On stage at the old post office this Sunday afternoon, Pat Boone stretches his leathery face into an eerily well-preserved smile as he dispenses yet another framed certificate to yet another worthy recipient. The '50s crooner still wears his trademark white buck shoes. Squint, and he's still the squarest-of-the-square teen idol; for a second, the world remains innocent of Courtney Love, navel piercing, and other threats to American youth.
The July 28 award ceremony marks the first-ever National Parents' Day. Last year, a bill designating the fourth Sunday of every July as Parents' Day scooted through both the House and Senate. President Clinton signed it into law last October, enabling Parents' Day to join Father's Day and Mother's Day as a national celebration.
Today's festivities are as earnest and dull as the name Parents' Day suggests: The Birthday Bear, American Greetings' costumed mascot, cavorts in the aisles. A gospel singer praises Jesus. A tuxedoed magician exhumes a tired routine. And two football players from the Baltimore Stallions (of the Canadian Football League) lend their dim star power to the cause. About half of the hundred or so people gathered at the food-court tables largely ignore the festivities and concentrate on their pizzas, burgers, and extra-large Cokes. These shorts-clad refugees from the Old Post Office mall seem to have drifted here by accident, seeking nothing more uplifting than air conditioning.
The rest of the crowd wears evening clothes or suits, and they look strangely out of place on this muggy Sunday afternoon. Sooner or later, almost every one of these carefully groomed folks takes the stage. They represent a host of organizations, including the National Center for Family Literacy, the National Council of Negro Women, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As they receive their certificates, they drone on about the importance of good families and the importance of Parents' Day.
And who can disagree? A banner over the stage trumpets "The Power of Parents -- Through Participation in Education." It's an easy platform to support. Paragons of televised wholesomeness including Bill Cosby and Florence Henderson praise Parents' Day as a symbol of America's commitment to strong families. Across the U.S., state governments follow Congress' lead in proclaiming the day. (Both District Mayor Marion Barry and Virginia Gov. George Allen sign their support.) And the National Parents' Day Foundation receives corporate sponsorships from perhaps the best bellwethers of orthodox sentiment: Hallmark Cards and American Greetings. Parents' Day appears nothing more than a chance to praise Mom, apple pie, and the Christian values that made this country great. But behind the sunny speeches, the do-gooder awards, and the all-star cast lurks the Unification Church, headed by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a convicted felon, and his wife, Hak Ja Han Moon -- the self-proclaimed "True Parents" of mankind. Through political relationship with conservative congressional leaders and political action groups funded by Moon, the Unification Church has managed to have a church celebration declared an official American observance in perpetuity, an achievement roughly comparable to Jesus persuading the Emperor Tiberius to declare Christmas a Roman holiday.
THE UNIFICATION CHURCH teaches that on Easter morning 1936, Sun Myung Moon had a vision. The 16-year-old Korean, a Presbyterian, was praying when Jesus Christ appeared to him. Jesus informed Moon that God had selected him to take up where Adam and Eve had failed, to complete a task that Christ himself couldn't finish: uniting and leading humanity as God intended. Moon was to be the Third Adam, the Lord of the Second Advent, the Messiah of the Second Coming. His assignment: to create a theocracy that would reign over the earth.
In 1960, Moon married Hak Ja Han, a Korean woman 23 years his junior. According to church teachings, she became not only Mrs. Moon, but the Messiah-ess, the True Eve, and the Lady of the Second Advent. That year, the Moons declared themselves the True Parents of all mankind. They proclaimed True Parents Day a church holiday. (The date of True Parents' Day fluctuated, usually falling in March or April.)
True Parent's Day was intended to memorialize the Moons' status as Mom and Dad to the world. "The purpose of our lives of faith is to become true children of God. In order to do this, we must first become children of True Parents," explains Moses Durst, a former Unification church leader, in a book about the faith. When the Moons' first biological child was born, Mrs. Moon's breast milk was cut with cow's milk and ceremonially served to Church members. When Christians take communion, they symbolically swallow Christ's body and blood; drinking Mrs. Moon's breast milk is certainly no stranger. But the ceremonial act's underlying deification is powerful and unnerving.
