Since its founding by Rev. Sun Myung Moon in Seoul in 1954, The Unification Church, known originally as The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity (HSA-UWC), has both inspired those who seek a close-knit religious community and roused suspicion in those who criticize it for its “cult-like” characteristics. While some point out Moon’s tenet of exogamy as a form of peacemaking, others challenge his claim to be the Messiah, as well as the Church’s mass-weddings and “matching ceremonies”, performed by Moon with the belief that commitment precedes love in marriage. The Unification Church is one religion which, arguably, teeters precariously on the fence between cult and struggling minority faith.
These differing attitudes towards the growing Church become evident in a Washington Post article by Michelle Boorstein, who discusses how younger generations of Unificationists have had to decide whether to abide by the traditional tenets of Unificationism or adapt to mainstream society in order to keep their church thriving. The children of the mass-weddings of the 1970s and 1980s, she shows, have very mixed attitudes, with some practicing a more metamorphic, flexible form of the religion and others showing an almost evangelical devotion to fixed doctrine. Often, these attitudes reflect devotion either to an isolated, stolid, cult-like religion, or to a more compromising, mainstream one.
Perhaps the more orthodox, palatable practices of Unificationism for mainstream society include its earlier 1980s grass-roots, “revolutionary” activity, in which “thousands of young people . . . ditched their educations, careers and families to live out of vans”, Boorstein reports, and “sell flowers at airports”. In some ways, such activities resemble familiar revolutionary movements such as the hippie movement, in which well-meaning youths seek to shed what they see as burdens of a conformist culture. Meanwhile, “[p]arents can now use Web sites with photos and biographical information to search for a suitable spouse”, showing the internet savvy of modern Unificationists. Moreover, Moon’s promotion of interracial and intercultural marriage as a form of peacemaking shows initiative in the struggle to change irrational opinions about miscegenation and create racial harmony. (At the very least, it helps prevent inbreeding.) And Moon himself, as the Church’s chief hierophant, has shown at least some flexibility with respect to church custom: in 2001, he announced that “parents could match their own children”, whereas previously Moon himself had matched couples by pointing them out to one another in his wedding ceremonies.
It is this fact, however, that makes some critics of the Church squirm in their seats. According to church officials, Moon did not make a retraction; rather, the change in custom regarding the matching ceremonies was “a natural evolution of Unificationist theology, one that sees Moon as a parent . . . who establishes rules and lineage and now is passing the parental responsibility of matchmaking to individual mothers and fathers”. Critics might argue, though, that this is just a convenient euphemism to excuse arranged marriage among the masses, a mere throwback to the days when marriage constituted an exchange of property (including women, such as the “peace-weavers” of Anglo-Saxon England) between tribes in order to create alliances, and nothing whatever to do with a private contract of love between two people. It is easy to see how this matchmaking practice reflects a larger tribal or familial manipulation of marriage to fulfill social and political ends, despite the argument that the private union of two individuals is nobody else’s business. Probably the most irksome claim of the Church for critics, however, is Moon’s claim to be the Messiah, or perhaps an avatar of sorts. After all, as Massimo Introvigne notes in The Unification Church: Studies in Contemporary Religion, the global population of Unificationists stands at about 250,000, and, according to B. A. Robinson of Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, these are concentrated in South Korea and Japan. So it is rather discouraging to think that any profound teachings of Moon should remain so obscure.
But perhaps the Unification Church, which Boorstein suggests has shown enough adaptability to survive long-term, will reflect a similar path to that of Christianity, starting from a local cult and burgeoning into a worldwide “flock”. The looming threat of this, of course, is the evolution of the church from a grass-roots, egalitarian religion to a centralized, hierarchical one. As Barbara Ehrenreich notes in Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, “[s]ocial scientists of the twentieth century have tended to portray the early Church’s assault on ecstatic, or even festive, forms of worship as part of an inevitable process of maturation” (p. 74). In other words, the Unification Church could transform from a small and alluring sect into a menacingly dictatorial behemoth. At any rate, the new generation of Unificationists will have to decide between the unique offerings of an uncompromisingly isolationist path, or the convenience of a popular, “normal” church.