Marianne Williamson is a sucker for a good analogy. The 2020 presidential candidate, who’s also Oprah’s personal guru, told me, “You can’t just take medicine, you have to have health,” when asked about her planned “Department of Peace.” She told Pod Save America host Jon Favreau: “When you allow anger to be the fuel for your political activism, it’s like choosing white sugar as opposed to a healthy diet as your nutritional support.” She also controversially compared the vaccination conversation to the abortion debate.
If you’ve never heard of Williamson before, welcome to the club. The 66-year-old best-selling author and prayer-promoting “thought leader” — who’s running on a platform of peace and believes in miracles — will get her big stage debut this week when she appears in the first Democratic primary debate alongside Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. She’s one of six women running for President, and qualified for the debate ahead of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
That a wellness guru is competing on the big stage against statesmen, governors, and policy wonks confirms what polls and pundits have told us: Many people want Oprah to be president. Or, at least someone who makes them feel as good as Oprah does. And maybe the kind of healing that can only come from a person who believes that “our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure” and that all we need to do is love. These types of ideas and feel good phrases were once the domain of hippies and beach towns. Now, the wonders of wellness have grown so wild and infiltrated our culture so fully that they have their own presidential candidate. Your physical, mental and spiritual well being are big business — and now they’re part of your politics.
“The principles of health and wellness and an attitude of peace-creation and love is exactly what this country needs,” Williamson tells Refinery29. “I’ve felt for a long time that people within this space should not be standing on the sidelines. If anything, we should be the biggest grownups in the room… Because if you have a clue as to what changes your life, then you’re the one who has a clue what can change the world.”
Now, the wonders of wellness have grown so wild and infiltrated our culture so fully that they have their own presidential candidate. Your physical, mental and spiritual well being are big business — and now they’re part of your politics.
Williamson’s success preaching a gospel of wellness is apt at a time when the green-juice-fueled, Goop-obsessed self-help industry is booming. Timothy Caulfield, author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? and a law and health expert at the University of Alberta, says the fact that we have a “wellness candidate” speaks volumes about the sector’s growth. “Wellness is a four-trillion-dollar industry — depending on how you measure it — that a huge number of people have bought into,” he tells me. “On the one hand, it doesn’t surprise me at all that someone would position themselves as a wellness candidate. On the other hand, it depresses me that this is where we are.”
Who Is Marianne Williamson?
Williamson is a self-described “bitch for God.” She’s known best for her self-help books and gained popularity after befriending high-power celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Cher, and Elizabeth Taylor. She even officiated Taylor’s eighth and final wedding, which took place at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.
But before she became the go-to spiritual guide to the stars, her life was humble and nomadic. A Texas native, she dropped out of college, moved to a New Mexico commune, and spent time singing cabaret in New York. Everything changed when she read the transformative spiritual guidebook A Course In Miracles, a 1976 guidebook for achieving spiritual transformation by Helen Schucman. She was inspired by the text, and started lecturing on it in the early ‘80s, according to The Washington Post Magazine. Williamson went on to found charities focused on helping people with HIV/AIDS. There’s the Project Angel Food, which delivers food to people who are sick, and the Centers for Living, which became something of a “sanctuary for people with AIDS,” according to L.A. Weekly.
Williamson’s written 13 books (seven of which were best-sellers), gives TED Talks, and is renowned (in some circles) for being Oprah’s go-to advisor. When she speaks (often in metaphor), people listen. She promotes love and self-confidence in a no-nonsense sort of way. “Her charisma is sexual and humorous,” Psychology Today wrote of her speaking style. “Watching her perform is more like wrestling naked with Venus than kneeling with the saints.”
In 2018, she went on a “Love America Tour.” She says she believes that the answer to the nation’s problems lies in love, instead of the fear-mongering. “Fear is the opposite of love, and fear has been harnessed for political purposes,” she tells me. She wants to channel love, and use it to change the way America operates.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure,” she writes in her book A Return To Love. This phrase is frequently misattributed to Nelson Mandela and has been printed repeatedly on decorative inspirational posters and pillows. The chapter continues: “Playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”
“I’ve felt for a long time that people within this space should not be standing on the sidelines. If anything, we should be the biggest grownups in the room… Because if you have a clue as to what changes your life, then you’re the one who has a clue what can change the world.”
