Ah, rural Pennsylvania. You never disappoint me. I mean, if I’m looking for whackadoodles who mix guns and religion.
You probably have seen by now the images from Newfoundland (population 2,300 and some), up in Wayne County, near Scranton. (On the map of Pennsylvania that you make by turning your right hand horizontally, palm facing you, it’s about where the first joint of your pointer finger meets your middle finger.) Worshippers gathered this week for a service to bless weapons, and the service prominently featured the AR-15, the choice of gun of mass shooters, including the man who killed 17 in a Parkland, Florida school recently.
The pictures are grotesque: women in beautiful gowns and men in dark suits, many wearing crowns made of bullets, carrying weapons. It is a sick display of the marriage of violence and religion. It forced a local school district to move school students out of the area. The school was closed three years ago when an assassin used an AR15 to kill a state police officer and wound another, then lead police on a manhunt.
A church leader holds a weapon adorned with gold. She wears a crown and a dark blue robe and stands before a gold chair and a US flag. Weapons were not loaded during this week’s event at the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary.
But you may have also noticed that this crowd is made of up people you usually don’t see together, especially in small town PA. Black, white, and Asian worshippers gather together. Signs are in English and Korean.
I developed my interest in rightwing religion by visiting many, many wild, weird, off-the-beaten-track, questionable churches in Pennsylvania. This looks nothing like the places I’ve been.
Reporting about the event focused on the guns, but there is another part to this story. How did an offshoot of the Unification Church (derisively called “Moonies,” after their founder, Rev. Sun Myung Moon) land 25 miles outside of Scranton, of all places?
The brief answer: When Rev. Moon died in 2012, a battle for power erupted between his wife and their son. Hak Ja Han ordered her son to leave to go to Korea, but Hyun Jin Moon instead set up shop in Northeastern PA. His brother, Kook Jin Moon, moved his gun manufacturing company out of New York to Pike County, PA, in the same area as Newfoundland, because, he said, Pennsylvania was “friendlier” to firearms–that is, didn’t regulate them as carefully as New York.
Hyung Jin Moon launched the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, a splinter group that the main branch of the Unification Church rejects. Still, if you look closely, you see some signs of the Unification Church, including an interacial, international mix of people and a focus on weddings. Indeed, this week’s event involved a lot of guns, but it apparently was an event in which people recommitted to their marriages–hence those clothes. Other symbols–like those crowns of bullets–are also familiar in worship in the Sanctuary splinter group.
But guns are central, too, even in weeks where they aren’t so prominent in the service. In fact, the group’s other name is “Rod of Iron Ministries”–a reference to both a passage in Revelations and guns, particularly the AR-15, which is revered in the group. The group preaches violence in multiple forms, too, offering training not just in the use of assault weapons but martial arts and knife fighting. (Click here for an 8 minute video of Hyung Jin Moon explaining the training.)
Now that you know that these folks aren’t even your regular wingnut Christians, do you feel better?
Well, you shouldn’t.
Paul Mango, a GOP contender for the governship of the Keystone state, appeared on Hyung Jin Moon’s YouTube show in January. In case you want to give him the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t know what Moon’s church was about, a representative from his campaign appeared on the show again, just two weeks ago. Since then, they hosted a “President Trump Thank You Dinner” where the guest of honor was Larry Pratt, president of Gun Owners of America, a lobby group to the right of the NRA, and the funds–$50 to $100 per ticket, sold out.
In other words, guns open the door between conservative Republicans and churches that preach that believers must be prepared to literally fight those who oppose them–including Sanctuary’s hateful anti-LGBTQ+ teachings–to death. That this is a splinter of the Unification Church is a quirky detail, but Hyung Jin Moon’s group is certainly not the only religious group–and not even the only one in Wayne County–to argue that God wants us to use guns.
PS. Kids–become a religious studies major! We need more people studying this stuff!