The death of Sun Myung Moon deprives the Unification Church of a charismatic leader, the engine behind the business and religious success, and now faces an uncertain future when the number of followers has been falling since the eighties.
The Unification Church was born from the ruins of the Korean War (1950/1953) and was exported to several countries including the US where the movement was successful in seducing conservatives as well as disoriented former hippies.
The church considered a sect in many countries, says it has three million followers, but experts point to a few hundred thousands and the fact that the church is really an economic and financial empire.
The death on Monday of its founder at the age of 92, signals a “crucial moment” for the church and its survival says Tark Ji-Il, theology professor at the Presbyterian university of Bussan.
Tark and other experts point to the risks from family conflicts among the many children and heirs to see who manages the religious and commercial empire, when none of them is really blessed with the same authority or influence mainly before foreign congregations, which Moon had.
The sons have their own followers and “we can’t exclude splits”, adds Tark Ji-Il.
Founded in 1954, a year after the end of the Korean War, the Unification Church faced tough challenges at the beginning as many religious movements. Traditional groups considered them heretics since the founder argued he had been chosen by Jesus.
Sun Myung Moon chose proximity with the South Korean government of the time, a military regime, as a survival mechanism instead of focusing in the religious doctrine, says Kim Heung-Soo, professor of Christianity at the Mokwon University in Korea.
“For example, fighting communism became one of the principles beliefs of the church”, points out Kim Heung-Soo adding he appealed to the same strategy when he moved to the US. He was a fervent supporter of the Vietnam War, a ‘holy conflict’ against communists and supported President Nixon all along even during the Watergate scandal and final downfall.
David Bromey religious studies professor from the Virginia Commonwealth University says that when Moon moved to the US in 1972, he did it at the right moment.
“Counterculture was loosing its glamour, the Vietnam War was coming to an end and many people were abandoning movements and looking for other options, but the influence of the Moon movement was also exaggerated because of Sun Myung Moon close links with top politicians and leaders”.
“The Church claimed it had a great number of followers but its detractors gave even larger numbers to show how dangerous Moon and the ‘moonies’ were”, says Bromley.
But the real gift of Moon was to surround himself with business talented people particularly in Japan and the US which turned the church into an economic empire and made him a millionaire at the same time. And this way he rapidly became a “business empire as well as religious”.
Following his peak in the eighties when he moved to South America where the church has many assets, the Church started to lose followers given the social and political changes in South Korea, mainly the end of military regimes and the surfacing of several major scandals.
For Tark Ji.Il the Moon legacy will be in the business field and not necessarily religious. “The problem is that the economic investments don’t need the religious support”, adds the professor. “Moon was the cement that kept the Unification Church together but now his many children will split the empire”.
“Will the Japanese followers continue to give money generously to the Church managed by Moon’s children or each congregation will decide on its own path? ends professor Tark Ji-Il