I asked her how she’d apply this advice to the debates — and, perhaps, eventually, the presidency. “I think running for president is certainly the opposite of playing small,” she says. “I try to practice what I preach… I want to be president in order to do everything I can to make it easier for everyone to spread their wings and soar to get their God-given potential… I’ve helped people do that in their individual lives, and I believe I could help our country do it.”
So, What Is Her Exact Platform?
But where wellness culture and established policy clash are around vaccines, naturally. Williamson recently fumbled when she called laws requiring children to be vaccinated “Orwellian” and “draconian.” NBC reported that she said: “To me, it’s no different than the abortion debate… The US government doesn't tell any citizen, in my book, what they have to do with their body or their child.”
When I ask Williamson what she means by “many,” she responds, “I understand that polio is important, I understand smallpox is important.” But adds that she has concerns about the relationship between big pharmaceutical companies, the CDC, and the FDA. She says these organizations have become “too cozy” with Big Pharma, and says there is “too little government oversight and too big a rush with some drugs.”
Caulfield, the University of Alberta health expert, said statements like these are the downside of having a “wellness candidate.” The industry, he says, “rejects the science-formed perspective, and invites other ‘ways of knowing’ into the mix.”
But Williamson contends that a healthy dose of skepticism is important — which is surprising for someone who seems to unabashedly believe that miracles exist.
“There is, at the very least, a legitimate question about this,” she tells me. “It doesn’t make you anti-science and doesn’t make you anti-vaccine to have a healthy skepticism about Big Pharma’s relationship to the CDC at this time in our history.”
What Do Her Supporters Think?
Marianne Williamson might be your mom’s favorite author — especially if your mom is a middle-aged woman with an affinity for day-time TV and Aperol spritzes. On a personal note, my mom read some of Williamson’s books in the '90s. “If you can get past the flakiness, it’s a nice message,” she tells me. This is not a rave review, but it’s also not a heinous one. This is how people seem to view Williamson’s platform in general.
“I loved Marianne! I’m going to spread the word.” a woman named Annie told The Cut after a fitness-focused campaign event featuring Williamson. “But I don’t think the country is ready.”
Annie may be right. The polls aren’t on Williamson’s side. In April, a national poll found that 66% percent of likely Democratic voters hadn’t even heard of her, according to Change Research. In March, The Oregonian pointed out: “No, Williamson hasn’t registered in national polling — to be fair, her name isn’t even being included in most of the questionnaires.”
With that said, it’s obvious that America isn’t opposed to supporting an out-there and untraditional politician. Trump gained ground in the 2015 primaries, in part, due to the constant free media coverage he garnered for saying outrageous things, FiveThirtyEight points out. If Williamson continues to tap dance across the line when it comes to touchy topics, who’s to say where her career will go? Maybe a miracle could even occur for her.
Is America Ready To Be Led With Love?
It’s true that Williamson’s campaign is deeply tied to the wellness movement, but it’s also inspired by love. Although The Daily Beast described her as promoting “dangerous, anti-scientific garbage,” her intentions are good.
All along, Williamson has wanted us to be kind to each other and ourselves. She wants us to create “miraculous change” through positive shifts in thought. She wants us to pray for those we dislike. She wants us to know that “becoming who we are is difficult, and the work of personal transformation can be some of the hardest work we ever do,” as she wrote in one of her books. Really, she just wants us to love.
It’s unlikely that Williamson will stand up against the other Democratic candidates, let alone President Trump. “Your readers should vote for me for only one reason,” she tells me, “if when they look into their hearts, it reverberates for them.” It’s not hard to imagine Trump and other Democratic contenders picking Williamson apart for comments like this. On the other hand, research showed that the 2016 election took a toll on the mental health of many Americans. And what do we seek out when we’re feeling down? Love, usually. And fixes that fall under the scope of wellness. Politics is a dirty game, but, as they say, “love conquers all.”
“People feel it’s naïve to suggest that our love for each other is the key to our survival in the 21st century,” Williamson says. “But I say that what’s naïve is to think we’ll even survive on this planet for another 100 years if we do not achieve peace.”