Confronted with low voter participation rates and high levels of ignorance about politics and policy, many of us regularly bemoan the apparently apathetic American electorate. But we're mostly concerned with the apathy of people whom we imagine as potential political allies. When right-wing Christians made a dramatic entrance onto the political stage some 20 years ago, through organizations like the Moral Majority, they weren't exactly welcomed by liberals and lauded as exemplars of good citizenship.
I wouldn't lament low voter turnout if all right-wing, antilibertarian Republicans (and Democrats) stayed home on election day, and I imagine they'd be similarly sanguine about a display of voter apathy from me.
So I'm not sure whether to welcome or worry about an emerging campaign to politicize what New Age guru Marianne Williamson calls the consciousness community--an eclectic group of seekers including the consumers of personal development and pop spirituality books, patients of pop therapies, and adherents of alternative religions. Organizations promoting a new spiritual politics are springing forth, promising to save the world along with our souls.
In April of this year, the Center for Visionary Leadership held a fourday summit in Washington modestly devoted to "re-igniting the spirit of America." Billed as a "non-partisan, multi-denominational dialogue on values, spirituality, and governance" (the organizers apparently loathed leaving anyone out), the summit included a diverse group of speakers, from Robert Kennedy, Jr., a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, to John Hagelin, Natural Law Party presidential candidate, and Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun and advocate of "emancipatory spirituality." Seminars addressed concrete problems like unemployment, crime, and health care, along with the most amorphous concerns, like spiritual values in public life. Entertainment included music by Magpie and an appearance by the Acoma Indian Dancers.
The next month, on May 18, the Foundation for Ethics & Meaning (FEM) held a four-day conference in New York, aimed at "challenging the dominant ethos of cynicism, materialism, and greed with an emerging vision of meaningful connection and social responsibility." FEM was co-founded by Michael Lerner and conceived as a "progressive counterpart" to influential conservative think tanks and foundations, like the Manhattan Institute and the Heritage Foundation. In addition to its vague spiritual yearnings, FEM does appear to harbor some specific policy concerns--"big money" in politics, "frenzied globalization," media conglomeration, and whatever else gets in the way of creating a "more caring world."
Meanwhile, for all those carers and sharers who can't or won't attend conferences, there's the Global Renaissance Alliance (GRA), co-founded by Marianne Williamson and FOG (Friend of God) Neale Donald Walsch, author of the best-selling Conversations with God. The GRA, which bills itself as a "citizen-based international network of spiritual activists," aims to inspire ongoing gatherings of "citizen circles," committed "to cultivating an intimate fabric of deep community... . The GRA is like a mystical grid on which our individual prayers, meditations, and actions for peace synergistically merge."
You can't paraphrase vision statements like this because their content is so elusive. What exactly do the leaders of the GRA believe? "We believe that love should rule the world... . We believe the soul has a wisdom of its own... . We believe in spiritual power."
What political form will this power take? It's likely that it will incline toward the left, potentially providing a relatively liberal counterweight to conservative Christians-- the "consciousness community" of the right. Pop spirituality and personal development movements are greatly disdained by the right, partly because they're apt to be critical of established religious dogma and because they promote forgiveness, or therapy, over punishment. They are also closely tied to popular feminism, which is abhorred by conservatives. Historically, women have played dominant roles in American New Age movements, and today's New Age community is clearly feminized: It celebrates stereotypically feminine virtues--emotional sensitivity, relational skills, and a penchant for "connectedness."
Rhetorically, the new spiritual activists reject both traditional liberal and conservative approaches, offering a sort of New Age third way. But the particular political causes they champion are recognizably liberal. A GRA-sponsored conference that I attended in 1998 included panels with representatives from groups like Amnesty International, the Children's Defense Fund, and Common Cause. It also offered a sound civics lesson from a constitutional historian, along with the usual New Age platitudes from Williamson, Walsch, and others.
