Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer, two of the three nontraditional contenders in the 2020 race, have managed to secure covered spots in the next Democratic debate, beating out sitting senators, a governor, the mayor of the U.S.’s largest city and a clutch of current and former members of Congress. But the Democratic primary’s other unorthodox candidate — motivational speaker and self-help author Marianne Williamson — may be sitting on the sidelines.1
Something about Williamson’s unconventional candidacy, though, has certainly sparked voters’ curiosity. After all, a candidate who flits between the worlds of traditional, institutional religion and New Age spirituality is a rarity in presidential politics. And she was the most-searched candidate after the first night of the July debate, when she accused President Trump of harnessing the “dark psychic force of collectivized hatred” and declared that she wants “a politics that speaks to the heart.”
But the more voters learned more about her, the less they seemed to like her. According to an analysis by my colleague Nathaniel Rakich, Williamson’s name recognition is up, but her net favorability ratings are down. She now actually has negative net favorability, a dubious honor she shares only with mayor of New York Bill de Blasio and former Rep. Joe Sestak. And her failure to resonate with an audience that might have been receptive to her message — “spiritual but not religious” Americans — also reflects the difficulty of reaching a group that’s defined largely by what it’s not.
According to the Pew Research Center, about one-third of Democrats identify as “spiritual but not religious” — an amorphous identity that has a lot in common with Williamson’s nondenominational spiritual practice. She identifies as Jewish and still attends High Holiday services, but she also practices transcendental meditation. She rose to prominence as a commentator and teacher of “A Course In Miracles,” a mystical book published in 1976 whose author claimed to be dictating revelations from Jesus.
“She’s really the definition of spiritual but not religious,” said Laura Olson, a political science professor at Clemson University, about Williamson. “In that sense, she represents — and you’d think might be able to reach — a very sizeable group of Americans.”
Depending on how you measure it, between one-fifth and one-third of Americans identify as “spiritual but not religious.” It’s a group whose numbers have grown in recent years, as more and more people draw away from institutional religion. And like Williamson, most of the “spiritual but not religious” maintain some kind of link to an organized faith tradition. In fact, according to Pew, they’re about as likely to identify as Protestant as they are to say they’re religiously unaffiliated. But perhaps unsurprisingly, the vast majority are not churchgoers, nor do they necessarily have a strong sense of communal identity or group cohesion. And here we run into the hurdle that makes outreach to the less-religious and the non-religious perennially tricky for Democrats: It’s hard to marshal a group that doesn’t think of itself as a group.
It’s certainly unusual to have a presidential candidate making an explicitly spiritual argument for progressive politics on the campaign trail. But arguably, there was no reason to think that Williamson would reach such a diffuse group any more easily than the other Democratic contenders, even with a message that thrummed with spiritual overtones. Matthew Hedstrom, a professor of religion and American studies at the University of Virginia who studies liberal religion, told me that spiritual but not religious Democrats do see issues like the environment or gun control as morally tinged, but don’t necessarily look for a candidate who shares their specific religious orientation. “They’ll vote for a candidate who shares their outlook on values and issues,” Hedstrom said. “Whether they’re a liberal Christian, a Buddhist, a Jew — that matters less.”
So the bar was always high for Williamson to appeal to the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd — not only did she have to unite a nebulous group, but she also had to convince voters on the soundness of her policies rather than just her spiritual orientation. And although many aspects of her religious profile are shared by large numbers of people, it’s also not hard to see why some curious Democrats who took to Google to learn more about her message might have been turned off by where her particular spiritual journey has taken her.
According to Pew, people who identify as spiritual but not religious tend to be more highly educated than other religious groups, and that means they may be more leery of positions that fall outside the mainstream — of which Williamson has many. There is, for instance, her position on vaccines, which she had to repeatedly clarify after calling mandatory vaccinations “draconian” and “Orwellian” at an event in New Hampshire. Or her attacks on antidepressants, which she says are overprescribed and has suggested were to blame for some celebrities’ suicides. Williamson has claimed she’s being subjected to unfair scrutiny — for example, when she was ridiculed for appearing to suggest on Twitter that prayer and “the power of the mind” could change the path of Hurricane Dorian, she retorted that her view is “neither bizarre nor unintelligent.”
But even though many Democrats do believe that a higher power or spiritual force has acted in their lives in some way — whether to protect, reward, or punish them — that doesn’t mean they have an appetite for talk of supernatural intervention from someone seeking a great deal of earthly power. Williamson has made it farther in this year’s race than some more seasoned politicians, and she could theoretically end up in the October debate, but she’s still a long-shot. At this point, though, it’s hard to imagine what would cause voters to take Williamson seriously as a presidential candidate — even if there is something potent about her mystical political pitch and her belief that to solve the country’s problems, we need more than a set of policy plans.
In the end, despite the opportunities her unusual religious pedigree seemed to give her, Williamson seems to be running up against the same problem that other candidates on the left face when tackling the country’s changing religious dynamics. People who are less religious don’t have unifying values or principles that politicians can easily appeal to, and they don’t seem to be bothered by voting for someone who follows a different religious or spiritual path. What they want from politics might vary a lot — and at least this year, Williamson’s brand of spirituality doesn’t seem to be at the top of the list.