Describing a Salon article by Mitch Horowitz, there is a post over at Matt Cardin’s blog. He offers a summary:
“But the article’s overall topic is much broader, as indicated in the provided editorial teaser: “If you think New Age alternative spirituality is solely the domain of lefty hippies, you don’t know your history.” In just under two thousand words Horowitz discusses such things as the influence of Manly P. Hall on Ronald Reagan, Madame Blavatsky’s promulgation of the idea of “America as the catalyst for a revolution in human potential,” Donald Trump’s association with Norman Vincent Peale, FDR’s decision to put the eye-and-pyramid of the Great Seal of the United States on the dollar bill, Hillary Clinton’s visioneering meetings Jean Houston (who once told Bill Clinton that he was an “undeveloped shaman,” at which point he got up and walked out), and more. Horowitz’s basic point is that none of this represents a conspiracy, notwithstanding the claims of the paranoid conspiracy theorizing crowd”
It doesn’t surprise me. And I can’t say that I worry about the media having “characterized Bannon as the Disraeli of the dark side following his rise to power in the Trump administration.” That said, there might be a connection between Bannon’s attraction to both mysticism and fascism, which could cause one to wonder what kind of New Age he might envision. But the general connection between alternative spirituality and the political right isn’t particularly concerning. As Horowitz explains, that is simply a part of the social fabric of American society and far from being limited to right-wingers.
My conservative parents raised my brothers and I in several liberal New Agey churches, from Christian Science to Unity. It was my paternal grandmother, coming out of a Southern Baptist upbringing, who after she moved to California introduced my parents to New Age spirituality. It helped transition my dad from his earlier doubting agnosticism to his present family values Christianity. Interestingly, my parents now attend a liberal mainstream church, even as they remain strongly conservative. Both of my parents are into positive thinking, my dad being a fan of Norman Vincent Peale.
Religion plays a major role on my dad’s side of the family. My paternal grandfather was a minister who was more spiritual than religious, odd as that might sound. Along with reading my grandmother’s copy of A Course In Miracles, I enjoyed looking at some books my dad had inherited from my grandfather. Among those books, I was introduced to world religions and the likes of the two Krishnamurtis (Jiddu and U.G.).
I could point out that there is a common history to Evangelicalism, New Thought Christianity, and Prosperity Gospel. There are a number of books that cover this and other related history. Theosophy took hold in the US during the late 1800s Populist Era. There was a lot of odd mystical and spiritual thinking that arose in the 1800s, such as the popularity of spiritualism.
There have been many diverse expressions of religion across American history. My paternal great grandfather was an orphan in one of the last surviving Shaker villages, having left when he reached adulthood. Also, there was the Quakers, Deists, Unitarians, Universalists, Anabaptists, Pietists, Camisards, Huguenots, Moravians, Brethren, Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, Amanas, etc. Spiritualism and related practices became popular across religions. The Shakers went through a spiritualism phase, during which much interesting artwork was produced.
Multiple strains of dissenter religion influenced American society, in particular some of the radical thinking during the English Civil War when the first American colonies were taking hold. Roger Williams was a rather interesting religious radical in the early American colonies.
Here are some books that might be of interest, including one from the author of the article:
Occult America by Mitch Horowitz, Religion, Magic, and Science in Early Modern Europe and America by Allison P. Coudert, New Age and Neopagan Religions in America by Sarah Pike, A Republic of Mind and Spirit by Catherine L. Albanese, The New Metaphysicals by Courtney Bender, Ghosts of Futures Past by McGarry Molly, Plato’s Ghost by Cathy Gutierrez, The Occult in Nineteenth-Century America by Cathy Gutierrez, Each Mind a Kingdom by Beryl Satter, The History of New Thought by John S. Haller & Robert C. Fuller, Religious Revolutionaries by Robert C. Fuller, Spiritual, but not Religious by Robert C. Fuller, Restless Souls by Leigh Eric Schmidt, Spirits of Protestantism by Pamela E. Klassen, Secularism in Antebellum America by John Lardas Modern, The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912 by Thomas A. Tweed, America’s Communal Utopias by Donald E. Pitzer, and The Kingdom of Matthias by Paul E. Johnson & Sean Wilentz.
On a slightly different note, I would highly recommend The Churching of America by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. The authors show how, until the 19th century, Americans didn’t have high rates of religiosity such as church attendance. The increasing focus on spirituality was simultaneous with greater concern with mainstream religion.
