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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. [1]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 [1], 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 [2], “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 [3] 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:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js [7]

46 Comments (Open | Close)

46 Comments To "Pope Oprah"

#1 Comment By JLF On January 10, 2018 @ 11:46 am

“Indeed, it [the appeal of a spiritual worldview] 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.”

There is certainly something to be said for that.

#2 Comment By Blaise Pascal On January 10, 2018 @ 11:51 am

I wish a course in formal Logic was required in all colleges.We wouldn’t get people like Trump and Oprah as serious politicians.

#3 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On January 10, 2018 @ 11:55 am

This is probably not a good time to state that I don’t believe in Oprah either.

#4 Comment By collin On January 10, 2018 @ 12:18 pm

As a Democrat I am with Matt Y. that anti-anti Oprah and kinda find this whole President run stuff a bit over-the-top. It is even worse than during the Obama administration any decent Republican Politician, for example Joni Ernst in 2014, would make a great Prez candidate lots of nonsense talk. Note that Ernst may become a good Prez candidate, but she needs more experience in the limelight and dealing with national issues. (I put Kamala Harris is the same situation who is too pro-Immigration for the national politics.) And I really don’t want any decent Award show speech to viewed as the ‘First’ political speech which will combine the awfulness of TV political pundits and TV Entertainment as the worst crossover show ever. Or worse yet we can have LeBron James retirement speech covered by ESPN and MSNBC!

Several Points:
1) Her popularity and fame has diminished a lot more than people think at this point. My teenage kids don’t know who she is.
2) Because of Oprah we have Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz which seems really bad.
3) Judging by the 2017 special elections, the more boring and normal candidates, Handel, Northam, and Jones, did the best. In the age of Trump, I wonder if that will be the political blowback to the return of good boring qualified candidates. (I reserve to change judgement based on 2018 Midterms.)

#5 Comment By Gerald Arcuri On January 10, 2018 @ 12:19 pm

Look to the culture to understand the Oprah phenomenon. Americans are hooked on celebrity, not sobriety. We shouldn’t be surprisef that they follow pseudo-sages like Oprah. And elect them to public office. Politics is downstream of culture.

#6 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 10, 2018 @ 12:25 pm

When the top 9 names on the list have popularity ranging from 17 to 1 percent, that list doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. So what if 17 percent of Americans admire Hillary Clinton? What about the other 83 percent?

Ross Douthat has a deep religious faith. Consequently, he views whatever moves or motivates others, whether they share his faith or any faith, in light of his own point of view. How can anyone who takes any sensual pleasure in “the world” be described as Gnostic?

#7 Comment By Erdrick On January 10, 2018 @ 12:27 pm


#8 Comment By Adamant On January 10, 2018 @ 12:33 pm

“But it clearly holds the balance of power in our cultural conflicts, and it’s hard to imagine our civic peace surviving without the bipartisan influence of its soothing faux profundities.“

If MTD can’t be coherent or good, it’s doing real yeoman’s work at being extraordinarily useful. It comes with it’s own objectively harmful train of quackery, however. Witness Oprah herself giving a platform to the nutcase vaccine-denialist Jenny McCarthy.

“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.“

Eh, not so sure. It would require progressives to put away their politics of lifestyle obsessions, on everything from sexual issues to speech codes, (very few of which are shared strongly by the black and Hispanic voters needed to make this pan-racial reconciliation work). It would require restoring a proper Left focus on class issues: pay, healthcare, child-care, education as more than an middle-class cultural marker, jobs, etc.

But maybe the lady born into grinding poverty in Jim Crow Mississippi is positioned to do just that.

#9 Comment By BlairBurton On January 10, 2018 @ 12:36 pm

As a Democrat I don’t believe that Oprah should run for President (unless she’s willing to pay her dues politically by starting with an lesser office) – though she would be better than Trump, not that that’s a very high bar to clear – but her story is the epitome of the American dream. Born out of wedlock in poverty and as an African American girl, suffering sexual abuse as she grew up, dealing publicly with personal issues many face like weight control, she has become one of the most famous people in America, a self made billionaire who largely uses her fame and fortune for good. Don’t underestimate the sheer power of her story.

