James A. Pike, a bishop of the Episcopal Church active in the 1950s and ’60s, was in many ways a footnote in modern American history. Yet he was an influential media figure in his time, an agitator of radical religion and politics. His legacy is still clearly visible today, 50 years later, both in the church and today’s growing vacuum of faith, and in today’s marriage of convenience between the superficially religious and left-wing politics.
Pike was first ordained as a priest in 1946, and later became increasingly extreme and outspoken in his politics and theology, which was often heretical. Then, to top it all off, he took a deep dive into the occult — publicly. More on that below.
Pike’s death was just as dramatic as his career. In September 1969, he wandered lost and confused in the Judean Desert, trying to replicate the footsteps of Jesus for a book he planned to write. He was ill-prepared for the trip, and there he died of thirst, heat stroke, and a 60-foot fall into a canyon.
Pike and the Episcopal Church as a Bridge to Nowhere
Pike is best known for the divisions he sowed into the Episcopal Church by injecting heresy. He seemed to invest his entire clerical career into remaking that church (and other churches) in his own image. His fiery sermons in the 1950s and ’60s increasingly accused the church of hypocrisy and attacked her central doctrines, including the Incarnation and the Trinity.
Much of the Episcopal leadership seemed too cowed by Pike to do very much about his heterodox preaching. Its House of Bishops was intimidated, at least in part, by Pike’s celebrity status. Ironically, news of Pike’s death came just as the Episcopal Church convened for its national convention in South Bend, Indiana.
Pike used his celebrity to promote various left-wing social issues, including strong support for Planned Parenthood and the LGBT agenda. At the same time, media outlets projected a positive image of him as a civil rights marcher and anti-war protester. While dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, Pike had his own weekly television show on ABC, where he gained a following that rivaled the popularity of Catholic Bishop Fulton Sheen’s show.
By 1958, when Pike became bishop of California, he went full throttle on preaching against central church doctrines. He was also a guest on many popular TV talk shows at the time, including “The Joe Pyne Show” and William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line.” Pike had enormous reserves of energy, but as an alcoholic and womanizer driven by his own agendas, he had little tolerance for views — religious or political — other than his own, and little time for his wife and four children.
After tearing away millennia-old traditions and beliefs, in 1966 he became obsessed with the occult after his estranged 20-year-old son committed suicide. I believe sliding into the amorphous world of the occult is far easier if one becomes unmoored from objective reality and objective truth. I think this was the case with Pike who, as a bishop, was steeped in the fog of moral relativism.
He held séances, consulted psychics, and publicly delved into the paranormal, expecting to resurrect his dead son so he could talk to him. Whatever Pike had left at the end of his life, one would be hard-pressed to describe it as a faith tied in any way to an enduring community or traditions.
These themes in Pike’s inflammatory tenure as a bishop — the elevation of his views over those established and sustained over thousands of years by the church, and the public replacement of traditional faith with a mix of leftist politics and the occult — have affected the state of faith in America today.
A Spiritual Vacuum Filled by Neo-Paganism
By sowing contempt for cherished traditions and replacing them with nihilism and a theology of self-will, Pike’s legacy includes the growing spiritual vacuum in today’s America. The reasons for this growth are complex.
They include interrelated developments of the breakdown of family, the sexual revolution, community breakdown (especially communities of faith), the decline of marriage, social isolation, the toxic effects of social media, and a growing population of aimless young men. All of this is a recipe for the loneliness epidemic that’s flooding the nation.
Pike’s influence notwithstanding, no one person caused this vacuum. But Pike played his role big time, and the decline of faith in America today is clear. Church attendance has been waning for decades. Episcopal Church membership in particular has declined by more than 50 percent in the decades since Pike’s death (from 3.58 million in 1968 to 1.68 million in 2018.)
The rate of “nones” — people who check the “none” box on religious affiliation — is growing rapidly, particularly among millennials. According to a Pew Research study, “nones” are now 23 percent of the overall population (up from 16 percent in 2007) and 35 percent for millennials.
