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Moon's Financial Rise and Fall


By Theodore P. Friend

A FIFTY-FOUR YEAR OLD Korean immigrant is currently swabbing trays and loading dishes into washers at a federal prison in Danbury, Conn., and millions of people are unhappy about it. The man is the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder and leader of the Unification Church, which numbers two to three million followers worldwide, and he's serving an 18-month sentence for tax conspiracy and tax fraud.

The government claims that Moon failed to pay taxes on $162,000 interest on a $1.8 million Chase Manhattan Bank account. Moon says that he was holding the money in trust for his church, an established legal practice known as corporation sole, and that the money should therefore have been tax-exempt. (Curiously, Moon did pay personal taxes on the bulk of the account).

Two years ago, the government proved to a jury's satisfaction that Moon used the Chase Manhattan account to purchase stock in iron and paint companies and a Washington bank, to pay for clothing and private schools for his children, and to buy such sundries as gold watches for himself and his friends. IRS agents researched the case for five years and the government spent two years prosecuting it. The estimates for the cost of prosecution and defense range up to $6 million.

But while the government insists that it had a solid and straightforward legal case against Moon, it has been unable to dissuade religious leaders and civil libertarians from their belief that the conviction is symptomatic of a broader governmental attack on religious autonomy.

Scores of national religious leaders have spoken on Moon's behalf, defending less the vagaries of his particular case than the issues of religious freedom the trial has raised. And figures as politically diverse as Joseph Lowrey, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Dr. Tim Lahaye, president of the Moral Majority of California, have joined to spearhead a group of ministers who have pledged to spend a week in jail with Reverend Moon. This unusual commitment indicates the depth of their belief that Moon's prosecution was a disguised persecution.

Religious figures base their argument on the first amendment--which is unfortunately so broadly phrased that interpretive battles over it are endemic to the American judicial system. The amendment begins: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." However, the Moon case attests to the ambiguity of the Constitutional guarantee--for all the government's determination to prosecute Moon, the controversy has sparked a firestorm of articles, rallies, charges and countercharges that is only gradually diminishing.

The religious community sees the Moon case as a strong indication that the government plans to interpret those 16 words as narrowly as possible, allowing churches free exercise only if they meet government standards. Harvey G. Cox Jr., Harvard's Thomas Professor of Divinity, voices a common concern when he notes the implications of the IRS having a say in how religions disburse their funds: "One can imagine in a future generation a politicized IRS deciding that the Catholic Church shouldn't speak out against nuclear war. Or anything else--there's no limit."

One of Cox's fellow sponsors for a June Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Freedom rally in Boston was former Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, who spoke to the same point.

I once suggested they put a sign up over the [IRS] office there saying Abandon the Bill of Rights, all you who enter here', because they have a different set of guarantees in that agency...we're now moving to where we'll have to say that the religion of the people is the religion of internal Revenue Service.

IRS FASCISM is not the least of the charges religious leaders have made against the government. Moon himself sounded the call to rhetoric when he stood on the steps of the United States Court House after his indictment in 1981 and declared "I would not be standing here today if' my skin were white and my religion were Presbyterian. I am here today only because my skin is yellow and my religion is Unification Church."

At first, the issue of selective prosecution appeared paramount. Earlier this year, when Idaho Congressman George Hansen updated his book about the IRS' abuse of power. To Harass Our People, he included a chapter summing up the Moon case. Hansen wrote that "From the beginning, it was evident that the government was relying for its case on the most damning facts possible-the unpopularity of the Moon church and the fact that Reverend Moon is an Oriental."

The government began investigating Moon in 1975, shortly after Senator Robert Dole (R-Kansas) wrote his "Many Kansans" letter to Donald Alexander, then Commissioner of the IRS, Dole requested an audit of the Unification Church's finances, and questioned whether the Church was "based on a bona fide religion or mind-control techniques." Dole offered as evidence the claborately phrased hearsay, "Many Kansans have advised me that a major purpose of the organization is the accumulation of wealth and power and not the practice or furtherance of a religion."

