For the PDF of the re-released Bad Moon Rising, go here.
It’s been a decade since followers of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon——famous cult leader, stubbornly non-famous Washington Times publisher——buried their 92-year-old leader in a red and gold coffin. The funeral was held at a Peace Palace nestled into the misty mountains of Gapyeong, South Korea, a domed structure that looked like the love child of the Capitol and the White House. It was a fitting mortuary for someone who dreamed of being hailed as a divine being in both institutions.
In fact, there was something deeply Trumpian about the True Father and his dreams. It was not just Moon’s tacky excess, his prosecution for tax fraud and his funding of ultra-right disinformation, but a need for admiration so bottomless, the Unification Church preacher even sought approval from people who died centuries ago. In many ways Moon feels like someone from our absurd post-2016 world and not 2008, when this book first appeared.
I don’t mind telling you, it was a painful publishing experience. And if I didn’t think a PDF of my book could help young people escape from an abusive cult, I never would have returned to this taboo subject.
The funny thing about Moon owning the Washington Times? On the one hand, jaded East Coast media people, baffled by my interest in this arrangement, would act like it was old news. For everyone else, it was too bizarre to believe. My own publishing company, geared around printing mundane liberal fare like Jacked! How Conservatives Are Picking Your Pocket or books with Dick Cheney on the cover snarling, was unsure what to make of my book. They didn’t know how to package scenes like the Korean Rupert Murdoch inviting newspaper VIPs to sit through his keynote speech whose takeaway is that the genitals are “concave and convex.”
I had written about how Moon claimed to be endorsed by the dead. But the dust jacket blurb made me sound like I genuinely had to hand it to Moon for picking up endorsements from Confucius and George Washington.
I had dreamed of being swept away on an exciting journalism adventure like in Almost Famous. I ended up instead introduced to Barnes & Noble shoppers as a kind of Fox Mulder figure letting you into my own grim alternative reality where Moon was “stealthily accruing power,” as if he were putting the finishing touches on a project to conquer America, like General Zod or someone.
It was all pretty mortifying.
But Bad Moon Rising has dated better than it had any right to. Events in the U.S., Japan and in the cult itself have placed the book into a fresh context.
As I write this, I’ve been watching a troubling video sent to me by the podcaster and activist Elgen Strait (@fallingoutpod), part of the Second Generation who grew up in the church. It appears to show Sean Moon, leader of the UC offshoot Rod of Iron Ministries (seen in many recent news items about a bizarrely Qanon-ish “gun church”). The younger Moon, who has denounced his own mother, is up on stage convulsing with rage at Japanese church members. “You’re all stupid,” he yells. Some older followers appear to object to his language and then are marched out.
He wears a crown fashioned from bullets. I hesitate to go on, as I have found that in the decades of books and documentaries on the Moonies, the journalism that travels farthest is that which sticks to the superficial: embarrassing dinner parties, and not the iron UC triangle of cash, PR for the church, and right-wing media.
Well. Sean Moon, who trains his followers in Waco, TX for the final collision they believe is coming with the “deep state,” is also known to Zoom with Trump campaign chief Steve Bannon. Maybe I won’t get into the thing where Sean Moon, as reported by VICE, took a squad of his AR-15-annointing followers to the Jan. 6 riot.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has taken speaking fees to appear at the church’s “Rally of Hope,” continuing a tradition of GOP presidents shamelessly taking the church’s cash.
Another VIP who spoke at the rally was the former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. This month he was assassinated. His killer blamed the right-wing politician for links to a church that the assassin blames for draining his mother’s funds (see Chapter Two). So far, despite all those books and documentaries, the notion of links between the UC and Abe have been treated as skeptically as Bad Moon Rising was. Bloomberg News went so far as to compare the notion to the theories of QAnon.
And so the subject has remained frustratingly obscure. The ongoing presidential cash-in shows how little a dent was left by 2004’s Crown of Peace scandal. As a young Bay Area freelancer, that was my big scoop. The Moonies had filmed a coronation of their leader at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, and members of Congress participated. After the video went viral, the New York Times’s Pulitzer-prize winning congressional correspondent, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, called me up—reluctantly, as I remember—to cover the story. The next morning when I bought a latte near Golden Gate Park, I looked at the stack of newspapers. Moon in his purple regalia looked back at me from below the fold.