Another thing that could be added were the Transcendentalists. They had interest in Eastern religious and philosophical thought. Translations of Eastern texts such as the Bhagavad Gita were available in the early 19th century. Henry David Thoreau brought the Bhagavad Gita with him to Walden. See: American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions by Arthur Versluis and The Gita within Walden by Paul Friedrich.
Later in that century, the Theosophical Society translated a large number of Eastern texts. Theosophists came to have much influence during the Populist Era of the 1890s and into the following century. I recall a march on Washington, DC during the 1890s was led by someone influenced by Theosophical thought.
That was a major turning point for American spirituality, fueled by populist revolt and questioning of religious authority. There was a hunger for both new politics and new religion. This was the same historical moment when such things as New Thought Unity Church was organized, specifically 1889. Jackson Lears, in Rebirth of a Nation, describes this era (pp. 237-238):
“Yet the vitalist impulse itself had larger than utilitarian implications. Its significance, like its origin, was religious. It lay at the heart of a broad revolt against positivism, a rejection of a barren universe governed by inexorable laws, where everything was measurable and nothing mysterious. The real problem for many vitalists (and certainly for James) was the specter of a life (and death) without meaning. It is possible to see all the talk about “life” as a way of whistling past the graveyard of traditional Christianity. But the vitalist ferment was also a genuine attempt to explore new meanings for human existence amid the wreckage of collapsing dualities: body and soul, matter and spirit, this world and the next.
“Educated Protestants, dissatisfied with desiccated theology, cast about for vital conceptions of cosmic meaning. Many explored medieval Catholic mysticism as an alternative to the banalities of the typical Sunday sermon, the sort of platitudes uttered by Henry Ward Beecher and other ministers who reduced the Protestant ethic to a mere prescription for worldly success. Buddhism and other Asian religions—discovered, imagined, and synthesized—also began to play a role in focusing popular longings. Vedanta, popularized at the Chicago World’s Fair and after by Swami Vivekenanda, and theosophy, preached by Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, were both synthetic expressions of spiritual ferment. Paul Carus founded the magazine Open Court to carry forward the work of the World’s Parliament of Religions, begun at the Chicago Fair, to create a common ground of ecumenical discussion, which might lead to a new synthesis—a “Religion of the Future” that might appeal to believer and skeptic alike.
“The results were mixed. Contributors to Open Court asked questions like “What is Life?” and then stumbled about in a soupy haze of abstractions. “The truth is, there are, as there must be, original factors in the world…and life (or chemical activity and appetency) is like gravity, one of them,” William Salter announced in 1901. “If we wish to account for them, we have to go back to the maker of all things (if there is a Maker) not to any of the things that are made.” One thing was certain: “The only salvation for society as for the individual, is from within—it is more life.” The reverence for “life” could overcome death itself. “Who knows but that that greater death which sooner or later overtakes us all…starts energies into play deeper than we had known before—that it is the death of the body, and freedom, new birth, to the soul?’
“The desire for regeneration led to death’s door and beyond. Yearnings for empirical proof of an afterlife and for communication with departed loved ones accelerated the appeal of spiritualism. Here was another example of fascination with invisible force, impossible to see but unmistakable (to believers) in its consequences—tables rising from the floor, sepulchral voices, mysterious music. Even William James was intrigued. While he remained skeptical of sweaty séances in darkened rooms, he joined the American Society for Psychical Research, providing legitimacy to the quest for connection with “discarnate spirits.” His interest in spiritualism reflected his openness to all manner of evidence, no matter how bizarre or apparently inexplicable—his radical empiricism, as he called it.”
By the way, Horowitz’s article reminded me of a passage in What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank. In a brief but insightful observation, Frank explains why right-wingers would find appealing what otherwise seems the New Age babble of hippies (Kindle Locations 1998-2013):
“Today bitter self-made men—and their doppelgängers, the bitter but not quite as well-to-do men—are all over the place. They have their own cable news network and their own TV personalities. They can turn to nearly any station on the AM dial to hear their views confirmed. They have their own e-mail bulletin boards, on which you can find hundreds of thousands of them plen-T-plaining about this outrage and that, from the national to the local. And although they like to fancy themselves rugged individualists (better yet, the last of the rugged individualists), what they really are is a personality type that our society generates so predictably and in such great numbers that they almost constitute a viable market segment all on their own.
