"I'm a recovering alcoholic," the schoolteacher from South Jersey tells me. "I have a lot of other things—like the anxiety, anger, things like that—that plague my life. And she just has a way of reaching my head, I guess, that I don't get from another source."
It isn't an answer you traditionally hear when you ask someone why she came to a campaign rally. But this is a rally for Marianne Williamson, and no one would ever mistake Marianne Williamson for a traditional presidential candidate.
At 67, Williamson is one of America's most famous spokespeople for a therapeutic, self-actualizing sort of spirituality, the kind that's light on doctrinal dogma and heavy on techniques for living a better life. Stores are more likely to file her books in the self-help or New Age sections than in politics or current affairs, and she has logged many more appearances on Oprah Winfrey's SuperSoul Sunday than on C-Span.
Yet here she is, running for the Democratic presidential nomination. She's been politically active for a while, in fact, including an unsuccessful bid for Congress five years ago. Ed Kilgore of New York magazine calls her "the most rigorously progressive candidate in the field," and while I don't agree that she's the most left-wing contender—she says she's for "capitalism with a conscience," not socialism—she's definitely at the left end of the pack. She was the first candidate in this cycle to call for reparations for slavery, and she is the only one to propose that the president's cabinet expand to include a Department of Peace and a Department of Childhood and Youth.
But as I wander through this crowded Unity church in Northwest D.C., waiting for Williamson's speech to begin, it becomes clear that a lot of the people here are drawn by something more than a political platform. The schoolteacher from South Jersey is named Katherine—she prefers not to mention her surname—and she has driven two hours to see Williamson in person. Pressed to list some of her policy concerns, Katherine tells me that teachers are underpaid and that student loan debt is too high, but her first instinct is to effuse about Williamson's way of speaking. Her friend Marlina, an attorney who came down with Katherine from New Jersey, has long admired Williamson as a spiritual teacher; asked what she likes about the candidate's platform, she says, "I like that she brings everything back to love."
Up the pew a bit, there's Andrea Martinez, a Navy veteran who returned from Afghanistan with a brain injury and PTSD. Martinez, who travelled here from Virginia Beach with her wife and their Yorkie terrier, knows Williamson's policy proposals well; she especially likes the candidate's call for a Department of Peace. But she's been a Williamson fan since 2006, long before that had any implications for presidential politics. Her wife—Andra Ortega, another disabled veteran—takes out her copy of Williamson's book Illuminata and shows me two of her favorite prayers in it. "Dear God," the first of them begins, "I give this day to you./May my mind stay centered on things of the spirit./May I not be tempted to stray from love."
Neither woman is able to work, and it was difficult for them to get from Virginia Beach to D.C. But here they are, mixed in with the other fans and the activists and the regular churchgoers and the curiosity seekers. Committed to a candidate not just because they like her policy ideas, but because she represents something larger that they find deeply appealing.
Williamson hasn't polled well so far—she hovers around 1 percent—and her first appearance on a Democratic debate stage drew snickers from pundits encountering her style of speaking for the first time. Her performance also sparked some online enthusiasm, but much of it seems lightly ironic, with a wave of Marianne memes that at times seem to be less about seriously supporting the candidate than they are about developing a more wholesome and feminine counterpart to those Pepe-pocked images promoting Donald Trump.
But there's more to Marianne Williamson than the memes. She represents a strand of religious thinking that has been a part of the American grain for well over a century, going back long before wellness was a buzzword or New Age was a publishing category. It doesn't usually express itself in the presidential arena, as it did when Williamson told the debate audience in Miami that she was "going to harness love for political purposes." But this isn't the first time it has surfaced in American politics. Sometimes its political manifestations have looked like Williamson's liberal platform, and sometimes they've looked rather different.
The Church of O
In 2002, Christianity Today announced that Oprah Winfrey had emerged as "one of the most influential spiritual leaders in America." LaTonya Taylor's article identifies the TV host with a postmodern, syncretic sort of faith, one that draws liberally on Christian teachings but "perceives all religions as equally valid paths to God." It's a hopeful and consumer-friendly sort of spirituality, Taylor explains, one that aims to give people tools to "make practical, lasting changes in their lives." Williamson has a cameo in the piece, showing up midway through a sample of Oprah's eclectic guest list.
