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Pope Oprah

Ross Douthat explains why — he’s serious — Oprah Winfrey ought to be taken seriously as a religious leader in touch with the American masses. Excerpts:

But in between secularism and traditionalism lies the most American approach to matters of faith: a religious individualism that blurs the line between the God out there and the God Within, a gnostic spirituality that constantly promises access to a secret and personalized wisdom, a gospel of health and wealth that insists that the true spiritual adept will find both happiness and money, a do-it-yourself form of faith that encourages syncretism and relativism and the pursuit of “your truth” (to borrow one of Oprah’s Golden Globes phrases) in defiance of the dogmatic and the skeptical alike.

Because this kind of faith is not particularly political, because it’s too individualistic and personalized (and comfortable with the post-Me Decade American status quo) to be partisan and programmatic, it doesn’t always get the attention it deserves from a press accustomed to analyzing everything in terms of the clash of left and right.

Douthat says there actually are are conservative and liberal manifestations of this spirituality, but

the divide between blue-state spirituality and red-state spirituality is much more porous than other divisions in our balkanized society, and the appeal of the spiritual worldview cuts across partisan lines and racial divides. (Health-and-wealth theology is a rare pan-ethnic religious movement, as popular among blacks and Hispanics as among Americans with Joel Osteen’s skin tone, and when Oprah touts something like “The Secret,” the power-of-spiritual-thinking tract from the author Rhonda Byrne, she’s offering a theology that’s just Osteen without Jesus.) Indeed, it may be the strongest force holding our metaphysically divided country together, the soft, squishy, unifying center that keeps secularists and traditionalists from replaying the Spanish Civil War.

If Oprah entered the political fray as a Democrat, she could lose her religious power, says Douthat. But that’s not the only possibility:

Or it could be that her religious authority would make the Democratic Party far more popular and powerful, more a pan-racial party of the cultural center and less a party defined by its secular and anticlerical left wing.

You really should read the whole thing, especially if you’re skeptical. That’s a fascinating point, that last one: that Oprah could make the Democrats a religion-friendly party. Sure, it would be, as Douthat titled his (excellent, important) previous book, “bad religion,” but that doesn’t mean it’s not religion (even if it calls itself “spirituality”).

Oprah’s spirituality is consonant with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, in that it is non-doctrinal, and sees matters of religion and spirituality as essentially about self-expression (telling “your truth”) and self-improvement. As Christian Smith and his colleagues have shown, this is the de facto religion of tens of millions of Americans, though it is expressed in different ways. The Evangelical theologian Alastair Roberts has said this about his own tradition, and how susceptible it is to popular theology:

Evangelicalism has always had populist, democratic, anti-hierarchical, and egalitarian instincts within it. However, these instincts have typically existed alongside many other instincts that served to correct, counterbalance, or check them. The rise of modern media, especially the Internet, has removed many of the limits to these instincts, radically empowering egalitarian and anti-hierarchical instincts over others.

The Internet weakens the pull of locality and the power of context more generally, while empowering movements that are dislodged from physical context and reality, more fully congruent with its tendencies. This radically shifts the balance of power between parachurch or non-ecclesial agencies and those of the local church. Evangelicalism was always going to be in trouble when the means of self-publication were spread to the masses and the general monopoly of the pulpit upon the public dispensing of theological opinion started to crumble. At least as long as the pulpit held sway, some general standards of theological training could—rather unevenly—be maintained as prerequisites for access to it and there was more hope of a mature conversation. The publishing industry would also primarily discover potential writers among trained pastors and academics, rather than among people who had obtained prominence largely independent of such institutions online.

It’s not just an Evangelical problem. This is a general problem for American Christianity. Oprah’s “religious authority” — that is, the fact that so very many people see her as a spiritual leader, even if she doesn’t claim to be — is greater than is generally understood. I don’t fault her for this — she is incredibly charismatic, and seems like a genuinely kind person — but it’s there, and it must not be dismissed. Look at this:


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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