The Unification Church and its followers emphasize the Moons' messianic qualities. In newsletters to Church members, the Rev. and Mrs. Moon are referred to again and again as Father and Mother, the True Parents whose every utterance is considered holy writ. Even the Church-owned Washington Times hints that its owners may be something more than mortal. In a story about the mass wedding of 400,000 church followers on Aug. 25, the Times suggested that the torrential rains that had caused 21 deaths in Korea "stopped just as Rev. and Mrs. Moon stepped up to preside" over the ceremony in Seoul Stadium. "When the ceremony ended an hour and 25 minutes later," the paper wrote, "a steady warm rain pelted the stadium again."
(Adherents of the Unification faith believe that the Rev. Moon not only mcontrols the weather, but the moon and stars as well.)
The Moons seek political legitimacy as well as theocratic supremacy. Within the church, the Moons are positioned as world leaders of the first rank whose blessing and counsel is sought by other global figures. Issues of the Unification News (which declares itself "The Hometown Newspaper of the Unification Community") tout the church's political triumphs. Politicians who have fallen on hard times, such as former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy, frequently headline church functions and are pictured in Unification publications. But a speech by a former congressman and a glowing write-up in a church paper seem inconsequential compared to the effort to commemorate National Parents' Day. The church, through an improbable alliance with conservative U.S. political groups, managed to transform a minor messianic sect's holiday into an All-American celebration.
The effort to legitimize Parents' Day began with Mrs. Moon. In summer 1993, she barnstormed the U.S. on "True Parents' Tour America." (The trip seemed yet another indication that she was being groomed to succeed her husband as the head of the church.) Mrs. Moon explained church theology to crowds in city after city, then ended her campaign in Washington, D.C. The church's political allies at the Capitol rolled out the red carpet. The Rev. Moon's strong anti-communist stance and his generosity toward conservative causes have endeared him to right-wingers, as has the Times' ferocious anti-Democratic editorial slant.
On July 27, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) took the floor of the Senate to urge his fellow lawmakers to support "True Parents' Day," to be celebrated the following evening by the Women's Federation for World Peace, which is funded in large part by the Unification church. According to the Congressional Record, Lott pontificated that "the breakdown of the family is a major factor contributing to the rise of crime, teen pregnancy, educational decline, substance abuse and suicide among our nation's youth" and that "[p]arents, by their example of sacrificial love and transmission of moral and cultural values, play a crucial and determinant role in the development of youth." But he didn't mention that the holiday had beenlong celebrated by Unificationists, or that Hak Ja Han Moon had founded the Women's Federation and still serves as its international president. The following evening, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced Mrs. Moon to an audience of approximately 200 gathered in a Senate meeting room at the Dirksen Office Building. The Rev. Moon himself sat in the front row.
The Washington Times reported the palest possible version of Mrs. Moon's speech. It quoted her briefly decrying the increase in divorces and neglected children and mentioned the conservative luminaries in the audience, suggesting that Unification Church's views on family matters had made the Church some important friends on Capitol Hill. The Times didn't quote Mrs. Moon's declaration that she and her husband are the True Parents of mankind, destined to finish what Jesus couldn't.
The Unification News offered a much richer account of the event. Hatch "extolled the long suffering and personal sacrifice of Mrs. Moon and her husband," the News reported, "and he particularly commended the couple for their investment in the Washington Times, a vehicle that he said has been a benefit to the nation's capital. Senator Hatch, in his warm introductory remarks, referred more than once to Mrs. Moon as 'my friend'." The News then detailed Mrs. Moon's speech in its full theological glory -- and vividly described listeners' reactions. "As Mrs. Moon began speaking, the audience became hushed and respectful as they settled into their plush leather chairs. Many congressmen were visibly moved, and some even wiped away a tear as she described the suffering she and her husband had endured in their lives for the sake of accomplishing the will of God."
True Parents' Tour America laid the groundwork for Parents' Day, but it wasn't until the following year that the Unification Church's effort to create an officially recognized American holiday gained real momentum. On March 11, 1994, Rep. Dan Burton (R.-Ind.) addressed the House. "Normally I would not read a resolution," said the conservative Republican. "This is very short, but I think it is very, very important."
He then declaimed House Resolution 236, which he was co-sponsoring along with Rep. Floyd Flake (D-N.Y.). He urged his colleagues to recognize July 28, 1994, as Parents' Day. Resolution 236 proposed merely a one-time, one-day observance of Parents' Day, but it was an important interim step on the way to creating an annual holiday.
