The Washington Post recently ran a long article on Marianne Williamson’s presidential campaign. It was the first acknowledgement of Ms. Williamson’s political efforts that I’ve seen in the mainstream print media.
The article was written by Anna Peele who not only introduced her readership to Marianne Williamson. She also indicated how Ms. Williamson offers an essential element no other Democratic candidate can possibly supply.
In fact, Marianne Williamson’s candidacy addresses the psychological and spiritual concerns at the root of voters’ issues regardless of their party affiliation or religious orientation including those self-identifying as “spiritual but not religious” and even agnostic and atheistic.
By doing so, Williamson effectively rescues for the left the power of spirituality that has been the exclusive province of right-wing Republicans for the last 50 years and more. Unlike Republican Christians who use religion to defend the status quo, Ms. Williamson links profound spirituality and critical consciousness at their deepest levels. The consciousness ends up distancing itself 180 degrees away from our country’s reigning ideology about history, economics, politics, and personal responsibility.
At the beginning of her article, Ms. Peele admitted she had never previously heard of Marianne Williamson, whom she first understood in terms of a “self-help author and motivational speaker” as well as the spiritual advisor of Oprah Winfrey. Peele was intrigued by Williamson’s own job-description as “creating miracles” – something the author admits she wanted to believe in, especially given the state of our nation and world under President Trump.
Seeking that miracle, Peele confessed during her first encounter with Williamson that she was anxious about our country’s future. She mentioned her own anger and fear.
She was surprised by Williamson’s response. It was in summary: “Toughen up. We’re not porcelain dolls, you know. We need to get real and absorb with courage and endurance the hard knocks delivered up by Trump’s kind. After all, we’re following in the footsteps of Civil Rights heroes and the suffragettes who risked their lives resisting the old policies currently resurrected in today’s Oval Office. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work!”
Peele’s admits that she found that initial exchange actually inspiring. It bordered, she said, on the very miracle she had been seeking. The journalist’s vision, she says, had changed – of both Marianne and her campaign. (And that by the way, is what the term “miracle” means in Williamson’s vocabulary – a radical transformation of perception. It’s about developing critical consciousness.)
From there, Peele’s article describes Williamson’s January 28th formal announcement of her candidacy and her basic theme. It’s that America’s real problem is not with the likes of Donald Trump, but with us, our juvenile preoccupations with our personal lives, our resulting political disengagement, and our surrender of political terrain to corporations and the one-percenters. “It is time for us to rise up, the way other generations have. Cynicism is just an excuse for not helping. Whining is not an option . . . We need to identify the problems in this country. Then we need to identify with the problem solvers.”
Williamson identifies herself as one of those problem solvers. In fact, she portrays her upbringing and 30- year career as a spiritual teacher as uniquely qualifying her for addressing the fundamentally spiritual problem underneath our country’s current dysfunction. No one else, she says, demonstrates that qualification or of even recognizes the problem as such.
Now 66 years old, Williamson comes from a Jewish family headed by a stay-at-home mother and by a father who practiced immigration law. When his daughter was just 13, Mr. Williamson took his entire family to Vietnam during the height of the war. His intention, Williamson says, was to “make sure the military-industrial complex would not ‘eat my kids’ brains’.” She never forgot that childhood lesson about the reality of war and its horror. It made her but a life-long anti-war activist.
But Marianne Williamson is not just some aging hippie activist with a past devoted to sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. That was only part of it, she quips. “The rest of the day, we stopped a war.”
In 1975, Williamson’s activism found its theoretical grounding in what has since become a spiritual classic, A Course in Miracles (ACIM). The book was allegedly “channeled” by Helen Schucman, who described the dictating voice as that of Jesus, the Christ. Williamson calls the book “basically Christian mysticism.” (I would call it a course on developing critical consciousness.) In any case, the book changed her life. On its basis, she began a spiritual practice that gave her that earlier-mentioned radical vision of the world.
Eventually, Williamson composed what she calls “ACIM Cliff Notes” – A Return to Love.
Oprah Winfrey loved it. It became a New York Times best-seller. And Williamson’s new career as a spiritual teacher was born. However, her spiritual teaching distinguished itself from others like Eckhart Tolle (whom Williamson considers an enlightened spiritual master) and Deepak Chopra by its continued commitment to the brand of anti-war social justice deeply instilled by her father.
