Woodstock happened fifty years ago. The event’s invocation was given by a Hindu guru who was a pantheist. Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson believes roughly the same thing. While a child of the counterculture, she is not dressed in a flowing white robe. She wears Armani and is well-coifed. Nor is she chanting before her audience sitting in the lotus position. But her political presence indicates just how much influence one strand of American spirituality—the New Age mindset—has come to possess.
Columnist David Brooks of The New York Times and articles in The New Yorker are taking her seriously, whatever small chance she has of winning the nomination. On September 8, The New York Times Magazine ran a long and generally sympathetic piece on Williamson, “The Gospel According to Marianne Williamson.”
Williamson may be viewed as part of “the New Age Movement,” but the phrase is a misnomer, since it is not a unified movement. It is rather an amalgamation of persons and organizations inspired to create a new world through cultivating a higher consciousness of one’s own divinity. It grew out of the counterculture and draws inspiration came from eastern religions, western esoteric and occult traditions, Transcendentalism, and the human potential movement. It is sometimes known as “the New Spirituality,” but it is as old as Hinduism.
In the 1980s, when the New Age movement was at its peak of popularity, the hopes for a new age of global light and love were higher than they are now. Nevertheless, ideas and practices at the forefront of New Age thinking, such as yoga and reincarnation, are now mainstream. But now we have a Democratic candidate for president who thinks she is divine—along with all the rest of us, of course.
Williamson, a photogenic 67-years-old, gained recognition as an early AIDs activist and through her book, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles (1992). This was a simpler and more popular version of teaching found in a three-volume work called, A Course in Miracles (1965) by Helen Schucman. I should say trance-channeled, since Schucman claims the words came to her from Jesus. When Williamson says “Jesus” or refers to his teachings, she has Jesus of The Course in Miracles in mind, and not the New Testament. In A Return to Love, she writes:
The Christian religion has no monopoly on the Christ, or on Jesus himself. Jesus reached total actualization of the Christ mind, and was then given by God the power to help the rest of us reach that place within ourselves.
Translated this means that we are all as divine as Jesus. He just got there first and he can show us the way. This is standard New Age Christology, which is better called heresy.
Williamson’s break came when she received the blessing of Oprah on “The Oprah Winfrew Show” in the early 1990s. Williamson, along with Eckhart Tolle, and Deepak Chopra, are New Age gurus who have risen to fame through Oprah’s touch. Williamson has sold three million books. Her most recent is The Politics of Love: A Handbook for a New American Revolution (HarperOne, 2019). She was a spiritual counselor to Bill and Hillary Clinton, whom she visited at Camp David and at the White House.
Williamson is running as the spiritually-minded outsider, who sees the deeper matters of the heart as the deepest source of our problems. She is no policy wonk and she has never held political office. Her platform advocates mindfulness training in public grade schools, paying reparations of two hundred million to five hundred million dollars for slavery, and (more nebulously), chipping away at the nation’s “moral deficit.” As a Democrat she is, of course, “one hundred per cent pro-choice,” as her web page says.
Williamson’s appeal is not in her political acumen, but in her emphasis on love and the power of thought. The New York Times quotes her as writing this about weight loss: “The cause of your excess weight is fear, which is a place in your mind where love is blocked.” The cause of poverty: “Many people fail to manifest money because on some deep level they don’t think they should.” Disease “is loveless thinking materialized.” In this, Williamson gives a New Age take on the long history of American positive thinking.
But, as the Cole Porter song asks, “What is this thing called love?” According to Williamson, love is not rooted in a transcendent deity, but is a force within all of us. God need not forgive us, since there is nothing to forgive. Our problem is that we forget that we are God! As John Podhoretz wrote in Commentary, for Williamson, “There is no free-floating evil, no original sin; if only we give ourselves permission, we can each of us be infinitely loving and infinitely giving, we can all be ‘the Christ.’”
This is not Christianity; nor can any monotheist accept this kind of pantheism. No one should deny that politics needs love. But the word “love,” when shorn of any metaphysical support or meaning, does nothing to reconcile enemies, promote civility, advance justice, or encourage forgiveness where needed. A political philosophy that fails to recognize the reality of human sin—and all sin is sin against love—has no hope of offering a compelling vision of social order or of inspiring social reform.
I cannot imagine Williamson reading with appreciation St. Augustine’s or Reinhold Niebuhr’s reflections on God and politics, given their bracing critique of sin’s effect in a fallen world and the limits this places on political endeavor. She believes in neither the love of a personal God nor in our violations of that love through selfishness. Those seeking political wisdom and credible candidates must look elsewhere.