In June of this year Moon claimed before a Senate Subcommittee chaired by Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) that secret Justice Department memos prove three tax law experts recommended the IRS drop its six-year audit of the Unification Church "because there was no criminal case there." Moon urged that Hatch ask the Justice Department to make public these documents, which he claims show that the tax lawyers were twice overruled by a "high-level political appointee with no political experience."

Release of the documents, said Moon, "will show to the world that my prosecution was politically motivated and there was a criminal conspiracy by certain high government officials to 'get Reverend Moon.'" Senator Hatch promised to look into the matter, but Unification Church officials say they do not expect the Justice Department to release the documents.

BUT EVEN conspiracy theorists agree that whatever the government may have done clumsily, or done wrong, they chose a good scapegoat when they picked on Moon.

Reverend Moon was born in 1920 in North Korea, where he was converted to Christianity by American missionaries. On Easter morning, 1936, Moon says that Christ appeared to him as he prayed on a mountainside and told him to complete the mission begun by the son of God. It is Moon's interpretation of that mission that has gained him both a great following and great notoriety.

Moon's Unification Church has become the first popular "echo" religion, or eastern reflection of western Christianity, according to Harvey Cox. It emphasizes filial piety, family values (Moon will suggest marriage partners to church members who seek his advice), and respect for the holy man. Moon preaches that contrary to traditional Christian theology, Christ was not meant to be crucified but to marry and father a race to supplant the fallen descendants of Adam and Eve.

The Unification Church believes the line of towering Judeo-Christian prophets begins with Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and is revived with Reverend Moon. According to this view, Christ redeemed man's spirit while Moon wants to redeem the whole man; to exalt his material side as well as his spiritual. This is why the Church encourages its members to found businesses and to give generously to the Church--actually just another version of the American Protestant work and tithe ethic.

Indeed, Moon is in some ways quintessentially American. He was tortured in several communist prison camps and was once left for dead on a bloody snowbank in Dac Dong, but he survived to become an immigrant millionaire. A devout anti-communist, Moon's speeches frequently echo not only of one of his heroes, Douglas MacArthur, but also of earlier American patriots. One of his recent statements: "I am even willing to give my life, if that will ensure that the nation and world survive and do God's will" echoes of Nathan Hale.

Unfortunately for his place in U.S. history books, however, Moon spent the decade after he came to America in 1971 earning a reputation as a kidnapper and brainwasher of freckle-faced Kansans. The vast majority of press accounts of the Unification Church during the 1970's were unfavorable," and Moon's national image is still tarnished.

Gordon Kauffman, Mallinckrodt Professor of Divinity, points out that conversion to any religion involves a change of mind, but says that the Unification Church does "seem to have a much stronger control of their believers than most religions in America now." He is careful to add that "this is not to say that they are much stronger thean most religions in the world now, or in the past."

The man and the controversy aside, Moon's theology has yet to achieve widespread acceptance in the United States, where he numbers only 45,000 followers. An amicus curiae or "friend of the court" brief submitted on Moon's behalf by churches representing over 40 million parishioners noted that:

Cases such as this, while nominally related to taxes, bear a striking resemblance to the ordeals of Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Joseph Smith, and Mary Baker Eddy, all of whom appeared hardly less alien and threatening to many in the early days of their movements than Reverend Moon appears to many today.

Sixteen amicus briefs representing 43 organizations including the National Council of Churches and the American Civil Liberties Union were submitted on Moon's behalf during the trial and the subsequent appeals.

In one of the many ironies pervading the case, the government had to ensure that the trial itself dealt only with arcane questions of implied trust relationships, and entirely excluded the issue which was getting all the publicity: religion. Government prosecutors couldn't afford to raise the sorts of questions Bob Dole raised in 1976, because they knew what the answers would be.

