Recently I witnessed a spectacle unlike anything I have seen in twenty years: a mass wedding celebrated by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. On April 27, 2002, in the ballroom of a large hotel on the fringe of America’s capital, I watched as Moon formalized the wedding vows of-or so he claims-some 144,000 couples. What made the ceremony doubly striking was the claim that at least one partner of all the couples involved was a member of the clergy of a vast range of faiths and denominations.

The occasion inspired an overwhelming feeling of déj vu; just twenty years ago, I myself participated in one of Moon’s mass weddings at Madison Square Garden on July 1, 1982. The rules then in force in Moon’s Unification Church prevented me from ever living with my “bride”; eventually, we both left Moon’s movement and went our separate ways. Despite this heartbreak, I decided to attend this latest ceremony-but this time I would be going as an observer, hoping to see what had changed in twenty years, and what had remained the same.

Of course, only a small portion of the 144,000-some seven hundred couples altogether-were actually in the Arlington, Virginia, hotel ballroom when I entered. The remainder were linked by satellite video transmission, holding parallel celebrations in many remote sites. The participants I saw were a stunningly diverse and engaging group. Well-dressed African-Americans mingled with Sikhs and Buddhists, and there was even one couple wearing traditional Amerindian garb. While the largest turnout came from African-American churches, there were also clergy from (or so it seemed) all the creeds and persuasions of man. As the ceremony got underway, prayers and chants were offered in the traditions of Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Jainism, as well as North American Indian spirituality, Hinduism, and Christianity.

Superficially, this ceremony was very different from the grandiose pageant of twenty years ago. Rather than having the couples pass in procession before him as he did in 1982, Moon and his wife (and clergy from other faiths) formed their own procession. He also eschewed the flowing white robes and gilded crowns he normally wears at such ceremonies and instead donned conservative business attire. More importantly, most of the couples present were recommitting to marriages they had already undertaken; very few, if any, were newly matched.

Yet the underlying significance of the ceremony was identical. Nothing I witnessed at that Arlington hotel contradicted Moon’s fundamental claim about his Blessing Ceremony: namely, that no marriage is acceptable to God without it. Moreover, Moon’s teachings, known as the Divine Principle, assert that the Holy Wine-a consecrated wine that is served to committed couples before the public wedding-literally frees those who partake of it, along with their subsequently born children, from original sin. They are then free to propagate a sinless and increasingly perfect world.

This, I believe, is the source of Moon’s mesmerizing draw and power: the elusive (and illusory) vision of Paradise on Earth. One might justifiably describe Moon as a peddler of Paradise-or even a Paradise pusher-because this dream can take on the spellbinding lure of an addictive substance.

The messianic ministry of Sun Myung Moon began in 1936, when Jesus allegedly appeared to him in a vision to commission him as his earthly successor. Moon was then just sixteen years old.

In the harrowing years that followed-according to the hagiographic legends I once heard repeatedly-Moon urgently sought to comprehend the mysteries of the Bible. After nearly a decade of desperate, tearful prayers, he discovered the fundamental teachings of the Divine Principle.

Among these ideas is the claim that the Fall of Adam and Eve was actually brought about by an act of sexual impropriety. The eating of the fruit from the forbidden tree symbolizes an illicit sexual act which polluted their blood lineage, with the result that henceforth their descendants would inherit original sin. To resolve this predicament, God appointed Jesus to lead the world back to its state before the Fall. Jesus was to have married and then, in turn, to have blessed all mankind in marriage, thus liquidating original sin through a ceremony similar to Moon’s Holy Wine Ceremony.

However, Jesus failed to gather a significant following in his day, and he could not even create a sufficient “spiritual base” upon which to marry. Therefore, he had to be sacrificed on the cross so that sincere believers could enter Paradise in the afterlife. Finally, with the advent of Sun Myung Moon, God was able to return to His original plan of a married savior who would build the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

It must be noted, however, that when Unificationists speak of Jesus as “Lord and Savior,” they intend those words in ways that depart markedly from their customary meanings in Christianity. To a Unificationist, Jesus is a Savior “only” in the spiritual sense, since he merely opens the way to Paradise in the afterlife, but not on this Earth. Furthermore, to Unificationists, Jesus is “Lord” only in the narrow sense of a spiritual master or a great individual; he is not literally God in the flesh. On this point, my 1973 edition of the Divine Principle is emphatic: “Jesus, as a man having fulfilled the purpose of creation, is one body with God. So, in light of his deity, he may well be called God. Nevertheless, he can by no means be God Himself.”

