Let's Talk About Marianne Williamson
Is she a woo-woo nutter or are we all just massive hypocrites? (It's both!)
What I’m Reading
Anne Thériault in Broadview - Geel, Belgium has a radical approach to mental illness [The title does not do this justice, please please please read this gorgeous piece]
Taffy Brodesser-Akner in NYT Magazine - The Gospel According to Marianne Williamson
Graeme Wood in The Atlantic - Robert Mugabe Died Too Late
New York Magazine - Kara Swisher on Ambition, Bragging, and Having a Baby at 56
Amy Littlefield in Rewire - Even Patients Who Know Their Hospitals Are Catholic May Not Realize Their Care Is Restricted
Louisa Loveluck and Souad Mekhennet in the Washington Post - At a sprawling tent camp in Syria, ISIS women impose a brutal rule
What I’m Writing
CNN - Donald Trump Isn’t Up for the Job
This is probably in the top ten of my most deeply-held beliefs.
The View From Here
Let me start with this: Marianne Williamson is unfit to be president. She is excellent at many other things — writing best-selling books, giving inspirational talks — and I’ll bet she’s a good friend to chat with when you’re going through a tough time. Her efforts to force a conversation about love, the roots of our illnesses (our food supply, our individualism), and moral accountability are laudable. Still, in no universe should she occupy the Oval Office. We’ve done the unqualified semi-celebrity president thing. Let’s not do it again.
But the way we talk about Williamson and her spirituality reveals a very real hypocrisy when it comes to faith, religion, and magical thinking.
Williamson’s New Agey vernacular and wide-eyed “politics of love” have become easy fodder for critics on the left (folks on the right mostly seem to be ignoring her — fair, given that she’s not a real contender). And progressives criticize her for good reason: Many of us see her as a dangerous purveyor of “woo,” a snake oil saleswoman who might be sympathetic to vaccine denialists and who has called depression a “scam” (a comment she later walked back). She holds some genuinely troubling views, and those have only been magnified and sometimes distorted by many of her critics. Williamson, in the popular imagination of the 500-odd people on Twitter who actually follow any of this, is someone who thinks essential oils can cure cancer, prayer can cure AIDS, and crystals can heal the soul (Williamson, for the record, says she doesn’t use crystals). She’s been turned into an avatar of every woo-woo essential oils lady stereotype we’ve ever either observed or, more likely, read about online.
But much of what Williamson gets mocked for isn’t any different than what other political leaders say — they just put it in more familiar religious language. Take her (totally batty!) tweet about using the power of the prayer and meditation to keep Hurricane Dorian from hitting the U.S. mainland. She was trying to “pray away the storm,” critics laughed. Others suggested she said that we could use the power of the mind to move the hurricane (she didn’t — her tweet said we could see the hurricane move away from American shores, and that we should pray, presumably to an omnipotent God who would then redirect the storm).
The idea that praying can move a storm does strike me as entirely irrational and silly, and not the kind of commentary I want from a president. But are there many faithful Christians, Jews and Muslims who wouldn’t agree that God could indeed reroute a hurricane if He chose? Do we not think that, across churches and homes in Florida, people weren’t praying for just that? Would any candidate for the presidency say that no, actually, God can’t reroute a storm? Would any presidential candidate say that believing an invisible being in the sky can control nature and fate is irrational woo-woo that disqualifies you from higher office? Would most of us suggest that belief in such a superstitious, unproven mysticism disqualifies you for the presidency?
We are very comfortable with superstition and irrationality when they come under the guise of familiar religions and recognizably Christian language. And on the left, there’s an increasing (and I think dangerous) push toward religiosity, an encouragement of a “religious left” that doesn’t just advocate for freedom of religious belief, but situates religious morality as a social good to be embraced and encouraged (rather than a complicated force, the free expression of which should be staunchly defended, but that should probably stay out of the political sphere).