Williamson’s activism led her to launch Project Angel Food in 1989. It delivered meals to HIV/AIDS patients too ill to feed themselves. In 2014, she ran for Congress in California’s 33rd district. In 2010, 2012, 2015 and 2017, she organized “Sister Giant” seminars to raise political consciousness especially among women and to motivate them to run for public office.
In 1997, Williamson demonstrated her political acumen by publishing Healing the Soul of America. It’s a 256-page book that has become (in its 20th anniversary edition) her basic stump speech. In Healing, she exhibits her knowledge of American history, her firm grasp of economic realities, and her acute sensitivity to “the signs of the times.” Williamson writes, “When this book was first published in 1997, I wrote that there was a storm ahead, or an awakening ahead. Alas, that storm is upon us. But even now, in the midst of our national turmoil, there is an awakening as well.”
Ironically, a sort of awakening led to the election of Donald Trump in 2016. In Williamson’s analysis, that outcome was an expression of deep popular despair on the part of a population worried for decades about making ends meet, sending their children to college, and paying skyrocketing medical bills. “It was either going to be an authoritarian populist or it was going to be a progressive populist,” she says. “Now, the person we got is clearly a con artist and someone who lacks basic respect for democratic norms.”
Donald Trump however isn’t the problem according to Williamson; he’s merely a symptom of an underlying condition that other candidates are not qualified to heal. Those others, Ms. Williamson is fond of saying, approach the presidency as technical administrators. They even talk about running the government “like a business.” But government is not a business to be governed by some bottom line. Instead, it’s more like a family where all the children are equally important.
Moreover, the job of president isn’t primarily administration. (There are plenty of well-qualified technicians that presidents can nominate to fill cabinet posts.) No, the chief task of the president is setting a tone; it’s motivation, inspiration, and supplying vision. Franklin Roosevelt realized that. “The role of the president, at this time in our history,” Williamson says, “has more of a visionary function. FDR said that the administrative functioning of the president is secondary; the primary role of the president is moral leadership.”
None of this is to say that Marianne Williamson is vague about policy proposals. She shares many of them with the others just referenced:
- A Green New Deal
- Medicare for all
- Increase in minimum wage
- Gun control
- Criminal justice reform
- Overhaul of public education
- Raising taxes on the rich
To this list now familiar among progressive candidates, Williamson dares to add the issue of reparations to the black community for the wounds of slavery to which she traces so many of our nation’s current ills. Such repair, she estimates, would cost $100 billion to be administered across fields by a board of African-American leaders over a period of 10 years. Williamson says that without addressing the problem of racism and its fundamental causes, the soul of our country will remain deeply traumatized.
Despite the mine field that the reparations proposal represents, the Post article observes that Marianne Williamson would be a formidable debate opponent for someone like Donald Trump. Unlike the latter, she can speak eloquently for hours without written texts of teleprompters.
After every lecture, she answers questions of all sorts from audiences about faith, politics, religion, race relations, economic problems – and the meaning of life. She’s never at a loss for words. Moreover, by her own account, she’s used to being called a “lightweight thinker, New Age con artist, a b_ _ _ _ — if you really know her.” Can you imagine, Anna Peele suggests, Marianne answering one of Trump’s insults with a magnanimous reflection on the state of his own soul? Wouldn’t that would be fun to witness?
As Williamson puts it, Trump “is a master of false narrative. And if you come back at him with anything other than the deepest truth, he will eat you alive. But if you do respond from a place of deepest truth, he is completely disempowered. I plan to speak to the consciousness of the American mind. Where he has harnessed fear, I’m seeking to harness love. Where he has harnessed bigotry and racism and anti-Semitism and homophobia, I’m seeking to harness dignity and decency and compassion. And that does not defeat. It overrides.”
Anna Peele’s Washington Post article suggests (correctly, I think) that our country needs the change in consciousness and communication of deepest truth of which Marianne Williamson speaks. By addressing that level, she promises to answer a need that the left has traditionally proven incapable of confronting.
That inability has not hampered the political right. They’ve understood the power of faith to motivate people to political action. On the left, African-Americans have a similar understanding, though in the opposite political direction. The same is true of liberation theologists in the Global South – and (dare I say it) of militant Muslims.
In summary, Mary Ann Williamson’s use of the term “miracle” for the achievement of critical consciousness along with her courageous invocation of spiritual traditions from her own Judaism as well as from Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and New Age understandings of Ultimate Reality promises to enrich enormously the upcoming selection of Donald Trump’s progressive opponent.
And she may prevail. As Anna Peele attests, Ms. Williamson is good at creating miracles.