By Don Jolly
“Put the glasses on! Put em’ on! […] You dirty motherfucker!”
— “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (1954-2015)
The Senate first occupied its magnificent Caucus Room in 1909. Not long after, a number of well-positioned Americans lost their lives on an unfortunate White Star Line ship and a Senate subcommittee was convened.
Their Caucus Room was large, but the Senators hadn’t counted on the public filling it past capacity, and the reporters outnumbering the public two-to-one. In a huff, these statesmen repaired to another room to discuss their iceberg. Hopefully “there will be no hippodroming,” gruffed the committee’s chairman William Alden Smith, a Republican of Michigan.
But the press kept coming around.
In ’47, they swarmed in like flies when a maniac preacher of airplanes named Howard Hughes appeared to defend himself from charges of extreme waste in wartime.
In 1953 and 1954, another Republican – this one from Wisconsin – held a series of infamous hearings in the Caucus Room. He met with actors, and writers, and finally, soldiers.
John F. Kennedy announced his campaign there in 1960.
So did Bobby, in 1968.
It was in the Caucus Room, in 1974, that Nixon’s mechanics went beneath the knife.
In 1979, it was full of Moonies.
“A couple of old ghosts haunted Room 318 of the Russell Senate Office Building,” began a United Press International (U.P.I.) report filed that year. “The big ornate chamber with its green felt table” was burdened by its own history, it continued. Civil libertarians and the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon called it a “witch hunt,” a return to 1953.
Moon, and his “Moonie” followers, were scandalized because, on this particular occasion, the caucus room was occupied by a small group of senators interested in exploring the growing panic around “cults” in the United States – the Unification Church included. Things were getting strange, back then. Young people were dropping out of the real world and leaving their families. They’d been “brainwashed,” said the press and a growing choir of ex-members. Maybe it was time for government to get involved.
Or not. The senators found themselves facing more than a roomful of Moonies that day. Prominent members of America’s “legitimate” faiths arrived to testify, arguing essentially on behalf of the “cults.” This left the senators (including Bob Dole, the human Charlie Brown) flummoxed. Members of older, “legitimate,” religions such as Reform Judaism and the N.R.A. can be counted as more than mere individuals. In the eyes of a senator, they speak for blocs of registered voters and are, thus, accorded the respect due to any successful predator.
The U.P.I. reporter summarizes the testimony of these “orthodox religious leaders” quite vividly. They “asked […]who is to say what kind of sudden ‘life changing experience’ is truly religious[?]’” Cults, according to the popular narrative, lacked legitimacy because their members were coerced into converting. But where did coercion stop and free will begin? The matter was outside of a senator’s purview, the holy men argued. In support, “they recalled Paul on the road to Damascus and Charles Colson, the ex-White House hatchetman who found Jesus in the midst of Watergate.” The Moonies cheered.
It was more argument than Dole and his fellow statesmen had expected. They explained that the meeting was meant only as a preliminary of a preliminary — an “informal session” for the discussion of a panel’s “right […] to conduct an inquiry into religion.” It was a meeting to assess the feasibility and logistics of setting a preliminary meeting to propose a witch hunt, in other words, rather than a witch hunt itself.
“Like the early Christians, our faith has given us the strength to withstand public ridicule,” Neil Salonen, then the President of Unification Church in America, told the U.P.I.
Like the early Christians, they caught some lucky breaks too.
Not far from the Russell Office Building, on Pennsylvania Avenue, stands another historic structure. Charles “Chuck” Colson (the inhuman Charlie Brown) found an office there in 1969, when he became Special Council to Richard Milhous Nixon, the president of the United States. Nixon, unique within the political class, bore no derivative relationship to Charlie Brown. The cartoon took after him, not vice-versa.
