Full acceptance into the mainstream of American religious life is a cherished goal of Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. Ironically, Moon's recent imprisonment for tax evasion appears to be bringing that dream a step closer to reality.

"Religious freedom" rallies around the country are drawing thousands of unsuspecting Christians into emotionally charged meetings that portray Moon as a persecuted man of God. No ties with the Unification Church are mentioned in promotional mailings. The sponsors are identified as a coalition of Christian leaders including author Tim LaHaye; Robert Grant, of Christian Voice; and Joseph Lowery, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Greg Dixon and Everett Sileven, leaders of a coalition of independent, fundamentalist churches, are involved as well.

The sponsors view Moon as a persecuted ally in an escalating battle against secular humanism and government intrusion into church ministries. "One person's religious freedom equates to everyone's religious freedom," LaHaye says. "If one person's freedom is robbed, then potentially anyone's religious freedom can be robbed." Whether Moon is a victim of persecution or a felon is a matter of considerable debate. There is little doubt, however, that the entire affair is a public relations bonanza for his church.

"His jailing brought the issue home," says Joy Garratt, public affairs director for Moon's church. "We're not just talking theories anymore, and it's scaring people." Garratt says a fundamentalist pastor told her he no longer ignores appeals for money from Moonie solicitors. "I realize you've been targeted as a scapegoat by anti-religious people, and I'm next," she says he told her.

But a number of pastors are wary of the Moonies' motives. ...

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