In the living room of an apartment near Wall Street last month, a group of supporters huddled around a large television watching as their candidate, Marianne Williamson, made her debut on the debate stage. The host pulled her hair nervously.
Ms. Williamson’s start had been shaky, but there were some breakout moments. Then her dramatic closing. “Mr. President, if you’re listening, I want you to hear me, please: You have harnessed fear for political purposes, and only love can cast that out.”
She went on, building now: “I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field. And, sir, love will win.”
It was exactly what her supporters were waiting for. The host sprung up and gave three short shouts. “Woo-woo-woo!”
Ms. Williamson’s debut may have appeared offbeat, a not-so-serious collection of truisms about love. But more was happening here. She was, in fact, drawing directly from a homegrown American holy book called “A Course in Miracles,” a curious New York scripture that arose during the heady metaphysical counterculture of the 1960s.
This is not some homey book of feel-good bromides. Rather, it is taken by its readers as a genuine gospel, produced by a Manhattan doctor who believed she was channeling new revelations from Jesus Christ himself. And stepping into this unusual book’s story, in fact, is the key to understanding Ms. Williamson’s latest venture.
“For followers, it holds out a hope that there is a greater world than the one that we are experiencing,” he said, “that illness, emotional torment, fear, self-doubt, prejudice are all simply illusions.”
Devotees of new American religions — Spiritualist healers, Mormons, Scientologists — have sought political office over the years. The Lincolns, famously, were known to hold séances. The Reagans consulted an astrologist.
Truly, spiritual experimentation is an American tradition. The 1960s and ’70s were awash with entrepreneurs of the esoteric. Mediums in every state claimed to be conduits for all manner of spirits: warriors from lost continents, wise Native American elders, even voices from distant planets. It was out of this milieu that “A Course in Miracles” bubbled to the surface.
As an adult, though, Ms. Schucman began having strange experiences. She had vivid dreams; in one, she found herself in a dim cave, unfurling a mysterious scroll. And once, while riding the subway, she saw her fellow passengers glow in holy light.Then, in 1965, while working as a research psychologist at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, a voice addressed her. It urged her to take dictation. “This is a course in miracles,” it said. “Please take notes.”
Ms. Schucman was hesitant. But with the encouragement of a colleague, William Thetford, she began to write. She came to believe the voice belonged to Jesus. Her spirit channeling unspooled over several years, culminating in a three-volume, 1,300-page tome. It was published in 1976 by the Foundation for Inner Peace.
The book drew from older traditions like Christian Science and New Thought, a related 19th-century metaphysical movement. It also incorporated Freudian language. Reality, it taught, was illusory; conflicts dissolve when one realizes the power of love and forgiveness. This change in perception, the book’s narrator says, produces miracles.
It opens cryptically: “Nothing unreal exists. Nothing real can be threatened. Herein lies the peace of God.”
Until her death in 1981, Ms. Schucman remained oddly unsettled with her new scripture. She didn’t want her name on the work and had no intention of being any new religion’s prophet.
The press of the time regarded the book with skepticism. Psychology Today described the Course as the latest oddity in the American “supermarket of cults, religions and psycho-mystical movements.”
Still, the scripture slipped into New York’s spiritual counterculture, attracting small pockets of questioning students. Among them was Ms. Williamson, an unmoored 20-something who had come to the city to find herself.
In fact, Ms. Williamson had spent much of her youth seeking. Born to a Jewish family in Texas, Ms. Williamson grew up in Houston and in the early 1970s attended Pomona College, in the Los Angeles suburbs, to study philosophy and theater. But she grew restless and dropped out after two years.
Ms. Williamson embarked on her own self-education. She learned the techniques of Transcendental Meditation. She read books by Ram Dass and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. She moved to the New Mexico desert to live in a geodesic dome on a commune.
In time, Ms. Williamson drifted to New York City, where she sang cabaret in the Village and held temp jobs on the side. It was here, at an Upper West Side house party, that Ms. Williamson happened upon a copy of the Course.
