New moons are rising

Oakland, USA - This month, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon went to Washington to introduce As a Peace-Loving Global Citizen, his autobiography that, according to the Moon-owned Washington Times, "recounts the joys and challenges, the teachable moments and the monumental experiences of his life - much of it spent as a spiritual leader".

The newspaper reported that Moon received "congratulatory greetings" from Senator Joe Lieberman, former secretary of state Alexander Haig and former president George H W Bush, "hand-delivered by his son Neil Bush".

The younger Bush, who has a long track record of working with Moon-sponsored organizations, told the audience of 1,300 that

"Reverend Moon is presenting a very simple concept. We are all children of God."

In January, Moon will turn 90, and while he's alive and apparently well, he is deeply involved in charting his group's future.

Last year, Moon named his Harvard-educated youngest son, the 30-year-old Hyung Jin Moon, as the president of the World Unification Church. Another son, Hyun Jin Moon, Moon's oldest, is also in the mix. Whenever he dies, Moon's death will nevertheless usher in a major period of adjustment.

Moon founded the Unification Church in the 1950s, and it remains a controversial, powerful and misunderstood enterprise to this day.

To many observers, Moon's activities - including accusations of cult-like practices, his imprisonment for tax evasion, the prayer vigils for a Watergate-afflicted president Richard Nixon, his support for right-wing death squads in Central America, the strange spectacle of mass weddings, the church's close ties to the Bush family and legions of stories about de-programs trying to reclaim Moonified souls - may seem so 20th century.

The Unification Church has been a religious, business and political enterprise and there are a number of routes it could take to the future: It could grow like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), it could remain controversial similar to the path of the Church of Scientology or it could try to become just another church among many - in other words, more mainstream.

While the Moon organization has been prepping for transition to younger leaders for quite some time, Frederick Clarkson, a journalist who has written widely about the church, including in his 1997 book, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, told Inter Press Service (IPS) that "even with the passing from the scene of the man many believe to be the messiah, the more things change, the more they stay the same".

"Many of the Moon offspring and the children of other members of the inner circle have been very well educated and have been given experience in running the core operations," veteran journalist Robert Parry told IPS. "I think the business aspects could be rather smoothly transferred. And with the money goes the political influence."

"There also is an element of 'The Godfather' in this, as the second generation may try to further sanitize the organization's history," said Parry. "That could make the political influence-buying even safer, though it is hard to know whether the second generation shares some of the right-wing politics of the elder Moon, even as that repressive ideology is disguised under the happy-sounding phrase 'world peace'."

In addition to the myriad Moon-sponsored conferences and events that always seem to be taking place somewhere, it might surprise you to learn that the Unification Church recently sponsored a major soccer tournament in Spain.

And while most of the matches didn't draw huge crowds, the media gave it extensive and generally positive press coverage, a longtime Moon-watcher told IPS. One of the major purposes of the tournament was to mainstream people's acceptance of Moon and his organization as simply "one religion among many".

According to Hyung Jin Moon, garnering favorable press coverage is an important part of the organization's mainstreaming strategy as it moves forward. He recently proudly noted that there had been some 85 major articles on the Unification Church in Korea last year and none were negative.

Hyung Jin Moon grew up in the US and as such, appears to be interested in introducing some new practices into the organization's culture.

"His background means he has already been exposed to a wide range of religious traditions and seems unafraid to introduce aspects of how other faiths worship into Unification Church services," Christopher Landau pointed out in a recent BBC report.

For example, a recent service attended by Landau started off with "contemporary mainstream Christian songs written in the US", instead of "one of the movement's own hymns".

Perhaps the most notable cultural and religious change being considered revolves around the issue of marriage.

For years, Moon presided over mass wedding ceremonies - like the one held earlier this month at the Sun Moon University campus in Seoul, South Korea - involving hundreds of couples, most of whom had never met prior to their wedding day and were chosen by Moon himself.

While the public was fascinated by these ceremonies, they were mostly a big turnoff. Hyung Jin Moon told Landau that those practices were under review.

Founded as the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, in the 1990s it became the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. According to Landau, "The emphasis now seems to be shifting back to conceiving of the movement as a church, and using that clearly defined religious status as a way to campaign for the freedom of its followers."

Rethinking its policies regarding marriage and the introduction of popular Christian music into church services appear to be aimed at making the church less idiosyncratic and more acceptable to the public.

However, the piece of the puzzle left unexplored by Landau, and most other mainstream journalists reporting on Moon's operations, is the recognition of the organization's political power and influence both in the US and abroad.

At the heart of Moon's political project in the US is the Washington Times, a newspaper that, according to some reports, has cost Moon more than US$3 billion since its founding. However, the importance of the Times to the conservative movement far outweighs its expensive price tag.

The newspaper recently announced that in collaboration with the powerful Washington-based think-tank, the Heritage Foundation, and several other organizations, it was launching, "a website with technology that allows activists to talk up to ideological and party leaders and interact in innovative ways".

" creates a cutting-edge new marriage between the social publishing world of bloggers and the social networking world of Twitter, YouTube and the like," said John Solomon, executive editor and vice president for content of The Times.

"Most opinion sites today enable thought-leaders to talk down to the masses, but empowers users to change the direction of that dialogue, allowing the Joe the Plumbers of the world to speak up to major thinkers, like Newt Gingrich," he said.

"Using the Washington Times as a propagandist for the Reagan-Bush crowd, Moon sanitized himself as much as anyone could ever imagine," Parry pointed out. "By investing smartly in the American conservative movement - and thus gaining influential defenders of his own - he also intimidated much of the US news media and US government investigators from discussing his real history or looking too deeply at his curious funding methods."