There were two spiritual visions in the Democratic party we saw in the debates. On one side was the moralist, Pete Buttigieg. On the other was the healer, Marianne Williamson.
At the spiritual level, Buttigieg’s appeal to Democrats is that he reprobates the religious Right. His quotations from the Bible are certainly more fluent than Donald Trump’s. But Mayor Pete uses Scripture the way a hero character in an Aaron Sorkin drama would, purely as a weapon designed to intellectually and theologically humiliate conservative political rivals. He quotes the Good Book in the style of a new atheist email forward. Oh, you say you worship a brown-skinned religious minority who loves the poor? And yet you support the rich white racists who would have executed him. Oh you don’t like my lifestyle? But you wear clothes with mixed fibers. That means you too go directly to hell, doesn’t it?
It’s a kind of argumentative style designed for religious illiterates, intended to cow fundamentalists, while impressing sophomoric atheists simultaneously. To just about anyone else, Buttigieg becomes a mirror image of what he opposes: smug and self-righteous. “Your quarrel, sir, is with my Creator,” he said. A person of any moral or spiritual maturity cringes and shuts their eyelids in the presence of such rhetoric, hoping their eyes don’t roll out of their heads at escape velocity.
Given his autobiographical disclosure that his dreams for public service grew out of watching movies and television, it’s tempting to imagine that the West Wing scene of fictional president Josiah Bartlett smacking down a rabble-rousing fundamentalist is the primary operating religious parable in Buttigieg’s life. Buttigieg is the perfectly good boy. He got all the best grades, achieved all the best positions, and won the great consulting job as his prize. But such good boys have trouble becoming good men. Buttigieg’s critique of the religious Right has a long pre-Trump life, and it’s a fundamentally lame one. It speaks at the religious Right, but not to them.
Oddly enough, it is the highly unorthodox, New Age figure of Marianne Williamson who has the more immediate and biting critique of the religious Right, one that isn’t offered to them directly, and one that even has a real shot of appealing to their consciences, or at least to their ambitions.
In the first debate she said it was crazy to think that Donald Trump could be beaten on the ground of policy. Why? Because, she alleged, he had tapped into the power of fear. In the second debate she called it “the dark psychic force of collectivized hatred.”
“I’m going to harness love for political purposes,” she promised. “I will meet you on that field. And, sir, love will win.”
Williamson’s style of spirituality, which includes huge dollops of therapeutic self-help, and the power of positive thinking, actually can serve as a bridge to the non-denominational Evangelicals who may have voted for Trump. Their religion is often therapeutic in nature, and tinged with a prosperity-gospel-influenced hope that simply “opening” yourself to the good will bring it about.
Even if her spirituality is a kind of consumerist babble, Williamson is actually more politically mature than her opponents. She intuitively understands that political life is oriented toward what we, together, love in common. That the political is more than policy, it includes vision and the placing of the individual and the nation in a coherent story. When she talks about fear and hate, many Americans at least “feel” that they understand her. And their natural hope is that the tension created by negative polarization can’t be resolved with victory of one side over the other but that it must eventually be transcended in some greater form of national reconciliation.
One could even argue that her sense of morality is more orthodox and mature than Buttigieg’s tub-thumping about hypocrisy. One of the most powerful moments of her second debate performance was her framing of reparations as “payment of a debt that is owed.” That is not merely contractual and political language, but moral language that recruits and enlivens the imagination.
From the perspective of traditional religion, both these spiritual visions are wanting. While Evangelicals arguably have fallen into political hypocrisy, abandoning their previous arguments about necessary character in leadership, the deeper critique is that they have “put their trust in princes,” lost faith in God’s sovereignty. Our modern-day prophets forget that “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was an unusual sermon in the Puritan canon, which was much lighter on fire and brimstone than we tend to imagine. The Williamson spirituality has more-obvious defects — it tilts against powerful corporations, but is generally consumerist. It has a moral imagination, but inclines toward indulgence rather than sin, repentance, and grace. And finally, it places too much faith in the here and now. Our nation needs to be bound in shared loves, but democracy and its controversies are meant to be a form of conflict, with real winners and losers. National unity exists beyond electoral politics, or is restored only by the awful grinding of history, not by smiling gurus.