I just saw the news that Sun Myung Moon has died. This is an important transition for the Unification Church.
I’ve taught about the church in a superficial way in a couple different courses: I briefly covered it in New Religious Movements, and I once had students perform an Eliadean analysis of a blessing ceremony (mass wedding) in Introduction to Religious Studies. I don’t know as much as I’d like to about the movement’s most recent history, but what I have read has left me with the impression that Moon is not as powerful an authority in the U.S. church as the “cult” image would incline people to imagine (an image sustained by incidents like Moon’s 2004 self-coronation in the Senate Office Building).
Moon is unquestionably a charismatic figure–the Messiah, the True Father. For a glimpse of that charismatic role, read this very recent speech by his daughter In Jin Moon, who is president of the church in the U.S. (She makes some interesting moves in her speech by way of legitimating Moon’s wife as successor and preparing members to make theological sense of Moon’s imminent death.) On the other hand, I see signs that there’s at least a limited, but well-placed, intelligentsia within the American movement who maintain some critical distance from the founder. Witness this article from the Religion News Service, which quotes Tyler Hendricks, the most recent past president of the church’s seminary in New York, saying that Moon “is always expanding even his own theological definitions and challenging those around him. . . . He doesn’t always speak clearly or logically.”
It will be interesting to see what becomes of the church in the wake of the founder’s death. RNS gives its coverage a juicy, conflictual ending: “Despite Moon’s intense focus on happy families, the handover to his heirs has been riven by internecine strife. Some of his children have split from the church, abused drugs and fought bitterly for control of the church’s business empire. With Moon’s death, the fighting is expected to intensify.” Likely enough. But I have a hunch that enough Weberian routinization has occurred–administering the church’s businesses would require that, no?–to allow the church to press on in the modest way it has been.