Why the “power of positive thinking” is still so popular

It was the ultimate insult. In the early 1960s, the editors of the radical literary quarterly CONTESTATION hosted a small conference in New York with successful therapist Erich Fromm to discuss the Frankfurt School philosopher’s new manifesto on “ethical socialism.” At one point, socialist icon and presidential candidate Norman Thomas, “the sharp mind of his age”, editor Irving Howe recalled, exclaimed to the author: “Erich, it’s is beautiful writing and I don’t disagree with a word, but you know, to me it reads like a Norman Vincent Peale sermon!

Red with anger, the analyst left.

Theology or fluff?

Thomas’s barbed assessment reflected a widespread attitude among the intelligentsia – persistent to this day – that the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993), author of the 1952 monument The power of positive thinking, was an apostle of down. Comparisons to Peale were a scarlet letter of lack of seriousness.

Yet the Dutch Reform minister and best-selling author, whose book marks his 70th birthdaye anniversary this year, outlived in readership almost all of its contemporaries who promulgated a message of therapeutic practice, including Fromm and the once popular religious writers Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. Indeed, Peale’s 70-year-old volume upon publication spending an unprecedented 98 weeks at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, this year rose to number two on Weekly editors‘s list of religious bestsellers. Simon & Schuster has reissued several Peale titles.

Yet the man who introduced the term “positive thinking” to the American psyche was pained by its lack of acceptance among his literate peers. In reality, Peale was a widely read participant in the Boston University School of Theology who headed one of America’s oldest pulpits at Marble Collegiate Church on New York’s Fifth Avenue, from which he collaborated with the Freudian analyst Smiley Blanton to open the innovative religio-psychiatric clinic in 1937. .

Wondering if his personality-winning hit message had detracted from his theological gravity, Peale wrote that his father, also a minister, made it clear:

“Norman, I have read and studied all of your books and sermons and it is clearly evident that you have gradually developed a new religious system of thought and teaching. And that is good too, very good, because its center, its circumference and its essence is Jesus Christ There is no doubt of its strong biblical orientation Yes, you have developed a new Christian accent from a composite of the science of the mind [a mystical positive-mind philosophy]metaphysics, Christian science, medical and psychological practice, Baptist evangelism, Methodist witness, and solid Dutch Reformed Calvinism.

The political pastor

But Peale, it seemed, was his worst enemy. Unlike his exuberant public persona, Peale never shied away from partisan politics. Indeed, he had a history of crude political statements. In 1934, he warned the faithful that “an ominous shadow is cast over our liberties”, a thinly veiled reference to the New Deal. In 1952 he supported an arch-conservative movement to recruit General Douglas MacArthur to run for president. In 1956, Peale used his pulpit to criticize Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson for divorcing him, leading to Stevenson’s famous quip, “I find Saint Paul attractive and Saint Peale appalling”.

But it was in the fall of 1960 that Peale unleashed a veritable storm of controversy. During the Nixon-Kennedy campaign—Nixon was a loyal supporter and confidant—Peale publicly aligned himself with a group of conservative Protestant ministers who opposed the candidacy of John F. Kennedy on the grounds that Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, would ultimately prove loyal to the pope. The benevolent Citizens for Religious Liberty announced, “It is inconceivable that a Roman Catholic president would not be under extreme pressure from the hierarchy of his Church to adhere to his policies…” The conspirators feared that the young senator is, in fact, a Vatican. “Manchurian Candidate.”

A flood of negative coverage led to calls for Peale’s resignation from his pulpit, and several newspapers dropped his syndicated column. Peale was able to convince his parishioners that he had simply ventured, Forrest Gump-style, into a situation of which he had no prior knowledge. Speaking from his pulpit at Marble Collegiate, Peale said of his decision to join the band, “I was never too bright, anyway.” The line drew sympathetic laughter from the benches. Within Marble Collegiate, the rift has been healed.

But a darker Peale reappeared in private. In a 1960 letter to a supporter, Peale wrote, “I don’t care who among the candidates is chosen, except that he is an American who takes orders only from the American people. He went on to ask how a “devout Protestant like you could so enthusiastically favor an Irish Catholic for the presidency of our country founded by Calvinist Christians? After Kennedy’s victory, Peale wrote dejectedly to his friends: “Protestant America received its mortal blow on November 8.”

