(RNS) Since the 1950s there has been an intellectual vogue in running down the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993), whose post-war bestseller “The Power of Positive Thinking” made him the official smiley face of positive-mind spirituality.
With news coverage revealing that Peale and his book have wielded major influence on Donald Trump, the war drums over Peale’s legacy are beating once more — most recently in the Religion News Service’s damning assessment of Peale as a cypher who substituted happy thoughts for more traditional Christian themes of sin and redemption.
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But this decades-old critique of Peale has never gotten it quite right.
Peale rightly described himself as a conservative Dutch Reformed minister. Like other icons of self-help spirituality, such as Alcoholics Anonymous founders Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, Peale was politically conservative — but in matters of the spirit he was a great experimenter.
Peale took a deep interest in the strands of American spirituality that might be called “applied Transcendentalism” — a wave of therapeutic spiritual experiments that followed from the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the mid-to-late 19th century a collection of freethinking New Englanders founded the movement called “mental healing,” which itself morphed into a variety of mystical philosophies that taught: thoughts are causative. This was the original “power of positive thinking” — and this strain of self-belief is what you heard when Ronald Reagan used to say “nothing is impossible” or when Barack Obama urged “yes we can.”
Peale’s gift was in his ability to reprocess these ideas through scriptural language with which the churchgoing public was comfortable. But the notion that Peale did not care, or wrestle with, whether his self-affirming ideas comported with Christianity is historically wrong.
Peale went through deep periods of uncertainty following his fame. In a 1984 memoir, he recalled asking his father, also a minister, whether he had sold out his ideals. The elder Peale responded:
Norman, I have read and studied all your books and sermons and it is clearly evident that you have gradually evolved a new religious system of thought and teaching. And it’s O.K., too, very O.K., because its center and circumference and essence is Jesus Christ. There is no doubt about its solid Biblical orientation. Yes, you have evolved a new Christian emphasis out of a composite of Science of Mind, metaphysics, Christian Science, medical and psychological practice, Baptist evangelism, Methodist witnessing and solid Dutch Reformed Calvinism.
Critics were less concerned with the nature of Peale’s inner search than whether his ideas of affirmative thought led people into delusion — and whether he was too comfy with well-off congregants who had already won the game of life.
It must be conceded that the minister was most at home among business elites and corporate climbers. The Rev. Arthur Caliandro, who succeeded Peale after his 52 years at New York’s Marble Collegiate Church, recalled to me Peale’s attraction to Trump upon first seeing the real-estate magnate on television. Peale was always “very impressed with successful people” and self-promoters, Caliandro recalled. “That was a weakness.”
It must also be said, however, that if those intellectuals who rolled their eyes at Peale’s gospel of affirmation had taken the care to read his books they would have discovered a wealth of serviceable ideas. Peale’s outlook could ford a river — his advice could prevent a marriage from crumbling when an unspeakable criticism, of the kind that can never be rescinded, was uttered in the heat of an argument.
Peale’s integration of psychology into church life dramatically lessened the 1950s stigma of seeing a psychiatrist. Indeed, Peale was the best-known clergyman to embrace psychotherapy — the literature from his Religio-Psychiatric Clinic told of the “sacredness of human personality.”
And Peale encouraged the faith traditions to stretch and grow in order to stay relevant. In 1936, four years after taking the pulpit at Marble Collegiate, he privately wrote a congregant: “As time passes men’s ideas change; their knowledge is enlarged; and before long a creed leaves much to be said and says some things that are no longer tenable.”
Critics misunderstood one of Peale’s key tenets: that the pursuit of self-belief can itself become a form of self-inquiry. Peale didn’t promulgate a conceited idealism that deterred self-questioning. What Peale understood — and this is a key facet of the positive-thinking approach that detractors overlooked — is that only by a coordinated effort of thought could an individual begin to grasp or question what he actually wants from life, and who he really is.
The individual who possesses authentic and healthful self-belief is, in actuality, easily distinguishable from the person who harbors vain self-delusion, which always exposes itself in one telltale trait: that of the person who places chronic demands on others. Seen in proper perspective, Peale’s outlook demanded a personal inventory: a reckoning of one’s abilities and wishes, a responsibility for choosing one’s associates, and a clear self-sense of how one relates to others — none of which is guaranteed to increase one’s portion but will increase awareness. And the individual, armed with that awareness, must possess a willingness to leap a chasm when life demands. That, finally, is what Peale’s work pushes a mature reader towards.
As a seeker, Peale was engaged in all facets of spiritual life. He exchanged admiring letters with Duke University psychical researcher J.B. Rhine. He cultivated dialogue with other religious leaders. He regularly referred Jewish advice-seekers to Tehilla Lichtenstein, the pioneering female leader of the positive-thinking Jewish Science movement. The board of his Religio-Psychiatric Clinic was religiously diverse.
Peale possessed spiritual depth — but “the world did not see that depth,” Caliandro recalled.
Still, he could grievously confound supporters with displays of abysmal judgment, such as opposing John F. Kennedy’s 1960 candidacy on the grounds that Kennedy, as a Catholic, might have dual loyalties to the Vatican. It was Peale’s lowest moment. For some it was unforgivable. Where did Peale’s anti-Catholic bigotry come from? Friends and colleagues were mystified. Caliandro, a minister of depth and sensitivity who knew Peale for decades, could only shake his head in wonder.
Seen from this perspective, Peale, as a man, was less than his work. Yet there is probably not an ethical philosopher, political reformer, or religious figure of whom this cannot be said. As a thinker, however, Peale was no cypher: He united strands of mystical and traditional Christianity probably like no other figure in American history. His books, for those who read them, became resources that remade spiritual thought into a rigorously problem-solving and practical way of life. Peale did not depart from Christianity. He made it newly relevant for generations of seekers.