Illustration by Teddy Hose

Extremism Is a Team Sport

Understanding the possessive power of extremist groups from a childhood in one.

As a teen, I never saw my adult self writing about my upbringing in Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church — or the Moonies — even going on to be in a recent A&E show for it. I figured back then that I would “grow up” and adapt to the real world, working in an office with my ideologically extreme past tucked away from coworkers.

Then Trump happened. His polarizing projections of good guys and bad guys not only resounded the Mooniverse’s hard political leanings, but the cultic behavior was identical. Sadly, this growing culture of nurtured antagonism helped make way for murder in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, for treating refugees at the border like wild animals, and the recent terrorist mass shooting in New Zealand.

In response, I felt it was important to highlight my experience in a fringe community’s echo chamber, powered by its claim to a superior reality.

No matter how groundless Moon’s ideology appeared on paper, the validation that came with belonging to a righteous, familiar “team” took precedence. Whether gathered at the UC-owned New Yorker Hotel or preaching together on the streets of New York City, if we stuck with Moon and his empire, he would give us a better life than the real world ever could.

My tribal identity was the numbered jersey for my team. It empowered me enough to keep up with others in society, who had their needs met in more direct and personal ways. And being a player on my team, we had to win against other teams leading the world astray — according to our leaders, who gave us the privilege of feeling needed. At the same time, similar to how NFL players thank God for wins but take the blame for losses, Moon’s pattern was to take credit for wins and blame members for losses. Consistently taking credit and assigning blame is yet another similarity I noticed between my former messiah and Trump.

Divinity, sacred texts, being the chosen people, UC forefathers who helped build that team — these were all intangible, unquestionable elements beyond the limits of human intelligence (admin privilege access only, at least). These elements never had to make a thorough case because we felt how true they were, and the love of our parents, peers, and community leaders all depended on it. All behavior was justified, as long as it somehow served Moon’s sacred brand first and foremost. These elements were baked into bricks for a wall that told the world “I don’t have to change. You do!”

The amount of respect I gained from my team leaders was equivalent to how far off the deep end I was willing to go. Refusals of weak, everyday pleasures like a good night’s rest would prove my sacrifice of personal comfort for that of God and my team’s. Whether it was mentally preparing to stand up to my elementary school teachers who might speak ill of the church, wearing sexual abstinence like a badge of honor, or bearing the humiliation of carrying loud wind chimes door to door, fundraising day and night past “No Soliciting” signs for months on the road, self-denial was equivalent to my sense of self-worth. No guts, no glory.

Behind the scenes, this was my surrogate family. My father would be absent almost the entire year for missionary work, and my mother was sometimes tasked to join him for weeks at a time. Available church members were then appointed to watch over my siblings and I, in a stay-home daycare type scenario. It makes me understand why people join gangs, extremist groups, and fringe communities. Because these groups are the saving grace for those who never experienced such automatic belonging, devout members give everything to them and feel compelled to prescribe it to others. It took years after leaving for me to understand respect for individuals’ different life experiences from my own.

Win the whole world” is the first line in one of the UC’s holy songs. This phrase was the more accurate objective under our outward emphasis on “unity”. The UC was to accomplish this by delivering its own version of history, proper behavior, and identity, washing over complex subjects with sacred oversimplifications to fit its narrative. “United” meant under one leader who believed he had the power to purify humankind through sexual rites. The UC was not looking to evolve into something more conscious and intelligent, but to grow in power and popularity. It did not keep up with world issues so as to find realistic ways to help resolve them, as to sustain itself by staying current then setting up Sun Myung Moon to be the hero.

I attribute the UC’s ability to thrive on American soil, at least in part with the pattern of religious extremism/supremacy that form the origins of this country’s history.

From the Library of Congress:

Many of the British North American colonies that eventually formed the United States of America were settled in the seventeenth century by men and women, who, in the face of European persecution, refused to compromise passionately held religious convictions and fled Europe.
This conviction rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens. Nonconformists could expect no mercy and might be executed as heretics.

Whatever the reasons, it felt good to be part of a team that gave me community, direction, and a heroic purpose by birthright. Any persecution I faced only further proved the world was against me, which made me a holier, stronger person in the UC’s eyes (AKA confirmation bias). From that same church song: “Share the persecution that Jesus knew / Suffering abuse from the mocking crowd.”

This was my home — my home team. The UC was not just part of my identity. It gave me an identity. Had my family and I not personally witnessed telling moments of the Moons’ destructive apathy, we might still be feeding from that world we depended on to our very being. So I absolutely understand firsthand how daunting and deeply sobering leaving a community of refuge can be. But many hold on, among other things, because they would rather lose than quit the team.