It all sounds very contemporary. But near the end of the article, Taylor casually comments that such trends go back at least as far as the 1830s. "The Church of O," she writes, "merely brings this into focus in the 21st century." It's a brief aside, but you could fit a cathedral into it.
In her 2007 book A Republic of Mind and Spirit, Catherine Albanese argues that religiosity has taken three major forms in American history: evangelical Christianity, the mainline denominations, and what Albanese calls "metaphysical religion." In that third strand, the material world is believed to be "organically linked to the spiritual one," allowing people to tap into a "stream of energy" that "renders them divine and limitless." The followers of this tradition believe that the "trained and controlled human imagination" can be honed "to bring desired and seemingly miraculous change."
This worldview has Old World roots, but it has taken on a variety of distinctly American forms. One of the central threads of this tradition is what William James called the "religion of healthy-mindedness." You hear its echoes whenever someone uses phrases like the law of attraction or the power of positive thinking.
This thread begins with a sickly Maine clockmaker named Phineas Quimby. In the 1830s, Quimby grew interested in the ideas of Franz Anton Mesmer, a German doctor who explored the techniques we now call hypnotism. (The word mesmerized is derived from Mesmer's name.) For a time, Quimby teamed up with Lucius Burkmar, a teenager who claimed the power to heal people clairvoyantly. As Mitch Horowitz recounts in One Simple Idea, his 2014 history of the positive thinking movement, Quimby would put Lucius into a trance, and then "Lucius attempted to mentally scan the diseased organs of patients and prescribed them folk remedies such as herbal teas." Many of the duo's patients became convinced that they'd been cured, but Quimby gradually came to doubt that it was either the folk remedies or Burkmar's purported powers that were helping people. The "cure is not in the medicine," he concluded, "but in the confidence of the doctor or medium."
You could imagine a debunker writing something similar today, arguing that the patients who thought Quimby and Burkmar had helped them had simply benefited from the placebo effect. But Quimby believed he was debunking something else. "I deny disease," he wrote. It is a "deception…handed down from generation to generation, till the people believe it, and it has become a part of their lives." In Horowitz's words, Quimby thought "that all intelligence emanates from a universal source, and forms a continuum of spirit, mind, and matter. Since this inflowing force is perfect, he reasoned, it follows that 'false beliefs'—or ignorance of universal goodness—cause disease or strife."
If this reminds you of Christian Science, there's a reason for that: Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy was one of Quimby's patients, and she drew on Quimby's ideas as she developed her own distinctive doctrines. (Just how much she drew on Quimby became a matter of considerable dispute between Eddy and Quimby's disciples.) Enthusiasts outside Eddy's orbit began to refer to their core concepts as New Thought, a term borrowed from the transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. ("To redeem defeat by new thought, by firm action," Emerson said, "that is not easy, that is the work of divine men.") Others adopted different names, such as "mind cure." When Charles and Myrtle Fillmore of Kansas City founded a church based on New Thought principles in 1889, they called it Unity. (The Unity congregation that hosted Williamson's D.C. rally was founded in 1920, though it didn't move to its current space until much later.)
Some of these new-thinkers were recognizably Christian. Others roped in a smorgasbord of other spiritual ideas, from Theosophy to bastardized versions of various Eastern traditions. Some of them argued that modern medical theories were entirely baseless; others acknowledged that doctors often knew what they were doing but suggested that New Thought techniques could either amplify medicine's effects or work as an alternative when other remedies failed. As the movement evolved, its interests extended beyond physical health; in particular, the notion took hold that those streams of divine energy could be used to attract personal riches.
As these ideas grew more popular, they inevitably intersected with politics. Wallace D. Wattles, author of 1910's The Science of Getting Rich, was to the left of Marianne Williamson: He was a member (and mayoral and congressional candidate) of the Socialist Party. Indeed, Horowitz's book lists several social reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who mixed their politics with mind-cure concepts. That shouldn't be surprising. From the left-libertarian mystic Stephen Pearl Andrews to the spiritualist suffragette Victoria Woodhull, it was common in that period for populists, anarchists, socialists, feminists, and other radicals to draw on Albanese's tradition of metaphysical religion. Why wouldn't some of them be interested in New Thought too?
