportage but also an engaging and skillful piece of writing — may help Americans come to terms with that reality.