South Korea

Sun Hyung Moon's influence held South Korea's Unification Church together

The movement was held together by unifying force of its 'messiah', who died on Monday

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2012, 2:56am


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The death of Sun Myung Moon robs his Unification Church of the glue that sustained its global following as a cohesive religious and financial force even as membership dwindled from its 1980s peak, analysts say.

A messianic movement built on the rubble of the Korean war and exported to countries such as the United States, where it found favour with conservatives and disaffected ex-hippies, it now faces an uncertain future.

While it claims a worldwide following of three million, experts suggest the core membership is far smaller although it still carries a commercial clout that allows the church to punch way above its doctrinal weight.

The death of its charismatic founder on Monday at the age of 92 marks "an important turning point", according to Tark Ji-il, professor of theology at Busan Presbyterian University.

Without Moon's unifying presence, Tark sees potential for conflict between his sons - including current leader Hyung Jin Moon - who control the church's religious and business arms.

"The brothers have their own followers, and you can't rule out the possibility the church could end up divided depending on how they handle things," he said.

While the Western-coined "Moonie" moniker was a pejorative term intended to belittle, the fact remains that it was very much Moon's church.

Founded in 1954 a year after the Korean war, the church, like all new religious movements, initially struggled to assert itself against the establishment. Mainstream Christian groups were particularly hostile, denouncing as heretical Moon's claim to have been personally chosen by Jesus.

Moon's survival strategy, according to Kim Heung-soo, professor of Korean Christianity at Mokwon University, was to avoid a doctrinal conflict and instead forge close ties with the military regime then ruling South Korea.

"One way he did this was by promoting anti-communism as one of the church's major creeds," Kim said.

"He used the same strategy when he moved to the US. He was a vocal proponent of the Vietnam war, hailing it as the war against communists, and publicly supported President Nixon during the Watergate scandal."

The timing of the church's expansion to the United States - Moon moved there in 1972 - was fortuitous for its growth, according to David Bromley, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University

"The counter-culture was breaking up, the Vietnam war was winding down and there were people spilling out of a variety of movements and looking for new options," Bromley said.

However, Bromley believes the church's influence was exaggerated, partly from Moon's high-profile courtship of senior US political figures and also accusations of brainwashing.

Towards the end of the 1980s, membership began to fall off as the result of various scandals.

"I believe that what really sustains the church now is cash from the Japanese faithful," said Tark, who believes Moon's most enduring legacy will be commercial rather than religious.