A recurring question in American politics since the rise of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition has been “where is the religious left?” One possible version has been hiding in plain sight since the 1970s, in the form of Williamson’s style of mysticism, the revivalism of the Oprah circuit, the soul craft of the wellness movement, the pantheistic-gnostic-occultish territory at the edges of American Christianity’s fraying map. We don’t necessarily see it as a “left” only because it has acted indirectly on politics, reshaping liberalism and the wider culture from within and below, rather than acting through mass movements and political campaigns.
In which case the Williamson candidacy is an interesting milestone, a moment when an important cultural reality enters into politics explicitly, inspiring initial bafflement and mockery (in this case, via journalists digging up Williamson’s most Moonbeam-y old tweets) but also exposing something important about America that normal, official media coverage ignores.
* * * * * * * *
The liberal intelligentsia has long prided itself on taking the side of reason and science against first religious conservatism and now right-wing populism — defending a particular version of the Enlightenment against televangelists and superstition and Fake News. But because man does not live by Neil deGrasse Tyson memes alone, and because the mix of hard scientific materialism and well-meaning liberal humanitarianism has always been somewhat incoherent, the cult of reason necessarily shares space in liberal circles — especially liberal circles outside the innermost ring of the meritocracy — with other cults, other commitments, of the sort associated with “A Course in Miracles.”
The spirit of deGrasse Tyson and the spirit of Williamson can certainly coexist, especially when politics supplies a common enemy as vivid as Donald Trump. But they can also fall into war with one another, over differences more significant than the debate over Medicare for All.
Meanwhile, the L.A. Times explores “How millennials replaced religion with astrology and crystals:”
She’s one of a growing number of young people — largely millennials, though the trend extends to younger Gen Xers, now cresting 40, and down to Gen Z, the oldest of whom are freshly minted college grads — who have turned away from traditional organized religion and are embracing more spiritual beliefs and practices like tarot, astrology, meditation, energy healing and crystals.
And no, they don’t particularly care if you think it’s “woo-woo” or weird. Most millennials claim to not take any of it too seriously themselves. They dabble, they find what they like, they take what works for them and leave the rest. Evoking consternation from buttoned-up outsiders is far from a drawback — it’s a fringe benefit.
“I know this work is weird,” Lilia said of her breathwork practice. “But it makes me feel better and that’s why I keep doing it.”
The cause behind the spiritual shift is a combination of factors. In more than a dozen interviews for this story with people ranging in age from 18 to their early 40s, a common theme emerged: They were raised with one set of religious beliefs — Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist — but as they became adults, they felt that faith didn’t completely represent who they were or what they believed.
But this isn’t all that new a phenomenon — it dates back to the Beatles hooking up with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the summer of 1967, and while they would have a falling out with him the following year, during the late ‘60s, and early ‘70s, it became de rigueur for lots of superstar guitarists to be associated with his own Indian guru. It’s right there in the second part of the headline of Tom Wolfe’s ‘70s-defining article, “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” which was first published as the cover story of the August 23rd 1976 issue of New York magazine. And as Michael Graham wrote in his 2002 book, Redneck Nation: How the South Really Won the War:
That’s why I find it hard to share the dismissive attitude Northerners have about Southerner evangelicals and born-again Christians. Do you know how exasperating it is to have a New Ager make fun of your religion? As a graduate of Oral Roberts, I am a magnet for people who want to talk about their spiritual beliefs and/or their loathing of Christianity. My ORU experience was part of my stand-up comedy act, and it was not uncommon to be harangued after the show by audience members who wanted to get their licks in against organized religion.
After a set at a hotel in Washington State, I was dragged into a long, drawn-out discussion with a graying, balding New Ager who just couldn’t get over my evangelical background. “You seem so smart,” he kept saying. “How could you buy into that stuff?” Here’s a guy wearing a crystal around his neck to open up his chakra, who thinks that the spirit of a warrior from the lost city of Atlantis is channeled through the body of a hairdresser from Palm Springs, and who stuffs magnets in his pants to enhance his aura, and he finds evangelicalism an insult to his intelligence. I ask you: Who’s the redneck?
Come to think of it, I’m not sure if this guy—who believed in reincarnation, ghostly hauntings, and the eternal souls of animals—actually believed in God. It’s not uncommon for Northerners, especially those who like to use the word “spirituality,” to believe in all manner of metaphysical events, while not believing in the Big Guy. “Religious” people go to church and read the Bible, and Northerners view them as intolerant, ill-educated saps. “Spiritual” people go hiking, read Shirley MacLaine or L. Ron Hubbard, and are considered rational, intelligent beings.
To be fair, they believed they found God in 2008.