Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson urged her Twitter followers to pray for the Bahamas and the Southern U.S. coast on Wednesday morning, as Hurricane Dorian made its devastating path northward. This in itself was not a remarkable thing for a presidential candidate to do. The unusual thing was that Williamson also seemed to suggest that “the power of the mind” could alter the hurricane’s path.
“Millions of us seeing Dorian turn away from land is not a wacky idea,” Williamson tweeted. “It is a creative use of the power of the mind. Two minutes of prayer, visualization, meditation for those in the way of the storm.” The sentiment didn’t last long. By 10:15 a.m., it had been deleted and replaced with a more anodyne message of support:
As is often the case with Williamson’s rhetoric, her original meaning was slippery: Was she really saying that if enough people prayed, the hurricane would physically turn away from populated areas? Or was the idea just to send good vibes to people in Dorian’s path?
The tweet and its swift deletion are by now a standard part of Williamson’s playbook: Gesture to a genuinely unusual spiritual belief, and then “clarify” it in a way that scans as a complete reversal to casual observers. At a campaign event in New Hampshire in June, for example, Williamson called vaccine mandates “draconian” and “Orwellian,” and compared vaccination to the abortion debate: “The U.S. government doesn’t tell any citizen, in my book, what they have to do with their body or their child.” The next day, she appeared to reverse course, tweeting, “I understand that many vaccines are important and save lives.”
A vaccine skeptic listening closely, however, would be able to find plenty of succor between the lines. Williamson has questioned the value of vaccines multiple times over the years, and her supposed clarifications leave ample room for interpretation. In an interview last week with David Remnick on The New Yorker Radio Hour, she said she’s not an anti-vaxxer, and called the “Orwellian” comment “sloppy.” But vaccine skeptics rarely, if ever, call themselves anti-vaxxers. And she said almost in the same breath that some of them have “legitimate questions.” When Remnick pressed her, pointing out that well-meaning people can be scientifically wrong, she sounded like she agreed with him. “The government has to make the decision that based on its scientific evaluation is in the best interest of the public, and that’s what I would do as president,” she said. Anyone listening casually would have thought she conceded the point. But she didn’t actually say what she hoped or expected the government’s scientific consensus might be.
Which brings us back to Wednesday’s quickly deleted “creative use of the power of the mind” tweet about Hurricane Dorian. To be fair, if there’s ever an appropriate time for a political figure to call publicly for prayer, the hours when a natural disaster is bearing down surely qualifies. In these moments, while emergency officials prepare, there’s little else to be done, President Donald Trump’s nuke plans notwithstanding. As Slate’s Shannon Palus has written, Williamson’s actual policy proposals are “generally pretty science-literate.” She believes in man-made climate change, and that the problem requires immediate political attention. Unlike anti–gun control politicians in the wake of mass shootings, she’s not substituting prayer for policy. Calling for prayer at a time like this is a gesture of attention and concern.
But mainstream national politicians, even Republicans appealing to conservative Christians, rarely suggest that prayer can affect the physical world in real time. They also don’t use phrases like “power of the mind” or “visualization” or suggest an exact length for effective prayers. Obviously, someone at Williamson HQ realized this quickly. But its existence, however brief, suggests someone there believes it just a little bit, too.
Update, 4:36 p.m.: As this post was being published, Williamson tweeted in apparent defense of her original sentiment, or at least the concept of prayer:
It’s unclear why Williamson would delete the original tweet if she believes this.