Inside the Bizarre and Dangerous ‘Rod of Iron’ Ministry

Gun Rights

Days after the insurrection at the Capitol — where he’d been close enough to the rioting to get tear gassed — Pastor Sean Moon posted an incendiary rant to Instagram. Wearing his trademark crown of bullets, and speaking to the camera from behind a golden AR-15 assault rifle, Moon declared Jan. 6 had been the “Boston Tea Party of the Second American Revolution.”

Far from condemning the day’s violence, Moon praised the insurrectionists who “took dominion of the Satanic Temple” — that is to say, the U.S. Capitol building — and sent “the most powerful people on the planet scurrying away, like rats, in total fear, total panic, in tunnels.”

“God was victorious that day,” Moon insisted. “The criminals,” the pastor added — referring to America’s elected representatives who refused to back Donald Trump’s coup attempt — “can never take that image out of their mind. Now they realize, ‘Oh crap, if that happens again, the cops may stand down.’”

Moon is the leader of Rod of Iron Ministries, a breakaway militant sect of the Unification Church. The pastor, 42, is the son of the late global religious leader Sun Myung Moon, revered as the second coming of Christ by his followers, known colloquially as the “Moonies.” The younger Moon’s church has gained infamy by glorifying the AR-15 assault rifle as the biblical “rod of iron,” an instrument of God’s justice.

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Headquartered outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Rod of Iron Ministries has stirred alarm with ceremonies in which its faithful bring their weapons to church. Moon preaches an End Times theology that’s intertwined with earthly politics. And along with his brother Justin — who, in a nifty twist, owns a gun company that sells assault weapons — Sean Moon has sought to build political power in MAGA world, by cultivating connections to the Trump sons, hosting an annual Freedom Festival that has attracted Steve Bannon to speak, and even forging ties to the NRA board member who put his name at the top of the list of the fake slate of 2020 Electoral College voters from Pennsylvania. Moon calls Teddy Daniels, a Jan. 6 participant who ran as Doug Mastriano’s preferred candidate for Pennsylvania Lt. Governor, “our great friend and brother in Christ.

Moon has often been portrayed as a zany zealot rather than a threatening revolutionary, but the days when a preacher in a bullet crown could be laughed off as an oddity are over. At a time when GOP leaders are increasingly embracing violence as an acceptable — or even necessary — response to losing an election, Moon’s teachings offer another layer of cover, painting the overthrow of government as ordained by God.

The fervor for regime change that Moon uncorked after the assault on the Capitol has not abated. When the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago last week, Moon turned again to Instagram to blast the Attorney General and top Justice officials as “abominable, deceit-spewing sociopaths,” imploring: “Resist these devils, America. God is with us.”

Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon’s childhood was, to put it mildly, far from typical.

He grew up cloistered in his family’s 19-acre church compound in Westchester County outside of New York City. Because of security threats his family faced, Moon recalls in a 2018 book, he was “not permitted to wander the neighborhoods, hang out with friends, or ride our bikes outside.” His outlet from bitter isolation — home, he writes, “seemed like a prison” — was self-defense training, including Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, of which he’s now a blackbelt, and, eventually, firearms.

Sean’s father, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, was the founder and leader of the Unification Church, the conservative global religious movement founded in South Korea. The elder Moon presented himself as a biblical messiah, and famously presided over mass “wedding” events in which believers were purportedly absolved of sin. For the elder Moon homosexuality was a grave tresspass against God, and he compared gay men to “dirty dung-eating dogs.”

In the United States, the elder Moon overcame legal troubles — he was once sentenced to 18 months in prison for filing false tax returns — and founded the conservative Washington Times, which he used to cultivate political power inside the Beltway, including forging close ties to the Bush family. In a bizarre 2004 ceremony, Moon was coronated inside the Dirksen Senate building, declaring himself God incarnate in front of more than a dozen members of Congress.

When the patriarch Moon died in 2012, it sparked a bitter succession battle for control of the Unification Church and its vast business enterprises. Moon’s wife, Hak Ja Han, known to followers as the “True Mother,” consolidated control. She boxed out her son Sean, who’d trained at Harvard Divinity school and insists he was his father’s handpicked successor.