But New Thought also planted the seeds of the health-and-wealth school of Christianity, whose political sympathies often trended in a different direction. Consider the career of Norman Vincent Peale, born to a Midwestern Methodist minister in 1898. Peale followed in his father's footsteps and helmed a mainline Protestant congregation in New York, but he also read New Thought literature and soon started mixing it with his denomination's doctrines. He was particularly taken with the writings of Napoleon Hill, a serial entrepreneur who left a trail of shady business practices and dubious biographical claims. Hill's articles and books—most famously, his 1937 bestseller Think and Grow Rich—repackaged New Thought techniques as business advice, often putting Hill's ideas into the mouths of the successful executives he allegedly interviewed. (In an entertaining article published in Gizmodo in 2016, Matt Novak makes a compelling case that few if any of these conversations actually happened. Hill's habit of inventing interviews reached its peak in the posthumously published Outwitting the Devil, in which he claimed to have had a Q&A session with Satan.) Hill eventually drifted into a Long Island sect called the Royal Fraternity of the Master Metaphysicians, which attracted a degree of infamy when it declared its plans to unlock the path to physical immortality through a mixture of New Thought practices and vegetarianism.
That didn't influence Peale, but the think-and-grow-rich stuff did. And while the resulting doctrines attracted criticism—a writer in The Atlantic derided Pealeism as a "breezy kind of pantheism in suede shoes and a gray flannel suit"—it also proved phenomenally popular. Peale's 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking sold 15 million copies by the time its author died in 1993, and it has continued to find new readers since then. "Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding," it recommended. "Never think of yourself as failing; never doubt the reality of the mental image….Remind yourself that God is with you and nothing can defeat you. Believe that you now RECEIVE power from him."
Peale's political ideas were rather different from those of Wallace D. Wattles. A fierce foe of the New Deal—"A sinister shadow is being thrown upon our liberties," he warned from the pulpit in 1934—he joined the advisory board of Spiritual Mobilization, an organization of the libertarian right. Founded by Christians hoping to spread the free market message to ministers, Spiritual Mobilization grew more eclectic: The group fell into the hands of an atheist, who eventually started experimenting with psychedelics and promoting the syncretic mysticism of Gerald Heard. But Peale didn't follow that path. He mixed elements of the group's pro-market economics with a much less libertarian helping of Cold War nationalism (he wanted Douglas MacArthur to be president). He also maintained a steady commitment to the GOP, campaigning for Dwight Eisenhower and forging a friendship with Richard Nixon.
One of Peale's congregants was a boy named Donald Trump. And while Trump has a reputation in some circles for ignoring the Bible's moral demands, he learned quite a bit from his pastor, who officiated at the future president's first wedding. Trump has espoused Peale's principles of positive thinking on many occasions, and he periodically praises Peale himself as well. "I'm telling you, I still remember his sermons," he declared at the Family Leadership Summit in 2015. "It was unbelievable."
Throughout his career, in both business and politics, Trump has made statements that might charitably be described as aspirational rather than true. Sometimes he's merely mistaken; sometimes he's lying. But sometimes it looks like something more is at work—like Trump is trying to put Peale's playbook into action. Never think of yourself as failing; never doubt the reality of the mental image.
Back at the Unity church in D.C., Williamson is sounding nothing at all like Donald Trump. "Can we say that we are a nation living to our vision, when we have made short-term profit maximization for huge multinational corporations our false God?" she asks the packed pews. (According to the pastor, about 40 percent of the crowd consists of church regulars and 60 percent are newcomers.)
Williamson's speech moves easily from therapeutic and religious language into populist attacks on the corporate elite. Over the course of the evening, she declares that she wants more money for diplomacy and less for weapons systems, more attention to children and less to corporate profits, more restrictions on guns and fewer on marijuana. She calls climate change "the greatest moral crisis of our time," condemns the administration's sabre-rattling in Iran and Venezuela, and blasts Milton Friedman's views on corporate social responsibility. (She speaks more kindly about Friedman's idea for a negative income tax.) Running through it all, she lays out a narrative about American history, one where the country was founded on honorable ideals but has never fully lived up to them, giving each successive generation space to bring the U.S. closer to its potential.
