Cult figure: Moon's faithful chose poverty while he lived large

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It isn't every day that a self-proclaimed messiah dies. The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a savvy South Korean businessman who built a global religious empire using political influence and his followers' willingness to live in poverty, died Monday at 92.

Rev. Moon started the Unification Church in 1954, but it didn't rise to prominence in the United States until the 1970s. He was controversial because of insisting that Jesus appeared to him and asked him to continue Christ's mission, in part, by encouraging the growth of "sinless families."

To promote such families, Rev. Moon began holding mass weddings of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of strangers in places like New York's Madison Square Garden. His followers agreed to conduct their lives according to principles laid out by Rev. Moon. Often, the newly married couples didn't speak the same language.

Rev. Moon's followers, called "moonies" by the church's critics, flooded U.S. streets, proselytizing and selling flowers to raise money. Young people were among those fascinated by him, prompting some families to "kidnap" their own children in an attempt to de-program them. Other disciples left after months of living in poverty while Rev. Moon lived in palaces.

Despite Rev. Moon's generosity to conservative causes and his spirited defense of an embattled Richard Nixon, his church was widely seen as a cult. It lost millions of followers in the 1980s and 1990s.

Rev. Moon invested millions annually into propping up his newspaper, The Washington Times, and speculating on real estate, the fishing industry, ski resorts, schools and hospitals. He spent 13 months in prison for tax evasion, but that didn't slow him down. In 2004, he had himself crowned "Messiah" at the Dirksen Office Building in Washington, D.C., with elected officials on hand to fete him afterward.

Now the messiah is dead. He succumbed in an ordinary way, after complications from pneumonia. Although he died rich, he left behind a dubious spiritual legacy.

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