“Cults,” Moonies, and Trump: Seven Questions for Steve Hassan
I owe my life to Steve Hassan. Alongside Nansook Hong, he was one of the ex-members I credit for helping me out of my cult, the Unification Church. In that movement, we believed that Korean billionaire, Sun Myung Moon, was the Second Coming of Christ. I was indoctrinated from a young age to believe that evolution was a lie, to hate homosexuality, and to be fearful of Satan’s constant presence. I had never before seen any ex-members, or even heard the stories of why they had left. I could hardly imagine what spiritual terrors might befall me if I dared to leave the movement, until I saw that not only were ex-members highly satisfied and moral people, they seemed to be more consistently moral than I.
Profiles In Conscience: Nansook Hong
NOTE: The following essay is an abridged summary of an unfinished series of essays about the Unification Church. Upon…
Steve Hassan first joined the Church in the 1970s, and is part of what we would call “The First Generation.” He was recruited in college by three women who at first denied that they were part of a religious organization, let alone the Unification Church. His girlfriend had rejected him, and they said they were students and he thought they were interested in him. They invited him to the center for dinner, which led to more visits and lectures and they pressured him to attend a weekend workshop. As the van drove into Belvedere estate, it was the first time he heard the word church or that it would be a workshop. He wanted to leave but back then there were no cell phones and he had no transportation. They manipulated him to stay for the 3-day workshop, but he refused to stay for the 7 day workshop. But they had hooked him and within a week returned to attend a second 3-day workshop. They converted him. Next was cutting him off from his family and friends, dropping out of college and sending him out to recruit. He was selected by top Japanese leader Kamiyama and groomed to be a front man. He slept 3–4 hours a night, 7 days a week and became a lecturer of the doctrine, called the Divine Principle. Much later he was reassigned to be captain of a MFT team. His regional commander ordered everyone on his team to raise a minimum of $100 a day, or else they could not go to sleep. One night, after being up for 3 days, a very sleep-deprived Hassan crashed his van and ended up in the hospital. He needed an operation and he had almost no contact with anyone from the group. Steve called his sister who persuaded him to come visit. This led to a forcible deprogramming. Hassan was resistant at first, before his father tearfully asked him, “What would you do if it was your son who had dropped out of college, cut off contact?” Hassan wanted to prove he was not brainwashed and that he was not in a cult, so he agreed to stay and listen to the ex-members there to deprogram him. He felt then that his family genuinely cared about him, as did the ex-members. He woke up when he came to the realization that Moon was a liar and that God was a God of Truth not lies. He decided to leave.
Hassan is now licensed mental professional and cult expert, who helps people out of these groups as well as educate the public about their tactics and beliefs. He has written four books on the subjects of cults (links to the Amazon pages included): Combating Cult Mind Control (1988), Releasing the Bonds (2000), Freedom of Mind (2012), and most recently, The Cult of Trump (2019). I highly recommend them, as they go a long way in explaining these complex matters in ways that most people can understand.
The following question and answer period is an adapted transcript from a wider discussion I had with Hassan over Zoom, and has been edited for reading purposes. I extend my sincere gratitude to Hassan for taking time out of his busy schedule to participate in this interview.
- The word “cult” tends to be thrown around a lot by people who just want to smear an ideology, religion, or group that they don’t like. As concisely as you can, how would you define a “cult”?
“So I would start by referencing my Influence Continuum which is on my website Freedom-of-Mind.com [raises Influence Continuum model chart], from ethical to unethical, and my perspective is that there are healthy groups over here [points to the ethical side], where you know what you’re getting into, you’re free to leave, there’s no penalty if you want to leave, you’re free to talk to whoever you want to, read whatever you want to, no phobia indoctrination. And then authoritarian destructive cults [motions to the unethical side] where you’re basically made in the image of the leader or the ideology, where you’re dependent or obedient. So for me, my work is about authoritarian destructive cults, not just ‘cults.’