From a pragmatic liberal perspective, then, there is some virtue in these undertakings; still I find them troublesome. It's hard to work up much enthusiasm over the entry into the political sphere of people who revere hucksters like Neale Donald Walsch and Deepak Chopra (who sits on the board of the GRA), regarding them as enlightened spiritual leaders.
Chopra is perhaps best known for Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, a highly unoriginal primer on living practically forever through positive thinking. (He often seems to be channeling the spirit of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy.) Chopra is also the author of The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, which offers to help you create "unlimited wealth with effortless ease." (So much for antimaterialism.) Walsch found fame with the phenomenally successful Conversations with God, a moronic and shamelessly selfaggrandizing book that purports to be the author's transcriptions of his dialogue with the Almighty--who sounds suspiciously like Neale Donald Walsch. It is also a rather amoral book, not just ignoring but utterly trivializing the problem of evil. Walsch takes New Age relativism to its silliest extreme. "Even Hitler went to heaven," God reportedly has informed him.
Walsch is a perverse choice to help remoralize the nation, but charlatans do find acclaim in America, especially in the spiritualized world of selfimprovement, and once anointed, they're rarely defrocked. The supposedly egalitarian consciousness community does love its gurus, and despite all the comforting talk about democratic citizenship, New Age political groups, like the GRA, are apt to thrive on hero worship. Attend a New Age conference, and you'll see celebrity authors deliver sermons to adoring audiences that never ask a critical question. The celebrities are regarded by their fans as saviors, beyond reproach, which often seems to be the way they regard themselves.
Marianne Williamson, for example, is especially prickly, exhibiting a Nixonian distrust of the press. During her talks, she is apt to complain to her fans about her bad press, seeking sympathy and support: "Abuse of leaders is the last unchallenged oppression in the United States," she says in an apparent burst of self-pity. Yet she soldiers on, a woman who seems willing to sacrifice herself to public office, for the public good. When she urges her fans to become engaged in politics, you have to wonder who she'd ask them to support. "Run, Marianne, run," a man sitting behind me at one of her appearances yelled.
Her recent book The Healing of America reads a bit like a New Age political platform, offering an absurdly reductive diagnosis of America's political ills and issuing a call to action. According to Williamson, her generation of boomers was traumatized by the political assassinations of the late 1960s; some remained politically active and gravitated to the East Coast, while those seeking spiritual enlightenment went west. She urges West Coast seekers (the "consciousness community") to import their wisdom into the political sphere and "heal" America. It's not surprising to hear her touting the formation of third parties. Offering her audiences prayer and appealingly simple political analyses, Williamson is like a cross between early twentieth-century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and Ross Perot.
I have no quarrel with political ambition or the ego that drives achievement. But the leaders of the new spiritual politics do seem especially self-serving. Is it mere coincidence that so many are promoting books? The Center for Visionary Leadership was co-founded by Corinne McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson, authors of Spiritual Politics. Michael Lerner, co-founder of the Foundation for Ethics & Meaning, is the author of several books about politics and spirituality. Marianne Williamson and Neale Donald Walsch, of course, are publishing phenomenons.
Maybe some Americans want spiritual leadership, but many settle for spiritual demagoguery. How do people distinguish between the false spiritual leaders and the true? Popularity (success in the marketplace) is a common measure of enlightenment. It is, for example, impossible to separate the deference paid to Oprah Winfrey's presumed spiritual wisdom from awe of her shrewd commercialism. Her personal success story and enormous wealth are tacitly perceived as proof that she is spiritually evolved. Like the Puritans, we perceive wealth as evidence of virtue as well as insightfulness. "If you're so smart, how come you're not rich?" people say to critics like me.
Pop spirituality is an unpredictable basis for the creation of a new progressive political constituency. It promotes adherence to particular liberal causes at the same time that it advances the careers of some untrustworthy political leaders and encourages the abdication of judgment that is anathema to a liberal democracy. It rants against materialism but exalts its victors. How do you become a spiritual leader? Sell a lot of books. You have to wonder about a progressive political movement whose heroes have been sanctified by success. ¤
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