Burton and Flake were asking official recognition by the House rather than simple good wishes from the Senate, but the language of their resolution differed only a little from Lott's salute to the Unification Church's True Parents' Day a year earlier. Lott and Burton listed the same litany of problems caused by the breakdown of the American family, and both referred to "sacrificial love."
But Burton's speech made one striking change. Nothing in the resolution connected the holiday to Moon. The odd word "True" had disappeared from "Parents' Day," and the resolution did not mention the Moons at all. The House passed the harmless-looking resolution on a voice vote. Did the lawmakers know that they were institutionalizing a Unification religious holiday? Anti-cult activists believe that Rep. Burton must have understood the resolution's significance to the Unification Church. In 1987, the congressman had been criticized for attending a Moon-sponsored conference in Seoul. And only a few months before Burton read his bill to the House, the Religious News Service had questioned Burton's office about proposal, and his aides referred the reporter to Gary Jarmin. A former Unification Church officer, Jarmin now heads the Christian Voice, a conservative lobbying group based in Northern Virginia. Jarmin told the Religious News Service that while there might be a "semantic overlap" between Parents' Day and Unification beliefs, people are free to interpret the day however they wish.
But Kevin Binger, Burton's chief of staff, says that Burton wasn't aware of the holiday's ties to the church. "I don't know what there is to be aware of," he says. "Congressman Burton's a very strong Christian. Certainly there wasn't anything to do with the Unification Church as far as we know." Binger says he's not familiar with Sen. Lott's previous salute to True Parents' Day or with Mrs. Moon's appearance on Capitol Hill. He recalls, though, that Burton was repeatedly lobbied on the measure by the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, the civil rights activist and Baptist minister who represented the District in Congress from 1971 to 1990.
Anti-cult activists consider Fauntroy a Moon sycophant. They point out that he's made repeated appearances at Unification events, lending the Church the luster of his association with Martin Luther King and Congress. And only weeks after Burton spoke about Parents' Day on the House floor, Fauntroy attended the Second World Peace Conference, held in Seoul to coincide with the Unification Church's 40th anniversary. At the conference, Fauntroy presented the Rev. and Mrs. Moon with a framed copy of the Parents' Day resolution. The Unification News ran a photo of the couple proudly displaying their trophy and exulted: "With the authority of the U.S. Congress, it was a crowning moment to the Peace Conference."
On July 28, 1994, Florence Henderson -- best known as the Brady Bunch's mom -- was the emcee at what was billed as a one-time celebration. She adjusted a sagging banner on the steps of the Capitol and offered shopworn advice to the crowd. "What would I tell teens about sex?" she asked. "I'd say boys, keep your pants on. And girls, keep your skirts down." The National Parents' Day Foundation honored Henderson along with a slew of other faded stars from long-dead "family" shows. Awards went to Barbara Billingsley of Leave It to Beaver; Harriet Nelson of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet; and John Forsythe of Bachelor Father. Bill Cosby couldn't make the ceremony, but he wrote a letter of support.
The stars' appearances served to promote the foundation's ultimate goal: to have Parents' Day not just saluted, not merely recognized by the House as a one-day celebration, but declared as a national holiday in perpetuity. Burton and Flake promptly cosponsored a new resolution that Parent's Day be celebrated every year on the fourth Sunday of July. Again the effort breezed through the House. This time, it cruised through the Senate as well. Cosponsored there by Hatch and Joe Biden (D-Del.), it coasted past lawmakers preoccupied with health care reform -- not to mention a host of other ceremonial resolutions, including "National Children's Day," "National Penny Charity Week," "Irish-American Heritage Month," and "National Good Teen Day."
Congress didn't appropriate any money for Parents' Day, but it gave plenty of moral support. The legislators encouraged all federal agencies, state governments, and private citizens to "recognize Parents' Day through proclamation, activities, and educational efforts."
On Oct. 14, 1994, Bill Clinton signed National Parents' Day into law. Nowhere on the bill appeared any mention of "True Parents," the Moons, or the Unification Church.
The Moons' triumphs on Capitol Hill marked a high point in their 25-year drive to conquer the U.S.
In 1971, the couple moved from Seoul to New York. They preached that Satan had invaded America, and that God had sent the Rev. Moon to remedy the situation. At first, the country showed little gratitude. Cult-obsessed Americans looked askance at "Moonies," distrusting the faithful's hard-sell recruitment of college students, flower-selling fund-raising, mass marriages uniting strangers, and raw zeal.