“I try to make that distinction and when I wrote that book The Cult of Trump, it was with that perspective in mind. [He holds up the Pyramid graphic with circles emanating from the base.] Most people are in the fringes of a group and not in the leadership. Most people don’t know what’s going on inside the upper levels of a cult, they’re mostly down here and down at the base and such. I use this because people say, ‘Well, I never experienced anything terrible,’ ‘I was never put out to fundraise in a dangerous place at 3 in the morning,’ and I’m like, you were never one of the hardcore fundraisers like I was. And I have to say, when I first was moved out of New York, essentially because my family was trying to rescue me out of the cult, they sent me to a fundraising workshop and it was my first time with full-time fundraisers, and I had the thought ‘Oh my God, these people are robots.’ Now to my family, my friends, they were like, ‘Steve’s a robot. He’s in the Moonies.’ But to me, as a leader of the Moonies, these people were zombies, they had nothing on their mind except how many flowers they could sell, how much money they could make, how many people they could lie to, basically.”
2. A common misconception about cults is that you’d have to be either gullible or stupid to join one, but cults successfully recruit many intelligent people. What techniques do they use to deceive logical people into believing that aliens are coming to take us away or that thetans are invisibly attached to our bodies?
“I want to start my answer by saying that, and [Phillip] Zimbardo has taught me this, Anthony Pratkanis, Robert Cialdini, you know, expert social psychologists. There’s something called fundamental attribution error and what that means is when people try to understand the behavior of other people, they tend to overestimate personality variables or dispositional variables and underestimate the situational variables or social psychological variables. So why did Steve get in the Moonies? ‘He was weak.’ ‘He was stupid.’ ‘He came from a bad family.’ ‘There’s something wrong with him.’ ‘He’s defective.’ That’s why he got in.
“Well, what social psychology teaches is actually, we’re human beings, we’re dependent on our five senses, we’re constantly taking in and adapting to our environment and if you can control someone’s behavior, information, thoughts, and feelings for a period of time, you can put them through a phased indoctrination program where you break them down, called ‘unfreezing’ their identity and their beliefs, indoctrinate them with a new identity and belief, and then ‘refreeze’ the new identity that then suppresses the person. And what people who don’t understand cults don’t realize is that there’s no such thing as an authoritarian destructive cult without deception. People are lied to from the beginning, where important information is withheld or distorted, or outright lying.
“So in my case, I was vulnerable, my girlfriend dumped me, I was nineteen-and-a-half, I was at Queens College, and was sitting in the cafeteria waiting for my next class and three Japanese sisters came over, smiling, and flirting with me and asking to sit and talk with me. They said they were students, which they were not. They said they were part of a student club that wasn’t religious at all, which was a total lie. And it was for me like a carrot in front of the donkey, and Steve thought, ‘Oh, they’re really cute, they’re really interested in me. I’m in interested in idealism and making the world a better place.’ But I was raised Jewish, I had no interested in joining any group, or changing my religion, or dropping out of school, or throwing away my poetry, or cutting off my family, or becoming a right-wing fascist fasting for Richard Nixon during Watergate, but all of those things wound up happening.
“So why was Steve such a great Moonie? I don’t know, I guess I like to do things 100% in whatever I do. I bicycled cross-country when I was sixteen, which seemed like a really cool thing, and it was. So for me, it wasn’t, ‘I’m going to commit my life forever to a fascist who’s going to destroy the separation of church and state and impose Korean as the international language.’ Which is what the upper-level leaders believed. I was just like, ‘I want to make a difference,’ and step-by-step my brain got co-opted by the environment and it climbed inside my head. So a good Moonie would sleep three hours a night because ‘Father’ only slept three hours a night. I would sleep three hours a night. Fortunately my family rescued me and I left, at which point I asked myself, ‘How did this happen to me?’ I was an Honors student, I skipped the eighth grade, I was reading between three to four books a week before the Moonies, I haven’t read a book since the Divine Principle in two and a half years, what’s happened to me?”