Colson was a thick-featured man marked by a smug certainty of expression. “If I was as useful to the President as he said I was, it was because I was willing at times to blink at certain ethical standards, to be ruthless at getting things done,” he wrote in his 1976 memoir Born Again. In 1971, a Wall Street Journal profile of Colson (“NIXON HATCHET MAN”) quoted an anonymous senatorial staffer who said “Colson would walk over his own grandmother if her had to.”
In the fifth chapter of Born Again, Colson reflects on the quote, fairly certain that its source was kidding. Then, without missing a beat, he describes his response to the leaking of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg. Like Colson, Ellsberg was a former marine – but to Colson “Ellsberg himself was only a name, a symbol for the villainous forces working to undermine our goals for peace in the world.” Colson smeared him in the press, leaking snippets of Ellsberg’s F.B.I. dossier. He convened a congressional investigation. Then, at Nixon’s urging, he brought in a former CIA man – E. Howard Hunt. From there, it was all down hill – ethically speaking. The President began to think of himself and his inner circle as a divine minority: an elevated class, alone against the world.
“Our fortress mentality plunged us across the moral divide,” wrote Colson.
The Pentagon papers leaked in 1971. A few years later, at the Maxwell Federal Prison Camp in Montgomery, Alabama, a thick-featured man marked by a smug certainty of expression, Prisoner 23226, stewed nervously in his cell. He’d been busted – he knew it. Now it was only a question of mitigating the damage.
It got cold in Alabama. The winter had hit the camp like a cold gavel, and all the prison system had provided for the inmates were threadbare field jackets. They had some warmer stuff, green coats meant for officers, but prison regulations required that inmates dress in brown. The field jackets were ripped to shreds, but they were the right color. It was their form that counted, not their function.
This gave 23226 an idea. He started a small conspiracy, smuggling brown dye into the prison and applying it to the officers’ vestments. But it had gone wrong, somehow – one of the conspirators had been busted, his dye confiscated. Or so 23226 thought, for a few panicked hours. In the end, it turned out that Alabama prison guards didn’t give a shit about brown fabric dye. 23226’s friend had been searched for narcotics – and nothing more.
“It was a lesson learned,” 23226 later recalled. “How easy it is to backslide, to succumb unknowingly to temptations of the moment.” In perpetuating the dye scheme, he continued, “I was concerned only with helping other men – or so I thought – but in part it was the old Colson.”
By this phase of his incarceration, Chuck Colson had found God. “Chuck will get it done was the phrase I so loved to hear in the White House,” he remembered ruefully. There were more important things, he realized – like obedience. The prison’s law for brown clothing was worthy of respect, he now realized.
In 1975, soon after his release, Colson met with Norman Carlson, the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Colson asked to bring some inmates out of prison so that they might be discipled “as I had been discipled.” Carlson responded by asking a question of his own. He’d been in a prison service, Carlson said, where one of the inmates prayed for him and his family. It made no sense. “I’m the one keeping him in prison,” said the administrator.
“That man is a Christian, and we’re taught to pray for those in authority,” Colson explained. “That man prayed for you because he loves you.”
“Strange are the workings of a prison,” he wrote, in Born Again.
It was Easter, 1936, when the risen Christ appeared to the reverend Sun Myung Moon. For nine years after his first revelation, the Reverend was in communication with other religious luminaries, including Moses and the Buddha. In 1946, he was called by God to Pyeong-yang, North Korea, where the communists, freshly Godless, despised him. Moon was arrested and beaten. In October, 1950, United Nations forces freed him from a labor camp and returned him to South Korea. In 1954, while the Caucus room was struggling to contain the meltdown of that famous Wisconsin Republican, Moon’s first Unification Church began operation in Seoul.
Moon’s theology was not radical by the standards of new religious movements in the latter half of the twentieth century. In his Divine Principle, the Reverend’s sacred writing, the world is described as fallen and corrupt. God had meant human beings for a life of divine regimentation – but Lucifer had seduced Eve and she had seduced Adam. The order had gone screwy, and even though the heroes of the Bible had tried to put the world back on track, it had never worked out for long. For taking the trouble, Christ was crucified. Moon, born sinless, was the next in line.
