Mind Over Matter
Before she decided to run for president, Marianne Williamson was just your average college dropout turned cabaret singer turned mystical society devotee turned inspirational lecturer turned bestselling author turned Oprah confidante. She had engaged in some HIV/AIDS activism in the 1980s and campaigned unsuccessfully for Congress in 2014, drawing an endorsement from Kim Kardashian in the process, but otherwise had not dabbled much in politics. Then again, neither had Donald Trump, who Williamson began to feel had a spiritual stranglehold on the nation. It was her duty to confront that force, and so she launched her campaign for president in January of this year. Thanks to her early support for progressive policies like reparations and the perhaps overly lenient polling threshold set by the Democratic National Committee, she qualified for the first two debates.
Once at the podium, Williamson proved an almost Delphic presence in the first debate, delivering talking points that seemed to have been drafted during a backstage séance. After entering the fray with a rant about Big Pharma, she closed out the debate by telling Trump that “I will meet you on that field, and sir, love will win.” This performance certainly made a splash: Google searches for her name spiked dramatically overnight. The celebrity #MeToo activist Alyssa Milano went to one of Williamson’s fundraisers, arguing that “she’s the only candidate talking about the collective, soulful ache of the nation & I think that’s an important discussion to have.” Her second debate appearance, during which she lamented Trump’s “dark psychic force” in the mid-Atlantic accent of a 1950s movie star, drew support from more staid quarters: David Brooks announced in the New York Times that “Marianne Williamson Knows How to Beat Trump,” praising her for waging a “spiritual crusade, not an economic redistribution effort.” The vicars of the online left christened the hashtag #OrbGang to express their questionably ironic devotion to her zany campaign.
Williamson is not going to win the presidency and likely will not even qualify for the third debate, but she has nevertheless left a mark on the 2020 election. Her future critics will say she was a charlatan afforded a brief opportunity to sell the country spiritual snake oil, while her devotees (even bad-faith ones like Brooks) will say she was the only candidate who understood the deep, psychic dimensions of the Democrats’ fight for the soul of America. Either way, she will be remembered as someone who brought something entirely different to the race, an anomaly among a sea of would-be economic progressives and nostalgic white centrists.
Williamson proved an almost Delphic presence in the first debate, delivering talking points that seemed to have been drafted during a backstage séance.
Yet few, if any, of the commentators on Williamson’s candidacy seem to have taken the trouble to read her many books. If they had, they might have discovered Williamson is neither a kooky radical nor a spiritual crusader, but rather a thinly disguised conservative moralist whose politics are grounded in the timeworn creed of individual responsibility. There is, of course, some truth to Williamson’s “dark psychic force” diagnosis: the United States is undoubtedly a spiritually ill nation, haunted by a genocidal past and a topsy-turvy present. Inasmuch as our political discourse is otherwise straitjacketed, Williamson’s contention that there is something deeper amiss does indeed name a certain reality about American life. But her prescriptions for curing this collective alienation are not collective prescriptions. Despite the lip-service she has paid to left-wing stances during the campaign, her central belief is that each of us has the power and the responsibility to take charge of our lives. The weirdness of her worldview is all superficial. When you pull back the astral veil, her beliefs are indistinguishable from the by-your-bootstraps religion of self-reliance that has long dominated American politics.
The theology Williamson inherits from A Course in Miracles, the 1976 Helen Schucman how-to guide for spiritual transformation that forms the basis of her entire oeuvre, is as follows. There is only one real substance, Love, an infinitely abundant creative force that makes up all of us and is synonymous with God. Love makes everything perfect, just as it is. All suffering is illusory, the product of fear, which can be defined as the failure to apprehend Love’s perfect wisdom. We can achieve perfection in our own lives by surrendering to the natural, inarticulable wisdom of Love and allowing it to guide our lives. Because the outside world and our minds are not separate, achieving inner peace will create peace in the world, and harmonizing our thoughts with Love will help us achieve our goals, find companionship, and ultimately extinguish all conflict and strife.
Williamson begins each of her books with this revelation and goes on to explore its implications for subjects like personal finance, romantic relationships, weight loss, and global geopolitics. As someone writing in the prophetic mode, she is naturally uninterested in explaining how she knows that “we came here to co-create with God by extending love”; the validity of these axioms is, we understand, a condition of possibility for the existence of the book. Her most common rhetorical tic is to recall some vague moment in her past, describe the error of her ways back then, and reveal what she believes now without ever explaining what exactly caused her outlook to change. “I once knew a woman who wanted to be an actress, but wasn’t getting work,” Williamson says, on her way to revealing that “every person [carries] within them priceless treasures”; “I once knew a man who came on strong at the beginning of relationships,” she tells us, starting a parable that ends with the revelation that “the responsibility for our pain still remains our own.”