But a faith vacuum does not mean people aren’t seeking some sort of fulfillment they believe to be “spiritual” in nature. Many unmoored souls are searching for a connection with the transcendent. Last year, a Pew Research poll noted that roughly 6 in 10 Americans hold at least one of four New Age beliefs (astrology, psychics, reincarnation, or animism, the belief that inanimate objects can be infused with spiritual energy.)
A fast-growing number of Americans are identifying as “spiritual but not religious,” especially millennials, who are increasingly interested in paganism and the occult. We see the rise of cults such as Scientology. We’re also seeing some newer cultish trends that appear to be politically incorrect, such as the growing popularity of an anonymous manifesto entitled “Bronze Age Mindset” that seems to beckon men back to a more tribal masculinity.
Are these echoes of Pike’s shift to the occult? Perhaps living in a vacuum devoid of faith and bereft of any true faith community or traditions has a way of leading people down such paths.
In light of all of these trends, we might ponder how all of this relates both to the New Agey messages of Democratic candidates Marianne Williamson and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s hard sell of progressive Christianity.
Politicized Religion and ‘Progressive Christianity’
An equally important part of Pike’s legacy was the church’s immersion in politics — and vice versa. Religion becomes politics pursued by other means, and, at least up to a point, vice versa. The left long worried about Pat Robertson and what they called the religious right. But before Robertson on the right came Pike on the far left.
Pike not only helped stimulate America’s current vacuum of faith, but he also made great inroads into bringing identity politics and political correctness into the Episcopal Church. As an indicator of how far down the identity politics path it has gone, in 2014 the National Cathedral announced and celebrated the “first openly transgender priest” to preach from its historic Canterbury pulpit. Many other mainline Protestant denominations have been following suit, heavily infiltrated by Pike-minded clergy who eschew central church doctrines and traditions.
So today Americans are getting a major dose of religious proselytizing from what formerly seemed unlikely quarters. Democrats — particularly presidential candidates Buttigieg and Williamson — have been pontificating on the moral superiority of their religious beliefs. Buttigieg has actually stated that it’s important to take on the “religious right” and beat them at what he perceives to be their own game. As an Episcopalian who can quote scripture for his purposes, Buttigieg made a point of commenting that God would not be a Republican.
Of course, claiming the moral high ground is standard fare for politicians of all stripes. But Buttigieg and Williamson are especially unique for their open and persistent evangelizing. Sadly, they seem to enjoy browbeating Americans into conformity with their personal interpretations of Scripture. Buttigieg’s brand of Christianity basically states that if you don’t agree with him on public policy, then you are not a Christian. Or as he put it in an interview with Kirsten Powers, “Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction.”
Buttigieg also commented on Vice President Mike Pence’s different point of view on same-sex marriage, saying Pence had a problem “with who I am,” and that Pence’s problem amounts to a “quarrel with my creator.” How can Pence redeem himself, according to Buttigieg? By changing his stance to match Buttigieg’s.
By thus positioning Pence and anyone who agrees with Pence as anti-God, Buttigieg is merely continuing Pike’s legacy: to subvert all churches into becoming organs that empower the political left. This means you cannot call yourself a Christian if you do not get on board with raising the minimum wage, embracing the LGBT agenda, opening the borders, and all the rest of Buttigieg’s policy prescriptions.
Buttigieg also told Powers he is committed to getting people to change their opinions on marriage. Anyone who has studied authoritarian systems can hear distinct echoes of struggle sessions (of Maoist descent and common enough on today’s college campuses) in what Buttigieg said next: “But I also want to recognize the struggle they might be having and get them there. And in getting there, I want some kind of healing to go on so that they can recognize … that our marriages are just as good as theirs. We’ve got to make sure that they feel good about themselves in the process of coming to a more accepting view.”
As nice as that may sound, he is actually describing an old authoritarian tactic of coercive thought reform used to “get rid of old ways of thinking.”
Marianne Williamson’s Authoritarian Streak
For her part, Williamson preaches a New Age spirituality based on a 1976 cult book called “A Course in Miracles.” The author, Helen Schucman, claimed Jesus personally dictated the book to her, and Williamson made a career out of teaching its principles. In the presidential debates, Williamson spoke forcefully about how her brand, “the politics of love,” would save us all from the “politics of fear,” which Republicans supposedly preach.