For the reverend, a divinely sanctioned family was one of the three essential blessings of human beings. Hence the mass weddings (or “blessings”) that would win the reverend and his Moonies so much unwanted fame.
To Moonies, life in the Unification Church is a kind of return to the divinely sanctioned order for which human life was originally designed. Bound tight by their “brothers and sisters” in the Church, and led by the “parents” of its leaders, Moonies locate themselves within a divine family where expectations, goals and proper behaviors are clear. To them, this meant freedom – but to others, it seemed the opposite. It didn’t help that the Church, like the American prison system, was immensely profitable.
By 1977, the reporter David Goldberg, of the San Bernardino County Sun, could say that “few sects have received more attention or evoked deeper hostility” in the United States than the Unification Church. “If [their] recruiters haven’t turned every kid on the block into a Moonie, they’ve turned a large contingent into street vendors of candy and flowers and put others to work in church-affiliated businesses.”
In San Francisco, he reported, the church operated a cleaning service called “International Exchange Maintenance,” whose “contracts include one with the federal government to clean rugs” of outfits similar to the Senate’s Russell building but with considerably less class. Their routes stretched from Monterrey to the Sacramento branch office of the F.B.I.
Moon’s followers “pulled in “$24 million in profits last year,” wrote Goldberg. They were a cult, as far as we was concerned. All that money had been made on the backs of kids who had no idea what they’d gotten mixed up in.
The Unification Church has often been accused of “brainwashing” by grief-stricken parents who felt they had “lost” their children to the movement, accusations that echoed loud and long across the great American dailies. Shady “deprogrammers” lurked at the fringes of the cult scene, rough-and-tumble contractors paid to abduct church members at the behest of their alienated families. If the Moonies and other cult members had been forced into their new lives, it was only right that they be forced out of them.
On July 22nd, 1979, the Bloomington, Illinois Pantagraph published a story under the byline of Jan Dennis: “Cults ‘major threat’ says former ‘Moonie.’”
In the story, Dennis interviews a man named Chris Carlson – a former Moonie nine years out of high school who had been recently retrieved by a deprogrammer. According to Dennis:
“Carlson’s rescue from the cult came about 7 p.m. one day last November while he was playing baseball with another ‘Moonie’ behind their apartment. He said a car containing his mother and three men pulled up into the parking lot and the men got out and grabbed him. His friend swung the baseball bat at the men, but was restrained.”
“The first phase of brainwashing, which begins immediately […], involves ‘love bombing;’ Carlson told the journalist. At days-long workshops, Moonies bombarded their potential recruits with such fine and effusive praise that it became difficult to disagree with them. As the Moonies expanded on their theology, Carlson felt the bombardment increase. This time, it was a deluge of new concepts – delivered too quickly for reflection.
“Recruits are given about an hour of ‘think time’ a day, not enough to decipher the contradictions [in Unification preaching],” the ex-Moonie reported. In a motel room, Carlson and his mother’s goons had a frank discussion about the virtues of his newfound faith. Three days later, he had returned to the mainstream. “The change was so distinct,” he said to the reporter. “On the third day I had my first thought […] and it felt really good because it was the first real thought I’d had and could admit to in 1½ years.” He’d been saved – liberated – born again.
Chuck Colson would be proud.
England had its own variation on the Moonie scare, and it was through it that Eileen Barker first became aware of the movement. Barker, a whip-smart woman with a slyness at the corners of her mouth, published her scholarly masterpiece The Making of a Moonie in 1984, after years spent carefully observing the Church. In it, she interrogates the concept of conversion with the Unification Church serving as an intricate and eccentric example of a social phenomenon widespread in both “religion” and elsewhere.