3. I credit the Internet with helping to expose me to information about the Unification Church that I otherwise wouldn’t have been taught. On the other hand, the Internet is also been a popular recruitment tool for Islamic extremists, white supremacists, and conspiracy theorists. What do make of the Internet’s role in cults?
“The Internet is more correctly thought of as a communications modality. When I was in the Moonies cell phones didn’t exist and pagers started to exist, but these smartphones are mind control devices now. Where people can be recruited online and constantly get notifications and messages and continually be shown YouTube to indoctrinate them. It can be done on the left wing. It can be done on the right wing. It can be done by atheists. It can be done by libertarians. It can be done by political groups, commercial cults, psychotherapy groups, large group awareness training, multi-level marketing groups, etc.
“And so, the issue is, you know, when the Internet first started, I had a client, actually it was an uncle of someone in the Moonies that I had helped to get out, and he said, ‘You need to be on the Internet,’ and I’m like, ‘What is that?’ So he said, ‘I’m going to set up a website for you,’ and when he set up the website, I said, ‘This is fantastic!’ Why? Because mind control cults want to control information. They don’t want you to hear critics or former members. And when I would go and do cases helping Moonies and other cults, I literally had to carry some 50 pounds of xerox copies of documents and books.
“Now, everything’s online, pretty much, so you don’t need all of that physical stuff, but what’s missing is that people are not educated as they should from the moment they’re on a screen. I think the [influence continuum] model is crucial to understand who’s real, legitimate, worthy of trust, and who isn’t. If it’s true, it will stand up to scrutiny and if it’s not true then you spend all of your time, energy, and money, following something that isn’t true. So the sniff test has to be amplified to using analytic critical thinking and one of the essential components that I say in all my lectures, is that you have to go and seek out critical information to whatever you’re into, and really listen to the critics and the ex-members, and really understand why they are critical, and look at it from their point of view, and then see whether or not you can defend your point of view or whether or not what they have is much more substantial. So there needs to be a real dedication to wanting to know what’s true and what’s real versus magical thinking or wishful thinking, such as: ‘I invested ten years of my life so I don’t even want to open the door to the possibility that I followed a cult leader.’ No, you’ve got your life, even if you’ve spent ten years, it’s called the sunk cost fallacy. They say things like, ‘I’ve already invested this much time in the group, I’m just going stay for another year or two,’ and it’s another ten years or twenty years.
“And there’s so many people who believed, as I did, in the 70’s that the Unification Movement was going to blossom and we would all have incredible jobs and I would be running a university maybe. And what’s actually true is that Moon and his family have become billionaires while the members are living in squalor or needing to go to their own families to get inheritances so they can function.”
4. The Unification Church has fallen into complete disarray since the death of its founder, with dwindling membership and splintering factions, most famously Hyung Jin’s Sanctuary Church in Pennsylvania. What do you make of the state of the Church today, and did you ever imagine that it would collapse to such an extent in your lifetime?
“So honestly, I never thought I’d live to be 66 years old. I thought they would kill me in the first few years. They threatened me, and followed me, and tried to sue me, but I am alive. And I think that partly because Jonestown happened, my view widened to talk about other cults and not just focus on them because I learned about other cults and was aghast at how many other cults there were. But I want to say that it was after Jonestown that I read the entire eleven volumes of the Fraser Investigation, which was a congressional subcommittee investigation into KCIA activities in the U.S. The Moon organization was part of this plan. The staff director of that investigation, whose name was Robert Boettcher later wrote a book called Gifts of Deceit. And I was an expert for that investigation in the sense that I had left the Moonies while the investigation was still going. I brought all of the unedited Master Speaks and gave it to the government, which included his comments about how black people are inferior, including how he was going to control the government with his people, how he was the master tactician, and all kinds of really incendiary, horrible things.