In the 1982 tax case, New York City Tax Commission vs. Unification Church, the United States Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the Unification Church was a bona fide religion, based on such criteria as "a belief in ultimate concerns" and devotion to worship and evangelism.

Reverend Moon had requested a bench trial from Judge Gerard L. Goettel, well aware that a survey commissioned by his lawyers found that 76.4 percent of those questioned reacted unfavorably to his name. But the government, which usually prefers bench trials in tax cases, insisted on a jury trial, purportedly so that Moon could not "blame any adverse result in this case on religious or racial bigotry."

Moon's counsel charged that the government's refusal to accede to his request "in substance and effect punished [Moon] for exercising his right to freedom of expression" and "doomed him to a conviction based on religious prejudice."

The trial featured the bleak comedy of Moon's chief counsel, Tyler Professor of Constitutional Law Laurence H. Tribe '62, contending with a jury poorly suited to appreciate his subtle arguments. Tribe, a brilliant scholar and appellate hotshot with a poised, aggressive courtroom style--he is 6-2 in Supreme Court arguments--found himself talking to jurors who, as Judge Goettel admitted, "don't know much, because they are obviously the persons who start off with the least bias."

The jury found Moon guilty, and the appeals court upheld the conviction, despite Tribe's protests about the jury's quality and the misleading thrust of Judge Goettel's instructions to them. Tribe had to reshape his argument along constitutional lines for the next forum--the Supreme Court.

Tribe's arguments before the high court followed several tacks, but focused on the point that has brought religious leaders with widely different beliefs rallying to Moon's cause--the traditionally sacrosanct character of a religious institution's financial organization. It has always been legally acceptable for a religious leader to hold funds for a church in his name, and the practice is widespread among small churches, as well as in the Catholic Church. The late Terence Cardinal Cooke of New York, for example, held millions in his name for the Church.

This unprecedented challenge to corporation sole raises the spectre of "Big Brother" IRS agents examining the odometer on the church station wagon to see if it registers more trave than necessary to make the parish rounds (Though even Moon partisans admit that the church converts to a group accomidation as the Unification Church did in 1975--it will avoid the potential threat.)

But, says Charles E. Price, a professor of Law at Notre Dame who wrote an amicus brief on the Moon case for the Center for Judicial Studies, it would be "unfair to many small Southern Baptist ministeries to make them pay for the legal counsel necessary for such a complex change." John T. Biermans, a New York attorney who assisted with Moon's defense, says flatly that "stopping corporation sole would revolutionize religion in this country," and notes that ministers are considerably more accountable for their trust than political candidates who bank contributions in their name.

The government contends that all the evangelical furor is unnecessary, even irresponsible. Assistant U.S. Attorney James Devita, one of three government lawyers who prosecuted the Moon case, says that "the public statements of religious persecution are false. It was a tax case." Devita points out that when Judge Goettel denied Moon's motion to reduce his sentence on July 18, two days before Moon surrendered to Federal officials, Goettel said that "Moon totally misstated what was involved in the prosecution." (For instance, someone in the Moon organization manufactured documents purporting to show where the money in question came from--which lead to Moon's conviction for fraud as well as conspiracy). Goettel also used the occasion to put an end to the jury trial controversy by saying that he would have come to the same verdict the jury did.

Unification Church officials claim that they were delighted to let Moon use the controversial account (known within the church as "Father's money") for his personal expenses, but his $600,000 estate and lavish life style have naturally raised questions about the dividing line between pension and pillage. One of the defense's frustrated arguments, characterized by Judge Goettel as the "Messiah defense", was that Moon embodied the Church and its theological stance, and was therefore perfectly entitled to disburse its assets as he saw fit.

Religious leaders who support Moon are forced to agree with this argument if they want any moral and constitutional high ground to stand on, but many find its bald expression distasteful, as the National Council of Churches disapproves of religions which exalt documents or individuals whose genesis occured after Christ's. On this point Nicholas M. Buscovich, Director of the Unification Church of Massachusetts, says simply, "There was a three-year period when, in essence, Reverend Moon was the church."