The breezy tone in which these truisms are delivered resembles that of the apparently well-adjusted individuals you meet at a bar or on the subway who reveal, over the course of a casual conversation, that they believe the reptilian Illuminati control international commerce. Williamson always starts off innocuous enough, as when in The Law of Divine Compensation, her 2012 book on careers and finance, she tells us that “faith . . . is a mental and emotional muscle.” But before long we find we have slid far down the cosmic slope into the territory of such brain-teasers as “energy can create wealth” and “your current economic hardship . . . [is] in ultimate reality not happening at all because only love is real.”
Once she has established that anything is possible and that our mental energy controls real-world outcomes, Williamson is free to offer whatever kind of advice suits her mood. In Enchanted Love, her mind-boggling book about romantic relationships, she veers between rom-com side character (“Does a Mercedes apologize for being high maintenance?”), itinerant feminist (“If I had to choose between Eric and the sea, I was clearly more drawn to the sea”) and mythological oracle (“So it was that Isis sought out the Goddess Hathor, begging him to take the baby Horus and raise him as her own”). We can take to heart whichever of these tidbits we find most attractive, but by the end of the book Williamson urges us back to a few time-told truths: be faithful to your partner, don’t look to sex for fulfillment, and of course, “we will meet who we are supposed to meet, as the meeting itself is ordained by God.”
Williamson is neither a kooky radical nor a spiritual crusader, but rather a thinly disguised conservative moralist whose politics are grounded in the timeworn creed of individual responsibility.
Williamson’s aphorisms are amusing enough when received as placebic nuggets of encouragement, but they become something altogether different when taken as concrete advice for how to interact with other people or participate in civic life. And lest you be confused about her intentions, Williamson takes care to clarify that she means what she says: “Fear is literally a bad dream,” she tells us, writing elsewhere, “This is not a metaphor; it’s fact.” Like nearly every other New Age author, she occasionally marshals quantum physics and the Heisenberg principle to explain how “as our perception of an object changes, the object itself literally changes,” but for the most part she just relies on a kind of exposure therapy to convince the reader, repeating variation after variation on the same overwhelming theme—“The universe is set up to work on your behalf. And the universe is capable of bringing miraculous transformation to any situation of brokenness or lack.”
Except Williamson gets into trouble when she has to account for actual brokenness. The Holocaust, for instances, she tells us, was not God’s will, but “when we invite the Holy Spirit into these situations . . . He uses them as reasons and opportunities for us to grow.” Similarly, in The Gift of Change, she describes the September 11 attacks as “an all-hands-on-deck kind of moment on earth.” And Williamson’s early HIV/AIDS activism notwithstanding, you have to cringe when in A Return to Love she compares AIDS to Darth Vader (“Angels-In-Darth Vader-Suits”) and renders a hypothetical written correspondence between HIV patients and the disease itself, wherein the virus reminds its own victims that “I’m not able to kill, harm, or make you sick . . . you give me the power you should give to God.” It is in this light that we should read Williamson’s controversial past comments about vaccines—not as a specific opinion about a specific medical issue, but as one expression of a worldview that sees disease, poverty, and catastrophe generally as possessed of a certain moral dimension.
Of course, the millions of people who read self-help books every year do not emerge from their reading experience convinced that they can control the physical world with their minds, but a doctrine such as Williamson’s nevertheless, in its own soft and sparkling way, enforces the idea that a person’s character informs their situation, not the other way around. Esoteric though it may seem, this belief system differs from mainstream American mythology only at the margins. Her message, at its core, is that those who want to succeed are guaranteed to do so, and that those who do not—those who suffer, or fall ill, or lose their jobs—must not really want a good life. How distinct is this, really, from the political creed that tells us it’s the job of the United States to ensure every citizen has the opportunity to make a good life through grit and determination, or even that “no one who works forty hours a week deserves to live in poverty”? In A Politics of Love, her recent campaign memoir, Williamson claims that she wants to create an “economics of love,” praising Occupy and attacking big corporations. But it’s difficult to square a redistributive politics with a claim like “changing our mind is the ultimate personal empowerment,” which when evaluated honestly sounds like nothing so much as an argument against the welfare state.
