Marianne Williamson says we are all of one mind. The bestselling author of self-help books, disciple of “A Course in Miracles,” and spiritual-teacher-turned-2020-presidential-candidate preaches that every person in the world is God and that we are all connected by a single soul residing across billions of bodies. With this unapologetically New Age mindset and air of mystery, she is often mistaken for a joke, but her novel approach within the scope of American religious and political history should be taken seriously. In running for president, Williamson is attempting to start a feminized spiritual revolution—or, evolution—as her campaign slogan says. Her message is aimed directly at the growing category of “spiritual but not religious” voters—currently over 25% of the population. As a historian of American religion, I argue that Williamson’s flavor of feminism and spiritually-driven political strategy make her a groundbreaking political figure in a long American tradition of alternative spirituality—and one diametrically opposed to President Donald Trump.
Americans are clearly curious about her. During her first two Democratic debate performances this summer, Williamson was the most Googled candidate, and her unique voice and past have yielded a torrent of tweets, think-pieces, and memes. While critics of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren portray the two senators as the most politically radical Democratic contenders, Williamson’s spirituality makes her a qualitatively different type of radical. Williamson is a spiritual leader who openly uses complex metaphysical concepts to inform her political stances on reparations, climate change, healthcare, and the economy. So why is Williamson seen as both a sage and a stooge, often by the same people? Perhaps it is because her beliefs and style are so radically prophetic. Her debate responses, which aim to galvanize and inspire, resemble the biblical prophetic tradition that has catalyzed progressive movements throughout United States history—from abolition to women’s suffrage to civil rights. Williamson has been critiqued for lacking concrete policies, but she is undaunted. She argues that true change only comes from righting the wrongs of a human civilization that has strayed from its inherent goodness—connection with God—over millennia. Right the ship and policies will follow, she argues. By placing prophecy over policy, Williamson scares people. Paradigm shifts both charge us with hope and fill us with skepticism, and a spiritual paradigm shift is precisely what Williamson argued for at the July 30 debate when she called on Democrats to put aside “wonkiness” in order “to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country.” For Williamson, a spiritual paradigm shift literally means embracing love instead of fear in all aspects of life, including politics.
Perhaps the most fascinating—and under-analyzed—aspect of Williamson’s approach is her embrace of sacred feminism, or what she calls “enlightened feminism.” She blows kisses to the audience on the debate stage, she makes the heart sign with her hands during television appearances, and she has laid out her beliefs in the sacred feminine in ways that differentiate her from many feminists today. Certainly, most would not see blowing kisses to the audience as “feminist,” but in her 1993 book, “A Woman’s Worth,” Williamson explains:
When a woman has owned her passionate nature, allowing love to flood her heart, her thoughts grow wild and fierce and beautiful. Her juices flow. Her heart expands. She has thrown off crutch and compromise. She has glimpsed the enchanted kingdom, the vast and magical realms of the Goddess within her. Here, all things are transformed. And there is a purpose to this: that the world might be mothered back to a great and glorious state. When a woman conceives her true self, a miracle occurs and life around her begins again.
Williamson embraces what she calls goddess energy, arguing that it is possible for any woman to channel it, and that if she does, she will birth miracles. Williamson also implies that the world requires “mothering” to reclaim its inherent greatness. This form of feminism, based on differences between the sexes, does not necessarily critique the work of intersectional feminists, nor of female presidential candidates past or present. What it does, though, is flip the script of “Make America Great Again” and its hyper-masculine, hyper-nationalist energy. It allows her to unmask what she views as patriarchy’s unholy injustice, which she deems necessary for spiritual revolution. When Williamson argues that “anybody who says that I’m an amateur at what [politicians] do, I’m sorry…they’re amateur(s) at what I can do,” she refers to a form of radical feminine spiritual leadership that is not only unorthodox politics, but unorthodox period. She is on another plane, and she knows it.
In order to understand Williamson’s brand of spiritual leadership, let alone her presidential candidacy, we must look at her past work and the religious context from which she arose. Williamson was raised in a conservative Jewish home—both her grandfathers were rabbis—in Houston. Her father, an immigration lawyer, brought the family to Vietnam in 1965 when she was just 13 years old to see firsthand the wages of war. This experience was life-changing for Williamson, and she became a fervent antiwar activist throughout her teen and college years before dropping out of college to move to New York City. According to Williamson, she was overwhelmed by depression until 1978, when she received a copy of the New Age revelatory text, “A Course in Miracles.”
The Course was published in 1975 after reportedly being revealed to Helen Schucman and her colleagues at Columbia University via a voice of unknown origin that was later attributed to Jesus. In Williamson’s telling, her life changed by embracing the Course’s signature teachings on love, the universal Truth—and abandoning fear, the ultimate illusion. She has lectured on the Course weekly ever since. During the 1980s, Williamson’s audience was composed primarily of gay men in the throes of the AIDS epidemic, which led her to cofound two nonprofit organizations, Center for Living and Project Angel Food, to provide food and nonmedical care to people with terminal illnesses. According to Williamson, these were the people most looking for a miracle.
In 1992, Williamson’s big break came via an interview on the Oprah Winfrey show to promote her first book, “A Return to Love.” There, she discussed the concept of creating miracles in everyday life by shifting perceptions from fear-based to love-based. If everyone were to do this just a little bit, the world would begin to change for the better, she said. Winfrey was won over, and she announced to her audience that she’d already purchased 1,000 copies of the book. Winfrey’s endorsement pushed the book to the top of The New York Times bestseller list for 39 weeks that year. Williamson has since published 13 books, all of which translate teachings from “A Course in Miracles” into different areas of life. She became one of Winfrey’s go-to spiritual guides, and in 2018 Winfrey lauded her as “the best pray-er I have ever known.”