Not exaggerating: that summer, newspapers kept calling it “the talk of Washington.” But later both parties seemingly decided to never mention it again.
My book, released four years later, was an awkward fit for the times. Things, as you know, were pretty different in 2008. There was a sense during the summer of Hope that America was basically normal, and that conservatism was relatively rational (if a little racist.) More importantly, there was little worry (I wasn’t worried enough either) about the strain of white nationalist messages pumped out by the Times. I never would have imagined I’d someday read fluffy pieces in the New York Times about dining with the “dark intellectual web” of intellectuals who flirt with scientific racism.
In 2008, there were signs of heading this way, but distinct currents, like the era’s raging Islamophobia, and Andrew Sullivan’s quest to mainstream the discredited Bell Curve, had not congealed yet into our new alt-right-welcoming world. Ideas like “replacement theory” were so widely understood as backwards—the stuff of seedy neo-Confederate conferences—that if a Washington Times writer wanted to go full-1930s, here are the lengths he had to go to: Slip into the Dulles Hilton. Discreetly ask at the desk which floor the Grand Wizard David Duke was speaking at. And then write it up for the paper as if the ideas he heard were worth thinking about (“White People Ponder Future of Their Race,” August 31, 1998).
It is this pitiful figure of the American far-right activist stooping to take money from an abusive cult, as much as Moon himself, who is the true subject of this book.
One thing I need to clear up. I consider Bad Moon Rising an important missing story but one that is dwarfed by the much bigger picture of Republican history. If I seem defensive, it is because I’m still prickly about distancing the book from conspiracy theory interpretations that follow this topic around.
Ever see the 2016 all-female Ghostbusters? There is something in the movie that I relate very much to. One day I was on a plane right after Trump won. With none of the selections really grabbing me, I reluctantly hit play and settled into my seat, ready to hate another reboot. Then to my surprise, something happened on that little screen that warmed my whole being and put a smile on my face.
We meet Kristen Wiig’s scientist. She desperately wants to distance herself from a misunderstood book she wrote years ago, Ghosts In Our Past. She hates that it is still up on Amazon. But then, of course, she is vindicated. I must have been the only passenger to have been through an analogous (though obviously non-undead) situation. I had watched 5-star reviews go up—by people who felt I proved Moon was a GOP-puppeteering mastermind. I was footnoted in weird books about “globalism.”
Embarrassed by all this, I hid my book on the shelf, left journalism, and tried to forget all the jargon I had learned from Moon’s Divine Principle. Weird charts. Cheon Il Guk, the new Garden of Eden.
Then I met the Second Generation.
They were Millennials born to couples matched in Moon’s weddings. Raised in the church, they escaped, rejecting Moon’s plans for them. They were artists, writers. For some, their own names had been invented for them by the cult leader himself. One night I sat in the back of a customized car/art project with them on O’Farrell Street in San Francisco, the breeze blowing through the window. I felt like I had met heroes from a YA dystopia novel who had climbed out of a repressive underground society to the surface of the Earth.
Today Bad Moon Rising sits on the research shelf of doc makers racing to meet a 2022 audience’s demand for streaming content of various respectability levels about fucked-up cults. Soon, with any justice in the world, the Moon/GOP bromance will become as infamous as Tom Cruise jumping on a couch, or that creep from NXIVM.
When I really felt vindicated though was when these former members told me my work gave them knowledge that helped them to leave and to heal. This edition is dedicated to them. I hope this edition lets them freely share my research without paying $169 for an out-of-print copy—or needing to hide a garish purple hardback under their beds.
The children of the mass weddings are beginning to tell their own stories, podcasting and writing memoirs. Their experiences advance the Moonies story beyond that of college kids being drawn into a cult, and into the world of now-adults raised in a repressive atmosphere they never chose.
