Pod people: Oprah, mainline evangelist

We are going to be done with Oprah Winfrey finale stuff sooner or later. I promise. However, you will not be surprised -- if you read some of the amazing first-person sermons that appeared in major media after her last rite -- that I was still thinking about America's favorite guru when it came time for this week's Crossroads taping. That's the GetReligion podcast, of course. Click here to listen to it (or head on over to iTunes and get it automatically every week).

I don't want to add a whole lot here to what gets said in the podcast, but I do want to connect a few of the dots about why this subject fascinates me so much.

Let's start here. If you had been reading GetReligion from the get go, you know that we have always argued that the shape and content of the Religious Left has been one of the most under-covered subjects in the mainstream press. The Religious Right has generated oceans of ink, while many corresponding subjects, debates and trends on the left have received little attention.

I mean, right now in Google News, a search for "Religious Left" gets you 19 references. A few minutes later, a search for "Religious Right" gets you 330. Actually, that's a down day for the right. It's time for a Sarah Palin bus tour!

I bring this up because, in my opinion, the decline of the Protestant mainline left -- a basic fall of about 40 percent in membership in the last third of the 20th century -- was one of the most under-covered subjects in that era. But while the moral, cultural and religious left declined in pews, pulpits and at altars, it's clout evolved and grew elsewhere.

Like on television, at the mall and at the multiplex. And in Oprah's Book Club.

One could also make the case that, without the decline of the mainline left, there never would have been a growing hole in the public square to be filled, for better and for worse, by the Religious Right.

So the Religious Right became the huge news story. The opening that allowed its rise? That received less analog and digital ink.

This leads us to that amazing Sally Quinn quote the other day in the Washington Post "On Faith" cyber-section, the one about the Rt. Rev. Oprah Winfrey and her impact on American civil religion (I think that is what she was saying changed):

In recent years, religious behaviors have changed dramatically. More people have left traditional religions to join congregations which are self validating. Gone were the fire and brimstone, you’re-all-going-to-hell-unless-you-accept-Jesus-Christ-as-your-personal-savior, the judgment, the fear, the punishment. Many religious and spiritual leaders have taken the lead on this, realizing people don’t want to be lectured to and made to feel guilty for common human failings. People want to feel hopeful, as though they matter. They want to feel empowered.

Oprah led the way.

So Oprah led the way to a faith without fear, judgment or punishments -- eternal or temporal. A faith without a Savior who would ever dare to say, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

As a reporter, Quinn's summery of the Oprah gospel sounds like the message that has grown to become the heart of the mainline liberal Protestant faith, especially at the level of seminaries and ecclesiastical bureaucracies.

So here is my question: Was Oprah the most successful mainline Protestant evangelist of her era? If so, why does her theology work so well at the mall and not in the sanctuaries of many or most mainline churches? I don't know how one would investigate that story -- but there is a story there.

Enjoy the podcast.

Please respect our Commenting Policy