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Sushi, religion, and the DC courts

By Michael Marshall

On November 7 the New York Times magazine published a 6,000word plus article entitled "The Untold Story of Sushi in America" by David Fromson, one of their copy editors. It dealt with links between the largest distributor of sushi in the US and the Unification movement founded by the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

The article contains a casual use of racial stereotyping in describing Rev. Moon, a Korean; uses a pejorative and dismissive word to label a minority religious group; and relies heavily on a single source even though treating controversial and contested matters. The author then badly mischaracterizes an ongoing court case involving different parties from the Unification movement through his total failure to understand the significant religious freedom issues at stake.

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The article is an illustration of the sad decline in journalistic standards at the Times, once considered America's newspaper of record. We, the co-authors, considered that such sloppy and prejudicial journalism demanded a public response and wrote the critique of Mr. Fromson's piece that follows.

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Daniel Fromson, author of the "The Untold Story of Sushi in America" recently published in the New York Times Magazine, made his agenda quite clear within the first three paragraphs of his long, poorly written hit piece on the late Reverend Sun Myung Moon and upon those who sincerely continue to carry forward his vision. Though Rev. Moon passed away over nine years ago,Fromson insists that Moon's movement still should be characterized as"controversial" and its assets "mysterious." A few sentences later Fromson, a copy editor for the New York Times magazine, throws in some old-school racial stereotypes, apparently forgetting it's 2021 not 1970, while describing the Asian Rev. Moon as a "round-face" messiah.

Fromson doesn't stop there. He has more hateful pejoratives to hurl, referring to "Moonies at Madison Square Garden." To members of the Unification movement, this "M" word has always been a term, like all bigoted terms, meant to demean and dehumanize. "Moonie" has been a term that signified to the purveyors of hate that it was open season to vent their misguided rage upon others. It comes from the same dark heart where all such offensive language is born. That Fromson so cavalierly begins his article in this way seems to strongly suggest it is this same attitude that motivates his writings.He should be ashamed, and so should the New York Times for allowing it to run in this form. The newspaper has distinguished itself in protecting sensitivities of a wide range of minority groups yet does not feel it needs to treat religious minorities with the same concern. Instead it consigns such groups to an old-style journalistic free-fire zone.

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Granted, Fromson seems to enjoy eating sushi and seems to know a bit about it. But after enduring to the end of his 6127-word article filled with hearsay, innuendo, half-truths, and just plain falsehoods, it is quite clear that Fromson has no grasp of the scope and significance of the vast array of activities, projects, and accomplishments of Rev. Sun Myung Moon. To reduce it to mere sushi reveals little about Rev Moon but quite a lot about Fromson's penchant for stereotypical biases. It is laughable and absurd.

What is stunningly obvious is that Fromson apparently thinks his knowledge of sushi somehow gives him the clairvoyance to make transcendent assertions about religious faith. He writes, "Faith, we all know, is complicated. It can start wars or artistic movements, define our most public acts or most private thoughts. It can also live in the marrow of a world-altering corporation, bringing Japanese delicacies to Nebraska or influencing the sushi you ate yesterday. . ." Clearly, a C.S Lewis, he is not.

Fromson also tests his theological chops on assessing the teachings of Rev. Moon. However, he soon falters as either his ignorance or bigotry clouds his understanding. "Doctor" Fromson divines that Rev. Moon's teachings are based on Christianity fused "with Buddhism, Confucianism and shamanism." Perhaps he believes that those "round faces" would of course make some sort of Asian fusion for their religious expression. Such a superficial characterization is offensive, and just another example of what is evidenced throughout Fromson's article; his misinformed and jumbled analysis runs roughshod over cultural, religious and legal matters with serious implications. Honestly, how is the New York Times not embarrassed by this?