The defense's argument that it is a violation of religious freedom to tax religions therefore meets head-on the government's taxation philosophy. As a prosecution figure who asked not to be identified noted, "Whether or not the congregants are willing to have it happen, for someone to take church money and use it for their creature comforts is not a legitimate use of religious exemption. It suggests that someone can impose their beliefs on the system of taxation."

Though Moon has a compelling argument that the scope of his work makes the $25,000 the government was pursuing seem trivial, he was proved guilty; and the list of his expenditures does seem rather secular. Nonetheless, the issue of selective prosecution remains-why research the Unification Church for five years? Prosecutor Devita contends that the seemingly extraordinary measures clothe a very simple tax case, and stresses that there is no reason for concern that legitimate church activity will be prosecuted because of this case, whether the religions are orthodox, unorthodox, or whatever."

DESPITE SUCH governmental assurances, however, religious leaders continue to view the Moon ruling with deep suspicion. They are disturbed by phrases such as "legitimate church activity," especially in light of the recent Bob Jones University case. In that case, the government wanted to withdraw Bob Jones' tax exemption unless they changed their practice--which stemmed from religious beliefs--of forbidding interracial dating. Last year the Supreme Court ruled that the IRS had the power to rescind the tax exemption, on the basis that the school's stance defied "public policy."

The subsequent outcry about totalitarian executive-judicial cabals was repeated and intensified when Reverend Moon protested his treatment before the Hatch subcommittee on June 26--this time charges of racism were working for, not against, the religious community.

The subcommittee hearing gave Moon a well-publicized venue for airing his concerns, but it was even more significant for bringing together scores of religious leaders who felt their faith was under seige: it was an ecumenical watershed. As Dr. Tim Lahaye of the Moral Majority said, "I don't believe in the history of America we have ever had such a religiously diverse group as we have in this room today. It's miraculous."

In his opening remarks, Senator Hatch raised the central question to come out of the hearing. "And what are we to think," he asked rhetorically, "when the leader of an unpopular church who is definitely hated and despised by large groups of people, may be thrown in prison after the court refuses to recognize what some believe to be his and his church's constitutional rights?"

There are several views about the cause of the perceived crisis. Unification Church officials agree that there is a government conspiracy to "get Reverend Moon." Dr. Lahaye in his testimony expressed concern that "secularist forces within the government [are] moving steadily and in an intruding way upon these [religious] freedoms." Professor Rice says he sees no active conspiracy, and believes the cause of the government's extended pursuit of Moon may have been "government stupidity."

Professor Cox also downplays fundamentalist fears of a Federal cadre of secular humanists setting out to destroy religions. He muses that the Moon case may be an example of the risks of a strong central government:

I do think people who hold power in the public realm tend to want to subvert other forms of discourse. This seems to be built into the power structure. And religious organizations are notoriously hard to control--they're decentralized, and they suffuse the society. It's not incidental that totalitarianistic societies try to control the churches, the press, and the universities.

Meanwhile, though the Ad Hoe Committee's plan to join Reverend Moon in jail has proved unfeasible for reasons having to do with common sense, they have held demonstrations supporting Moon in New York and New Jersey, and they are reportedly considering, demonstrating outside the prison walls.

Inside the walls, Reverend Moon is running his church from his cell. Ironically, Warden Dennis Luther has forbidden Moon from Proselytizing to his fellow prisoners, citing a regulation which bars prisoners from operating their "businesses" within the prison. The Federal government has elearly decided that the religion of Reverend Sun Myung Moon is business.

Assuming good behavior-and so far he has been a model prisoner-Moon could be out on parole by February. But the sentiment of Dr. Lahaye, that Moon's confinement, "indicates that the religious community will remain on the alert for further transgressions against religious liberty: real-or imagined.

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