Rev. Sun Myung Moon and Minister Louis Farrakhan are trying to pull off what may be the oddest alliance in recent American history.
The two aging demagogues -- one the leader of the Unification Church and the other the African-American head of the Nation of Islam -- are collaborating on the sequel to Farrakhan's wildly successful Million Man March -- the Million Family March, scheduled for Oct. 16 in Washington.
The march's pihce de risistance will be a spectacular ceremony in which Farrakhan will renew the vows of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of married couples -- modeled after the mass marriage ceremonies led by Moon for the past 30 years.
"This reflects the ways Rev. Moon has influenced Minister Farrakhan," explained Rev. Phil Schanker, an official of Moon's Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (FFWPU).
Schanker says that Moon's role in the Million Family March is the fruit of a three-year personal relationship that began when Farrakhan helped officiate at one of Moon's marriage ceremonies at Washington's RFK Stadium in 1997. Though Moon may not address the march himself for what Schanker describes as "security reasons," internal FFWPU memos posted on a church Web site state that Moon, who turned 80 in February, decided to back the event after learning from his aides "of Minister Farrakhan's personal desire to ask him to bless all the families at the MFM."
The alliance took some scholars and experts of the religious groups by surprise. Martha Lee, the Canadian author of "The Nation of Islam: An American Millenarian Movement" found it "curious ... that the two of them are trying to become respectable by allying with each other." But Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates in Somerville, Mass., was quick to point out similarities between the leaders: "They are both completely authoritarian, theocratic, male-dominated and homophobic."
As Moon and Farrakhan edge toward the ends of their respective scandal-prone careers, they are increasingly mindful of their legacies. Both have sought to move beyond their controversial reputations to achieve mainstream legitimacy.
Each group has a checkered history that it would rather people forget. While the Million Man March proved to be dramatic and inspiring for many African-American men, it was also notable for its controversy and divisiveness. Many objected to the exclusion of women. The headline-grabbing anti-Jewish and anti-white demagoguery that has marked the history of the Nation of Islam (NOI) and its leaders, including Farrakhan, drove others away. NOI security team, the Fruit of Islam, has had a thuggish history that Farrakhan has sought to put behind the organization.
Farrakhan, 67, who has suffered from prostate cancer, emerged from his illness earlier this year with new messages of reconciliation. While Farrakhan watchers are divided about the sincerity of his change of heart, the new messages of inclusiveness are evident in Farrakhan's approach to the march. He has invited people of all ethnicities, races and religions -- even Jews -- to march "under their own banners" at the Million Family March.
But only weeks before the march, a sex scandal centered around march coordinator Minister Benjamin F. Muhammad, threatened to overshadow the event. In an investigative story titled "The Shame of Mosque No. 7," the Village Voice questioned whether march coordinator Muhammad "is fit to lead" in light of a $140 million civil suit recently filed against him. The suit alleges that Muhammad sexually harassed and assaulted an NOI volunteer secretary when he served as Farrakhan's lone representative in New York. "Until recently," wrote reporter Peter Noel, "the sordid details of his three-year stint at the 127th Street mosque remained hidden behind Farrakhan's new family values crusade." Muhammad denies the allegations.
The charges are noteworthy in part because Muhammad, previously known as Rev. Ben Chavis, was fired as head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1994 amid revelations that he had diverted at least $250,000 of the organization's funds to quietly settle charges of sex-discrimination against him. Farrakhan subsequently hired Chavis to direct the Million Man March. Chavis changed his name to Muhammad when he converted from Christianity to Islam. In 1997, Farrakhan appointed him head of the New York mosque once led by Malcolm X.
So far there has been little national news about the march except the entertainment-industry hype about the backing of black entertainment moguls and the booking of top popular and hip-hop acts who will perform at the rally. Entertainers already signed on to perform include Macy Gray, Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu, Run-DMC and Kelly Price. PSAs to promote the march by Dead Prez and Snoop Dogg are running on radio stations around the country. The Congressional Black Caucus, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Bar Association, among others, have also endorsed the march.
Farrakhan's efforts at entering the mainstream not withstanding, he sounded like a leader of the Christian right at a Sept. 11 press conference in Chicago to promote the Million Family March. He blamed a "moral and spiritual decline" on society's supposed "extreme position in the separation of church and state," and compared America to "ancient Rome, which fell due to corruption from within."
But it's the appearance of Moon's organization that looms largest over the event. Moon, the self-proclaimed Messiah, is a multinational businessman, media mogul and a convicted felon. His career of controversy and deep political involvement has usually involved the international far-right. The Moon empire publishes and subsidizes the conservative and famously unprofitable Washington Times, which has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in its business of producing a pro-Messiah alternative to the Washington Post. (Moon's media company also purchased the venerable but financially vulnerable United Press International wire service earlier this year; prompting the immediate resignation of veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas.)
The Moon organization and its numerous subsidiaries came to prominence over the years for, among other activities, funneling aid to the Nicaraguan contras after the U.S. Congress cut off funding in 1984 and staging mediagenic rallies in state capitols and at the Statue of Liberty to whip up popular support for the war against Iraq.
Moon has advocated "an automatic theocracy to rule the world" and often denounced American constitutional democracy, individualism and feminism. "You must realize that America has become the kingdom of Satan" he insisted in a 1995 sermon.
Snapshots of the evolution of the Farrakhan/Moon relationship can be found in the online official newspapers of the two religious organizations they represent, the Final Call and the Unification News. According to one pre-march report in the Final Call, Farrakhan thanked Moon as he rallied MFM supporters in a plush ballroom of the Manhattan Center -- a Moon-controlled entertainment venue in New York. Similarly, Unification News frequently notes the presence of NOI leaders and delegations at a wide range of Moon-sponsored events. NOI leaders and activists are also frequently mentioned in accounts of the activities of the Moon-sponsored Pure Love Alliance, which promotes sexual abstinence and abstinence education.
In 1998, a Final Call writer published a story in Unification News detailing a pivotal moment in the pas de deux. Under the headline "Friendship in Korea: Min. Farrakhan meets with Rev. Moon" -- an article recounting how a Farrakhan-led delegation had visited Moon's religious, business and industrial facilities in South Korea on the last leg of a "World Friendship Tour." Farrakhan praised Moon to the heavens, and suggested "that some union with the Nation of Islam and Rev. Sun Myung Moon" might be productive.
In addition to the mass nuptials, Moon plans to host a high-profile, three-day conference of international leaders that will overlap with the march. "This is truly a moment that comes only once in history," one FFWPU memo declared. The conclave will "bring together all the heads of Religions and Denominations and top political leaders, (i.e. presidents, kings, ambassadors and U.S. leaders) that True Parents have educated over the last 30 years. They will be asked to sit in a prestigious World VIP area of the MFM at the base of our nation's capitol building displaying absolute unity for world peace."
Although he declined to name any confirmed participants, Schanker said that "hundreds of former presidents, prime ministers and university presidents" will participate.
Improbable and grandiose as such rhetoric may seem, Moon has often managed to attract A-list celebrities and politicians to his events.
At one 1996 conference in Washington, Moon garnered such conservative stars as former presidents George Bush and Gerald Ford, TV preacher Robert Schuller and Christian right leaders Ralph Reed and Gary Bauer. Comedian Bill Cosby provided entertainment, but later angrily said that he had been duped, and would not have agreed to appear had he known it was a Moon-sponsored event. Moon's 80th birthday celebration in February was no less star-studded. Former British Prime Minister Edward Heath, former President of Zambia Kenneth Kaunda and former U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle all turned out for the Washington event.