#10 Comment By Jeremy On January 10, 2018 @ 12:40 pm


#11 Comment By Liam On January 10, 2018 @ 1:01 pm

I am, culturally, New England Yankee. Which means I instinctively distrust hot or charmingly charismatic personalities – they make me want to check for my wallet or whether I left the temporary CREDULOUS bar tattoo on my hand or forehead. I prefer cool (not hip, but personality temperature) and dull, but it’s not like that automatically gets a pass, either. I detest culture of celebrity and glamour – one reason I prefer Boston to NYC (historically, Boston was long the urban ground zero of earnestly dowdy and dull for American culture).

Oprah be Oprah, but not President Oprah.

#12 Comment By Chewie On January 10, 2018 @ 1:05 pm

My first comment here, and it’s merely to note my mild disappointment that you did not title this with the obvious portmanteau.

#13 Comment By Michelle On January 10, 2018 @ 1:59 pm

Douthat has been on a roll lately. He’s right. Oprah fits the same mold as properity gospel purveyors like Osteen and the woman Trump touts as his spiritual guide. Her “spirituality” is all about self-fulfillment and personal growth. It may not be as crassly money-focused as the prosperity gospel but it’s equally consumerist. The way to spiritual growth always seems to lead through certain authors and products. I’m sure Oprah did wonders for sales of The Secret and its related paraphernalia.

There’s always been an element of equating G-d’s blessing with material wealth in this country, deep in its roots. Oprah is part of a long and powerful cultural strain.

#14 Comment By Thomas Parker On January 10, 2018 @ 2:52 pm

Oprah is the quintessential modern American celebrity/oracle, because she didn’t become famous and wealthy and influential in spite of her mediocrity; she became famous and wealthy and influential because of her mediocrity.

#15 Comment By mzala On January 10, 2018 @ 3:30 pm

Electing Trump was a terrible idea both because he cannot control his impulses, *and* because he was, and is, entirely unqualified for the office.

I’m ready to believe that Oprah may be smarter and better at controlling herself than Trump, but she is just as unqualified for the office.

This is a terrible idea, I don’t care how popular she is with the American public.

Would you hire your surgeon this way? Your car mechanic? “Oh, hey, she’s really popular! Let’s let her do my bypass! What do you mean, she doesn’t know anything about medicine? Look how good she is at getting that crowd going!”

But we’ll let them run our country?

#16 Comment By briggs On January 10, 2018 @ 4:12 pm

Ms. Winfrey no longer has a daily platform for her brand of spirituality. Her OWN network shows the usual crime story reruns and occasional “life classes.” We see her every day now in commercials selling weight loss plans, and her brand of “healthy” foods. I think her influence has waned greatly, and the young voters coming up will not remember her in her glory days. Another aging (63-ish?) figure who will be unrelatable to many voters.

#17 Comment By briggs On January 10, 2018 @ 4:15 pm

Ms. Winfrey has fallen a long way from the days that featured her on a daily platform for her brand of spirituality. These days, her brand is seen mainly in commercials for weight loss plans and pre-packaged healthy meals. People entering the voting pool will not idolize her the way she has been in the past.

#18 Comment By William M. On January 10, 2018 @ 4:39 pm

Me, I was thinking POPRAH!, but the other versions look good too.

#19 Comment By james On January 10, 2018 @ 4:54 pm

Douthat has made it clear in the past couple of years: He just does not like popes. Having said that, Oprah for President is only a bit less ridiculous than Trump for President—and only because she actually earned her money and notoriety, rather than inheriting everything and and claiming herself to be a stable genius. If the Democratic leadership becomes as crass and cynical as the GOP leadership by allowing Oprah to become their leader, we will have a different but equally damaging mess to clean up. Enough with the celebrity candidates already.

[NFR: That is not true about him not liking popes. He has big problems with Pope Francis’s governance. That’s very, very far from not liking the papacy. — RD]

#20 Comment By Josh K On January 10, 2018 @ 5:02 pm

The strangest thing about Oprah is that she’s named after Orpah from the Book fo Ruth. Basically Orpah was the failed Ruth. She initially wanted to convert but turned back at the critical moment where Ruth succeeded and subsequently fell off of a cliff spiritually. Let’s just say it’s not a common person to be named after either.

Having the leading spiritual figure of MTD being named after her is eerie.

#21 Comment By Brendan from Oz On January 10, 2018 @ 5:23 pm

Even Gnosticism ain’t what it used to be when it encounters Tech and Mammon – secret sacred knowledge cults are now very materialistic (think Scientology). Valentinianism wasn’t completely opposed to the material, but most were before the New Age.

The connection between Oprah and Gnosticism, esp Eckhart Tolle, has many sources and comments online for many years.

#22 Comment By Peter H On January 10, 2018 @ 5:38 pm

If I were a Democratic strategist, I’d suggest that Oprah keep poking her foot in the water. Everything these days is, of course, done for an audience of one.

Run around the country giving speeches. It will drive Trump nuts if she draws larger crowds than he does. I’m sure that Oprah can tailor the content of her speeches to poke at President Trump. She might even be able to prompt him to take certain actions, especially if she frames it correctly.

Eventually, Trump will have to consider the possibility that she might beat him in the 2020 election. He’s not going to want to face that defeat. In response to an Oprah footsie campaign, expect Trump to announce that he’s not going to run for reelection.

Mission accomplished, Oprah can tease just long enough to make it hard for Trump to reenter the race before she bows out.

#23 Comment By charles cosimano On January 10, 2018 @ 5:42 pm

Oh Lord the jokes! If Ross says to take someone seriously we know not to.

On the other hand, considering how we deal with spiritual leaders, laugh at them, ridicule them and utterly ignore them, it would seem to be the perfect fate for her. She would be what she is, just another walking freak show.

We could call her Bhagwan and dump her and followers somewhere in Oregon. It would be perfect for them. And probably for Oregon.

#24 Comment By Trimalchio On January 10, 2018 @ 5:49 pm

I have never heard anyone accusing someone of mediocrity whom I have not immediately categorized as an insecure intellectual snob.

#25 Comment By Dale McNamee On January 10, 2018 @ 6:20 pm

@ Michelle,

Great comment !

Oprah was the original “believe in yourself” preacher…

#26 Comment By March Hare On January 10, 2018 @ 7:02 pm

Peter H nails it.

Keep the twitterer in chief distracted with a series of public opinion polls matching him against Oprah for the next 30months. It will drive him batty, protect us from some of his crazier crap, and then she can endorse Kristin Gillibrand at the last minute. Perfect strategy.

#27 Comment By Elaine On January 10, 2018 @ 7:30 pm

I think this would be a disaster for Poprah. She’s never been hated, she’s just not used to it. Her ‘thing’ is positivity and love.

Republicans, the Alt-Right crowd and Redditors, they’ll go after her hard, with a viciousness she has not faced in decades. Remember, she came up before the internet. And left the National stage before Twitter mobs took the Left hostage.

She is more of an old school liberal than a part of today’s propagator’s of ‘woke’. The term ‘white nonsense’ is regularly employed by them. Oprah is/was about true inclusivity. What inclusive meant before it meant what it means now i.e. “I will only include those who agree with me”.

Not to mention if she takes on Trump, she’ll have to mention his shortcomings. And go negative. And low. The minute she does this, all of her power (her high-mindedness, her self righteousness) this will dissipate.

No, JMO but for her, running would be a mistake.

#28 Comment By charles cosimano On January 10, 2018 @ 7:34 pm

Anyone who thinks Oprah would have a chance against Trump forgets his capacity to destroy opponents with a nickname. Oprah cannot deal with ridicule.

She will be destroyed, utterly and completely.

#29 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 10, 2018 @ 9:04 pm

Ms. Winfrey no longer has a daily platform for her brand of spirituality.

No, but she’s been producing some good movies.

#30 Comment By Buzz Baldrin On January 10, 2018 @ 9:26 pm

Me thinks Michelle Obama has first dibs on the Democratic nomination; Oprah has seconds.