“And I never understood until I read it [the Fraser Investigation] that the CIA had set up the Korean CIA and the founder of the Korean CIA [Kim Jong-pil] said under oath that he organized and utilized the Unification Church for use as a ‘political tool.’ And it opened my eyes to the world of espionage and intelligence agencies and realized, ‘Oh, my God!’ North Korea’s brainwashing people to be dependent on the leader there and South Korea had two coups so during the Cold War they wanted to stabilize the government of South Korea, so why not use a proxy group, and some front groups and use them for political reeducation. And then, as America wanted to get out of the Vietnam War, some people in the agency said, ‘Let’s set them up in the U.S. to support Nixon and continue to fight against communism.’
“So there was this whole political side to this where, prior to that I was, like ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got to tell the government what’s going on with this group, they’re dangerous.’ And then when I realized, ‘Oh, this is an entity which is essentially funded by a dark ops group of our government,’ it just shifted. Then I realized when Moon went to jail that they were never going let him have power, they were just using him to create right-wing connections. They still have The Washington Times, etc. So, they’re just a right-wing tool of influence as I see it.”
5. Like you, I found the parallels between Trump and Moon to be uncanny: histories of sexual misconduct, a disregard for facts or logic, blaming others instead of taking responsibility, “Koreagate” and “Russiagate”, familial nepotism, savior complexes, etc. Why do you refer to Trump and his group as a ‘cult’ ?
“Let me just say that when I was approached to do the book, I started with the knowledge that Trump was a malignant narcissist. Why? Because I had studied other cult leaders over my career, and all of the attributes: the lack of empathy, the grandiosity, the need for admiration, the lying, the manipulation, the paranoia, the inability to trust. You just go down the whole list. I wrote a chapter in The Cult of Trump comparing him with Jim Jones, Hubbard, and with Moon. So that’s one element of an authoritarian cult, which is the characteristics of the leader: he never takes responsibility, always blames everyone else, lies incessantly, gaslights incessantly, saying things like, ‘Oh, I never said that.’ We have a video of you saying it, but that’s, ‘fake news.’
“So, when I started researching for the book I realized that there were a lot of right-wing cults that were connected with to the Moonies. For example, the Family. I had never heard of that group. Of course, they called themselves the Family. I had never read Jeff Sharlet’s two books, but I was like, ‘Oh!’ Because they were the people who had done the National Prayer Breakfast for the past eighty years, that all presidents come to, and I realized, ‘Oh, so Moon was at the Prayer Breakfast and then he was immediately brought to see Nixon!’ Which resulted in us fasting for three days for Nixon. ‘Oh, the Moonies are involved with the Family!’ And Mike Pence was recruited into the Family by Chuck Colson, who went to jail because he did illegal things for Nixon. I’m like, ‘Oh, this is starting to make more sense!’ The Moonies gave $2 million dollars to Jerry Falwell when he was having a financial problem, and on and on, all things which I had learned over the decades. I also learned about Opus Dei which was a Catholic right-wing cult that William Barr was on the Board of Directors of in a D.C. prelature. Then I learned about the New Apostolic Reformation Movement, which has an estimated 300 million to 400 million people worldwide. They have an estimated 30 million Americans, but these are authoritarian cults.
“Some of them are small, some of them are really big, and they have leaders who call themselves either apostles or prophets and claim to have direct revelations from God, and cast out demons, and do fake healing, but they do BITE (Behavior Control, Information Control, Thought Control, Emotion Control) methods to make people dependent on them. So when they say that God is using Trump, all of his followers are now in the cult of Trump, even though they’re actually following someone else as the intermediary. I believe if these ‘apostles’ say to their followers, ‘You know what, God’s not using Donald Trump as anymore,’ most of the people wouldn’t follow Trump. So that dependence on their ‘apostle’ or their ‘prophet,’ covering them from ‘satanic invasion.’
“And when I’m talking about satanic invasion, I have to tell you that ‘Father’ (Moon) took us to see The Exorcist movie (with hundreds of other Moonies) in Greenwich Village. Then we went in vans to Tarrytown, where Moon said, ‘God made The Exorcist. This movie is a prophecy of what will happen if you ever leave the Unification Church.’ And that was the beginning of my heavy-duty phobia indoctrination.