Williamson’s brand of spiritual self-help is rooted in the long metaphysical tradition in American religious history. The 19th century’s New Thought movement provided novel spaces for women’s spirituality, and it opened new doors for exploring the unseen realm. The main precepts of New Thought, founded in the ideas of mesmerist Phineas Quimby (1802-1866), are that the self is composed purely of a divine spirit connected to infinite intelligence. According to practitioners of New Thought, training the spirit through the mind could allow individuals to achieve therapeutic benefits, including healing the self and others. This tradition morphed throughout the 20th century, creating related religious groups, such as Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science, as well as self-help groups, including Alcoholics Anonymous. It also fostered the success of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale and his 1952 book, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” which blended liberal Protestantism with a New Thought-style focus on harnessing the power of thought to change lives for the better.
The New Thought movement forked during the 1960s and 1970s into what I would call the Protestant path and the New Age path. Along the Protestant path came the Prosperity Gospel initiated by Peale and represented today by Joel Osteen and Paula White, among others. The New Age path became a metaphysical mélange. It imported Asian religious ideas and blended them with the spiritual sensibilities of the counterculture’s abhorrence of institutionalized religions. It also mixed spirituality with the growing popularity and accessibility of psychology in American life, spawning a massive array of new institutions and an industry dedicated to self-help. These ideologies are disseminated through yoga and meditation classes, books, alternative and holistic healing methods, and, most importantly, guides or spiritual entrepreneurs who bring these ideas and techniques to the masses—often through feminized interpretations of spirituality that emphasize goddesses, women’s maternal natures, and roles as holistic healers. The New Age branch has blossomed with the growing numbers of Americans who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” particularly among younger generations. Women leaders have been a crucial part of this growth—from Eddy to Louise Hay to Gabby Bernstein. Williamson fits within this feminized New Age self-help tradition.
It is in this context that we should view Williamson as a charismatic leader whose messages have remained consistent over more than 30 years in the public eye. While all of her teachings are based on the tenets of “A Course in Miracles,” Williamson’s own books de-Christianize the Course’s concepts by taking a perennialist approach: she makes plain her belief that all religions are essentially different paths toward the same Truth. Consequently, Williamson sees the Course’s mentions of Christ, crucifixion, atonement, miracles, and resurrection as universal psychological—and spiritual—symbols. For Williamson, miracles manifest in the world when individuals intentionally surrender themselves to God’s will and ask to be used in loving and truthful ways.
Williamson believes that such an emphasis on love is radical because it creates space for miracles to occur. In “A Return to Love,” she writes: “The shift from fear to love is a miracle. It doesn’t fix things on the earth plane; it addresses the real source of our problems, which is always on the level of consciousness. The only real problem is a lack of love.” According to Williamson, the so-called “return” to love is itself a hallucination. She claims that we never really lost the Truth, but over millennia, we lost sight of it, turning to fear, the ego, and illusions that have led humanity astray. When we embrace love, she says, we create miracles. This may sound like New Age jargon, but Williamson’s affect is more jeremiad than judicious realpolitik. She is adamant that human-made miracles are needed to change the world for the better—by which she means defeating Trump, fostering world peace, saving the climate from irreversible disaster, and supporting the disenfranchised through domestic and international policies, including an ambitious reparations plan for healing the wounds of racial violence and structural inequality as a necessary atonement for the United States’ sins.
Williamson’s unorthodox candidacy has sparked backlash from pundits and special interest groups alike as they grapple with the prospect of a New Thought-preaching president. Many are understandably concerned about how spirituality and self-help jibe with politics. Her past statements regarding medicine, disabilities, vaccination, and weight loss generate the most animus in online commentaries. These critiques represent a longstanding unease with the concept of self-help—sometimes decried as the “therapeutic ethos”—and its potential for propagating narcissism at the expense of the social collective. Self-help writ large has also been downright offensive to those who take a structural or intersectional view of social inequality or who are devoted to science. Williamson’s approach to spirituality contradicts these particular critiques, though. It embraces self-improvement by way of the mind yet endorses policies aimed at combating what she sees as structural and spiritual dysfunction. Her metaphysical beliefs make this possible.
As an explicitly spiritual candidate for president, Williamson’s approach to politics differs substantially from politicians on the Religious Right. While her “left wing, progressive” political positions are informed by the moral code she interpreted from the Course, Williamson’s key difference lies in her understanding of there only being one soul, spread out amongst all of us. For Christians, the individual is composed of body and soul: each soul is separate and unique from any other. Williamson’s sharp nondualism leads her to conclude that “there is only one of us.” According to her worldview, the personal is not political. The collective is political, and a shift in one person necessarily leads to shifts in others. Contrary to the evangelical strategy of “winning hearts and minds” one voter at a time, Williamson’s pantheist spiritual take on political strategy logically requires a critical mass to trigger a miracle of global proportions.
Williamson has been lampooned as a New Age nut, and in some ways, she doesn’t disagree. She routinely reposts memes depicting her as a witch, an angel, a telepath, or Stevie Nicks circa 1979. She thinks they are funny. She leans into the stereotypes with such confidence that she bewilders her interviewers and turns their qualms into compelling speeches that verge on incantations to patriotism and hope for democracy. Williamson probably won’t become the Democrats’ 2020 nominee, but her brand of politics is new and her audience undeniable. The critics who laugh at her have it wrong: Williamson is serious, and she’s using words, energy, and spirituality to propose a seemingly unimaginable political paradigm.
Kira Ganga Kieffer is a doctoral candidate at Boston University specializing in U.S. religious history.