Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
When Pennsylvania congressional candidate Teddy Daniels takes the stage at the Rod of Iron Ministries’ “Freedom Festival” this weekend, it’ll be something of a reunion with a group that, like him, was on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
Daniels, a hard-line pro-Trump Republican, former cop and Afghanistan War veteran running in a Democratic-held district, was in Washington that day, and posted a video from the east steps of the Capitol of the crowd of rioters about 90 minutes after they first breached the building. The video was shot well within where the original police lines had stood that day.
“I am here. God bless our patriots,” he said.
On the other side of the building were the leaders of the Rod of Iron Ministries, a MAGA-loving, conspiracy theory-obsessed fringe offshoot of the Moonies.
Members carry AR-15s during their church services and wedding ceremonies, and their leader, Pastor Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon, wears a crown of polished bullets as part of his ceremonial garb. Leaders of the organization, also known as Sanctuary Church, posted videos of themselves retreating from the Capitol after getting pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed by the police who defended Congress that day.
“THEY TEAR GAS BOMBED US! THEY PROTECT ANTIFA BUT SHOOT AND TEAR GAS PATRIOTS!” Moon complained in the post’s caption.
This weekend, Daniels will join up with the church in Greeley, Pennsylvania, for a weekend of guns, conspiracy theorizing, and fundamentalist preaching at Kahr Arms headquarters—the weapons manufacturing company owned by Moon’s brother that sits in the congressional district Daniels hopes to represent in Congress after next year’s midterm elections.
Daniels hasn’t exactly seemed remorseful for the attack on the U.S. Capitol. After four officers testified about the physical and emotional toll the riots had taken on them and their colleagues, Daniels, a former policeman, posted a photo of one wiping away tears.
“You know who can’t cry and give dramatic, theatrical, scripted testimony? All the cops who were killed last summer during the BLM & Antifa riots. Glad this guy works at the Capitol, would love to see these guys working with real street cops in Chicago, Baltimore, Philly & LA,” he wrote. “Trust me folks, they may wear a badge, they may be law enforcement. But they ain’t ‘COPS’. There is a very big difference between the two.”
So Daniels isn’t a traditional GOP candidate, and the Rod of Iron Ministries isn’t a run-of-the-mill conservative church.
The congregation is a small offshoot of the much larger Unification Church, better known as the “Moonies,” after Moon’s father. The late Rev. Sun Myung Moon was a self-proclaimed messiah who would marry his followers in mass ceremonies and whose church spread from South Korea to the United States in the ’70s. Former members have called the church a cult and said it used sleep deprivation and brainwashing as tools.
After Sun Myung Moon died in 2012, Sean Moon had a falling out with his mother and headed to Pennsylvania to open a new offshoot church with the support of his gun-manufacturer brother.
The new church was modeled after his father’s but added AR-15s and other guns into ceremonies and everyday activities. The younger Moon, who also goes by “The Second King,” says he added guns because of a Bible verse about Jesus using a “rod of iron” to protect himself and others, which he took as a reference to AR-15s.
The offshoot church wove Trump’s culture war into its DNA: Moon told VICE News in late 2019 that he believed God was working through Trump to rid the world of “political satanism.” In recent months the church has bought a large property in Texas, where “patriots” will be protected from what they say is an imminent war brought by the “deep state.”
A spokesman for the church told VICE News that they did not travel to D.C. or spend time with Daniels on January 6, while praising his politics.
“Teddy Daniels was invited as a speaker because he has a powerful conservative message that resonates with conservatives in the northeast Pennsylvania area. We came to know him when he ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary for U.S. Congress in 2020,” Timothy Elder, a spokesman for the church, told VICE News in an email.
Daniels didn’t respond to questions submitted through his website and emailed to his campaign treasurer. The National Republican Congressional Committee also didn’t respond to questions.
Daniels will address the crowd alongside other MAGA favorites, including Steve Bannon, Trump’s close adviser, as well as former NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch.
This won’t be the first time Daniels and the church teamed up. He spoke at their “We the People” rally in July, sporting an #AuditPA t-shirt, and attended their “Bullets and BBQ” party a few weeks earlier.
Daniels is currently the only Republican running against Cartwright in a GOP-leaning district centered around Joe Biden’s childhood hometown of Scranton. Trump won the district twice, Cartwright hung on by just a three-point margin in 2020, and there’s a good chance the district becomes more conservative in redistricting.
Daniels isn’t guaranteed the GOP nomination: Jim Bognet, who edged Daniels in a crowded eight-candidate primary in 2020, is considering a rematch against Cartwright, and there’s a chance that nearby Republican Rep. Dan Meuser will run there as well if his district gets eliminated in redistricting.
But Daniels isn’t some also-ran with little chance at making it to Congress. Daniels’ hardline views and hard-charging style have built him a following on the right and ingratiated him with Trump’s orbit. Former Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis and former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn already endorsed him, and in late June, Daniels was invited to Trump’s New Jersey golf course where he posed for photos with the former president, his daughter Ivanka and Georgia Republican Rep. Jody Hice, who Trump has endorsed in a primary for Georgia Secretary of State.
He’s also getting a lot of national exposure from right-wing media.
Tucker Carlson has had Daniels on Fox News multiple times, allowing him a national platform to accuse Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley of orchestrating a “coup” against Trump, tirade against the “communist state of Pennsylvania,” make air quotes as he discussed “the pandemic” as if it weren’t real, and compare liberals’ treatment of conservatives to how the Taliban treats its enemies.
And his campaign launch video, which features Daniels shooting large-caliber guns and pledging to “take the fight to the enemies of this nation in the halls of Congress,” has already racked up more than 1 million views on Twitter alone.
Tess Owen contributed reporting to this story.