Moon's invitations are attractive in part because they often come with cash. The former President Bush (sometimes accompanied by former first lady Barbara Bush) spoke at a series of Moon-sponsored events in Japan, Argentina and the U.S. after he left the White House. Estimates of how much the couple received for these appearances run between $1 million and $10 million. Former Reagan Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp earned $52,000 from Moon-affiliated groups in the year before becoming Bob Dole's GOP running mate in 1996.
In 1998, investigative reporter Robert Parry revealed how a Moon subsidiary organization funneled $3.5 million into a nonprofit organization in Virginia, in a scheme intended to ease a major financial crisis at Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Falwell has been ubiquitous at Moon-sponsored events since at least the early 1980s when he led a chorus of complaints that Moon was "persecuted" rather than prosecuted on criminal charges of conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with his federal tax fraud case. (Moon was convicted and spent 13 months in federal prison.)
Since his release, Moon's people have sought to burnish the church's image. FFWPU's Schanker says that the Unification Church has now "matured" and does not engage in deceptive practices. If any occurred, he asserted, they were in the 1970s and were not authorized.
"They are trying to mainstream, and don't want to be viewed as controversial," says Steven Hassan, a former Moonist leader, anti-cult activist and author of "Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves." Hassan says, however, that a scandal has been rocking the church and caused some longtime members to leave and others to think about it. In her tell-all book, "In the Shadow of the Moons," Moon's ex-daughter-in-law, Nansook Hong, alleges she was abused by Moon's son and heir-apparent Hyo Jin Moon. Hong describes her former husband as a cocaine addict who engaged in frequent extramarital sex and drank heavily while watching pornographic videos. He also apparently financed a lavish lifestyle with cash smuggled into the U.S. from abroad.
According to the court records of Hong's divorce from Moon, in 1994 alone church members delivered $1 million in cash to Hyo Jin who ran the church-controlled Manhattan Center in New York. Hong also describes the elder Moon as a philanderer who likes to gamble in Las Vegas casinos.
All the high-level shoulder rubbing not withstanding, some believe Moon's involvement with the Million Family March contradicts the event's stated goal of strengthening the traditional family.
"Bizarre," said Pricilla Coates, president of the Leo J. Ryan Foundation in Bridgeport, Conn., when asked what she thought of Moon's involvement. Coates blasted what she considers to be the Unification Church's record of deceptive recruiting and indoctrination tactics that separate people from their biological or adoptive families. "Moon has had no respect for families that I've dealt with," she said. "They are not allowed to see their children. The True Family means that the family that you grew up with is nothing," she concluded. "It's only the True Family that matters."
The "True Parents" -- Moon and his wife, Hak Ja Han -- are also known as "True Father" and "True Mother." The church itself is the "True Family." "Blessed Wives" are women who have been married in Moon's mass weddings or "Blessings." Unificationist "Blessed Couples" are usually strangers, interracial, international and often do not speak the same language.
Meanwhile, others note that the family values themes of the Million Family March mask the conservative gender roles advocated by both groups. Women in the Nation of Islam have traditionally played a subservient role and, says Lee, the author, Farrakhan is likely reaching out to them as a response to the criticism he received for alienating women from the 1995 Million Man March. He is also seeking to widen his appeal.
But even if Farrakhan seems to be extending an olive branch, Moon's view of women, and hence of family life, is at odds with all but perhaps the most conservative religious traditions. "[I]f you desire to receive the seed of life," he declared in a 1995 sermon, "you have to become an absolute object. In order to qualify as an absolute object, you need to demonstrate absolute faith, love and obedience to your subject. Absolute obedience means that you have to negate yourself 100 percent."
A call for such obedience (Schanker calls it "vertical leadership") was on display when Moon decided to go all out in support of the march. Hundreds of "Blessed Wives" were in airports en route to a seminar in South Korea when they were suddenly re-called to work on the march. Rev. Chang Shik Yang, and Rev. Michael Jenkins of the FFWPU sought to assuage the women's "confusion" about the "new direction" -- which they described as "almost unbearable" -- so much so that "they cried out to heaven in anguish." "Please rest assured," the men concluded, "that this direction is official. This is the will of heaven as directed by our 'True Parents.'"
