Columbus, Ohio — The small group sat in the chapel of a Northeast Side church, fans whirring as they closed their eyes and listened to the soothing, hypnotic voice of William Carpenter tell them they are breathing in peace as they inhale.
“We’re moving from praying to God to praying in God,” said Carpenter, the group’s facilitator. “There’s nothing you have to reach out for … There’s no effort to pray in God. We’re already whole, perfect and complete.”
The group was practicing “A Course in Miracles,” a text they and Democratic Presidential candidate Marianne Williamson follow. Though not known as a religion, the text, published in 1975, does reference God and Jesus.
Williamson, a self-help author, describes the course as “a self-study program of spiritual psychotherapy.” While some have labeled the practice as selfish and called Williamson wonky, there are more than 2,000 study groups like the one Carpenter leads around the world, with three in Columbus, according to The Foundation for Inner Peace, which publishes the book on the course.
The Foundation describes the course on its web site as “a unique spiritual self-study program designed to awaken us to the truth of our oneness with God and Love.”
Those in the meeting at Unity Church of Christianity say it has helped them find inner peace, forgive people and made life make sense when other religious practices seemed to make concepts more confusing. Many shared that they came to it after tragedy struck their lives.
Carpenter, 68, of Westerville, has been practicing the course since 1976 when he discovered an inner longing that wasn’t fulfilled by the Catholic faith of his upbringing.
“It gives a practical application of Christianity,” he said.
As for Marianne Williamson, who hasn’t yet been confirmed to participate in the next Democratic primary debates on Sept. 12 and 13, Carpenter said he thinks she’s made a “huge difference” by running.
“She started another conversation,” he said, as she has helped people to understand there can be more than the bickering that exists between the two political parties. “As a student of the course, it’s really not her but the Holy Spirit working through her inspiring her to take on that endeavor.”
Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University in southwestern Ohio, pointed out how Williamson isn’t talking of race and gender, or identity politics, like other candidates, but is instead talking of what she sees as a moral, fundamental problem in the country that people don’t love each other.
“She’s interesting and she’s different and I really thought for a while that might be enough to help her stand out, but we haven’t seen that in the polls yet,” Smith said. Her candidacy will likely bring “A Course in Miracles” further into the light, though, even if she doesn’t speak directly about her beliefs, said Smith and Joshua Ambrosius, associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton.
Williamson got the biggest bump in attention from the stage of the second debate at the end of July, Ambrosius said, when thousands Googled her.
Among her followers, levels of support differ.
Rose Spencer, 33, of Hilliard, who was at the group meeting with Carpenter, said Williamson, after her own mother, turned her onto the course, which she began practicing in earnest three months ago.
As for her presidential run, Spencer said “it’s about time.”
“I think she could make a huge difference if she won,” she said. “She gets to the root of the issue … I’m going to vote for her.”
Though most of the local study group expressed support for Williamson and her ideas, political scientists are skeptical that she has much of a chance at the presidency and at least one student of the course has reservations.
“I do not agree with her politics,” said Jeff Stephens, 54, of Kingston in Ross County. “I hope people don’t come to our group or ‘A Course in Miracles’ hoping to find that agenda because it’s not political.”
Stephens feels that some of Williamson’s views don’t fit with the teachings of the course. For instance, her plan to pay restitution to the descendants of slaves is about going back to the past and correcting an error that happened decades ago, whereas the course teaches forgiveness and not living in the past, said Stephens, who has been studying the course for a few years.
“I don’t think she’s making a good representative (of the course) as I understand it,” he said. “She’s not telling people about the course, she’s talking politics.”