As the debate over gun control raged across America in the wake of last month’s school shooting in Florida, a group of worshippers wearing bullet crowns and toting AR-15 rifles gathered in a Pennsylvania church this week to hold a “commitment ceremony” for about 250 couples.
The ceremony was held at the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania. The weapons, which Reuters reported were unloaded, were meant to represent the biblical “rod of iron” referenced in the Book of Revelation, used by God’s representative to dominate his enemies.
As the nearby Wallenpaupack Area School District moved its students to another school over concerns about the armed celebrants, church leaders argued for the power of guns to do God’s will — and protect the innocent. “Each of us is called to use the power of the ‘rod of iron’ not to arm or oppress as has been done in satanic kingdoms of this world, but to protect God’s children,” said the church leader, Rev. Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon, in a statement. “If the football coach who rushed into the building to defend students from the shooter with his own body had been allowed to carry a firearm, many lives, including his own, could have been saved.”
While the ceremony itself had been planned long before the February 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which a man with an AR-15 rifle killed 17 students and staff members, participants in the blessing nevertheless celebrated the power of guns to stop potential future shootings.
The ceremony, which was held by an offshoot of a controversial Christian group that critics call a cult, seemed to perfectly encapsulate the anxieties of the current political climate: a conflation of pro-Trump and Christian nationalist rhetoric, fervently pro-gun sentiments, and multibillion-dollar business interests in the arms trade.
The Unification Church has a controversial history
Now there’s Sean Moon’s World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, but the story begins in Korea with the Moon family, which has run spiritual organizations since 1954. The family has been deeply controversial in religious circles, and its organizations have often been denounced by Christians and secular critics alike as “cults.”
Sun Myung Moon, Sean’s father, came to widespread prominence in America in the 1970s with his Unification Church, an ostensibly Christian organization that reveres both the traditional Bible and the Moon-authored Divine Principle as sacred texts. His teachings stress that true enlightenment, like that achieved by Jesus, can be achieved in part through marriage (often arranged) to other church members.
The elder Moon’s Unification Church — which worshipped Moon as a messianic figure — became popular in America. By 1976, the elder Moon was preaching to estimated crowds of 25,000 or more at a series of rallies across the country. Moon’s followers, who were often derogatorily referred to in the media as “Moonies,” became known for their public mass weddings for thousands of couples, who were often total strangers.
The church became extraordinary financially successful, bringing in millions of dollars a year from the US and abroad, a venture Moon ultimately parlayed into a series of successful businesses including a cable TV network, a shipbuilding studio, and a seafood empire. That cash was often used to fund political lobbying, including advocating for Korean unification and pro-South Korean causes and foreign policy. Today, Moon’s business empire is known as the Tongil Group, a multibillion-dollar conglomerate that supports Unification Church goals.
The connection between Moon’s religious and financial activities bordered, at times, on the illegal. Moon served 11 months in prison during the 1980s for income tax evasion, and a 1976 investigation found links between the church and the Korean military intelligence apparatus, suggesting that the church may have been, at least in part, a tool for Korean government interests.
The Unification Church also became closely involved with right-wing and GOP party politics. As Mariah Blake wrote in 2013 for the New Republic, Moon amassed “extraordinary political influence, building a vast network of powerful right-wing organizations and forging alliances with every Republican presidential administration since Ronald Reagan’s.” As late as 2004, Republican lawmakers were attending Unification Church ceremonies in which Moon was ceremonially “crowned.”
Sean Moon’s church is not part of the Unification Church proper, but is a splinter of his father’s organization (after Moon died in 2012, rivalries between his children have resulted in them largely operating independently of one another). But the Moon family more broadly has, in recent years, made pro-gun rhetoric a major part of their religious and financial activities. Among the Tongil Group’s holdings is Kahr Arms: a small-arms company founded by another of Moon’s sons, Justin Moon.
The company has long received attention from politically connected public figures. In 2016, Eric Trump attended the opening of one Tongil-affiliated gun store, as Blake pointed out on Twitter Wednesday:
Here's a 2016 video of Eric Trump speaking at the opening of a gun store affiliated with the Unification Sanctuary, which is featured in the insane photos below. (Sean Moon, the head of the Unification Sanctuary, appears at 0:55.)https://t.co/qXxh2sZTbo https://t.co/ATZdUOPCgW— Mariah Blake (@MariahCBlake) February 28, 2018
This week’s ceremony is firmly tied into the political arena: its liturgy and celebration capturing a quintessentially American blend of Christian nationalism and corporate pro-gun sponsorship. A few days prior to Wednesday’s ceremony, Sean Moon’s church hosted a pro-gun rights “Thank You Trump” dinner. The dinner’s sponsor? Kahr Arms.
The Moons reveal a broader alliance between faith and finance in American political culture
Despite the Moon family’s controversial religious beliefs, they’re nevertheless financially and, to an extent, structurally part of the American political fabric. Their business and political interests, which include promoting gun ownership, align neatly with the religious rhetoric they espouse. Their Bible-inflected fetishization of guns may differ in degree from the pro-gun rhetoric found across the religious right, but it — and the Moon’s family churches more widely — does not differ in kind.
And many of the techniques that the Unification Church used to proliferate in America — such as the focus on worshipping in fragmented “home churches” outside of the aegis of an official church organization or building — have been embraced by the mainstream evangelical community.
The Unification Church and its offshoots are, of course, hardly representative of the religious right as a whole; it’s debatable whether we should consider them “Christian” at all.
But the intensity with which its members have embraced guns as a deeply religious weapon, an instrument of divine protection, should tell us something about gun culture in America more widely. Sean Moon is tapping into an existing truth of gun culture: that they have become fetishized and imbued with a wider cultural ritualistic significance.
Not everyone may literally worship guns, but — for the 77 percent of white evangelicals who feel safer with a gun around, a percentage unmatched by any other religious group — it’s worth investigating how close gun ownership and religious identity really are.