“In any case, what I wanted to say to you, Joseph, is the way I see it, there are foreign entities like Putin influencing Trump, but there are also internal entities, libertarians, Christian Right people, white supremacists, Neo-nazis, NRA people, etc. And they all are following Trump, why? They’re thinking that it’s because the ‘Evil Left’ wants to destroy freedom and destroy the Constitution. So they build up the enemy, which is a standard operating principle for mind control. You have to have a real big Devil that’s really dangerous. They also use children being trafficked as a technique, such as QAnon, which is a part of the cult of Trump. And so, it really fits the model of a political cult with a lot of religious figures who are influencing their followers, even though Trump is so obviously malevolent, misogynistic, racist and a few other things. But the mindset of no matter how many lies he tells, no matter what facts are being delivered, people do thought-stopping and they just need to believe and follow in faith, and that mirrors my experience in the Moonies.”
6. Most cult members, like Moonies, and even Trump supporters, are good, decent people, whose fears are being exploited or whose ideals are being misused. Looking back on the de-conversion stories of Maajid Nawaz and Christopher Picciolini, as well as the noble efforts of Daryl Davis in de-radicalizing KKK members, I always believed that dialogue is one of the most potent tools we have. What advice would you offer to help us to get people out of these groups?
“You know, people who hate Trump are worried about his fascistic, criminal activity, they tend to just dismiss Trumpers as stupid, evil, weak, etc. Many people have cut off contact with their family members and friends, or they meet with Trumpers and they start yelling at them or treating them disrespectfully. Now as a Moonie, when people would yell at me, and tell me I was brainwashed and I was in a cult, that just made me stronger in commitment to the group because it validated the cult belief that we would be persecuted. That the world was of Satan and people were attacking me because I was of God. What I have learned is that as a therapist, (and I’ve been helping people for decades), that what works is realizing mind control is not 100%, that even if you’re born in a cult, or raised, like yourself, there’s still an authentic self that cares about integrity and truth, and that doesn’t like to be abused or lied to. And if engagement happens where you feel respected and cared about, and somebody’s willing to listen to you, and demonstrates active listening and repeats back to you what your cultic beliefs are, you can have a lot of power to influence them.
“Now the error that a lot of people make is that they try to win an argument or prove that they’re right and the cult member’s wrong, instead of what I’m advocating. In my book, Freedom of Mind, I outline my approach, and the goal is to ask questions that are provocative and make a person think, that makes the person think from a different point of view. Genuinely value their thoughts and their point of view. I write about all the techniques that I’ve discovered and things that worked for me when I analyzed my own deprogramming. The one who was the most effective out of the four people in my deprogramming was the non-Moonie, his name was Gary Rosenberg. He would come in and he would sit with me, and he would say, ‘So, Steve, what do you think? What’d you think about what Nestor just said?’ And then he’d be quiet. Then I’d say, ‘Well I don’t think that this point is good, though I kind of agree with this point,’ and I would be telling him how to get me out, but it was my real self speaking, not my ‘Moonie’ self. So, I was telling them, ‘Look, I’m Jewish. Talking to me about Jesus and the New Testament is not going to have any force or power with me.’ And so find out things that matter to me, and one of the big ones was the concept of indemnity. And I grew up, post-World War II, post-Holocaust, educated about the Holocaust, and I’m in a group where the leader is saying, ‘God wanted the Holocaust the happen because the Jews didn’t accept Jesus and it was necessary for indemnity.’ That was a big pill to swallow, which I swallowed as a good Moonie, but in terms of dissonance between my real self and my cult self, that was a whale.”
7. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are stuck, quarantined in our homes. We do for our health, but it’s not a healthy situation for everyone. It can mean being trapped at home in a cult or abusive environment, and as you’ve written elsewhere, domestic violence abusers use deceptive techniques similar to cultish groups. How do we help people in those situations?
