I know next to nothing about Marianne Williamson, in terms of basic facts, and most religion reporters I know are in the same boat. She’s hard to classify. Is she all about religion? Or spiritual but not religious? Guru of mysticism? Inner healing? It’s hard to tell. Although she once led a church of some kind or another, she never got ordained.
She dislikes being called a “spiritual leader;” rather she prefers being called an author. When I was a religion reporter, her books never ended up on my desk for review. I am guessing they got sent to someone on the lifestyle desk.
Sure she talks about prayer. But who or what is she praying to? Thus, I was interested in a recent profile on her by the New York Times Magazine on “The Gospel according to Marianne Williamson.”
However, I don’t think the article really goes into the facts and doctrines of Williamson’s gospel.
No surprise there. Feature writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner asks the same question that conservatives do: Why does the mere mention of religion or spirituality in the public square automatically make one suspect? The following quotes are long, but essential:
The first problem with Marianne Williamson is what do you call her. The other candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination lead with their impressive elected titles: “Governor,” “Senator,” “Mayor.” She’s a lot of fancy things herself: a faith leader, a spiritual guide on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” a New Age guru. But she knows that when people use terms like that outside the nearly $10 billion self-help industry, where a person like her is sought, they mean it to dismiss her. …
She has a patrician, mid-Atlantic accent that she has taped over her Texan accent — she was raised in Houston. She talks so fast, like a movie star from the ’40s, no hesitations, as if the thoughts came to her fully formed with built-in metaphors, or sometimes just as straight-up metaphors in which the actual is never fully explained. (“Am I pushing the river? Am I going with the flow? Am I trying to make something happen, or am I in some way being pushed from behind?”) She is prone to exasperated explosions of unassailable logic (“The best car mechanic doesn’t necessarily know the road to Milwaukee!”). A thing she loves to say is: “I’m not saying anything you don’t already know.” This is the self-help magic ne plus ultra, a spoken thing that rings inside your blood like the truth, a thing you knew all along, like ruby slippers you were wearing the whole time.
But is she really repeating everyone’s inner truth?
Self-help made Marianne Williamson, who is 67, famous. It was the number of selves she had helped in her 38-year career, and after selling over three million books, that made her feel she was qualified to take on the world’s problems. Rather than solving suffering one theater full of self-selecting audience members at a time, she could focus on alleviating suffering on a much larger scale. She was not concerned by the scoffings about her inexperience.
But self-help also made her the butt of jokes in the media and a source of memes on the internet, which only left her frustrated. Not because she didn’t feel that jokes about how she was going to solve the climate crisis with essential oils weren’t funny; they were. …
She isn’t some barefoot flake conducting a drum circle or playing the harp. (“Why do people make crystal jokes?” she asked me at one point. “I don’t use crystals!”) No, she wears Armani. She’s a practical person. A meat-eater. A capitalist with capitalist policies. How can you reconcile all that with the memes in which she appeared with her eyes shooting out lasers and stories about groups of occultists praying for her to get more speaking time in the second debate? “When David Brooks says it, it’s profound,” she told me. “When I say it, it’s woo-woo.”
To which I could reply is that what you reap is what you sow. Had she wanted to be taken seriously, she would have run for city council, school board or county commission 40 years ago.
The article touched lightly on Williamson’s Jewish background, so if you want to know more details about that, this Jewish Telegraphic Agency piece, written last fall, says a lot more.
This Times feature does offer some content about her time leading a Unity church in Detroit in 1997.
Williamson bridged the gap between traditional religious practice and a nebulous New Age spirituality that didn’t revolve around ritual or a formal institution. She prescribed what we would now call a basic gratitude practice, or a meditation practice, or rudimentary empathy and compassion toward others. She talked about nothing less than how to make a better world, which was to understand that the people who inflict pain do so because their own pain hasn’t been addressed. She wrote radical, beautiful things, like: “In every community, there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart, there is the power to do it” and “The goal of spiritual practice is full recovery, and the only thing you need to recover from is a fractured sense of self.”
She went on “Oprah,” back in the days when just using the word “spirituality” got Oprah bombarded with letters saying the word was meant for Sundays. Williamson and Oprah spoke about the splintered world, and Williamson suggested a prayer for healing.
Both Williamson and Oprah stumbled upon something that would make them both rich. People were hungry for spirituality, if not for God or doctrine — especially moral theology. Think meditation, self help, life coaching, yoga.
I can’t cut and paste the whole thing, but it’s worth reading if only for the point the reporter makes about how impossible it is for someone who talks about archetypes, the soul or the great beyond to be taken seriously in the world of politics. Especially if that someone is female. At one point, fellow candidate Cory Booker makes a woo-woo statement and no one mocks him. But Williamson can’t rise above the joke level.
Her election web site latches onto this frustration with a link to a Washington Examiner piece that talks about Williamson’s connection to the religious electorate and how the progressive Left simply doesn’t get spirituality. Do read it.
Why? Because her vocabulary pointed to things clearly out of this world.
The people who sought Williamson understood her language of angels and demons and miracles. They understood that those things didn’t take place on an unproven plane of the universe: The angels were our decisions to do better; the demons were our resolve to never try; and the miracle was just that tiny shift in perspective, that tilt toward love, that would change the way we think and act and believe.
But now everyone could hear her — the anti-vax nuts, the science crusaders — not just a self-selecting crowd of spiritual seekers. Her words were suddenly subject to the kind of scrutiny that a presidential campaign must learn to abide. Her life in self-help, which had brought her fame and the loyalty of millions, was being weaponized against her.
Is it really Williamson’s spiritual emphases which are keeping her at the bottom of the race? She’s not the only candidate who is talking about God. Is it rather her political naiveté and the fact that she might not be the person you might want at the controls of the country if a missile from North Korea came roaring toward Los Angeles?
To make Williamson into a policy wonk would be denying who she truly is.
Although the JTA did a better job of centering on Williamson’s religious preferences, this Times piece got a better feel of the zeitgeist of Williamson’s hopeless run for office. I have to say I preferred the latter, for to understand someone, you have to stand in their shoes. And for a few brief instants, the Times piece did just that.