“One more thing about the backlash personality type: every single one of the bitter self-made men of my youth was a believer in the power of positive thinking. If you just had a sunny disposish and kept everlastingly at it, they thought, you were bound to succeed. The contradiction between their professed positiveness and their actual negativity about nearly everything never seemed to occur to them. On the contrary; they would oscillate from the one to the other as though the two naturally complemented each other, giving me advice on keeping a positive mental outlook even while raging against the environmentalist bumper stickers on other people’s cars or scoffing at Kansas City’s latest plan for improving its schools. The world’s failure to live up to the impossible promises of the positive-thinking credo did not convince these men of the credo’s impracticality, but rather that the world was in a sad state of decline, that it had forsaken the true and correct path.2 It was as though the fair-play lessons of Jack Armstrong, Frank Merriwell, and the other heroes of their prewar boyhood had congealed quite naturally into the world bitterness of their present-day heroes, Charles Bronson, Dirty Harry, Gordon Liddy, and the tax rebel Howard Jarvis.”
(Note 2. “In The Positive Thinkers, Donald Meyer comments extensively on positive thinking’s understanding of the business civilization and extreme laissez-faire economics as the way of nature. (See in particular chap. 8.) As for its politics, Meyer points out that Norman Vincent Peale, the movement’s greatest celebrity preacher, dabbled in right-wing Republicanism, and a famous positive-thinking Congregationalist church in California embraced the John Birch Society. It is possible that the universal embrace of positive thinking by the bitter self-made men of my youth was a geographic coincidence, since Kansas City is home to one of the great powers of the positive-thinking world, the Unity Church. But I am inclined to think not. Positive thinking is today a nearly universal aspect of liberal Protestantism, traces of it appearing in the speeches of Ronald Reagan and the self-help entertainment of Oprah Winfrey.” [Kindle Locations 4350-4357])
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Some of the earliest blog posts I ever wrote was a 4 part series. In those earlier writings, I covered all of this in great detail and included much of my personal experience. They came from my old blog, originally posted on the now defunct Gaia website. I apologize for their needing to be cleaned up a bit, as the transferal of posts was done quickly, but they are readable as is.
New Age: Part 1
New Age: Part 2
New Age: Part 3
New Age: Part 4
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Additional thoughts (5/14/17):
My mother’s all-time favorite preacher is Robert Schuller. He is well known for his having built the Crystal Cathedral, the embodiment of the crass materialism of self-indulgence and cult of personality. Although humbly born and raised in Iowa, he became a mega-church preacher in California and thereby amassed immense wealth.
It’s interesting to learn about how California is the origins of the mega-church movement, along with the modern religious right that took over the GOP. California is also the birthplace of Nixon (infamous Orange County), as Southern California is filled with Southerners. Nixon promoted the Southern strategy and Reagan, a California transplant and professional corporate spokesperson, gave it a voice and a face. I should note that the Southern presence was so influential even in early Californian history that the state was almost split in two during the Civil War.
It was in California that my grandmother, raised Southern Baptist, converted to New Age religion. There is not much distance between the New Right and the New Age. Robert Schuller’s prosperity gospel and ‘old time’ family values easily bridges that distance. It’s why my conservative parents could simultaneously listen to the kindly patriarchal Schuller on television, attend a uber-liberal New Thought church (Unity), and vote for Reagan with his culture war religiosity and Hollywood smile — all part and parcel of the same worldview given its fullest form during the Cold War through the expression of Capitalist Christianity.
I recently learned that a regular guest on Schuller’s televized ministry was Laura Schlessinger, one of the major stars of late 20th century right-wing radio. I remember listening to her when I was still living in South Carolina. It was around the mid 1990s, considering her show was nationally syndicated in 1994 (the year I graduated high school). As the female version of Limbaugh, she was a typical egotist who thought her every ignorant opinion was God-inspired truth. She was a no-nonsense Cold War culture warrior, one of these privileged upper middle class white people who can talk tough because they’ve never dealt with a real problem in their entire life.
One time a caller complained about personal problems and Schlessinger’s advice was that the young woman should either take care of her problems or kill herself. I was shocked that any radio host would be that irresponsible, but that was common for right-wing talk radio. There is a heartlessness to this attitude. I can guarantee you that if this person had killed herself, a sociopathic social Darwinian like Schlessinger would have been happy that there was one less ‘loser’ in the world.
Now consider this mean-spirited asshole was a close personal friend of Robert Schuller, having said of her that she is “A positive voice for positive values without equal in our time.” Despite Schuller’s kind and friendly demeanor, there was a dark cancerous rot at the heart of his prosperity gospel. In the end, prosperity gospel was simply yet more rhetoric upholding the plutocracy and defending inequality. It was a worship of Mammon, in place of God.