Feeling betrayed by his mother, whom he now likens to the “Harlot of Babylon,” Sean launched his own sect in 2013. The younger Moon’s church has evolved to fetishize AR-15s, rebranding in 2017 as “Rod of Iron Ministries.” The church burst onto the national consciousness with a 2018 ceremony in which members were invited to bring their assault weapons to church, held just days after the school massacre in Parkland, Florida.

Moon, who wears a crown of polished bullets made for him by a religious follower, preaches that the AR-15 is the biblical “rod of iron” — an instrument of divine power. This bizarro reading of the bible springs from passages from Psalms (“You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery”) and Revelations (“and He shall rule them with a rod of iron.”)

Preaching a Last Days theology, Moon prophesies that a heavenly kingdom will soon be established on Earth — and that his heavily armed followers will help rule this land. “The citizens of the Kingdom of God, who will share in Christ’s sovereignty, bear the responsibility to defend their family, neighbors and nation with their own rod of iron,” Moon writes in his book, Rod of Iron Kingdom.

Moon casts himself (and his progeny) as the monarchs of this future divine realm, which he calls the United States of Cheon Il Guk, shorthanded as CIG. He has even written its constitution, describing CIG as “a sovereign and actual nation [that] does not yet exist in this world, but is the long awaited culmination of the End of Time.” The CIG constitution vaguely resembles the American one, but prominently bans abortion and gay marriage, and installs Moon as king.

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Pastor Sean Moon of the Sanctuary Church speaks at the 3rd Annual Rod of Iron Freedom Festival on October 9th, 2021.

Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto/AP

When he preaches, Moon’s is rapid-fire and abrasive — a match for a church that treats assault rifles as instruments of the Lord.

But in conversation he comes across as more tempered. Speaking to Rolling Stone on a Zoom call from his ministry’s new retreat center, bought in 2021, in rural Tennessee, Moon clarified that, while his father was the second coming of Christ, he does not seem himself as God, rather “akin to what normal people would see as the Pope — sort of the representative of Christ.” He says his following is approximately 15,000 families worldwide.

Moon says he’s unconcerned by those who refer to Rod of Iron Ministries as a cult. “It doesn’t bother us. It doesn’t paralyze us,” he says, adding that the Moonies have been decried as a cult for decades. “We’ve been hearing that labelling for the last 50 years,” Moon says. “We’re used to that type of persecution.”

Moon insists CIG will be “a kingdom not of tyranny, but a kingdom of freedom and responsibility.” As he spoke, Moon expounded on some of his church’s beliefs. “We see homosexuality just like beastiality,” he said, describing a strict moral code that also sees “dating and having sex before marriage as a critical sin.”

By definition, establishing the United States of Cheon Il Guk will require an overthrow of the current United States of America. Moon denies that force will be required, rather that “people through self determination, and being led by the Spirit of God will organically institute that in their countries.”

But behind this softer framing lies the same dark message. Pressed, Moon also insists that the “rod of iron” — or the AR-15 — will be the “accoutrement which allows people to always keep their political servants in check.”

Put more plainly, Sean Moon is leader of an apocalyptic, revolutionary, heavily armed, assault-weapon fetishising religious order that the Southern Poverty Law Center has described as an “anti-LGBTQ cult.”

Political extremism is a profitable endeavor, and the greater Moon family is no exception. In Sean Moon’s church, guns are holy. But for his brother Justin, they’re also business.

By crossing the streams of end-times Christianity and 2nd Amendment fundamentalism, in the swing state of Pennsylvania, Rod Iron Ministries is making itself a powerful draw for MAGA politicians eager to communicate with the most based of the GOP base.

Sean Moon’s gun-promoting church, in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, is closely tied to his Justin’s gun business, the Kahr Firearms Group, headquartered in nearby Greeley. (Both towns are exurban to Scranton.)

Kahr Arms Groups owns several gun brands including Thompson, and the company makes street-legal Tommy Guns as well as AR-15s. While the NRA touts Kahr as “a Premier NRA Industry Ally,” the company actively partners with the even-more-hardcore Gun Owners of America, and fights gun-control legislation in congress as part of GOA’s “No Compromise Alliance.”