I’m familiar with the draw of New Age beliefs, having been a fan of the old Bodhi Tree bookstore in Los Angeles. Attraction to New Age is more of a sensation than anything else. It’s understandable because human beings by nature tend to gravitate toward the numinous and mystical.
But New Age is more of an occult-like lure thana compelling human response to the numinous or holy. New Age is nebulous and Jungian with the big ideas of the collective unconscious and a sort of mind-body-spirit flotation in which we all go about the universe “impacting the ethers,” to use a Williamson phrase. I would expect Williamson’s influence to grow, especially among yoga-practicing and Oprah-devotee, suburban women.
As with Pike and so many others, Williamson really promotes a cult directed by self-will, self-liberation, and personal ambition. Her candidacy, as well as Buttigieg’s, is primarily an attempt to impact the ethers of America. But the problem with raw self-will and self-liberation as a guiding principles is that it too often leads to a God complex, which has been the doom of human beings since the fall of man.
If your view of reality is just as good as anybody else’s, and if you can only see the scriptures as annoying limits on the ego (not to mention the libido), then everybody is a god, and there can be no common reality that connects us. So it is self-isolating as well. One’s self-will is always colliding with the self-will of others.
If you think you have a monopoly on the truth, then everyone else is chopped liver. We can see this very clearly in a Williamson stunt in 2016, when she instructed every white person in a church at which she was speaking to apologize in unison to blacks who were present. She led them in a “repeat after me” confession for being oppressors who were responsible for the sins of slavery and white supremacy.
You have to watch the clip beginning at 10:13 to grasp Williamson’s pandering and hypnotic tone, which in effect stripped everyone of their individual identities and forced them into racial, identity-politics roles. The session got so intense and manipulative that a participant started letting out primal screams. Williamson welcomed the screaming, saying it’s important to “go deep” when people have “hundreds of years of anger in their cells.” Welcome to the new fire-and-brimstone.
An Unholy Alliance of Earth Mother and Big Brother
So those who peddle both New Age consciousness and identity politics religion tend to be hostile toward anything that gets in the way of personal ambitions and cravings, especially orthodox Christian doctrine. The irony is that self-will isn’t really self-actualizing. When left unchecked by Judeo-Christian values and a constitutional system that recognizes man’s fallen nature, an attitude of self-will easily — almost inevitably — becomes authoritarian in nature. Before long, the weak are at the mercy of the strong, and everybody’s words and thoughts become policed.
So Big Brother is right there in the policy prescriptions of both Buttigieg and Williamson, as much as in just about all of the other Democrats running for president. They’ve given us ample warning that they are no friends of the First Amendment. All of their policies, from “Medicare for all” to raising the minimum wage, aim to grow the state at the expense of weakened individuals left to grope for the ethers on their own. For all of their hype about “separating families at the border,” their policies are all about separating people, especially children, from the natural bonds we crave and need.
Buttigieg and Williamson’s support for unlimited abortion up to birth is an assault on the child-mother bond. They won’t speak up for the fatherless child who craves a father. They certainly won’t speak up for the child who is confused after being de-sexed by a school curriculum that pushes transgenderism. They are also both very much on board with the censorship and social engineering the Equality Act requires. And Williamson’s proposal to further bureaucratize the lives of children through a new federal “Department of Children” is Orwellian stuff.
The moral relativism of both New Age and “progressive Christianity” is disastrous. So-called progressive Christianity is self-serving with a huge dose of hypocrisy. There is no end to the bureaucratic hell they would produce in the name of their religions. The state will provide and provide and provide until individuality and self-reliance fade into distant memory.
With so many Americans in a spiritual vacuum, the political creeds of Williamson and Buttigieg seem intended to have a major effect on the direction of the Democratic Party, no matter who wins the nomination. If people trend toward their brands — encouraged by media hype — they would put us on track for a much more authoritarian government. Buttigieg appears to be Pike-lite at mixing politics and religion. Williamson is Big Brother in Earth Mother drag. And it’s definitely an unholy alliance.