But we are not comfortable with superstition and irrationality and even faith when it takes on different language. It is one thing to criticize faith in place of action; that’s fair, and it’s the reason progressives also scoff at Christian “thoughts and prayers” in the aftermath of mass shootings. It is one thing to criticize faith when it’s wielded to harm others; that’s fair, too, and most progressive religiosity ranges from the harmless to the social justice oriented, far from the right-wing religious cudgels used to harm women, LGBT people, and other vulnerable groups. Williamson, though, wasn’t suggesting prayer in place of action; she was, like many American politicians, suggesting prayer in addition to action. She wasn’t using her beliefs to cause harm or justify bad acts. But because the way she talks about prayer is weird, her irrationality is derided, while the wide range of religious irrationalities that typically animate politicians’ linguistic choices, personal narratives, and sometimes policy decisions go largely unremarked upon.
Consider, for example, that candidates are often asked about their faith, as if their answers reveal something about their moral code and trustworthiness — something about how their religious backgrounds will shape how they govern. That is not good. Compulsory Christianity (or at least compulsory “Judeo-Christianity,” or the ability to use its language) is a corrosive social and political force. That doesn’t mean we should mock or deride people of faith, including politicians. That doesn’t mean religion is bad or serves no positive social purpose. But it does mean we should be much more thoughtful about how we fold faith into the public and political spheres — and consider which faiths and wholly irrational beliefs we privilege and respect, and which we mock and deride.
My basic point is this: If you’re going to make fun of Williamson for believing that you can pray away a hurricane, you’d better be prepared to examine and deride the equally irrational, superstitious beliefs of 95% of Congress — and of every single presidential candidate in the Democratic race. Each of the front-runners has, at some point, talked about the power of prayer and their belief in God. Each of them believes (or professes to believe) that God can do extraordinary things, and that there is some power in praying. I don’t think that’s a bad or stupid belief; I think prayer brings enormous comfort to people, and that putting loving, positive energy out into the universe is at worst inconsequential. But it is flatly irrational. That’s ok! That’s what faith is about. My own spiritual belief system is speckled with irrationality; that fact doesn’t make it any less important, grounding, comforting or real to me. But if the objection is to irrational belief systems and a rhetorical reliance on superstition over scientific evidence, well, Williamson is very far from the only candidate you should be criticizing. One place to start is looking at which books office-holders are sworn in on.
I hate defending Marianne Williamson, because I think her tweet was indefensible. But that’s how I feel, too, about the general push toward religiosity and an attempt to rewrite religious belief as progressive. Of course religious texts can be interpreted in line with progressive beliefs. They can be just as fairly interpreted as in line with conservative ones. That’s the thing about old books full of a whole lot of contradictory stuff: You can see what you want. You can claim that Trump-supporting Evangelicals aren’t “real” Christians because Jesus was a barefoot hippie who professed love and non-judgment, and you can claim that the Bible punishes gay people and puts men in charge of women, and you can both be right. And that’s fine, debate it in divinity school, in philosophy class, and in your group meetings in the temple basement. Find what works for you and offers you guidance and comfort, and discard the rest — this is even what the most extreme religious fundamentalists do, although they won’t admit it. Yes, I realize faith and tradition are more complicated than all of that, and many faithful people (probably including Marianne Williamson) would object to my notion that one gets to pick and choose. So hey, believe that, too.
The utter absurdity comes in when someone decides that their interpretation of a religious text — even the interpretation of centuries of religious scholars — should hold any political or legal sway.
That’s my issue with the reaction to Williamson. Those of us on the left who want to be seen as the scientific rational ones are quick to reject any potential fellow travelers who might embrace “woo.” But we don’t hold followers of Abrahamic religions to nearly the same standards — even when those religious traditions are profoundly sexist in ways we would flat-out reject from any other institution (sex-segregated prayers, gendered modesty requirements, rules against women leading mixed-sex prayers or teaching men, rules against women holding top leadership positions). Maybe this is just the yoga teacher in me, but all other things being equal, I’ll take a leader who meditates in the glow of a salt lamp over one who attends and gives money to an organization that doesn’t allow women in leadership roles any day.