By and large, the policy details aren't far from what the other would-be presidents on the left end of her party have been saying. Yet none of those other candidates sound like Williamson. And that's not just because she talks about love a lot; it comes through in the arguments she makes. Asked about universal health care, she offers a quick explanation of why she prefers a public option to a full-fledged Medicare for All plan—and then she changes the register of her voice slightly, the way one does when one has finished with the throat clearing and wants to make the important point. We need a "new integrative politics," she announces, one that gets past "the old mechanistic model." She leans forward. "We do not have a health care system in the United States. We have a sickness care system in the United States." Instead of just talking about "who's going to pay for the medicine you need," she declaims, "we need to be talking about our environmental policies, our food policies, our chemical policies, our agricultural policies." And especially our economic policies, because they "cause so much stress, and stress is the main underlying reason for chronic illnesses."
She isn't expressing unfamiliar ideas. She's laying out the basic concept behind holistic medicine, and you'll find whole books on that in stores that specialize in writers like Williamson. But it is not exactly a staple of presidential rhetoric. To hear it at a political rally, you need a candidate with a different sort of background.
In Williamson's case, that background begins in Houston, where she was born to a Jewish family in 1952. (She still considers herself a Jew, even as she regularly invokes Jesus and Buddha. Entertainment Weekly once called her Christ's "most eminently eccentric Jewish exponent.") She drifted in her 20s: dropping out of college, working briefly as a cabaret singer, imbibing a lot of alcohol and other drugs. Her life turned around after she discovered A Course in Miracles, a lengthy text that the historian of religion Jeffrey Kripal has called "a synthesis of psychoanalysis and mystical philosophy." The book was "scribed" by the psychologist Helen Schucman from 1965 to 1972. (I say "scribed" rather than "written" because Schucman insisted that it had been dictated by Jesus.) Course says that everyone is a child of God, that our separate egos are an illusion, that the physical world itself is an illusion, and that one day we will wake into a state of eternal love.
Williamson embraced the book, calling it "my personal teacher, my path out of hell." By 1983 she was giving talks about it at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles.
The Philosophical Research Society is a venerable New Age institution, having been founded in 1934 by a Theosophist named Manly P. Hall. Hall wrote frequently about secret societies and esoteric symbols, and he was a devotee of the idea that a benevolent conspiracy has been guiding America toward a higher destiny. Williamson remembers Hall fondly, though she wouldn't describe him as an influence on her. "By the time I got to the Philosophical Research Society, my reading Manly Hall was more affirmation of the things I already believed in," she tells me after the D.C. rally, in a little room adjacent to the senior minister's office. "I was already on that basic course of knowing that there's much more to life than what meets the physical eye."
That said, there is one rather Hallian passage in Williamson's first political book, 1997's The Healing of America. The Great Seal of the United States—that eye-in-the-pyramid logo on the back of the dollar bill—"illustrates our Founders' sense of America's destiny," Williamson writes. "The seal shows the Great Pyramid at Giza, with its missing capstone returned and illuminated. The Eye of Horus, the ancient Egyptian symbol for the consciousness of higher mind, is displayed within the capstone. Beneath the picture are written the words 'Novus Ordo Seclorum'—new order of the ages. This Masonic symbolism reveals democracy's function as a vehicle for the realization of humanity's highest potential."
Those courses at the Philosophical Research Society soon brought Williamson into contact with a much more concrete social issue. She started lecturing on A Course in Miracles just as the AIDS crisis was starting to hit hard, and she found an audience among the disease's victims and their loved ones. "We went from a small room on Saturday mornings to the auditorium on Tuesday nights, then from the auditorium on Tuesday nights to a church in Hollywood on both Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings," she recounts in her campaign book, A Politics of Love (HarperOne). "We continued to need more space. Gay men in Los Angeles—suddenly terrified—were looking for miracles, and for good reason." Williamson counseled the sick and the grieving, and she launched Project Angel Food, which delivered hundreds of meals a day to homebound AIDS patients.
She expanded her charitable work. She attracted fans, some of them famous. And in 1992 she published her first book, A Return to Love. Open it, and you'll find ideas that have been in the New Thought arsenal for more than a century. "Many of us believe that the doctor in the white coat can heal us with that pill he's giving us," Williamson writes. "Therefore, says the Course, we should take the pill. But the healing doesn't come from the pill. It comes from our belief." Phineas Quimby would have agreed.