In finding the behaviors of the majority repeated in a reviled minority group, Barker opened herself to criticism. England’s Unification Church, in the middle ‘70s, was “accused of all manner of nefarious beliefs and practices, most of which they considered to be the raving fabrications of a ‘Fallen’ media,’” she wrote. In response, they’d taken to wearing the worst Moonie rumors on their sleeves. Some could be seen “wearing large buttons declaring, ‘I am a Moonie and I love it,” or sporting T-shirts with the legend ‘BRAINWASHED ZOMBIE,” Barker continued.
“It was not, in fact, I who initially sought out the Unification Church,” she explained, in the opening pages of Making. Instead it was “they who, in a number of ways, sought out me.”
In 1974, Barker received an entrance to a seemingly prestigious event, the Third International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences. “A colleague, who had also been invited, subsequently noticed the name of the founder of the [organization behind the conference] was Sun Myung Moon,” she wrote. “We both had a vague recollection of having read something not quite nice about him.”
From there, Barker began to research Moon and his followers. “A visit to a newspaper-cuttings library revealed the information that Moon was a Korean millionaire who led a ‘bizarre religious sect’ and way thought by his disciples to be the Messiah.” The news unnerved her family, but it didn’t deter Eileen. “I was a sociologist of religion,” she wrote. “Nothing could have stopped me from going.”
Barker knew, of course, that breaking bread with the Moonies meant breaking both popular and scholarly taboo. To give a “cult” the consideration and legitimacy of serious (and to a degree, sympathetic) study is, perhaps, a lapse on par with sneaking brown dye into an Alabama prison camp. In Moonie and its succeeding publications, however, Barker expressed no remorse.
The lesson in all this being, I suppose, that few are blessed with the moral fortitude of a Watergate conspirator.
The Making of a Moonie begins with one question: “Why should – how could – anyone become a Moonie,” given the social, cultural and economic disincentives for doing so? Barker provides a number of interconnected solutions for this conundrum. None confirmed the ravings of deprogrammers. The Moonies, she learned, were largely genuine – their behaviors were not coldly calculated to stifle thought or snuff out free will. Instead, they were the logical expressions of the idiosyncratic reality proposed by Moon. Those who found themselves giving up their agency to the movement, Barker argued, were predisposed to do so – and, to the extent that such things can be quantified, such exchanges were freely performed.
Accusations that potential recruits were manipulated by lack of sleep and poor diet were bunk, she said. “The cuisine at Unification workshops is not exactly cordon bleu, but it is no worse than that in most college residences.” According to Barker’s observations, Moonies were allowed to come and go from Church functions on their own volition. A detail which rendered the achievements of the “deprogrammers” something more akin to kidnapping than heroic liberation.
In addition, Barker revealed that the actual number of Moonies present in any given region was almost always far lower than either the pride of the Church or the paranoia of its opponents dared admit. In a 2011 paper for the journal Methodological Innovations, she recalled that during one particularly histrionic swing of the controversy “there were less than one hundred and fifty [Moonies] in the country,” a fact she was careless enough to say out loud on talk radio, only to be shouted down by an angry public. People were certain there were more Moonies than that – hadn’t Barker seen them, milling about at busy intersections?
The Unification Church’s “brainwashing techniques,” were supposed to be hyper-effective – something like the foolproof hypnotism from The Manchurian Candidate. But Barker’s study found that 90% of those who attended Unification Church workshops were able to resist the pitch. “Furthermore, of those that did join, the majority left of their own accord within two years,” she continued. Far from being an all-or-nothing, life-destroying commitment, a stint in the Unification Church was most likely to be a few years diversion for a certain breed of man.
Barker’s surveys revealed that the typical English Moonies at the close of the 1970s were “predominately male,” with members generally falling “between the ages of 18 and 28.” They were middle class and for the most part, reasonable. “I must have spoken to about a thousand Moonies, but none has ever claimed, or appeared to have, a different view of empirical reality from that of the rest of the population,” she wrote. What differed was their religious system – the values and meanings they applied to empirical reality. And variance in that, Barker figured, was something society could afford to tolerate.