This kind of prosperity gospel didn’t die with Schuller. It is still going strong. The mega-church movement has become more popular than ever and, with big money, it is a major political player with impressive clout. Some of Trump’s most outspoken and influential supporters were prosperity gospel preachers, such as Paula White and Joel Osteen (along with many others). This is nothing new. Going back decades, some truly hateful and demented religious leaders have openly supported and socialized with Republican politicians and even presidents. Some of these religious right leaders said things far worse than Trump and associates have dared to say and there was no backlash. Republicans have been courting rabidly reactionary radicalism for a long time.
This is not old time religion, in the traditional European sense. But America has always had weird strains of religiosity and spirituality, a hybrid spawn of Protestant Reformation and Counter-Enlightenment. The descendants of this match made in hell were suckled at the teat of American materialism with its dark history of oppression and inequality. Then driven mad through the delusional fear-mongering of generations of propaganda, from Cold War to War on Terror.
If one were feeling particularly cynical, it could be argued that Trump represents the final endpoint and highest expression of American Christianity. But that would be too dismissive toward the religious diversity that has always existed in North America, even if the ugliest expressions of religiosity too often have dominated. It should not be forgotten that the United States also has a history of radical left-wing religiosity as well. The hard-hitting Christian attitude eloquently put forth by the likes of Martin Luther King jr is alive and well, no matter how much corporate media hacks and corporatist politicians ignore it.
There is another point that should be made clear. The religious right mentality isn’t limited to the religious right, for the simple reason that the religious right itself in America is the product of post-Enlightenment liberalism. The American right in general has long been in love with the rhetoric of liberalism with its focus, however superficial, on liberty and freedom in terms of not just of religion but also of states rights, free markets, hyper-individuality, meritocracy, private ownership, gun rights, civil libertarianism, and on and on. So, in direct connection to this, it’s unsurprising to realize the extent to which liberals, specifically of the liberal class, have embraced right-wing ideology as great defenders of capitalist realism that supposedly liberates and empowers even as it harms and scapegoats so many.
Having been raised in the extreme liberalism of New Thought Christianity, this understanding developed in my direct personal experience. What Barbara Ehrenreich describes in her book Bright-sided is what I absorbed form childhood. And it really does fuck with your head. Ehrenreich criticizes a type of cruel optimism popular in America that is superficial and too often used to rationalize egregiously immoral or otherwise dysfunctional behavior. In my experience, positive thinking just made me feel worse, as if my depression was a sign of personal failure.
The expectation of positive thinking can be a heavy burden to carry. This is much worse when dealing with serious issues involving conditions of poverty and inequality, oppression and injustice, pain and suffering, desperation and struggle. According to prosperity gospel, all problems are to be blamed on individuals. It’s the punishment of having a wrong relationship with God, a carryover from the bleak predestination of Calvinism that involves a God who favors an elect of individuals and damns everyone else. But in prosperity gospel, God’s elect are made clear as his favors are seen in this world through material gifts and blessings, i.e., wealth.
I went into some detail about this in a previous post:
The inspiration for her writing about positive thinking was her experience with cancer. She saw the darkside of positive thinking within the cancer community.
This brings to mind my own grandmother who died of cancer. It’s because of her that I was raised in New Thought Christianity where positive thinking is very popular. She was diagnosed with cancer. She embraced the whole alternative medicine field and she had great faith in positive thinking. My dad says she was utterly crushed when doing all the right things didn’t make her cancer go away. She died of cancer. She was a woman who had a great sense of faith, and apparently I inherited my spiritual interests from her. I’ve seen all aspects of positive thinking and so I have a personal sense of what Ehrenreich is talking about.
But what is different is that positive thinking has become mainstream like never before. It’s not just alternative types. Positive thinking has become merged with the early American ideals of meritocracy, and together they create something greater than either alone.
In one video I saw of Ehrenreich, she made an interesting connection. She was talking about the meritocracy ideal, but I don’t think she was using that term. She was just talking about the ideal of positivie thinking in general within American culture. She connected this with Ayn Rand’s libertarians. If I remember correctly, she was making the argument that Rand was a one of the factors in popularizing positive thinking. She mentioned the book The Secret and how it’s representative of our whole culture. She blames the economic troubles we’re having now with the business culture of positive thinking, and it makes a lot of sense to me.
Also see two other videos:
Barbara Ehrenreich: “Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking Undermines America”
‘Smile or Die” How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World