She remembers inspecting the surprisingly heavy book. The New Testament-style language was peculiar, especially for someone raised in a Jewish family, and the prose was cryptic.
“There was no author mentioned,” she recalled recently. “It was odd. But it was also fascinating.”
She put the book back on the coffee table, returned to the party, and thought little of it.
Time passed. But then, as she fought a recurring case of bronchitis and tenacious depression, the Course rushed back to mind. She recalled, “Something in me said, ‘I want that book.’”
Later that day, “I went home and it was sitting on my dining room table,” she said. A boyfriend had serendipitously picked up the full three-volume set of the mysterious book.
To Ms. Williamson, it was a sign.
This time around, she threw herself into the text and it resonated. Ms Williamson called it her “path out of hell.”
She emerged from the elevator banks of her Midtown hotel, balancing a tall glass of iced tea. Settling into a dim corner seat, she said, almost to herself, “So, time for Marianne mode?” Then she was ready for her interview.
Her life changed, Ms. Williamson said, after reading the Course as a young woman.
“Before the Course, I felt like I was on a desperate journey to find God, but as much as I climbed up this huge flight of stone steps in front of a cathedral, my knees bloody and my elbows bloody, the cathedral door was locked,” Ms. Williamson said. “And when I read the Course, I thought I understood the key.”
She soon sought out the book’s publisher, then based in the Upper West Side apartment of Judith Skutch, a maven of the city’s parapsychology scene. Ms. Williamson wanted to volunteer.
Ms. Skutch, now 88 and living in California, recalled a young Ms. Williamson bursting into her home looking “young and hungry for a path.” She said, “It felt like little firecrackers were coming out of her.”
In time, Ms. Williamson became a teacher of the Course in her own right. By the 1980s, she had relocated to Los Angeles to lead classes.
Around this time, the H.I.V. crisis was just beginning to take hold. Ms. Williamson formed groups for spiritual support, first in Los Angeles and then in New York City — she called them Centers for Living — and later, a meal delivery service for men with the disease. Studying the miraculous messages of the Course, she believed, could potentially prolong a person’s life. In her meetings, men were encouraged to focus on love and prohibited from using words like “death” altogether.
From the start, Ms. Williamson brought her own flair to the Course; her counsel could seem outlandish. “Imagine the virus that causes AIDS as Darth Vader and then unzip his suit and allow an angel to emerge,” she once advised.
In 1992, Ms. Williamson published her first book, “A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles.” The work landed her on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” where, it’s said,Ms. Winfrey marveled that she had experienced precisely “157 miracles” in her own life after reading Ms. Williamson’s book. Sales accordingly skyrocketed.
More books, based on the Course, followed at a regular clip — at least six have climbed the New York Times best-seller list — each offering nostrums on the curative power of thought.
Weight loss? “The cause of your excess weight is fear, which is a place in your mind where love is blocked.”
Poverty? “Many people fail to manifest money because on some deep level they don’t think they should.”
“Disease,” she wrote, “is loveless thinking materialized.”
With celebrity came scandal and criticism. Early on, conservatives dismissed her work as lowbrow woo-woo. In a cutting review from 1992, the Commentary writer John Podhoretz called her writing “unspeakably tasteless,” her theology shallow. He allowed that there were flashes of homespun charm but concluded, “Williamson is merely peddling a brand of Religiosity Lite.” Christian polemicists also went after Ms. Williamson, labeling the messages of the Course as heretical. One group, the Christian Research Institute, ominously described the narrator of the Course as not divine at all, but “a demon cleverly impersonating Jesus” bent on turning a “person’s perception against Christian faith and toward New Age occultism.”
There were also high-profile fallouts with collaborators over the years. Members of her charity’s board of directors saw her as an intolerant manager who hated to be upstaged; some of the more secular-minded members grew uneasy with Ms. Williamson’s penchant for opening fund-raisers with prayer.
