Into America’s Spiritual Void With Marianne Williamson
Presidential campaigns can poll at zero and still have something interesting to say about America. In Iowa on the trail with Marianne Williamson, who helped shape today's conversation about spirituality.
Marianne Williamson is famous in that way where you either know deeply who she is, or you have no idea.
On a recent Saturday in a bright, narrow room in Iowa, Williamson — striking at 66, in a cream turtleneck under a dark velvet blazer — stood and watched as a thirtysomething man in jeans told a crowd of about 30 Jefferson County Democrats that, until he was asked to introduce Williamson at this event, he’d never heard of her.
This introduction was, as you can imagine, a little light on details, but hit the key points: Williamson is running for the Democratic nomination for president; she often speaks about spirituality in a way that departs from your average political discourse. He left out, however, how central Williamson has been to the development of a certain brand of American spirituality, particularly beginning in the New Age ’90s.
In brief: Brooke Shields and Andre Agassi read Williamson’s books; Cher attended her lectures; Steven Tyler has credited Williamson with helping him break an addiction; Bill and Hillary Clinton invited her to Camp David; a line of hers (about fearing our own strength more than our own powerlessness) is sometimes falsely attributed to Nelson Mandela; she once spoke at Mar-a-Lago (a fundraiser for providing those with AIDS and cancer services at home); she officiated one of Elizabeth Taylor’s weddings; she roomed in college with Lynda Obst, producer of your favorite movies; she roomed with Laura Dern, according to Diane Ladd; Gwyneth Paltrow has referred to her as a “spiritual legend”; Deepak Chopra now tweets small-donor appeals on her behalf; Kim Kardashian West endorsed her 2014 congressional bid, for which Alanis Morissette recorded a song with lyrics like:
Unless we revive this Constitution
From sure disintegration
Live out this revelation
Rupture is rising, families are scrambling for custody
The chase of this dollar is tilting my altar toward apathy
Point is, as Williamson put it in an interview, “I’ve been around.”
But whatever that mentally conjures up for you, Williamson’s pitch to be president probably doesn’t sound exactly like it.
She denounces trickle-down economics and short-term corporate profits, which Williamson views as central to: the drift away from America’s founding principles, and the drift toward what she describes as a “sociopathic” economic system that has “swerved from its ethical center.” Republicans don’t care about the “overt” corporate takeover — pharma, Big Ag, the military industrial complex, etc. — and all too often Democrats care more about ameliorating externalities rather than addressing the underlying issue of multinationals most interested in meeting this year’s dividend target, and acting as though this is the richest country on earth. This leaves a person to despair, wondering what they will do if they get sick, or one of their kids gets sick. If this sounds a little like something you’ve heard before — from Williamson going back a ways, if you know her — or from people who know their way around the Federal Register, even Williamson acknowledges that. “When it comes to economic theory, I’m a Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren–type of girl,” she’d said the evening before in the backroom of a steakhouse whose logo features a smiling cow wearing a Stetson.
“But to me,” she added, “we need a politics that is a whole-person integrated conversation that goes beyond the externalities.”
“I heard you say, that it’s a great idea to spend five minutes sending your love from your heart to everyone in America. I started doing it.”
And here we come to why people know Williamson. As the little Marianne Williamson flyers say, “There is a groundswell of people in America who are seeking higher wisdom.” On this Saturday, after her speech, when she was answering questions (why did she say she supports a green new deal, rather than the Green New Deal, and so forth), an older man got on the mic, and it came full circle on this bright, cold afternoon in Iowa.
“I heard you say,” he began like he might argue an arcane point, “that it’s a great idea to spend five minutes sending your love from your heart to everyone in America. I started doing it. I’m just amazed at how much more I love just…the people around me. This guy. These people.”
“We love each other,” he said. “It wasn’t real until I started doing that. So it’s big. You’re big.”
Insofar as we have national conversations about race or sex or money or anything else, they’re presidential campaigns — and they don’t have to be winning ones. If you consider Marianne Williamson, a major player in the great wellness continuum of the last 30 years, there’s a lot to be examined about the inescapable pull of spirituality, and the way selling ideas about existential questions has changed.
Over the last three decades, Williamson has published 13 books mostly on personal spirituality, the most popular of which feature granite titles (A Return to Love; A Woman’s Worth; The Age of Miracles) that sound more like Edwardian novels or Tina Turner singles than self-help books. They’re metaphysical, not Christian, but concern your relationship with God.
