February 18th, 2014
Are North Carolina's Moral Mondays too far away for you to really get what they're about? Hint: they're not about anything Wendy Greuel will ever understand.
Marianne Williamson isn't a political careerist. And political careerists-- and political careerists-in-the-making-- resent her for it. Many snicker that she's "just" a spiritual teacher or a guru of some kind, a put-down among political careerists. And how dare she not be in one of the two corruption-dominated parties that think they have a God-given monopoly on power in America!
The first time I was ever arrested was at the first big New York City draft-card burning rally. It was the first day of the rest of my life. I worked very hard to wind up in a very special cell with Allen Ginsburg, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Tuli Kupferberg, Ed Sanders and other non-politicians who were very "spiritual" and who were beginning the process of moving the culture and dragging the politics along-- to end the War Against Vietnam. My hero at the time was another non-politician, who changed the country-- Dr. Martin Luther King. He was "just" a spiritual teacher too.
If you live in the L.A. area and you haven't met Marianne Williamson, it's because you haven't the made the minimal effort it takes to do so. I've been working in congressional campaigns since the summer between my last year in high school and my first year in college-- Bill Ryan, then the only antiwar Congressman was my first-- and I have never seen a more open, more grassroots campaign than the independent race Marianne is waging from Rancho Palos Verdes through Redondo Beach, El Segundo, Venice, Santa Monica, Malibu, Brentwood, Beverly Hills, Westwood and out to Topanga, Calabasas and Agoura Hills. She's everywhere… all the time, speaking to small groups and large crowds, mostly to people who wouldn't be caught dead at a politician's event.
Yesterday Diane Winston, who teaches at USC how metaphysical movements were pathways to female empowerment and social reform since the 19th century, covered Marianne's race for Religion Dispatches. She gets why Marianne's campaign doesn't have much to do with earnest liberal Ted Lieu or careerist hack Wendy Greuel or any of the assorted politicians eager for a cushy career in Washington. She notes that much of the coverage of Marianne's campaign sniggers at "her 'New Age teachings.' But few mentioned the social activism that had been a continuous thread through her career. That activism-- from the 1989 founding of Project Angel Food, which provided meals to people with AIDs to the 2012 launch of Sister Giant, an initiative supporting women’s engagement in electoral politics-- culminated in her announcement last fall that she would run for the California’s 33rd District Congressional seat." When Marianne lectured at her class at USC, she wasn't fully prepared for what she heard.
Instead I heard a candidate raise the issues that worry me: economic inequity, climate change, rocketing incarceration rates, domestic surveillance and a permanent war economy. She explained that she is running as an independent because both Democrats and Republicans are so beholden to corporate funders that neither can instigate genuine reform. She believes that most Americans are disgusted by Washington’s obeisance to big business and expects they will start electing independents to get the country back on track.
Yet as important as these issues are, Williamson’s appeal is not based on what she wants to do but on why she is doing it. Since the 1970s, she said, the American left has abandoned the spiritual impulse that fueled movements for abolition, labor reform, women’s rights, civil rights and pacifism. For Williamson the spiritual impulse, the “self-actualization of the individual,” leads to a life of love and a beloved community embodied by a society that seeks the best for its citizens and their planet.
As she spoke I found I couldn't argue with her portrait of a left that has closed its ears to arguments about love’s transformative power and the immanent transcendence that betokens its presence. We-- especially those in academia and the media-- have written off religion as divisive, outmoded and irrelevant just as we have trivialized spirituality as frivolous self-indulgence. As a result, our politics are soulless and our candidates’ calls for hope fail to translate into change.
Writing in Slate last week, Dahlia Lithwick made a similar observation. After attending a Moral Monday rally in Raleigh, she noted that “ceding all talk of faith and morality to the political right in this country has been disastrous for the left.”
Yet it’s not just the left that’s at fault. For several decades, the legacy media has conflated news about American religion with news about the Religious Right. And even when the media does write about religious moderates, it’s usually on denominational in-fighting over key issues on the right’s agenda (gay marriage, ordination of women and gays, and abortion). The disparity between what’s deemed newsworthy and what’s not would be comical, if it weren’t for the news media’s key role in framing public discourse. Why is it business-as-usual that Fred Phelps and a handful of anti-gay Westboro Baptist demonstrators receive widespread coverage while 80,000 protesters against North Carolina’s tax hikes for its poorest citizens amidst cuts to its education and healthcare budgets barely register in the nation’s news outlets.
Simply put: religion news is dominated by the shudder-worthy antics of the extreme right while successful organizing by religious moderates, and political campaigns by spiritual activists, are mocked or ignored.
Williamson is well aware of the problem, “[The media] use the term ‘New Age guru’ to marginalize or trivialize,” she told the class. “But I never thought that people who heard me talk or read my work thought I was woo-woo.”
Williamson may have thought she had a sympathetic audience among the students, but she failed to rouse their enthusiasm. Dilatory questioners asked about her connection to Judaism, her spiritual practices, and her take on metaphysical religion. Few seem ignited about her fusion of spirituality and politics much less her campaign for Congress. When I ended the class after a very long 80 minutes, she seemed troubled by their unresponsiveness.
Maybe they were tired, I said. Perhaps they were intimidated. I did not say they may have been turned off by campaign riffs that worked for supporters but not the uninitiated. Those had not bothered me. I was too caught up by my own epiphany: I’d bought the media line. I, a leftist who studied religion, had spent 20 years thinking the worst of a woman-- she was out for money, played on her sexuality, exploited the lost-- because she believed something different from what I did.
Marianne Williamson may have had me at hello, but she hooked me with her description of spiritual politics and her belief that the left can still be saved.