Sean Moon describes his brother as “a member of our church,” adding that, “like any other member, he contributes what he feels in his heart to contribute to the organization.” I asked Moon whether adopting the Rod of Iron branding for his church had anything to do with boosting his brother’s business. “No,” the pastor retorted. “Of course not.”

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To honor the leader of the MAGA movement, Justin Moon’s firearms company has launched several lines of weapons emblazoned with Trump’s likeness and slogans

Like their father, the Moon brothers have sought to cultivate ties with powerful figures of the American right, and the modern GOP is proving a fertile ground.

When Justin Moon’s company opened a firearms emporium called the Tommy Gun Warehouse in 2016, Sean gave the blessing, and Eric Trump gave the keynote speech. The brothers have also both sought photo ops with Don Trump, Jr. who features prominently on Sean Moon’s Instagram account, as well as Justin’s.

To honor the dear leader of the MAGA movement, Justin Moon’s firearms company has launched several lines of weapons emblazoned with Trump’s likeness and slogans, including the POTUS 1911 pistol, the Commander in Chief AR-15, and the Trump Thompson Tommy Gun, chambered in .45 for the 45th president.

In 2019, the Moon brothers together launched the Rod of Iron Freedom Festival, “a non-denominational event to celebrate our Second Amendment.” Its 2021 lineup included former Trump adviser Steve Bannon; Richard Mack — originator of a bogus theory that sheriffs can decide what’s constitutional — former NRATV star Dana Loesh; and John Lott, author of the book “More Guns, Less Crime.”

And then came the 2020 election, where Pastor Moon saw it as God’s will that Trump would win.

In the run-up to the election, Moon was an unabashed Trump supporter. He filmed himself on Instagram at a Nov. 2 campaign rally near Scranton wearing a MAGA hat and chanting, “God Bless Trump!

Moon was initially crushed by Trump’s loss. On the day after the election, as the “red mirage” was receding, Moon posted: “It is now out of the hands of men! Only by the gift of God can Trump win Wisconsin, Michigan or Nevada. It is now up to our True Father completely one with Jesus!!! Keep praying Kingdom!”

But by the following day, following the defeated president’s lead, Moon was eagerly promoting the Big Lie to his flock, writing in a new post: “TRUMP VICTORY!!! AMERICA WILL NOT GO ALONG WITH THE ILLEGAL STEAL!!! TRUMP IS OUR PRESIDENT!!!”

Soon, Moon was putting himself at the center of the political movement that, against law and tradition, sought to block the peaceful transfer of power to Joe Biden. He participated in the Million MAGA March in D.C., the “Stop the Steal” rally at the Pennsylvania state capital, Harrisburg. Moon later gave the invocation at the Jericho March rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 12, which sought divine intervention to overturn the 2020 election results.

Moon even inserted himself in efforts to get Pennsylvania to recall its electors to the Electoral College. On Jan 3. he helped organized a protest in front of Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Brian Cutler’s home to demand the recall of the state’s electors.

As the nation hurtled toward Jan. 6, Moon began associating himself with the “Black Robed Regiment” — a loose association of right-wing religious leaders who’ve appropriated a name the British once used to mock radical preachers who helped foment the American Revolution.

Moon was soon touting Jan. 6. in explicitly militaristic terms. In a video posted on Dec. 30, Moon prayed a in front of a wall of Tommy guns at his brother’s gun warehouse. Invoking the American Revolution, he asked for God to give Trump “the spirit that was in our founding fathers; the spirit that stood up against evil.” Moon then asked God to guide his backers “as we mobilize for Jan. 6, as the commander-in-chief has called.”

On Jan 5. Moon — who is obsessed with motorcycles as well as guns — rallied a pack of “Rod of Iron Riders,” resembling a motorcycle gang, to Washington D.C. Moon wrote that their purpose was to “scout D.C.” and posted a short film of their reconnaissance ride. He wore a skull facemask, painted in camouflage.

On the day of Jan 6 itself, Moon showed up on the Mall in the pre-dawn darkness. As the mob rushed forward to the Capitol, Moon got close enough to the action to get hit with tear gas. While Moon’s exact role in the day’s events is murky, one of his church faithful, a man named David Kanagy, who was also in attendance, wrote about the experience the Rod of Iron Ministries website — describing ministry members attempting to overrun police positions.