I can’t stop thinking of some of the accounts of psychological abuse inflicted on girls and young women in particular. This sentence should serve as a content warning about the themes of sex-shaming, infant death and rape in the next few paragraphs.
The burden of growing up in the church is to be charged with never ruining the project behind Moon’s mass weddings: to engineer the first generation born without sin. “[I]t was a theological belief,” writes the artist and ex-Second Gen member Jen Kiaba, “that losing one’s purity was far worse even than dying.” It was never official church policy to stab yourself if you lost your virginity before marriage. But one Moon sermon after the next put sexual abstinence ahead of the value of her life and others’. She recalled a 2001 speech in which the 81-year-old Times publisher urged women to carry around a “purity knife.” “Kill yourself before you will be violated,” Moon said.
Another story from this repressive—and lucrative—atmosphere is told in a recent TikTok by the tattoo artist and podcaster Renee Thomas (@renrobot1). As a wide-open West Texas landscape rolls past her pickup with a dog in back—Thomas wanted to move as far away from the cult as she could get—she recalls a fundraising drive with echoes of the UC’s Japan project. She recounts that she and others were asked to picture
“A wall of babies. Like—a wall. In hell. Assembled by a bunch of baby parts […]
"But here’s the catch. Only the sanctified church leaders could go down to hell to restore these babies and bring them back to God […] So if you or somebody you knew who had a baby that was in hell as part of this baby wall you could pay thousands of dollars to get the baby liberated, to go back to God. So church leaders would spend all Sunday guilt-tripping women about feeling bad about miscarried babies and aborted fetuses so that they could make thousands of dollars in profits.
“Do you remember that? I remember that. That shit was terrifying.”
I hope stories like these can finally move the media to take a hard look at the way the church treated members and their families, while the world turned a blind eye. And if you are reading this and are thinking of leaving the cult, I would like to pass the torch to you so that your story can be told.
This edition has notes in the margins. I’ll update them now and then. Some of them touch on attitudes in my text that now make me cringe. Others will bring subplots up to date.
For those who want to understand the forces that powered the Right as a whole, I would recommend, instead of relying on Bad Moon Rising, turning to the work of my friend Rick Perlstein, and his books like Nixonland. The concerns in my book are narrower and limited to a naïve young journalist’s question: “How weird is it that a notorious 1970s cult leader publishes a Republican newspaper, and no one seems to care?”
Yes, there are troubling truckfuls of cult cash seen in this story heading to the loading docks of people like Jerry Falwell, make-or-break financial rescues keeping key conservatives out of bankruptcy. Many themes interweave with MAGA.
But correlation is not (always) causation. And I have never found evidence that, in Moon’s absence, the Steve Bannons of the last 40 years were so tormented by scruples that they could not have turned to some even less appropriate faucet of campaign cash. And without being preachy, it seems clearer than ever that the evils of American politics are rooted not in hidden overseas influence but in the forces in plain sight, the ones that make me mad every single day I scroll through Twitter.
NYU historian Kim Phillips-Fein has written: “Historians who write about the right should find ways to do so with a sense of the dignity of their subjects, but they should not hesitate to keep an eye out for the bizarre, the unusual, or the unsettling.” I hope I have done that here, though one shortcoming of the book is that I handed that dignity out too freely.
In the mid-‘00s I was captivated by a popular civic fantasy among Daily Show liberals of stirringly finding common cause with the other side—no matter what our differences! Today, though, I fear that as a white guy it was too easy to give a pass to early-‘80s far-right Washington Times editors. These were foes of the Moonies, but it was because they wanted to be left in peace to write editorials defending apartheid in South Africa (and a brutal dictator). I am sure the next author who covers this will have a more sophisticated view of race and conservative politics.
I would argue that that the story of Reverend Moon is uniquely useful, as Perlstein (one of this book’s few outspoken fans) has written, for understanding “the cynical wickedness of the party that produced Trump.” The way the forces that brought you MAGA traded cash for PR, helping to trap families in a cult, deserves to be as infamous as everything else in the world of far-right hucksters and the enablers who bring them crowns.
Thanks for reading.