Why should clergy (and journalists) pay serious attention to 'Oprah America,' and its pope?

In 1990, I began the process of moving from being a full-time journalist to being a full-time teacher and part-time journalist. The first place I taught was in Denver Seminary, serving as a specialist on religious themes in mass media.

In my main apologetics class, I tried to get seminarians to explore places in popular culture in which ordinary Americans encountered religious questions and themes. For example, I required students to watch "The Simpsons." I was also very high on the CBS series "Northern Exposure." And, of course, I asked them to pay close attention to Oprah Winfrey.

Why? Well, that's a question linked to this week's "Crossroads" podcast, in which host Todd Wilken and I discussed that fascinating media storm that followed Winfrey's sermon at the Golden Globes, with plenty of liberal activists and journalists suggesting that she should run for president. Click here to tune that in. Also, this was the subject of my column this week for the Universal syndicate.

But why -- in the early 1990s -- did I want future pastors, youth ministers, counselors and others to pay serious attention to Oprah? Years later, I was interviewed about my work at Denver Seminary by the journal Homiletics. Here is a key piece of that piece, which was called, "We're Taking Communion at the Mall."

MATTINGLY: We live in Oprah America. The dominant dialogue of our culture is feeling, emotion, and experience.
HOMILETICS: I taught a class once in which the name Gloria Steinem came up. No one, including the women, knew whom I was talking about. When I asked them what feminist voices they were listening to, they didn't reference Wolf, Faludi, or Mackinnon. They said, "Oprah."
MATTINGLY: You know what? I think Oprah is a feminist and she's an amazingly doctrinaire feminist on issues of gender feminism and certainly on issues of the sexual revolution. What's so funny is that you've got millions and millions of women who think of themselves as conservatives, but also think of Oprah as their buddy. She's consistently liberal, especially on moral and cultural issues. She's managed to communicate warmly to the average American woman without conveying how truly radical some of her views are. She's the essence of the victim culture: the woman as victim. That's not what feminism was supposed to be. But I think most people would agree that that's a piece of what modern feminism has become: You're a victim. Get mad, get angry, get even.
HOMILETICS: Do you really think it would be wise for a pastor to get in the pulpit and start attacking Oprah or Martha Stewart?
MATTINGLY: I would certainly quote Oprah.

So what is "Oprah America" and why is it so important?

If you look at polls focusing on religion in American life -- decades of Gallup polls, as well as the crucial "Nones" studies from the Pew Forum pros -- you know that about a quarter of America consists of people who are seriously attempting to follow a traditional religious faith of some kind. On the other side of the spectrum -- and this is currently the growth area -- are atheists, agnostics and the "religiously unaffiliated (nones)."

In between is the great mushy middle of American faith.

People in the middle may be inactive members of a traditional faith or they may be "spiritual, but not religious." They pray, they believe in miracles, they believe in heaven and, perhaps, in hell. But when it comes to getting these Americans to answer specific questions -- especially about controversial moral and cultural issues -- their answers seem to depend on how the questions are stated. These Americans are believers, but what they believe is rooted in their own feelings and experiences. They are evolving.

This is Oprah America. Consider this classic clip that is popular with her critics.

Then again, contrast that Oprah talk with the following faith-based commentary that came directly from the Oprah team:

What is going on here?

Well, the Oprah faith is mostly liberal, but it contains elements of American doctrine that appeal to suburban Americans and some evangelical Americans, as well. Oprah is a master communicator, with preaching skills rooted in her early life in African-American churches.

What is going on here? Note the following from the conservative Catholic scribe Ross Douthat, in a recent New York Times column entitled, "Oprah: Prophet, Priestess … Queen?"

She is a preacher, a spiritual guru, a religious teacher, an apostle and a prophetess. Indeed, to the extent that there is a specifically American religion, a faith tradition all our own, Oprah has made herself its pope. ...
I have suggested that American culture is divided between three broad approaches to religious questions: one traditional, one spiritual and one secular. The traditional approach takes various forms (Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Orthodox Jewish) but its instincts are creedal, confessional, dogmatic; it believes in a specific revelation, a specific authority and a specific holy book, and seeks to conform itself to teachings handed down from the religious past. The secular approach is post-religious, scientistic, convinced that the laboratory and the microscope will ultimately account for everything that matters, while hopefully justifying a liberal society’s still-somewhat-Christian moral commitments along the way.
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.

So there is faith here, but faith on Oprah's terms. There is doctrine here, but it is doctrine that is always evolving with the times (or The Times). Oprah can "take people to church," but it is largely her own church. This is all very American.

At the end of my latest column, Marcia Nelson -- author of the 2005 book, “The Gospel According to Oprah" -- had this to say:

“She talks about God, but for Oprah that can almost be the God of the week, the spiritual flavor of the week. ... How she talks about spirituality and about truth is constantly changing. That’s her gift. That’s who she is. For her, that stuff will preach.”

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