A Return to Love wore its chief influence on its sleeve, literally: It was subtitled Reflections on the Principles of "A Course in Miracles." But instead of Course's dense and forbidding prose, Williamson's book was casual, confessional, approachable—a book by someone who had found meaning in her life and wanted to help you orient yourself too. I have not read every single sentence in A Course in Miracles, but I'm pretty confident that nothing in there sounds like "One day I was sitting around smoking marijuana with my brother, and he told me that everybody thought I was weird." Or "So I went through this grandiose, dramatic moment where I invited God into my life. It was terrifying at first, but then I kind of got off on the idea." Or "You aren't who you think you are. Aren't you glad?"
At this point Williamson had been delivering sermons for nearly a decade, and she'd gotten good at it. Now she'd honed those homilies down to a readable and reassuring book. And Oprah endorsed it, ushering its author onto the national stage. A dozen more books followed, several of them becoming bestsellers. The Law of Divine Compensation gave us Williamson's thoughts on financial security, presenting "a path to material abundance through immaterial means"; A Course in Weight Loss offered "a retraining of your consciousness in the area of weight." There were videos, lecture tours, recurring appearances on Oprah's outlets, a stint as pastor of a Unity church in Detroit.
And eventually, there was politics. Williamson had always been interested in social issues—in 1965, when she was still a teenager, her father had taken her to Vietnam to show her the horrors of war—and it was difficult to come up close against something like AIDS without thinking about the bigger political picture. "I've majored in personal transformation and minored in politics," she tells me, and I get the impression it isn't the first time she's said it. "With this campaign, I'm majoring in politics and minoring in personal transformation. But it's all part of the same gestalt." She was drawn into her current activism, she says, when she realized that the personal crises that led people to seek her help were often rooted in "consistent, chronic economic crisis." She was willing "to help people transcend," but she wondered why "so many people in the richest country in the world have to constantly transcend material conditions that are so unnecessary."
As a result, we have a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination with a history of saying things that are nothing like anything that anyone else in the race has ever said. Bernie Sanders went through a Wilhelm Reich phase, and Tulsi Gabbard was raised in a Hare Krishna splinter group. But only Marianne Williamson has written a Philip K. Dick–worthy passage like this:
I was at a formal cocktail party, wandering through the very large house by myself. I entered a room where a small circle of men in tuxedos were talking to one another, with drinks in their hands. One of the men turned and looked at me. Clearly, at this point, I was daydreaming. The man was Jesus.
He looked at me, and with no emotion, no recrimination, no attitude whatsoever, he said very simply, "I thought we had a deal."
Coming from a woman who calls the world "a mass hallucination, where fear seems more real than love," that hardly seems remarkable. But coming from a potential president, it seems strange as hell.
Two Ends of the New Age
But maybe it shouldn't seem so strange. Henry Wallace was a heartbeat from the presidency, and he was deeply interested in Theosophy and other esoterica. Ronald Reagan believed in astrology and numerology, and he told a story in a couple of speeches that he probably got from reading Manly P. Hall. And then there's the guy who's president now.
Donald Trump is a devoted believer in the power of positive thinking. He has given speeches at Tony Robbins seminars. In 2015 he suggested—absurdly, but it's telling that it even crossed his mind—that Oprah Winfrey might make a good running mate. Marianne Williamson's D.C. rally wasn't the first time I heard language at a political event that made me think of daytime television: At the Republican convention that nominated Trump, the speakers included a prosperity-gospel pastor, a multi-level marketer, and a professional motivational speaker.
There are enormous differences, of course, between that and the rhetoric I heard at the Unity church three years later. But that gap is notable in itself. We're used to seeing religious coverage that stresses the left and right wings of Christianity. On some subjects, such as Middle Eastern policy, we hear about the left and right wings of Judaism. Well, here are the left and right wings of New Thought. Of American metaphysical religion. Of the postmodern, consumerist, Oprah-friendly sort of spirituality.
When Williamson went on the socialist podcast Chapo Trap House in June, she told the interviewers that A Course in Miracles "says one day you will realize there is nothing outside you. You know, whether it was Buddha saying life is an illusion or Einstein saying time and space is just an illusion, albeit a persistent one." It's an odd thing to say while arguing that you can improve people's material lives, but she is not the first candidate to try to operate on both the physical and the spiritual planes. One day maybe we'll awaken from this simulation and realize that Marianne Williamson's campaign was just a dream. But for now, she wants your vote.
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