The lineage of this thinking is much longer than the history of neoliberal individualism. Williamson tells us it’s the job of spiritual leaders to point the way, placing herself in a tradition of religious moralism that dates back to the earliest days of American history. The mini-fables that pepper her books recall the innumerable nineteenth-century dime novels of Horatio Alger, interchangeable stories in which young urchin boys use the power of positive thinking to learn arithmetic, get into the habit of bathing, and adopt a roster of noble, manly virtues that allow them to succeed in the profession of their choosing. Like Williamson’s books, these novels sold millions of copies; they were taken in some measure as the self-help books of their day, secular versions of Pilgrim’s Progress for the age of social improvement.
Ultimately, you can trace Williamson’s individualistic spirituality all the way back to the Puritan moralism on which the United States was founded. From Cotton Mather to Benjamin Franklin, the early luminaries of colonial America believed that a man’s resolve, his industrious virtue or lack thereof, would determine his success in the material world and ultimately his salvation. John Winthrop, the governor of colonial Massachusetts, wrote of the need for each believer to achieve salvation by putting his faith into “familiar and constant practice.” Cotton Mather, the famous Salem Witch Trial chronicler, declared that a good believer should only eat or drink so “that [he] may be Strengthened for the Work, which thou hast assigned unto [him]” and that “the whole Business of [our] Temporal Calling [is] explicitly designed for an Obedience to GOD.” The theologist Samuel Willard wrote that “of all knowledge, that which concerns ourselves is the most profitable, and of ourselves, that which informs us about our eternity is the most desirable.”
In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber shows how the Puritans’ renunciation of mortal life led them to believe that a man’s responsibility was to cultivate his character through repeated acts of mental discipline. Describing Franklin’s “time is money” speech, Weber writes that this work ethic “is not simply a means of making one’s way in the world, but a peculiar ethic . . . the infraction of its rules is treated not as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty.” The book draws a straight line between Luther’s notion of the “calling”—the idea that men have God-given tasks they ought to spend their lives performing—and the American cult of hard work, wherein “the individual is supposed to feel and does feel [an obligation] towards the content of his professional activity, no matter in what it consists . . . whether it appears on the surface as a utilization of his personal powers, or only of his material possessions.”
If God is Love and all pain a matter of perspective, taking collective action to relieve it can only be seen as the result of spiritual misunderstanding.
Williamson’s “good news” announces itself as a revolution that will clear away such outmoded thinking, one that will alleviate worldwide suffering and rewrite the laws of cause and effect, but all she really does is translate the same gospel of self-sufficiency into the language of the cosmos. Functionally, there is little difference between her claim that “what you think is what you get” and the oft-repeated canard that “if you believe it, you can achieve it.” Carried to their logical extent, both belief systems attempt to reduce the incidental features of the outside world, its inequities and catastrophes, to just so many obstacles that it is your solemn duty to overcome.
You could see Williamsonism, then, as a kind of “pseudo-rationality,” a concept discussed by Theodor Adorno in his critique of astrology, “The Stars Down to Earth.” Astrological horoscopes, he writes, ultimately appeal to rational impulses, telling us we can be successful and loved, but they do so through the irrational claim that the constellations control our lives. Once you start to believe in such a doctrine, however, you can find its truth even in vague or ridiculous advice: to a devotee of astrology, horoscopes like “Follow that intuition of yours” or “Don’t be too disturbed by news or commotions around you” seem relevant and revelatory no matter what happened that day. The ultimate goal of such indoctrination, Adorno concludes, “is to enforce the requirements society makes on each individual so that it might ‘function.’” In other words, the wisdom of the stars ends up telling us to get back to life as usual—as does the wisdom of Marianne.
Those of us who’d never heard of Williamson before her recent turn in the political spotlight have nonetheless absorbed her message all our lives, albeit in a less colorful form. Individualism is the sole religion that we are told can be justified as “rational” and “realistic,” the only belief system that will impress upon us most effectively the virtue of self-reliance and the necessity of hard work. But whether it comes from Marianne Williamson or David Cameron, individualism is the problem, not the solution, to what ails us. If God is Love and all pain a matter of perspective, taking collective action to relieve it can only be seen as the result of spiritual misunderstanding. Whether or not it produces a meme-worthy presidential campaign, such a creed does not pass the smell test. To return to Adorno: “The need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth.”