I forget precisely when I first came across Marianne Williamson, but I know it was in my 20s when I read her bestseller, A Return to Love, as I was struggling with my faith. Though Williamson’s message—which centered on love, not doctrine—made more sense to me than the conservative, rigid form of Christianity that was the norm in my native South Carolina, I decided it was best to stick to tradition, which led me into a mostly white Evangelical church. That’s where I found myself years later, in 2010, being banned from teaching in that church’s kid’s ministry.
Two church leaders broke the news to me in a restaurant during a dinner with my wife. I would still be able to sit in the pews and listen to the pastor’s sermon every week, just like anyone else who showed up at the church on Sunday mornings, but I was considered too much of a danger to be around children. I wasn’t a pedophile, or any kind of physical threat to the safety of the kids. But I was something just as bad: a man who shared his progressive thinking on faith, race, and sexuality in a widely-read column for the area’s only daily newspaper.
A number of church members have grown concerned about some of your writings, they told me. They believed my support of President Barack Obama’s polices and same-sex marriage in particular made me a bad influence. The church had a longstanding policy of treating gay people differently, welcoming them into the pews (next to other unrepentant sinners, like me) but excluding them from positions of leadership and recommending that they go see purported specialists who would help them relinquish their homosexual ways. I was a straight, married man with two small kids and disagreed with what was taken as a bedrock Christian position, and in my column I had begun saying so, unapologetically.
In response to being banned from the kid’s ministry, I did… not much. I just took it, graciously. I made no fuss because a part of me figured they got to decide what it really meant to be a Christian. I know I’m not the only Bible-believing Christ follower who has spent most of his life allowing our more certain-sounding conservative counterparts to dominate discussions about faith. We decided to stick to tradition rather than take a cue from someone like Williamson, who was proudly blazing a different path.
That’s changing. And rapidly.
The change is in part a reaction to Donald Trump and white Evangelical Christians who have sullied the term “Christ follower.” The change is also being led by a diverse crop of Democratic presidential candidates and an increasing number of progressives who are finally getting out of their defensive crouch when it comes to faith. It took a long time, but Democrats are poised to retake ground we ceded to a supposed faith and family–based party that nominated Trump, made him president, and cheered him on every step of the way.
Hillary Clinton certainly identified as a Christian, but she seemed uncomfortable discussing that in 2016; Obama didn’t talk much about religion either after getting slammed in 2008 for having attended a church with a fiery black pastor. But their successors aren’t so shy when it comes to discussing God. Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor and rising Democratic star, receives perhaps the most attention when the discussion turns to the interplay of faith and politics (Buttigieg is both gay and outspoken about his Christianity).
But he’s not quite an outlier among high-profile Democratic presidential candidates. Kamala Harris kicked off her campaign by pointedly linking faith to civil rights icons of yesteryear, saying “to love the religion of Jesus is to hate the religion of the slave master.” Cory Booker has publicly declared that “Christ is the center of my life.” Elizabeth Warren quoted Matthew 25 during a CNN town hall and talked about teaching children at a Methodist church. Even Bernie Sanders is more openly embracing his Jewish roots and linking them to his political philosophy, this after praising Pope Francis during his 2016 run. Outside of the presidential race we’re seeing it too: Representative Ilhan Omar wearing a hijab while walking the halls of Congress is also evidence that Democrats are unafraid of displays of religion.
Their faith, however they define it, compels them to prioritize “the least of these” more than upholding systems that help the already privileged. That’s why Democratic debates and the 2020 campaign have the potential to become a turning point for a country in which “the nones”—those who don’t identify as subscribing to a religion—are growing more numerous every year. The US isn’t a post-Christian country, as some have claimed, but the nexus of faith and politics is undergoing a transformation.
The move by top Democrats to speak more openly about their faith better aligns them with their base, black voters, who are maybe the most religious group in the country. That truth often gets lost in discussions about faith and politics, which most often center on the white Evangelical Christians who power the Republican Party. That’s why this shift on the Democratic side is so important, because it could further solidify the already-strong bond between the party and black people, making it less likely the constant, public declarations of faith by conservative candidates will win those voters over, a long-theorized possibility.
The candidate best equipped to deal with the changing politics of faith is one of the least talked-about figures in the primary and my inspiration all those years ago: Marianne Williamson. When I spoke with the 66-year-old self-help author and speaker about two weeks ago, she shared that she was only “about halfway” to securing the requisite number of campaign donors to make it onto the Democratic debate stage. She’s polling behind even fellow fringe candidate Andrew Yang—but more people should be paying attention to her.