“Being a good neighbor, caring about other people, saying ‘hello,’ even though you may be having to wear a mask, and keep distanced. Just being a human being that cares, that has compassion, and letting people know that, ‘Hey, if you ever need someone to talk to or if you ever feel like you’re not safe, there are hotline numbers, you can write down domestic abuse hotlines, or you can report, if it’s an underage child, to state agencies or government agencies.
“But the reality is, as I see it, that science is not perfect, but it is what has helped human beings develop, to point where we can fly in airplanes, where we have penicillin to stop so many major medical problems, etc, but it’s not perfect. And the thing about science is which is different from a cult, is that it assumes that we don’t know the truth with a capital T. It assumes that if you observe, that if you do experimentation, and then you have a theory, and then you subject that theory and whatever experiments you’ve done to a community, that the truth will eventually come out. For example, they didn’t believe that ulcers were caused by bacteria until very recently, and so for decades people were thinking that ulcers were something else, but is actually caused by a bacteria.
“This is very different from religion and faith where people think that the Bible is inerrant word of God (or The Divine Principle) and you have to do everything of what the Bible says. What I have learned is in my Jewish studies is that there are so many things wrong with the Torah, in the sense of passages saying, ‘go and do genocide and wipe out these people,’ or ‘spare the rod and spoil the child,’ or any number of things that we now know with science and studying human development is traumatic, wrong, and unethical.
“So, what I see with the pandemic is this conflict going on in people’s minds, ‘Who is trustworthy?’ ‘Do I wear a mask, or do I not wear a mask?’ ‘Is it real or is it a hoax?’ And you know, we need experts. Experts are experts because they know more about something than everybody else. It’s weird that people say, ‘you’re a cult expert.’ It was weird at first when my book came out in 1988. It was like, ‘Hmm, I don’t have a college degree.’ I have a Master’s in Counseling, but there’s no degree in cult expertness. But I started getting compliments from other experts you read the book and were like, ‘You really know what you’re talking about!’ Like Robert Lifton, Margaret Singer, Louis Jolyon West, etc. And so, you know, I really know a lot, and I want to teach people, which is why I keep writing, and I’m in a doctoral program right now at my tender age, because I want to influence the legal system to understand that undue influence isn’t just with underage people or the elderly, but smart, intelligent people can be deceived and under a certain set of circumstances, can be indoctrinated, taken advantage of, and taken over.
“So, to answer your question about the pandemic, I think that it’s providing an opportunity for everyone to step back and reflect on ‘Who am I?’ ‘What do I want out of life?’ ‘Was the track that was on, go to college, get a job, have a house, is that really going to fulfill me?’ And what about my neighbors who don’t have jobs and are hungry? Do I want to feed them? Do I want to have that kind of attitude of care? It’s the people that stood up for the Jews to Hitler, of doing that process in their minds of going, ‘You know, if Hitler was coming after me, I’d want my neighbor to help me. So of course, I should help my neighbor.’ That is an advanced development, to be able to put yourself is somebody else’s shoes. I think humanity needs to undergo a huge development in perspective based on survival. The planet is not flat, it’s really round, we know this scientifically, and if a nuclear blast happens in one place, it’s going to affect other places. If there’s a pandemic in one place, it’s going to affect other places. We can’t afford nationalistic boundaries. We need to really be thinking about survival, and not just survival of humans, but of the species, and of a habitat, so we can have many more generations live. I feel very passionate about wanting people to understand about mind control and to control their own minds as a solution to someone else telling them what reality is.
“That’s why I’m so pleased, Joseph, to meet you and know you, because so most former members of cults kind of skulk away, and they’re embarrassed to say that, ‘I was in a cult.’ There are actually millions of us in America, and if ten percent of us started talking to their neighbors, saying, ‘By the way, I was in multi-level marketing cult,’ or ‘I was in an abusive marriage with a controlling narcissist,’ and explain the BITE model and explain the influence continuum, we would be in a much better place.”
Steve Hassan’s website Freedom of Mind