They’re somehow both a little cheesy and radical. In 1992’s A Return to Love, sin is an “archery term” that “means ‘you missed the mark,’” and “the term crucifixion means the energy pattern of fear,” which “represents the limited, negative thinking of the ego” — rather than, e.g., the inherent fallibility of our hearts, redeemed through Christ’s sacrifice on the literal cross. Based on A Course in Miracles, a 1976 book by Helen Schucman, a psychologist who said Jesus had dictated the book to her, A Return to Love considers miracles as achievable shifts in perception. Aside from some everything is an illusion talk, A Return to Love offers firm guidance: love others, forgive others, devote your life to a power beyond yourself (specifically, God), don’t put your faith in material things, believe in the egalitarian dignity of your own life.
You can watch Williamson talk about some of this with Oprah in the 1990s, appearances preserved in amber on YouTube that launched Williamson from locally famous to national figure. That was right around when Oprah turned her show toward spirituality, and shoved America down the path toward Big Wellness.
You can’t get from A to B, though, without the New Age ’90s and, by extension, Williamson, a native Texan who is Jewish, but has spent much of her adult life in California talking about Jesus. She came of age, so to speak, in the absence of Instagram, and when you read the old clips, the lack of precious self-deprecation and false frankness that sometimes accompany wellness/spirituality now jumps out. (Like if Williamson's first book was suddenly retitled, Actually, And I Cannot Stress This Enough, You Should F*cking Love People, asterisk included.) Williamson wore Armani and ran a pretty straightforward business. She sold cassettes of her lectures in the ’80s, then books in the early ’90s that she continues publishing. You could see her in person, too, for a suggested fee ($7, then $15, waived if you couldn’t pay). These lectures, in part, grew out of work she did with gay men with HIV and AIDS during the peak of the crisis in ’80s Los Angeles; Williamson also founded a nonprofit in the '80s that brought and still brings meals to those who are seriously ill. (She now sits on the board of trust.)
When the New Age advocates first went big in the early ’90s, they were met with derision — something Oprah’s talked about before. Illustrative sample from Forbes in 1994: “See how many middle-aged, middle-class, white and coddled souls can squawk at once about the pain of being alive.” Time magazine dubbed Williamson “the Mother Teresa of the ’90s,” question mark included, while many an outlet explored her reportedly difficult managerial style. (“The exposé subject about me is not that I have money, but that I'm really a bitch,” she said in 1992. The irony of “the bitch for God,” she told the Los Angeles Times, was not lost on her.) In Margaret Talbot’s 1997 review of The Healing of America, you can practically feel her typing through the page, trying to nail Williamson, once and for all. This has — understandably — not sat well with Williamson over the years, who dislikes when people say she has followers or call her a guru. “I am not a woo-woo silly person,” as she put it in 2014, amidst a failed congressional bid in what is now Rep. Ted Lieu’s district.
But whatever your estimation of those celebrities rattled off at the top, they are the kinds of people who shape the culture. And the culture has changed.
Most people still identify as religious in public polling, but secular affiliation continues to tick upward. Church attendance continues to decline, for reasons both mysterious and reasonable (e.g., sex abuse scandals, or how welcome LGBT people or their friends and family feel). As Ross Douthat pointed out last year, the current trend lines follow the Easter gospels across denomination: The women stay, the men flee. But Oprah’s nondenominational Christian, somewhat-Eastern approach to spirituality, Douthat wrote, continues to grow.
And why wouldn’t it? Last year, in her big examination of Gwyneth Paltrow’s business, Taffy Brodesser-Akner argued the full range of Big Wellness, from the reasonable to the quackery, addresses the gap between what ails you and what the US health care system and popular press provide about your life. This kind of dynamic seems to extend into other, less tangible spaces: About three-quarters of people who call themselves atheists, agnostics, or nothing in particular still say they believed in a higher power of some kind. The endurance of Williamson and others championed by Oprah speak to the pull toward something larger and more structured. Invariably, in life, something bad happens, or nothing ever seems to happen, and who does not then wonder about the context of their own troubles and purpose.
“The things that I talked about 30, 35 years ago were marginalized,” Williamson said in an interview, right after her third event of the day. “‘New Age guru,’ ‘fringe.’ Today, you’re considered fringe if you don’t know that conversation. Today, a holistic, more whole-person perspective is considered — we’re in the 21st century now.”
Here in the 21st century, though, Williamson campaigns for president in small rooms, private spaces in the back of restaurants, comfortable house parties in living rooms, at the end of 14-hour days. This particular swing was through places in Iowa where Williamson wouldn't be expected to bring 'em out, and Williamson is someone who treats a small room with the same close attention as a large one, but still. If this is ultimately about selling books (Williamson has one coming out later this year), you can’t accuse her of not working for the sale.
Where this campaign has picked up some notice (“Never thought I’d see the day that Marianne Williamson on the breakfast club lol,” noted a YouTube commenter) is on the subject of reparations. Williamson is the candidate with an explicit pitch: $200 billion to $500 billion, disbursed over a period of 20 years, determined by a council of black leaders.
