People are being beastly about Sir Edward Heath again, and for once it is not his opinions but his enviable collection of banknotes that is at the root of the matter.
Last week he spoke at a conference sponsored by the Moonies, or the Unification Church as they prefer to be known. For a 20-minute speech on family values in the 21st century he was paid pounds 35,000. The fee is not as generous as it may seem, though: the recipient must not only deliver his own speech, but sit through two days of other people's speeches on the same subject.
But was it enough to justify an association with the Moonies? Sir Edward has been ferociously attacked for "lending respectability" to the sect. The term "Moonie" has entered the language as meaning a brainwashed, bright- eyed zombie. All the natural instincts of the British are repelled by the thought of lending support to something at once so ridiculous and sinister.
Sun Myung Moon, the founder and leader of the sect, was banned last year from Britain by Michael Howard on the grounds that his presence "would not be conducive to the public good".
None of this seems to bother Sir Edward at all: last week's performance was his fourth at a Moonie-sponsored conference. Nor does it bother many of his fellows on the Jobbing World Statesman (retired) circuit. From Al Haig to Albert Reynolds, many of his peers have been happy to deliver platitudes for large sums at conferences organised by the Moonies.
I think they are quite right to do so (and not just because I once benefited from a Moonie freebie when I worked on the Spectator). Apart from the general presumption of innocence which must attach to anyone whom Michael Howard chooses to bully, there are other reasons for regarding Moon and his followers as harmless. Admittedly, their beliefs, so far as they can be understood, are wacky, but that is no reason for cutting them off from society. Sun Myung Moon thinks he is the Messiah; Sir Edward thinks he was a great Prime Minister. Why is one and not the other regarded as insane?
By the standards of Korean religion, Moon is not that wacky at all. South Korea is probably the home of more and wackier religions than anywhere outside the United States, and many are huge by Western standards - Paul Yonghi Cho, a Korean Presbyterian who performed at Wembley Arena last year, claims to have a congregation of 750,000 at his Seoul church. Mr Moon does not, so far as I know, promise that his followers will become miraculously prosperous if they give him money, as many Pentecostalist preachers do.
He does not promise his followers that God will save a family member of the donor's choice from everlasting damnation for a small consideration, as Morris Cerullo has done.
No doubt the Moonies have caused harm to some of their members and brought misery to some families - though the definitive study of their organisation found that 98 per cent of those converted left within two years. "The really surprising thing is how unshocking most of their morality is," says William Shaw, a broadcaster who spent a year infiltrating cults and is currently presenting the Cult Fiction series on BBC Radio Five Live. "Most Moonies embrace a morality which would make them acceptable in the most genteel Anglican social."
But that still leaves open the question of how best to deal with the destructive tendencies that can emerge in any religion. And here, I believe, Sir Edward has a message for the world.
The religions which go mad and sour are not those which are irrational, but those whose organising tendencies are not constantly checked and balanced by contact with the mess and disorder of the world outside. Ostracising them will only encourage them to shrink into a tiny self-contained hate- filled world that finally explodes, like the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Tokyo. And who better to remind the Moonies that they might be boring, ridiculous and irrelevant than the Jobbing World Statesmen (retired) like Sir Edward? Unless perhaps Michael Howard were available.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies