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Oprah’s Throne-And-Altar Liberalism

The Pallas Athena of MTD ponders a run for the White House


Everybody is talking this morning about Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes last night.  Follow that link to read the transcript. It was a powerful, moving address, but I don’t see how people jump from it to the conclusion that she ought to run for president. Still, that’s what people are saying — including “two of her close friends” who spoke to CNN, and who say she’s thinking about it.

Ross Douthat’s tweet points out the important fact that Oprah Winfrey would not be just a political leader, but a religious leader too. She is a religious leader, in fact — quite possibly the most important one in America. In his 2012 book Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation Of Heretics, Douthat identifies Oprah — non-sarcastically! — as a religious leader, because of her undeniable mass influence on American women, and her embodiment of a emotion-based spirituality of self-fulfillment. When she talks about empowering oneself through telling “your truth,” she is making a quasi-religious statement. This Douthat post is dead-on — and again, he’s not being sarcastic in the least:


I would call President Oprah the Pallas Athena of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. She would be the goddess of the nation-state.

Of course Oprah could win. Donald Trump has proven that governing experience and the presumption of competence that comes with it is no barrier at all to the presidency. It’s mostly about celebrity brand and personal biography. Oprah is a vastly more sympathetic figure than Trump, and far, far better at giving speeches and handling herself on the media.

Another difference: Trump is an extremely secular figure who has become popular with a narrow but intense segment of religious conservatives. Oprah is already a popular religious figure, though certainly an unconventional one, representative of her time. As Douthat has pointed out for years, both right-wing and left-wing religious politics are grounded in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism more than in anything like orthodox Christianity. It is impossible to imagine a progressive Democratic personality drawing on religious sentiment as a means to power — except for Oprah Winfrey. If you don’t think the image of Democratic nominee Oprah Winfrey confronting Donald Trump on the 2020 debate stage carries with it extremely powerful religious symbolism (I didn’t say Christian symbolism!), well, you don’t understand the phenomenon that is Oprah.

Don’t laugh. I’m serious. Barack Obama drew on some of this, but he wasn’t as successful as he might have been, because he’s fundamentally a cerebral intellectual and a wonk. Oprah is the immanentizing of the liberal MTD eschaton.