In person, she presents a one-two, action-reaction, push-pull of history — slavery and abolition, white supremacy and the civil rights movement — in which the country’s original sin is racism, and the biggest achievements respond to the biggest ills. Her history of race in America skipped over fair/open housing and school busing, which shaped American politics in a significant way throughout the second half of the 20th century and into this one, but she also touches on some less-discussed periods, like Black Code laws passed during Reconstruction, as part of one long arc of still-active institutional racism through criminal justice and economic disparities today. She praises the Enlightenment ideals of Jefferson & co., but puts them in tension with the reality that many of them owned slaves.
It’s good that she’s talking about reparations, one man told her in Des Moines, but he wanted to know: How would she convince Republicans?
“Well, if I’m president, and you’ve got a Republican House and a Republican Senate, it’s going to be a tough slog,” she replied to laughs, then noted that while they were already changing the conversation, she wanted to make sure other candidates weren’t just coopting the disruptive language because “that’s cool this week.” (Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris had both recently said they were for reparations.)
This practical haziness is an occasional feature of Williamson’s approach; she argues the country does not need a “political mechanic” at this moment, but someone to change the conversation, invoking an FDR line about the presidency entailing “moral leadership” more than anything else. This allows her to sidestep some logistical questions about how she’d, say, curtail the influence of Raytheon, but also weirdly reminds you about the wacky hijinks wrought by our current, unconventional president who doesn’t have his hands on the ropes of government and is, in a Wario kind of way, providing moral leadership.
Williamson, who calls herself “a genuine romantic” about the founding, drops approving references like that to various figures in US history (MLK, JFK, FDR, Lincoln, and Jefferson, in particular), and quotes them on command. When I mentioned that you don’t always hear people on the left emphasize this what’s-great-about-America-is approach to the founding, Williamson immediately responded: “Absolutely not.”
“That’s how the left lost the heart of America,” she said. “Too cool to be patriotic. Really?"
“That’s how the left lost the heart of America,” she said. “Too cool to be patriotic. Really? Well, let me tell you something: Human beings are hardwired for love of a higher power and love of tribe — love of country, really. If you don’t provide people with a genuine patriotism, guess what? People with the ersatz patriotism fill up the space, hello. If you don’t provide people with a genuine sense of spiritual connection, guess what? People with the ersatz version fill up the space, hello.”
“So,” she went on, “you have people talking religion and the American flag with ideas that are deeply contrary to what those things mean at the deepest level,” and a left she feels has been “too cool” to talk about morality and patriotism. The end result: people in denial about “the horrors” of American history, and people who “only” want to talk about America’s done wrong.
And thus, the one-two, action-reaction, push-pull approach to the country’s racial history. How to address racism in America has been a fairly standard part of Williamson’s career for at least two decades. In 1997’s The Healing of America, which advocated for national atonement over slavery, she noted apologies are spiritual first; the 20th anniversary update of the book (now Healing the Soul of America) combines the apology theme with a historical case — addressed, essentially, to white America — that there is a moral and economic debt to black America left unpaid.
In the intervening years, Williamson decamped to Michigan where she led Church of Today for a few years in the late ’90s and early ’00s. One Sunday, Williamson reportedly asked black church members to stand, then asked white members near them to take their hands, look them in the eye, and apologize for racism in America. The Detroit Metro Times interviewed three church members at the time: An older white woman “loved” the experience, and realized she’d been a hypocrite; a middle-aged black woman felt like the exercise made white people feel better, and might have been more dynamic if it hadn’t been a surprise; and a black woman who’d been church council president called it “powerful,” but also said she’d been lambasted by a white woman over the experience. Meanwhile, Williamson’s clear preference for Al Gore during the 2000 election put some parishioners off, the Metro Times wrote, even if she concluded with a request to pray for and love George W. Bush. As one of the women interviewed said: “A lot of people were saying, ‘I hope she is done with that, I hope she gets back to the inspirational stuff.’”
In the end, the inspirational stuff might be what you want to hear from Williamson — rather than what to do about North Korea (her answer: Meet with them, but don’t praise Kim Jung Un).
In Carroll, Iowa, one attendee asked Williamson about why she felt “called” to run for president — noting how well Williamson speaks about what the woman elegantly termed the “inner landscape.” (Williamson’s answer, after mentioning that running for president would entail “inevitable” embarrassment: “I am seeking to answer the same call that I know everyone in this room is seeking to answer: Who would God have me be, and what would love have me do?”)
At another event, held in the entryway of the Donna Reed Theatre in Denison, under black-and-white studio portraits of Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, only 10 people showed up — but three of them had driven hours to see the candidate on a brutal, -3-degree windchill morning. Williamson, one of these women said, “reignited my entire focus in life.” Another attendee, a thirtysomething man, told Williamson before the event, “I’m not religious, but I like what you said about spirituality.”