The women were also directed to donate their $1,000 seminar fees to the Family Federation. All other families were to put up $300, and were told they should expect to cough up more for the church's regional offices.
But those women might be disappointed by the Million Family March's ambitious agenda of public policy goals. Organizers write that the march "offers an unprecedented opportunity to transform the social, political, economic and spiritual landscape of America;" and that the agenda "was drafted broad enough to be inclusive of the mutual political interests of Black, Hispanic, Native, Asian and Pacific Islander, Arab and White Americans;" and that they hope that a new political coalition will emerge, to push for "progressive public policy" at all levels of government.
Examination of the Unification Church's role in the detailed "National Agenda" posted on the Million Family March Web site exposes further anomalies. The agenda is a paradoxical hybrid of progressive domestic and foreign policy interests and conservative positions on sexuality issues that mirror those of the religious right. For example, the National Agenda advocates such progressive notions as affirmative action, Native American sovereignty, affordable housing and universal healthcare for children. But the section titled the "Divine Institution of Marriage" invokes conservative interpretations of the Koran and the Bible. Gay and lesbian civil unions and civil rights, reproductive healthcare and abortion are ignored throughout the document, even in connection with discussion of HIV and AIDS. But there is little mention of women at all outside of the section on family, which seems to primarily reflect the views and input of the Nation of Island and the Unification Church -- the only sources cited in the chapter notes.
What's more, there is significant internal dissent over Farrakhan's views and the march agenda. One Moon political operative, Dan Fefferman, wrote to his colleagues that Moon knows that many of them have "problems with Farrakhan," for example, over the NOI's call for "a ban on interracial marriage and their support for a separate nation for American blacks," and NOI's denial of the existence of the Sudanese slave trade. Fefferman also writes, "There are certainly policies in the march's agenda ... which most of us do not support."
Fefferman wrote that church leaders have stated "our support for the march is limited to central themes such as the God-centered family, interracial harmony, interreligous unity and moral revival." Fefferman's concerns are probably radically understated since the Moon organization has played an active and prominent role on the far right of American politics since the Kennedy administration.
Schanker was unable to explain his claim that the march is not political even though it is bringing a stated public policy agenda to Washington two weeks before a national election. He insisted that the three march themes are "atonement, reconciliation and responsibility," even after it was pointed out to him that the MFM Web site says that the themes are "family, morality and public policy."
Finally, even Farrakhan had difficulty explaining the role of the Moon organization to his black nationalist colleagues on the National Organizing Committee on Sept. 21: "I don't want us to get bent out of shape because folk of another race desire to help," he declared. "I say to the Muslims that are present that I am grateful for the help of the Family Federation for World Peace under Rev. and Mrs. Moon ... The Honorable Elijah Muhammad [Farrakhan's predecessor as head of NOI] told us that people would come from the East, that they would teach us everything we need to know in order to be the people that God meant for us to be."
While the Moon organization certainly shares some of Farrakhan's views, Clarence Lusane, an assistant professor at American University in Washington and author of several books on African-American politics, thinks they have been particularly useful in furthering the appearance of Farrakhan's new inclusiveness. He says that while presence of Asian and white Americans from the tiny Unification Church at pre-march rallies has helped, there is actually less racial and religious diversity than meets the eye.
Lusane sees Farrakhan's collaboration with Moon as a "one-to-one convergence of interests" in which both gain an image of broader support and influence than actually exists. The alliance benefits Moon in this regard because, says Lusane, a close relationship with NOI "allows Moon to pretend that he has a base that is broader than it is in the African-American community."
While Farrakhan and Moon may be indulging in a kind of apocalyptic grandiosity that only aging prophets and messiahs are capable of, both also have a record of staging large-scale events, and maintaining disciplined, arguably totalitarian organizations to carry them out. But can they attract the kind and number of people that will make this an historic event on the scale that they envision?