The 2020 race to the White House has become uncharacteristically religious in recent months, with presidential hopefuls Indiana Mayor Pete, Buttigieg, Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren and former Obama cabinet secretary Julian Castro all taking time on the stump to opine at length about faith, perhaps trying to summon a religious left as a potent political force to counter the religious right.
Amid all this God-talk, only one candidate talks about the spiritual world for a living: Marianne Williamson.
“Memo to the elite: America is a religious nation,” the author and entrepreneur told Religion News Service in a recent interview, her voice tinged with what sounded like the slightest Texas twang, an echo of her childhood in Houston. “The lack of a vibrant spiritual conversation is to the detriment of American democracy, because spirituality means the path of the heart.”
Spirituality is key to understanding Williamson’s curious political vision and her atypical path to politics. Since the early 1980s, Williamson, now 66, has had a wildly successful career as a spiritual teacher of “A Course in Miracles,” an esoteric 1976 volume that psychologist Helen Schucman wrote, claiming she was taking dictation from Jesus Christ.
Williamson herself is the author of seven New York Times best-selling books, including her first, 1992’s “A Return to Love.” Its pages focus on the value of spiritual transformation and insist the greatest “miracle” is attaining an awareness of love’s presence in life.
Since 2011, Williamson’s largest pulpit has been her regular guest spot on the Oprah Winfrey OWN Network’s “SuperSoulSunday.”
Her love-focused spirituality is connected to religion, then, but also distinct from any traditional politician’s faith. She maintains a Jewish identity, and last year she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that she attended Hebrew school growing up, still makes her way to synagogue for Jewish High Holidays and may have become a rabbi had her education been different.
Yet today she is known as a key leader in a loose community of positive, self-actualizing celebrities, from Kim Kardashian to Oprah Winfrey, the latter of which helped cement Williamson’s place in popular culture.
As Williamson put it: “My religion is Judaism, my spirituality is universal.”
Marianne Williamson campaigns for president at the Sondheim Center in Fairfield, Iowa, on Wednesday, April 10, 2019. “For our generation, connecting spiritual pursuit with political action felt natural,” she said during her speech. RNS photo by KC McGinnis
How universal her message is with voters is difficult to answer, as her name often doesn’t make it into major polls. But Williamson’s sheer name recognition makes her a difficult presence to ignore. As does her experience: she has already run unsuccessfully as an independent for a California congressional seat in 2014, and she has been speaking publicly about politics since at least 1997, when she published the book “Healing the Soul of America.” (Her latest, “A Politics of Love,” is slated for publication in late April.)
And in a crowded Democratic field, with a roster of established liberal politicians desperate to distinguish themselves, the sometimes enigmatic Williamson stands out as a voice of striking clarity when it comes to religion, politics and race.
Her ideology is sometimes cast as a synthesis of New Age spiritualism and self-help — her most famous quote (“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure”) is often misattributed to Nelson Mandela. And the material that made her famous, which she leans on in campaign appearances, may be a spiritual bridge too far for some voters.
In a February Address at Harvard Divinity School, Williamson touched on the Enlightenment, the Founding Fathers and quantum physics before suggesting that the 20th century was when Americans realized something was “deeply unbalanced” about society.
“We came to understand, just as it says in ‘A Course in Miracles,’ ‘religion and psychotherapy are, at their peak, the same thing,’ religious principle — in terms of universal themes — is not about doctrine, and it’s not about dogma, it’s about… the laws of consciousness,” she told the crowd at Harvard.
When asked to boil down the core teachings of Schucman’s book, Williamson explained it this way: “God is love. We are children of God. Love is both our identity and our purpose. When we remember that, life works. When we forget that, chaos ensues.”