Unless top-to-bottom prosperity returns, either soul sister could trounce Trump to become a figurehead president for Obama’s third term.

Think Putin and Medvedev.

#31 Comment By TR On January 10, 2018 @ 10:15 pm

Collin ruined my evening by reminding me of Oprah’s responsibility for Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz.

#32 Comment By Tom On January 10, 2018 @ 10:33 pm

Part of the problem is that too many Americans think they are voting only for a Head of State, someone who looks presentable on stage and in front of cameras, someone who gives great speeches and inspires the citizenry. If that were the only qualification, someone like Oprah might be perfect for the job. However, too many voters forget that the President is also the Commander-In-Chief, Chief Executive, Legislative Leader and Guardian of the Economy.

#33 Comment By Richard Williams On January 10, 2018 @ 10:57 pm

Here is the comment I wrote at the NYT in response to Douthat’s column:

“Ross, why do you have to be so dualistic about belief? Both your insistence that “religious individualism” is a belief in “false ideas” resulting in “fatal consequences” and the anti-traditionalists’ insistence that orthodox belief is just as false and just as fatal seem to me to be two sides of a coin minted in base metal.

“I cringe as the motivational speaker walks on stage, whether it be at a business, otherwise secular, or religious venue. With few exceptions, they give me the creeps. They are also an American type going back way before the Revolution, so it isn’t as if they represent some recent trend anymore than Pope Benedict XVI was effectively the palsied hand of the Middle Ages come to make the modern world receive its wages for sin.

“On the interaction of religious belief and the state, I follow my ancestors Roger Williams’ and Anne Hutchinson’s belief in strict separation of state and religion. Throughout world history the entwining of state and religion has been the most false of ideas with the most fatal of consequences.

“I seldom watched Oprah’s show because I was working when it aired. I’m glad she encouraged a lot of people to read books. I think she is often a more than competent actress. The motivational push does not move me. I wouldn’t vote for her in a Democratic primary and only reluctantly in the general if she made it that far. I’d have to because she doesn’t represent the false ideas and fatal consequences of Republicans. That’s my dualism for you.”

#34 Comment By Hal Fiore On January 11, 2018 @ 12:06 am

Don’t think Oprah is ready for the presidency, but if you are looking for a charismatic, intelligent, deeply religious black woman to step up, I would vote for Michelle Obama. As a bonus, her Christianity is a lot more, well, Christian.

#35 Comment By Jack B. Nimble On January 11, 2018 @ 7:00 am

collin: ‘…… Because of Oprah we have Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz which seems really bad…..’

This is exactly right, and instead of Trump nominating unqualified political hacks to important positions at HHS, DOE, Education, etc., we could have Pope-rah nominating unqualified non-political quacks.

BTW, that open-ended Gallup poll on most-admired women should be viewed with caution, since most respondents either have no opinion or name a female friend or family member. That poll just tests peoples’ ability to name, with no prompting and no serious thought, a single ‘significant’ woman. I personally couldn’t come up with one name at the top of my list, even after quite a bit of thought.

#36 Comment By Kitchen timer On January 11, 2018 @ 8:07 am

She’s more of a king-maker than a queen. She may not win, but she can potentially decide who will.
She’s the abbess or the Mother Superior many wish they had. The Oprah Show provided a habit that clothed many, emotionally….

#37 Comment By Liam On January 11, 2018 @ 8:35 am

“She’s the abbess or the Mother Superior many wish they had.”

Ah, yes, singing “Climb Every Mountain.”

She’s not Maria.

* * *

Reverend Mother.

I have sinned.

I too, Reverend Mother.

What is this sin, my children?

#38 Comment By MikeS On January 11, 2018 @ 8:40 am

“Her ‘spirituality’ is all about self-fulfillment and personal growth.” And this is bad because, … Why? I am routinely in contact with lots of weird or messed up people, and I’d say our populace could use more, not less, spiritual growth and fulfillment.

#39 Comment By Colonel Bogey On January 11, 2018 @ 10:49 am

So Miss Winfrey was named for Orpah in the book of Ruth. I never knew that, but had casually assumed that her name was a misspelt version of ‘opera’. In either case, it’s misspelt.