The more spiritual space is where Williamson — a compelling speaker in general — excels. “People don’t come to me when things are going well,” Williamson told the Jefferson County Democrats. The lawyer, doctor, and accountant have already been consulted. Everything “on the external level” has already been tried.
“If someone, let’s say, has been diagnosed with cancer, or their child is on heroin, or they’ve lost all their money,” she continued, “unimportant things fall away very quickly. And yet, I have seen over and over again, that sometimes it’s when things have gone really wrong, that people become their most intelligent, and they become their most noble, and they become their most good. I’ve seen the miracles that can happen. I’ve seen the way that lives transform when people stop pretending and get real about what’s happening — and get real about their part in creating what’s happening — and then life begins again. Now, all that a nation is is a group of individuals…”
It’s not like she’s unfurling a hidden truth before you (in this case, that crisis can clarify), but Williamson's language feels pleasantly grounded by experience. This less political, more spiritual aside was more in line with what I’d come to Iowa to see. Specifically, I’d wondered whether the presidential candidate who will do a campaign event inside a yoga studio would be translating the high-brow conversation about lowercase-w wellness, or the complications of mobile technology, into a spiritual commentary.
Over the last year, people have written about workism, burnout, anxiety, tech addiction, and the early midlife fatigue that’s set in among older millennials. While many of these arguments center around debt and economic systems, these could also be considered problems somewhat spiritual in nature, even enduringly so — isn’t it an unavoidable part of life to feel, at times, that something is missing, that the obligations are too great, that what you were led to believe does not quite hold? And who or what should answer those questions? (On the Goop podcast last year, the interviewer told Williamson she’d read the introduction to one of her books and thought, wow, she’s updated it for today, only to find out the introduction was written in 1996.)
Williamson isn’t interested in exactly that stuff, though. Hers is not the campaign of disaffected success.
In her stump speech, she doesn’t talk about phones, the platforms, or the pressures of society (just the pressures of short-term profit and more catastrophic individual matters). When she talks about despair among Americans, she said, she means incarceration, addiction, racism, and debt. She thinks your phone, like most material things, can be used for good or bad, though noted that manufacturers know the phones are addictive, and that we could all use a break periodically. (“I used to say, ‘Most of what I learn is on airplanes, because it’s so interesting talking to people.’ The minute you sit down now, people have the buds in their ears. I don’t meet people on planes anymore.”)
Sitting in the bright, afternoon sunlight in Jefferson, Williamson told me that some — people in general, not necessarily millennials — are now “too precious with their emotions.”
“I’ve found myself pointing out to certain groups of women that American women are not porcelain dolls... surely the people who walked across the bridge at Selma were traumatized.”
“I’ve heard people talk about how Trump’s presidency has traumatized them,” she said. “I’ve found myself pointing out to certain groups of women that American women are not porcelain dolls; that surely the people who walked across the bridge at Selma were traumatized. Those women who were force-fed — the suffragettes force-fed in prison — were certainly under stress and anxiety. I do think we need to contextualize our own stress and anxiety.”
But Williamson is someone who laments people too cool to be patriotic, while advocating for reparations and old-school, anti-corporate leftism. The tone and substance differs in some slightly hard-to-define way from, say, Gwyneth Paltrow’s or what you might see in the discover tab of Instagram — even if these people are linked in some long arc. However you want to slice it, chalking up to capitalism itself or the self-pleased liberalism of doing good by doing well, few thrill at $95 leggings sold as something approaching spiritual affirmation.
Obviously, the sale of what might help you quell existential questions isn’t new, and wasn’t new in the jaded 1990s, a formative time for the way many people now talk about God. But the story you heard in 1992 about Williamson was in the books and the lectures, maybe in a “bitch for God” exposé in People, not a fluid, unending stream of images and information and false intimacy; Williamson’s titles were earnest, not ironically direct; the in-person presentation was sincere, but with some intentional sex and grit, not a casual arrival of feigned humility. It was a different time! We did not yet live in a media environment that resembles Tom Cruise walking into a clothing store in Minority Report and an AI identifying him by his newly transplanted eyes — an environment that, perhaps, requires some ironic distance.
A few minutes after we’d finished with the interview, Williamson came back and said she wanted to add something about anxiety. “Most anxiety,” she said, “is ultimately rooted in not having deeply realized the purpose of our lives.” In her estimation, “the purpose of life is to love other people,” and until you submit yourself to that, anxiety is inevitable. She said that to me, very gently, as I held, as though it were a science fair posterboard, a giant silver reflector for someone about to take her photo.
But who am I to argue? These things Marianne Williamson has advocated over the years — to forgive others, to love others, to believe in the dignity of your existence — can only be laughed at if you’re not taking your own life seriously. There are worse things to sell. ●