To Peale’s critics, the minister’s attack and denial tactics against Kennedy came as no surprise. Critics saw him as a smiley-faced figure – a happiness-spreader without an ethical core. Indeed, it must be recognized that Peale’s philosophy of positivity and self-esteem was incapable of meeting life in all its difficulties and tragedies. His vision did not include a theology of suffering. Peale seemed unable to persuade readers, as his avowed literary heroes Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James once did, that the individual faced with illness, tragedy and death could find dignity and purpose only in seeing themselves as part of cycles of creation, in which loss plays an inevitable role.

The deeper side of Peale

It must also be said, however, that if the intellectuals who rolled their eyes at Peale’s affirmation gospel had taken care to read his books, they would have discovered useful ideas. Peale’s outlook could cross a river – his advice could save a marriage from falling apart when an indescribable criticism, the kind that can never be undone, was uttered in the heat of the moment. Peale’s integration of psychology into church life significantly lessened the post-war stigma of seeing a therapist. Indeed, Peale was the most well-known clergyman to embrace psychotherapy – his religio-psychiatric clinic literature described the “sacredness of the human personality”. Peale encouraged religious traditions to stretch and grow in order to remain relevant. In 1936, four years after taking up his chair at Marble Collegiate, he wrote privately to a congregant: “In time the ideas of men change; their knowledge is broadened; and soon a credo leaves a lot to say and says things that are no longer tenable.

Peale possessed spiritual depth – but “the world has not seen that depth”, his successor Reverend Arthur Caliandro (1933-2013) reminded me when I wrote A simple ideaa history of the positive spirit movement.

The power of self-promotion?

Still, supporters and critics harbored questions about Peale’s theology and his deepest judgment. The Minister was most at home among business elites and corporate climbers. Caliandro recalled an elderly Peale’s attraction to Donald Trump when he first saw the real estate mogul on television. Peale was always “very impressed with successful people” and self-promoters, Caliandro recalled. “It was a weakness.”

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Indeed, among the movers and shakers who filled Peale’s pews were the family of a teenage Trump. The influence remained. “I still remember [Peale’s] sermons,” candidate Trump said at the Iowa Family Leadership Summit in 2016. “You could listen to him all day. And when you left the church, you were disappointed that it was over. He was the best guy. The power of positive thinking is one of the few books that the ex-president calls influential.

Did Peale create a philosophy that elevates self-confidence above ethics, as monstrously seen in Trump’s stolen election fantasies? Is this, ultimately, the key to the sustainability of his book?

The main criticism of Peale’s work stemmed from his principle that self-assurance brings fulfillment. Criticizing the modern urge to believe in oneself, philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) noted, “Assurance is despicable and deadly unless it is self-knowledge. The philosopher highlighted a contradiction in Peale’s approach – namely that people who are blindly confident, rather than accurately assessing their strengths and achieving their goals, are often dangerously delusional.

Yet the part of the equation that Santayana and other critics have missed is that Peale did not enact conceited idealism to the exclusion of self-questioning, a lesson Trump has generally ignored. In one facet of the minister’s positive thinking approach, it is only through a coordinated effort of thought that an individual can begin to grasp or question what they really want out of life and who they are. is really. The Protestant Minister’s vision proved electrifying and liberating to millions of readers raised on religion as a punitive institution. Peale’s central message, Caliandro recalls, was, “Not only can you be forgiven, but you can succeed, you can accomplish.”

Today, Peale’s message has inspired a wide range of therapeutic evangelical voices, including Joel Osteen, one of the few evangelical leaders who recognizes him as an influence and has appeared on the cover of the monthly Peale founded, Signposts. Other evangelists publicly keep their distance, wary of Peale’s integration of mystical themes with Bible-based Christianity. In The power of positive thinkingPeale embraced some of the key concepts of the affirmative spirit movement, including the “Law of Attraction”, “In Harmony with Infinity”, and the effectiveness of “Magnetic Prayer Power”. build bridges

At the end, The power of positive thinking endures because it exalts the possibilities of the individual in a way that suits both the church-going public and alternative or New Age seekers. Whatever one makes of Peale’s message or its fallout, the Minister is among the few figures who have bridged this divide and other cultural red lines. Indeed, today in the halls of the A. Philip Randolph Campus High School in Harlem, a mural painted by students, adjacent to plans for mass incarceration, quotes Peale: “Change your thoughts and you change your world.

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