I will be the first person to admit that I did a double-take when I saw the short, one-line New York Times front page headline -- online and iPad, at this stage -- for its obituary for the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
Rev. Sun Myung Moon, Evangelist, Dies
For a moment, I honestly thought that the old Gray Lady had identified Moon as an "evangelical." Instead, we have to settle for "Evangelist," with a large "E" for some unknown reason. Perhaps the large "E" is a hint at his divinity claims? Moon was his own evangelist?
The whole key to this story is captured much better in the Times headline atop the actual obituary, which has the kind of depth and polish one expects when a newspaper is writing about a 92-year-old world leader. This story has been in storage for quite some time now, in other words. That headline stated the key fact well:
Rev. Sun Myung Moon, 92, Self-Proclaimed Messiah Who Built Religious Movement, Dies
It is hard, I would imagine, to write the obituary for a messiah.
Thus, what is the key point in the story? That's when it is time to back up that blunt statement in the headline and in the lede, that Moon was a "self-professed messiah." Here is the key material on that score, starting nine paragraphs into the text:
In its early years in the United States, the Unification Church was widely viewed as little more than a cult, one whose polite, well-scrubbed members, known derisively as Moonies, sold flowers and trinkets on street corners and married in mass weddings. In one of the last such events, in 2009, 10,000 couples exchanged or renewed vows before Mr. Moon on a lawn at Sun Moon University near Seoul.
Such weddings were the activity most associated with Mr. Moon in the United States. They were in keeping with a central tenet of his theology, a mix of Eastern philosophy, biblical teachings and what he called God’s revelations to him.
In the church’s view, Jesus had failed in his mission to purify mankind because he was crucified before being able to marry and have children. Mr. Moon saw himself as completing the unfulfilled task of Jesus: to restore humankind to a state of perfection by producing sinless children, and by blessing couples who would produce them.
While many stories will focus on Moon's famous mass weddings, the key is for journalists to clearly state the doctrinal and theological importance -- literally the messianic importance -- of those rites.
Jesus failed; Moon would succeed. This meant, of course, that from the viewpoint of traditional faiths, Moon was a heretic or worse.
“I don’t blame those people who call us heretics,” he was quoted as saying in “Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church” (1977), a sympathetic account by Frederick Sontag. “We are indeed heretics in their eyes because the concept of our way of life is revolutionary: We are going to liberate God.”
The Times story focuses on the many different elements of this controversial figure's life, from religion to politics and on to business, real estate, higher education, the arts, movies and, of course, journalism (through The Washington Times and numerous other outlets).
But one more time: What about that claim in the headline? Here is how this very long and detailed piece ends:
One of the more bizarre moments in Mr. Moon’s later years came on March 23, 2004, at what was described as a peace awards banquet held at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington. Members of Congress were among the guests. At one point Representative Danny K. Davis, an Illinois Democrat, wearing white gloves, carried in on a pillow one of two gold crowns, which were placed on the heads of Mr. Moon and his wife.
Some of the members of Congress who attended said they had no idea that Mr. Moon was to be involved in the banquet, though it was hosted by the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace, a foundation affiliated with the Unification Church.
At the banquet, Mr. Moon stated that emperors, kings and presidents had “declared to all heaven and earth that Reverend Sun Myung Moon is none other than humanity’s savior, messiah, returning lord and true parent.” He added that the founders of the world’s great religions, along with figures like Marx, Lenin, Hitler and Stalin, had “found strength in my teachings, mended their ways and been reborn as new persons.”
That last sentence is a theological blockbuster, but the Times didn't really attempt to nail down its meaning.
The Washington Post, however, went all the way on that point:
His stated ambition was to rule the world and replace Christianity with his own faith, which blended elements of Christianity, Confucianism and Korean folk religions. ... To much of the outside world, Mr. Moon undercut his credibility with grandiose statements. “God is living in me and I am the incarnation of himself,” he said, according to sermon excerpts printed in Time magazine in 1976. “The whole world is in my hand, and I will conquer and subjugate the world.”
And then, later in the obit:
In fact, according to Mr. Moon’s sermons, Jesus also had spoken from the spirit realm and recognized Mr. Moon as the savior of humankind. So had Buddha, Muhammad and Satan, among others. Mr. Moon claimed he had found a wife for Jesus and blessed the couple’s marriage.
One must assume that these sermons are available in text and/or audio form. I, for one, would like to see the direct quotes that support the claims in that powerful paraphrased quote.
One other question lingered as I read these early reports (and trust me, I am sure that the second-day coverage will include more wrinkles): What did Moon say, as he grew older, about the messianic significance of his own death?