Nor did America appreciate Moon's attitude toward the tax code. In 1982, a New York jury convicted the Rev. Moon of four counts of conspiracy, including conspiracy to obstruct justice and conspiracy to file false tax returns. Two years later, when his appeals were exhausted, Moon went to federal prison and served 13 months of an 18-month sentence.
Moon's conviction changed the way his church conducted itself. More and more, the Church sought mainstream respectability and earthly power. The flower-sellers made themselves scarce in airports and college campuses, and the mass weddings temporarily stopped. Moon apparently hoped to follow the path blazed by the Mormons, changing the public's perception of his church from a wild and dangerous cult to something downright dull, as bland as Donny and Marie.
Anson Shupe, a professor of sociology at Purdue University, studies religious movements and politics, and has followed the Unification Church since the '70s. "Moon tried to start a mass movement in the United States," Shupe says. "His political interests were just side bets. But the mass movement failed, and now all he's got are the side bets."
Those bets, however, have paid off royally. The church made friends in high places by founding organizations such as the commie-fighting CAUSA USA; the conservative American Leadership Conference; and the World Media Association, which sponsors annual conferences for journalists. The Women's Federation for World Peace attracted speakers such as Marilyn Quayle, Coretta Scott King, and Maureen Reagan. Last year, George and Barbara Bush expounded on family values at a federation rally in Washington; on Sept. 14, they will address a federation gathering in Japan. Stephen Kent, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta, studies "alternative religions" such as the Unification Church. "A lot of these groups have a habit of establishing programs that propound values that almost everyone agrees with," he notes. The innocuous-looking programs, he says, serve to recruit supporters to church causes, and the resulting associations with celebrities and power brokers make the church appear more legitimate and mainstream -- both to outsiders and to members.
Despite the Unification Church's efforts to wrap itself in the American flag, the Rev. Moon espouses quite a few un-American values and doesn't hesitate to predict the demise of the United States' most sacred principles. "Now," he said in a 1991 speech, "the era of democracy is passing away, and the Era of Parentism is coming." Larry Zilliox, a private investigator based in McLean, Va., has spent years monitoring the Unification Church, but still can't understand why non-Moonies carry water for its leader. "Why would people associate themselves with Sun Myung Moon, a convicted felon who claims to be the messiah?" he asks. "It's bizarre, especially for staunch Republicans. He was doing business with Vietnam before the embargo was lifted, which may constitute trading with the enemy. He's a traitor to this country."
In part, conservatives' tolerance of Moon can be traced to the Washington Times. Moon conceived the shamelessly conservative paper while serving time in prison. Launched in 1982, it rode the crest of the Reagan revolution. As strident as Newt Gingrich and somewhere to the right of Pat Buchanan, the Times is an outlet for the chronic gripes of pissed-off white men, gun owners, and (like Moon himself) tax-haters. Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy cite the paper regularly, and it is much beloved by congressional Republicans --including the powerful Lott and Hatch.
Besides the power of the press, the Unification Church offers conservatives deep pockets. And in 1986, that was exactly what the Christian right-wingers needed. Reagan's success paradoxically led to hard financial times for far-right groups such as the Moral Majority; it was finally morning in America, and the faithful no longer felt the need to support the fight against the pinko hordes. And so, for practical financial reasons, many conservative Christians such as Jerry Falwell and direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie allied themselves with a self-proclaimed messiah.
In fall 1986, leaders of several Christian fundamentalist groups met with two of Moon's associates: Bo Hi Pak, Moon's top lieutenant, and Jarmin of the Christian Voice lobbying group. Those talks led to the creation of the American Freedom Coalition, which lobbied for conservative causes like the contras. The Unification Church bankrolled the coalition's projects, and its members often served as the group's foot soldiers. According to U.S. News & World Report, Pak bragged, "We are going to make it so no one can run for office in the United States without our permission." During the '80s, Pak donated $20,000 to the Republican National Committee.
American Federation Coalition President Robert Grant denied that his groupis a "Moonie front," though he admitted that it has received significant funding from the church. But when the coalition's ties to Moon began to be widely reported in the late '80s, the organization suffered embarrassing setbacks and largely disappeared from public debate. In South Dakota, 7-Eleven stores refused to stock the coalition's election guides. And though the coalition offered former Alabama Sen. Jeremiah Enton a fat salary to serve as its chairman, he refused the figurehead job.
