Right about the time I arrived at MIT was also the time when the Unification Church first started gathering up willing converts. The Church was the vision of Reverend Sun Myung Moon, a Korean preacher who fancied himself the second coming of Jesus. It would eventually collect large sums of money, mostly by convincing its converts to stand on freeway off-ramps and sell roses, and use that money to accumulate real estate and start the Washington Times (the Times itself was created as something of a conservative counterbalance to the Washington Post, which was left as the only newspaper in the Nation's Capital by the demise of the Evening Star, a more traditional, conservative-leaning daily), among other enterprises.
The Unification Church was a cult. There were other cults in our day - the Scientologists, the Hari Krishnas, the Children of God and Guru Maharaj Ji - but none would have the staying power of the Moonies. I once wrote a paper on cults for one of Professor Louis Menand's political science classes (Professor Menand being the father of Louis Menand, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and contributer to such publications as the New Yorker), and it focused rather heavily on the Moonies. The Unification Church had a way of homing in on bewildered and lonely students, inviting them to come visit one of their "houses" to share camaraderie with a community of loving individuals, and then sucking them in and keeping them there. Many parents reported losing their sons and daughters permanently to the Church, which taught its converts to distrust family and friends, especially those who tried to talk them out of staying with the church. Some parents, desperate to break the Church's influence on their children, went so far as to enlist "deprogrammers" to undo the brainwashing that the Church had supposedly done; it was an effort that met with mixed results, with some followers leaving the Church and others denouncing their parents for having attempted to break the Church's hold on them.
Sun Myung Moon himself had very grandiose visions of himself. He thought of himself as the Messiah. He was given to holding massive weddings in places like Yankee Stadium, where he would pair up 50,000 converts to each other and then marry off the resulting 25,000 couples. This was supposed to showcase the Church's power and convey the bliss experienced by the followers of this Messiah. The mass weddings were also intended to bind the newlyweds even more deeply to the Church and to fuel their zeal to find more converts and more donors to the Church's coffers. Moon was also given to hosting policy conferences on worldly subjects and inviting serious thinkers and credible intellectuals to come speak at them, as a way of boosting his credibility. When United Press International was in danger of folding, he bought them and added them to his media empire. When the University of Bridgeport was ready to go under, the Church dangled money in front of them and annexed them. Moon was building an empire and credibility, all at the same time.
But credibility has remained elusive. In 1982, Sun Myung Moon went to jail for tax evasion, in part because even Ronald Reagan's IRS refused to believe the Unification Church was really a church and that all of its various enterprises were Church-related. And the "cult" label has been impossible for the Church to shake, although these days they don't have college students standing beside freeway off-ramps; they've found immigrants to take those jobs (which seems to confirm the opinions of those who think that without immigrants, there are all kinds of menial dead-end jobs that would never be filled).