“If one comes from the advantaged middle classes, one can afford the luxury of denying oneself luxuries while following idealistic pursuits,” she mused, in the conclusion of Making. For a certain kind of person with a certain kind of exhaustion, life in the Unification Church seemed a viable alternative to the nightmare of life outside it.
“In caricature, the potential recruit can see the non-Unification world as a divisive, turbulent, chaotic society, characterized by racial intolerance, injustice, cut-throat competition and lack of direction,” she wrote. “A society which seems to be out of control and headed for imminent disaster.” If this potential recruit sees coercion anywhere, Barker continued, it is in the “fallen world” beyond the community of Reverend Moon:
“[The recruit] can see an amoral (possibly amoral) society which no longer recognizes absolute values and standards; everything is relative to the utilitarian interests and desires of a pleasure-seeking, money-grubbing, power-hungry population; the pathetic eyes of skeletal children stare accusingly out of Oxfam posters – which are placed, with Kafkaesque humor beside glossy advertisements for color television sets, luxurious automobiles and exotic wines.”
Where “conventional society” offers secular detachment, Unification offers religious imminence. Where “conventional society” offers a decayed and “unhappy” family, Unification offers a model of reality with family at its core. “In theory,” Barker continued, middle class “young people find themselves in a society of opportunity […] The world is their oyster. But in practice only a few can prise open the oyster and find anything of value inside.”
For some, being made into a Moonie makes sense.
For stating this in print, Barker has been accused of being a Moonie herself – or at least an “apologist,” a victim of brain-rinse rather than a full wash.
“There are methodological risks inherent in living with a religious community,” she wrote, in 2011. “One of these is ‘going native’” Gradually, she said, one may become accustomed to even the most wildest excesses of society and ritual. “It is […] easy enough not to notice what was is learning,” Barker continued. For this reason, she recommended keeping a careful diary – a record not just of observations, but of experiences. “It is through recognizing one’s changing perception of what is unusual and what is normal that one can hope to communicate the different perceptions to others,” she concluded.
The boundaries of reality are always shifting. A scholar’s current location must be carefully tracked, lest they lose themselves in the chaos.
Barker, however, never worried about becoming a Moonie herself. “I have always found the [Unification] movement eminently resistible,” she wrote, in Making. “But this is a personal response, and it does not follow that I might not feel that I can understand how others could find themselves wanting to join.”
There are a lot of people – partisans of conventional society – who don’t buy that last point. To them, “cults” like the Moonies are so socially destructive that they must be shut out, shouted down and blown apart. If you aren’t accusing the cults, the logic goes, you must be excusing them.
And that’s an order of magnitude worse than smuggling die.
Our present venue leaves much to be desired. Has that video finished loading in the next tab?
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How much “thinking time” are you allowed per day?
The workings of a prison are, indeed, strange. Not all of them have concrete walls and guarded walls and dour dress codes. Don’t ask Chuck Colson about it – just watch how he behaves.
There are prisons of faith, of patriotism, of love. You can lock yourself in anywhere – even in a rich, finely furnished caucus room buried in the guts and finery of a Beaux-Arts office building. It was there, in 1974, that Prisoner 23226 set himself on the path to Christ and the Maxwell Federal Camp.
Around that time, not far away, a crowd of 610 Unification Church members assembled on the steps of the United States Capitol. They fasted and keep vigil, pledging their support to an embattled God.
“I am praying for Richard M. Nixon,” read the signs they held.
“I am praying for Mrs. Richard M. Nixon.”
Moon never forgot those commies kicking the shit out of him, in Pyeong-yang. He thought Richard Nixon was one of the best commie hunters around.
They fought dirty. So did he.
This is the final installment of The Last Twentieth Century Book Club. The rest can be found here:
Don Jolly looks human but isn’t. His work has appeared on Boing Boing, the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Ampersand Review.