In spite of the coalition's troubles, Grant maintained that the American Freedom Coalition played an important role, both in advancing conservative causes and burnishing the image of the Unification Church. According to the Washington Post, Grant wrote Moon on Dec. 20, 1988, thanking the reverend for his role in the group's anti-Dukakis efforts. In part, the letter read: "[L]et me say that I believe your support of the American Freedom Coalition has probably done more good towards uplifting your own image and that of the Unification Church than any other effort in which you have invested heavily. I view this as a tremendous breakthrough for you in overcoming bigotry and religious intolerance in America."
As Pat Boone flashes his white teeth and equally white shoes at the Old Post Office, the church lies low, visible only to those who recognize its tracks. On stage behind Boone, Robert Grant, now president of the National Parents' Day Foundation, exudes bonhomie, but no one mentions his ties to Moon or the American Freedom Coalition. An attractive tabloid-size program lists others officially connected to the ceremony. The Unification Church does not appear per se, but the Washington Times Foundation is thanked for its cosponsorship and the American Constitution Committee -- another group with Moon ties -- has paid for a corporate table. Jarmin, who helped found the American Freedom Coalition, sits on the National Parents' Day Foundation's steering committee.
Inside the program, a clip'n'mail coupon seeks tax-deductible donations and solicits new members for the foundation's advisory board. The address that appears at the bottom of the coupon matches that of the American Freedom Coalition; the Falls Church office building is owned by Route 7 Realty, which is ultimately owned by Unification Church International. The National Parents' Day Foundation's phone number also matches that of the American Freedom Coalition. Dial it, and Robert Grant's assistant answers, "Coalition."
But few of the ceremony's participants seem aware of Parents' Day's connection to Moon. Certainly the U.S. government isn't in the business of supporting the Unification Church. The Washington sales office of Amtrak, which is federally subsidized, donated a door prize: a pair of round-trip train tickets from Washington to anywhere in the Northeast corridor. "The sales office saw it as an opportunity to get in front of an audience that's a target market," says Amtrak spokeswoman Pat Kelly. "That being families, of course."
The U.S. Park Service is also listed as a co-sponsor of this year's Parents' Day events, presumably for its participation in a Parents' Day kids' festival at Fort Dupont Park. Maxine Snowden, a Park Service employee, is a member of the Parents' Day Advisory Board. But she bristles at any hint that Parents' Day might be connected to the Unification Church. "It's not a religious thing . . . I wish to make this crystal-clear: I do not participate in things with religious overtones."
Hallmark spokeswoman Linda Fewell says that her company donated $10,000 to support the weekend's events "because our company really believes in the movement to promote responsible parenting" -- not, she emphasizes, because Hallmark hopes to create yet another day that calls for greeting cards. In fact, the company has no current plans to produce Parents' Day cards, though she allows that consumers might someday demand them. "National Nurses' Day was declared in 1981," she notes. "But Hallmark didn't make cards till '92."
Likewise, American Greetings isn't producing a card either -- at least not yet. But the company gladly dispatched its Birthday Bear to both the Parents' Day award ceremony and the children's festival, where the costumed mascot handed out coloring sheets and a list of ways that children can "help make the world a better place."
Miss Illinois, Tracey Hayes, says that the Parents' Day ceremony gave her the chance to speak on her pet subjects: saving at-risk youth and rehabilitating juvenile offenders. In a phone interview, she says that the Miss America pageant paid for her trip to Washington, where she boned up on federal programs connected to at-risk youth. "As a contestant, you have to be prepared," Hayes explains. "If you win, the next day, you're a national advocate for your program." Someone -- Hayes doesn't know who -- contacted the executive director of the Illinois pageant and asked that she appear at the Old Post Office ceremony. Hayes sees herself as representing both her cause and the pageant, and she thought that Parents' Day offered her a chance to emphasize the importance of families.
Her involvement in Parents' Day, she says, was limited to a few minutes on stage, where she spoke about the need for strong parenting, and presented an award to former bumper and grinder Lola Falana, now a minister. "I just popped in and did my thing." Hayes says. "It was fun to be taken seriously."
No doubt those are the Rev. Moon's sentiments exactly.