Mr Douthat still maintains that she is a gnostic, while Mr Dreher still won’t let go of the dubious coinage ‘M.T.D.’ I’d still like to see a debate about this.

#40 Comment By Adam Kolasinski On January 11, 2018 @ 11:08 am

Colin writes:

“Judging by the 2017 special elections, the more boring and normal candidates, Handel, Northam, and Jones, did the best. In the age of Trump, I wonder if that will be the political blowback to the return of good boring qualified candidates.”

I really, really, really hope you are right. There are few things I despise more about our culture than our obsession with celebrity.

#41 Comment By Ellimist000 On January 11, 2018 @ 2:56 pm


“She’s never been hated, she’s just not used to it.”

You forget she grew up a poor black woman in the Jim Crow South in an abusive environment. You also forget the Trump and the GOP have become a bunch of white lil snowflakes and that the backlash to the likely Oprah-hate will be viscous, more than for Clinton or Obama for the reasons Rod is talking about.

I underestimated the Trump cult, and look what happened. Don’t make the same mistake!

#42 Comment By Rosita On January 11, 2018 @ 3:13 pm

People are sure missing the forest for the tress:


Talk about Oprah running is silly. Her audience are the women described in the article above; and they heard her loud and clear during that Golden Globes speech. The opportunity for Democrats has always been the softest of Trump’s support-white suburban/upper middle class Republican women.

Their energy in 2018 and 2020 will make the difference.

#43 Comment By Gus Nelson On January 11, 2018 @ 9:30 pm

There was a pastor named Rob Bell who, about 15 years ago, was making a real impact – he was part of a movement known as the Emerging or Emergent Church movement. This movement started as part of broader evangelical Christianity. Over time, however, Bell seems to have become enamored with what is known as universalism, which posits that everyone goes to heaven. Eventually, Bell stopped preaching and started a new role as a sort of spiritual guru. Who drew him away? Oprah.

She is absolutely a spiritual leader. And she knows the old saying well: money talks, bull**** walks. Bell is running around giving talks at who knows how much per show and writes books and hangs out and “does” life. He used to be what I would consider to be a somewhat less than orthodox, but nonetheless fairly mainstream evangelical. One could hardly consider him a Christian now. It’s too bad.

#44 Comment By A. G. Phillbin On January 12, 2018 @ 3:20 am

Electing Trump has made celebrity a key qualification for the presidency. Trump’s election opens the door to every politically inexperienced, but charismatic, celebrity to attempt it. So why not Oprah? She’s not only a charismatic celebrity, she’s a multi-billionaire, and has never declared bankruptcy. In this day and age, I could write her campaign blurbs!

As to why this happened (Trump’s election), I offer this theory for consideration:

The American people are Caligula, and they wanted to raise a horse to the consulship. They simply don’t take the presidency, or congress, especially seriously.

#45 Comment By America_First On January 13, 2018 @ 12:16 pm

Ralph Ellison was correct 60 years ago. White people have a hard time taking black people as they are. They all become either subhumans or saints: Oprah obviously is a case of the latter.

#46 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 14, 2018 @ 10:53 am

White people have a hard time taking black people as they are. They all become either subhumans or saints

This has been a problem for a long time. It happens because there is a lack of close daily interaction. Sure, there are people we know at work, who are either saints or subhumans, but we don’t see people socially to a sufficient degree to see each individual as a unique individual. Its still about “those people.”

One of the dislocations in the aftermath of the civil rights movement is that a lot of “white” people moved from thinking black people were happy servile quasi-juveniles to thinking black people were erudite pacifist Baptist philosophy students to think black people were vicious thugs brazenly robbing people in broad daylight. The truth is, there have always been some people who matched one or another of these descriptions, and a whole lot of people who were none of the above.

One problem with the black/blue lives matter stuff is that there are some police officers whose personal experience is that almost all the people they encounter committing crimes are black, but, some of them lose sight of the fact that most of the black people they encounter are those most in need of service and protection from those very thugs. The problem with racism is that race doesn’t really tell you anything about an individual.