Kanagy’s writing — and particularly a passage on a second failed push to get into the Capitol — offers a preview into the devotion Moon has from his followers. “I saw others climbing the stairs of the bleachers on the left side, so I followed them up the stairs,” he wrote. Kangy writes that he was warned the scaffolding was unsteady. “I thought I shouldn’t worry, but be there to support the King,” he wrote, apparently referring to Moon. “If the scaffolding collapsed from so many people, it would be tragic, but that would be a good way to die as an offering.”

Today, Moon takes pains to separate himself from the “crazies” of Jan. 6. He insisted to Rolling Stone that he and his followers were just  “peacefully singing” — including praise songs and “God Bless America” — when he was tear gassed. “For us, it was just exercising our First Amendment right to peaceably assemble,” he says.

But in the immediate aftermath of the event, Moon had insisted that history would vindicate Jan. 6 as the day “Goliath’s air of invulnerability” was “shattered,” adding that the original Tea Party of 1773, was “also condemned at the time.”

Moon says he’s not been contacted by law enforcement or the Jan. 6 Committee. A man holds an unloaded weapon during services at the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, Wednesday Feb. 28, 2018 in Newfoundland, Pa. Worshippers clutching AR-15 rifles and other weapons participated in a commitment ceremony at the Pennsylvania-based church. The event Wednesday morning led a nearby school to cancel classes for the day. The church's leader, the Rev. Sean Moon, said in a prayer that God gave people the right to bear arms. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

A man holds an unloaded weapon during services at the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, Wednesday Feb. 28, 2018 in Newfoundland, Pa.

Sean Moon did not take Joe Biden’s inauguration well. In a video from Jan. 21, 2021, Moon cast the Biden presidency in calamitous terms, as a victory for Chinese communists. “The Chi-Com puppet agent” he said, referring to Biden, “has usurped the once-Judeo Christian republic of America.”

Moon preached armed resistance, invoking the founder of the Oath Keepers militia. “God is telling us to become his hands and feet,” Moon said. “Just like Stewart Rhodes of Oath Keepers said, all the Trump people now must be activated to become part of civil defense forces, neighborhood defense forces — whatever you wanna call it.”

Moon insisted it was not time to be “cowering in fear of being called a cultist, or extremist or a domestic terrorist.” Pointing to his family’s long history of being called a cult he added: “Join the club. Get over it.”

The gun-loving pastor has long lionized the Bundy family — whose serial armed standoffs with the government, Moon has written, epitomize, “the character and courage” necessary to stand up to “abuses of federal power.” Warning that the “Stalinistic curse machine is coming,” Moon continued his video, insisting that the only defense was mass resistance. “There should be 100 Buddy ranches,” Moon said, adding of that armed standoff: “It should be like that everywhere. So if they try to come for one they come for all.”

Despite such unhinged rhetoric, Moon and his church continue to make inroads with MAGA politicians. In May 2021, Doug Mastriano — now the GOP gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania — was scheduled to speak at Rod of Iron Ministries. The appearance fell through; Mastriano appeared instead at a fundraiser with Rudy Giuliani. Moon says the two have yet to meet personally, but insists of Mastriano, “We support him and his policies.”

At the 2021 Rod of Iron Freedom Festival in October, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon was a special guest speaker, as was Joey Gibson, a far right former Senate candidate who is closely associated with the Proud Boys. Teddy Daniels palled around with Moon, taking a selfie holding the pastor’s golden AR-15. (Made by his brother’s company, the rifle gets its distinctive color from a coating of titanium nitride.) The 2022 lineup is still fluid, but already touts former Trump White House adviser Sebastian Gorka and former U.N. ambassador Alan Keyes.

Pastor Moon sees himself and his church in a battle with “political Satanism.” He has thrown his lot in with the MAGA movement because, he insists, it reflects “the human desire to pursue freedom and not let a cabal a small cabal of people rule over them with impunity.”

When I asked Moon if he sees the MAGA crowd as helpful in advancing the events necessary for establishing his divine kingdom, he deflected. “We don’t know how God will use all these relationships.” But he says that his motivation is “standing together with people who are like minded, like hearted  — and want to pursue God’s will in His kingdom.”

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