Meanwhile, there were leadership struggles in the community of Course students, which had continued to swell over the years, in large part thanks to Ms. Williamson’s work. There was never a central Course authority, exactly, which led to murky copyright disputes: If the channeled book really came from Jesus, could anyone claim publishing rights?
Frequently, too, people have mistakenly assumed Ms. Williamson produced the bible herself. She would always object — “No, no, no, I’m just a student” — but her fame threatened to eclipse the book altogether.
In 1998, Ms. Williamson moved outside Detroit to lead a megachurch. The congregation was not affiliated with A Course in Miracles, but it also preached a blend of Christianity and positive thinking. Ms. Williamson encountered some difficulty here, too. A faction grew uneasy with her political commentary from the pulpit, and when she proposed changing the name and affiliation of the church, they threatened a lawsuit.
“Being on a pulpit was more different than I even expected,” she said. “I bristled at the restrictions.”
In 2002, Ms. Williamson stepped down. She considered her next move.
Shuttling in a car service between events, Ms. Williamson made a familiar pitch, casting her political work as sprouting organically out of her earlier career. “Whether it’s religion or politics,” she said, “the point is to address the suffering of humanity, and not look away.”
Ms. Williamson often says that the seeds of her political awakening were planted as a child when her father, an immigration lawyer, took her to Vietnam to see the impact of American wars. “He didn’t want the military-industrial complex to eat my brain and convince me war was O.K.,” she once wrote.
The experience left an impression. She would come to believe the Course held the solution to the world’s social ills.At first, as she wrote in 2004, she saw the Course as the key to changing one’s personal life. “Today,” she went on, “I see its guidance as key to changing the world.”
A few years after the megachurch, Ms. Williamson began her tentative steps into politics. In 2004, she founded a nonprofit to advocate for a new agency of government — the Department of Peace. In 2010, she briefly mulled a congressional bid in California, and in 2014, she mounted an ill-fated run for the 33rd District (representing Bel Air and Beverly Hills) as an independent.
In 2016, Ms. Williamson saw Mr. Trump’s win as a deep crisis. “He is harnessing metaphysical traditions,” she told me, “but dark ones.” A mysterious feeling washed over her, compelling her to swoop into the political trenches.
When speaking to crowds that know her work, she draws from the Course’s brand of mysticism. Elsewhere, she is more subdued. On her new website she uses almost clinical language, calling the Course “not a religion, but rather a self-study program of spiritual psychotherapy.”
Ms. Williamson has spun her entire self-help enterprise off the Course, but not all who follow the text are rallying around her campaign. Many see the book as a meditative text for self-realization, not a political call to arms.
Jon Mundy, another popular author who writes self-help books based on the Course, is personally friendly with Ms. Williamson but wary. “Marianne is obviously very political,” he said. “The Course is not.”
CreditHolly Pickett for The New York TimesAt her book launch, Ms. Williamson spoke in front a packed room. The venue was Deepak Homebase, an event space where Deepak Chopra also keeps an office and is itself inside ABC Carpet & Home, the home décor store. Fans crowded at her feet on meditation pillows; candles flickered nearby. The debates at this point were still weeks away, and she had recently cleared the polling threshold to participate.
She paced the stage. “People always tell me, ‘You’ve changed my life.’ Well, I’m very grateful for that,” Ms. Williamson said. “Now let’s go change the world.”
The audience erupted. A woman, barefoot and sitting cross-legged, pumped her fist in the air and soundlessly mouthed, “Yes, yes.”
After, Ms. Williamson floated from the stage for autographs in the foyer, where her new books would soon sell out. A huge line had formed, snaking around the room.
A balding man stood at the front. He passed her a book. “You turned me on to the Course,” he said. “You saved my life so many times.”
Ms. Williamson squeezed his hand gently and said, “Love breaks down all the walls.”
Then she paused, pen held aloft. “Now, who can I make this out to?”