“I think the Democratic Party must retrieve its soul,” she told me in a Pancake House in Georgetown, South Carolina, a stone’s throw from Horry County, home to tourist mecca Myrtle Beach, which gave Trump 67 percent of its vote in 2016. Serious debates about whether residents can be Democrats and Christian are not infrequently held in the area. “This is a moral emergency,” Williamson said.
In the past, her faith has been described as “new-agey.” But that’s not accurate. It’s not traditional, but is just as deeply held as that of Evangelical Vice President Mike Pence and at least as thoughtful as Buttigieg’s. Williamson is the candidate that most resembles the “nones,” who are a growing part of the Democratic Party. This demographic may believe in God, but doesn’t want to be associated with rigid religious dogmas. They are less likely to believe homosexuality is sinful than their more traditionally religious counterparts, for instance, and more likely to believe abortion should be legal in most cases, even as conservatives call the practice murder and genocide.
But the “nones” may be just as hungry for a message of faith as voters who belong to a formal religion. Williamson could certainly speak to that message: She is a Jew who converted to Christ—but not Christianity—as she once told Beliefnet. Evidence of her faith jumps off her lips no matter the political issue she is discussing.
Williamson says she wants the country to take a “serious moral inventory.” She freely talks about redemption and “a merciful God,” miracles and “moral leadership.” And when she talks about policy, her preferences seem to grow naturally out of morality. Universal healthcare, to her, is a moral imperative she believes can be accomplished by Medicare for all. She wants the US to “wage peace” more than war but says it would be immoral to immediately pull all of our troops out of places like Syria and Afghanistan because it would negatively affect the poorest and least able in those nations. She would create a cabinet-level position to better deal with the plight of distressed children, because it would be a dereliction of her faith and duty not to.
She would repeal Trump’s tax cuts on the wealthy and corporations but keep in place those for the middle class. She is a proud capitalist who says large corporations have a right to exist but that our goal must be “economic justice” because capitalistic abuses have “put a cap on people’s dreams” and “normalized their despair,” forcing them to live with chronic economic anxiety that “sits on top of all their creativity and productivity.”
She places the debate over reparations for the descendants of slaves in the moral category as well. Reparations, she says, can provide the grist for a genuine atonement, something most Americans, “a good and decent people,” crave.
“Abraham Lincoln says a nation must confess its sins,” she told me. “Americans want to feel that we are doing the right thing” and reparations “gives people the opportunity to do the right thing.”
And she has no problem saying that at its heart, the contentious issue of abortion is also about right and wrong, not just a woman’s right to choose, a moral issue that is split between trying to reconcile a private morality with a public one. She would not punt on the question, like Obama did during a town hall in 2008 led by a well-known megachurch pastor when Obama said it was “above my pay grade.”
“America’s greatest ally is humanity itself,” Williamson said.
Imagine Democrats confronting those complex, vexing issues forthrightly—and unapologetically—from a position of moral strength rather than moral meekness. Imagine Democrats declaring that they were right about these things, not just right in the sense of “technically correct,” but right in the deeper sense of being on the side of justice and God. Then compare that to what white Evangelical Christians, and other conservatives of faith, have been doing to defend Donald Trump. #MeToo is forcing the country to reckon with our shameful history of sexual assault. Black Lives Matter is helping lead us through a racial reckoning. In an ironic twist, Trump’s ascent to the presidency—with the help of those who have long most loudly proclaimed their faith—is pushing us into a long overdue faith reckoning. No longer will people of faith with progressive leanings allow themselves to be pushed aside. Humility will no longer be used as an excuse to remain silent.
This is what Oprah Winfrey said about Williamson’s best-selling 1992 book A Return to Love:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” Reading those two sentences sparked a series of aha moments for me. What Williamson is getting at here is that fear hides our inner light, but that when we embrace love—which is how she defines God—we connect with who we are really meant to be. I have never been more moved by a book than I am by this one.
Oprah got that Williamson was calling for people to think more deeply about their faith, to not be afraid of being misunderstood, or even mocked, by those who demand fealty to the status quo.
I can’t say if this call will resonate in the primary. I don’t know if Williamson’s campaign will catch fire or fizzle before gaining any real traction. (It’s silly to dismiss any candidate at this point in the cycle.) But her voice on the Democratic debate stage would present a challenge to not only fellow Democrats, but to those who have abandoned their faith principles to follow Trump.
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