With Williamson, of course, all other things aren’t equal. She’s never held public office or worked as a public servant. She is new to policy-land, and her policy proposals reflect that. Her view of the world is simplistic. She lacks the relevant experience and the necessary intellectual rigor for the presidency.
(I know, so does the current office-holder. How’s that going?)
When it comes to the host of less-familiar spiritual beliefs broadly categorized as “woo,” there are certainly good lines to draw (everyone, regardless of belief, should take the advice of public health experts on vaccines, for example). But let’s pause on that, too. The story about Williamson is that she’s “anti-vaxx,” or, as New York Magazine put it, she believes vaccines are “draconian.” That’s not true. She said she believes that mandatory vaccination rules are draconian — that, as she put it, “the U.S. government doesn’t tell any citizen, in my book, what they have to do with their body or their child.”
I think she’s wrong on that. Vaccines are a crucial public health tool, and our lax laws around them have created a potential public health nightmare. Religious, philosophical or “personal” exemptions to life-saving vaccines simply shouldn’t be allowed. But you know who else won’t come out in full-throated support of mandatory vaccinations without religious or personal exemptions? Just about every other candidate in the race. The only candidates who have flat-out said they support ending religious and personal exemptions are Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Tim Ryan. This is a question none of the candidates are eager to touch. And of course there is a difference between saying that mandatory vaccinations are Orwellian and offering, as Bernie Sanders’s campaign spokesperson did, a mealy-mouthed response that can be interpreted according to your priors (“Any exemptions should be rare and consistent with public health needs”). But let’s not act like Williamson is a huge outlier here. She is wrong. But again it’s the language, and not the substance, that’s under attack.
We are living in a country where the religious beliefs of a few increasingly encroach on all of our lives, and a powerful conservative legal apparatus is working hard to allow religious belief to be a wide-ranging excuse for discrimination and mistreatment. We’ve ceded a lot of ground already, agreeing that health care workers who oppose abortion shouldn’t have to participate in pregnancy terminations, for example — a standard that has been exploited and expanded to protect pharmacists who refuse to give rape victims emergency contraception, and to continue federally funding hospitals that refuse to provide women with a full range of health care options (if you’re giving birth at a Catholic hospital, for example, good luck getting a tubal ligation at the safest and easiest moment). We’ve agreed that a parent’s religious belief can justify depriving a child of education or healthcare, or punishing a child in a way that, were it done to an adult, would be criminal. We wring our hands over whether religious bakers should have to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples (and the Supreme Court says no, they don’t). Even many progressives suggested that maybe it wasn’t fair to force private businesses to support something they find morally wrong; there hasn’t been much of a push in Congress to pass legislation that would curb the use of “religious freedom” as a pretext for bigotry. But then it gets really hard to take action when the same folks who oppose same-sex marriage say that their religious traditions also lead them to oppose interracial marriage, and that they’re free to discriminate against interracial couples.
Religion, narrowly defined, is increasingly treated as having a special status. And to a certain degree, it does, protected as it is by the First Amendment. But there’s a vast difference between the freedom to exercise your religious beliefs without government persecution (and the freedom, even, to be reasonably accommodated in your religious practices), and the “freedom” to impose your religious beliefs on others in the face of generally applicable laws, in a way that compromises their health or wellbeing. With this expanding special status of religion also comes a defining-down of religious conviction to exclude a whole range of spiritual beliefs and practices — a validation of traditional, formal, patriarchal religions, and a marginalization of the rest, including moral philosophies that may be just as meaningful and impactful as religion to the person who holds them.
Instead of staking out the position we should be taking — that individuals should be free to exercise their religious beliefs, but no one is free to discriminate, and the separation of church and state should mean a removal of religion from politics — I see too many people on the left happily embracing profoundly irrational (and often misogynist and homophobic) religious traditions entering the political sphere, while mocking irrationality from faith systems with which they are not familiar.
You can’t have it both ways. If the irrational woo-woo of Marianne Williamson bothers you (and it bothers me), great — but cast that same critical eye on the irrational beliefs you’re just more used to hearing.