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But that's not all. Fromson saves his most jaw-dropping piece of amateur journalism for last by putting on his pretend legal scholar hat. He then proceeds to demonstrate that he knows even less about the law than he does about Rev. Moon's teachings. He stumbles his way through a total misrepresentation of the important issues, including an assault on religious freedom, at the heart of the court case currently before the District of Columbia Superior Court.

Fromson describes disputes about the leadership and direction in Rev. Moon's multi-faceted movement during Rev. Moon's final years and after his passing. He reports on the notorious litigation that has dragged on for ten years in the District of Columbia courts, and trumpets sensational quotes from interim rulings that are currently under review by the DC Court of Appeals. The New York Times of old would never have allowed a writer with no legal expertise to so mischaracterize an ongoing case. But as we have learned, standards of editorial supervision and concern for factual accuracy at the magazine are not what they were in the past.

Fromson misses the enormous legal and practical implications of the case which turns upon well-established precedents in the jurisprudence of religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. This is the real story here and one that Fromson needed to address, once he allowed his gaze to wander beyond the tips of his sushi-grasping chopsticks.

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The DC trial court's rulings, now under appeal, ignored religious freedom legal precedents so completely that it has alarmed mainstream religious freedom organizations. As a result, the highly respected Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty joined forces to file an amicus brief with the DC Court of Appeals, pointing out the deep flaws in the trial court's reasoning.

The DC Superior Court treated the UCI case as if it was a simple business contract dispute, and in so doing drove a Mack truck through religious freedom guarantees to such a degree that the Becket Fund and Jewish Coalition concluded, "The trial court's decision here wrongly revives constitutional problems that the Supreme Court resolved long ago." And "...the trial court's ruling is at odds with longstanding Supreme Court principles and threatens to upend fundamental First Amendment guarantees." Not a bad day's work for a mere trial court, but a critical aspect of the case that Fromson completely missed.

They went on to say, "the trial court's decision required a secular court to sit in judgment of Unification Church theology, leadership,and polity-all of which is prohibited under the First Amendment." Finally,they warned of the damage that could result, noting that the "trial court used secular equitable principles to adjudicate a religious schism. Left unreversed,the decision will chill how all manner of religious polities are organized." Now there's a real story for a serious reporter.

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Fromson gets one key fact about the case right, though he totally misses its implications. He writes that the trial court clearly ruled which of the parties in the dispute is the legitimate representative of the Unification faith. That is precisely what the First Amendment prohibits U.S. courts from adjudicating. Fromson, of course, fails to understand this,which is why his editors were derelict in their duty by letting him report on this complex case.

The First Amendment guarantees our right to the free exercise of our faith convictions, not only in worship but also in public discourse, civic affairs, and even in business. And long-established legal precedent makes absolutely clear that government cannot interfere in religious matters of leadership, governance, or doctrine. These guarantees apply to all, regardless of whether majority religions developed over centuries or non-traditional, minority new religious movements are involved.

The DC Superior Court's initial rulings trample upon these sacred First Amendment guarantees and thus, the case is far from settled. In his article, Fromson makes only a dismissive reference to the ongoing appeal,when, in fact, the case is not decided until the DC Court of Appeals issues its ruling.

It is unclear whether Fromson's article is intended as news, commentary, or some sort of creative writing. Given the New York Times' emphasis on quality journalism with integrity, it is very disappointing that its editors would print this article with its offensive tone, sloppy research, and misinformed "analysis." The target of the article is a "controversial" Asian man and his minority religious group, so all manner of prejudice appears to be allowable. Could you imagine the outcry to the New York Times Magazine if the same tactics were used against anyone else? It's long past time to call an end to this journalistic open season on minority faith groups.

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Michael Marshall is editor emeritus of United Press International and a consultant with the Global Peace Foundation. The foundation is affiliated with the ultimate holding company that owns UPI.

Kevin McCarthy is an author and noted lecturer on inter-religious dialogue, faith in the public square, and First Amendment issues. He is also a consultant with the Global Peace Foundation

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

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