February 21, 2020

Unpacking Marianne Williamson

“One of the pleasures of the Democratic primary season so far has been watching some of my colleagues in the press have their first exposure to Marianne Williamson, a figure who has occupied an important role in the American religious landscape since my own mysticism-shadowed youth, without always getting the credit for cultural influence that she deserves.

That influence, well-described by Sam Kestenbaum in last Friday’s Times, centers on her role as a popularizer for “A Course in Miracles,” a book that has long been ubiquitous in the borderlands between charismatic Christianity and New Age spirituality. Since her first encounter with its message, Williamson has played the Apostle Paul for the book’s author, Helen Shucman, carrying the Course’s Mary Baker Eddy-esque promise of healing and harmony through a long career as a celebrity whisperer, Oprah-endorsed personality, author and spiritual guru — a career that has now finally led her into politics, as a kind of New Age answer to Pat Robertson or Al Sharpton’s ministerial campaigns.

A recurring question in American politics since the rise of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition has been “where is the religious left?” One possible version has been hiding in plain sight since the 1970s, in the form of Williamson’s style of mysticism, the revivalism of the Oprah circuit, the soul craft of the wellness movement, the pantheistic-gnostic-occultish territory at the edges of American Christianity’s fraying map. We don’t necessarily see it as a “left” only because it has acted indirectly on politics, reshaping liberalism and the wider culture from within and below, rather than acting through mass movements and political campaigns.”

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