While the significance of the Blessing Ceremony is unaltered since 1982, the target audience Moon hopes to influence through the ceremony has changed markedly. The Madison Square Garden wedding, which received heavy media coverage, was the high water mark of Moon’s original scheme for conquering America, in which he hoped to build a mass movement that would sweep the nation with its fervor and idealism. In the late 1970s, when I was a new member, I was often told that by 1981 most Americans would have embraced “True Father” and would be turning out in droves to hear lectures on the Divine Principle. The 1982 mass wedding was probably originally conceived as the crowning gala of this expected Pentecost of conversion.

Nineteen-eighty-one dawned, however, with no sign of the predicted mass conversion. By then, the swelling tide of membership in the American branch of the Unification Church had crested at a mere five thousand members. Even so, Moon plowed ahead with his mass wedding, relying on Japanese and European recruits to bolster his faltering numbers. By 1984, however, it was clear that he had reached the end of the line with his original plan for converting America. In that year, he was convicted in U.S. federal court of income tax fraud and began serving thirteen months of an eighteen-month term in a Danbury, Connecticut, prison.

During his incarceration Moon had plenty of time to ponder the error of his ways. Nevertheless, it was not the allegations of tax fraud that haunted his waking hours; these he shrugged off as mere trumped-up charges. Rather, it was the errors in his strategy to conquer America that troubled him.

At some point during those thirteen months, Moon came to a decision. He would no longer concentrate on converting individuals to his cause; rather, he would focus on winning allies and fellow travelers-be they politicians, churchmen, or members of the media-who would support limited portions of his agenda without wholly converting to his faith.

Using his Washington Times newspaper to lead the charge, Moon shifted his focus to an anti-Communist political agenda centered on his new organization, CAUSA, which was an alliance of politicians and organizations covering the range of the political right. CAUSA sponsored seminars attended by Senators, Congressmen, and public officials where they were taught the doctrine of “Godism”-really just a watered-down version of Chapter One of the Divine Principle, which ponders questions of ontology and the nature of God.

When communism collapsed, Moon was forced to cast about for a new crusade. Eventually the answer came to him: he would become the savior of the traditional family. He would excoriate divorcées and adulterers, and set himself up as a champion of “family values.” Never mind that his current marriage happens to be his third-and that his former daughter-in-law, Nansook Hong, reported in a 1998 memoir that Moon had admitted to her his adulterous affairs.

For his latest crusade, Moon adopted a strategy parallel to the one he had used for CAUSA. Once again, he set up a seemingly independent organization that taught a portion of the Divine Principle; but this time he hoped to teach Chapter Two to ministers and priests. (Chapter Two is the section of the Divine Principle that reinterprets the Fall of Adam and Eve.) The agency Moon founded and funded for this purpose was the American Clergy Leadership Conference (ACLC), which sponsored the April 2002 wedding.

The participants at that ceremony did not object to some of the more eccentric conventions of a Moon wedding-for example, the earth-shaking shouts of “Mansei!” (which means “Victory for 10,000 years!”) at the end of the ceremony. Nor did they seem to mind the open adulation that was expressed for Moon and his wife, who were proclaimed by the emcee as “the True Parents of all mankind!” They had come, dressed in their best attire, for the solemn purpose of recommitting before God to their own marriages-and most of them likely understood little about the true meaning of Moon’s Blessing Ceremony. Yet the fact remains that according to the Divine Principle, this ceremony signifies that their previous inadequate marriage rite has now been supplanted by the Unification version-the only rite, Unificationists believe, that is truly acceptable in the eyes of God.

How could clergy of any faith adopt such views, contrary as they are-or even totally alien-to their own doctrines? Certainly, Moon’s almost unlimited largesse is part of the reason for his growing influence. In 2001, he gave extravagant gold watches to many of the pastors who worked with him on his “We Will Stand!” speaking tour. At the April wedding, he handed out free vacations to a Caribbean resort.

But the most important reason for Moon’s success is surely more than mercenary; the explanation, I believe, lies in the enduring appeal of the millenarian dream. All of humanity longs for a day when “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain” (Revelation 22). Moon would convince us all that this vision is actually attainable; that, indeed, its fulfillment lies tantalizingly near, if only we do all we can to bring it to fulfillment.

This is the glorious dream into which I was seduced in 1976. And it is the same dream that animated that hotel ballroom in Virginia twenty-six years later. As Sun Myung Moon strode triumphantly to center stage, I became caught by the spirit of the occasion. I began to wish that it might be true after all; that here indeed might be the man who would heal all marriages and fashion all parents into unshakably loyal true parents.

The dream of an earthly Paradise dies hard. Like an addict gone clean, I have never forgotten its seductive power. Yet I also knew that to return now would be a terrible mistake. Following the ceremony, as I watched Moon leaving the room with his entourage, and listened to the resounding cheers of the audience, I felt both an urgent call to return to the fold and a compelling need to get away. Yet for the moment I did not move, but simply stood and watched.

K. Gordon Neufeld is a literary critic and freelance writer living in Calgary, Alberta.