In the fall of 2014, Oprah Winfrey ran a “transformative two-day live event,” a traveling roadshow that was held in eight cities around the country. For this interactive revival-tent experience, she was joined by her “hand-picked life trailblazers,” authors and personalities whose work she considered essential for the theme of the roadshow, “The Life You Want.”
The trailblazers included, among others, Iyanla Vanzant, a spiritual teacher of New Thought, a 19th-century movement with links to Christian Science that emphasizes the idea of God as “infinite intelligence” and the human capacity to think our way toward godlike power; Rob Bell, an erstwhile evangelical megachurch pastor who has reinvented himself as an itinerant preacher of the vaguest sort of Christianity; Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat Pray Love,” the megaselling memoir about finding religious ecstasy in India (as well as great pasta in Italy and a hot romance in Bali); Mark Nepo, the poet-philosopher author of “The Book of Awakening” and other tracts on the spirituality of the everyday; and of course Deepak Chopra, the aging prince of the New Age.
I list these figures and their theologies because in all the thousands of words that the political press has written about Oprah since her Golden Globes speech on Sunday night invited 2020 presidential speculation, there has not been nearly enough focus on the most important aspect of Oprah’s public persona – the crucial and fascinating role she really occupies in American life.
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We’ve heard about Oprah the entrepreneur, Oprah the celebrity, Oprah the champion of holistic medicine and the enabler of anti-vaccine paranoia, even Oprah the neoliberal (don’t ask). But though she is entrepreneurial and rich, Oprah is not Jeff Bezos; though she is famous, she is not the Rock; though she has elevated various dubious approaches to wellness, she is not Gwyneth Paltrow.
Instead, her essential celebrity is much closer to the celebrity of Pope Francis or Billy Graham. 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.
In other columns 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.
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.
Not that it doesn’t have partisan tilts and colorations. Some of its manifestations are more common in conservative America – where they usually have an evangelical and commercial gloss, as with Joel Osteen and his epigones. (This red-state style of spirituality was recently co-opted, with some success, by the prosperity preacher known as Donald Trump.) Others are more common in liberal communities – where they emphasize Eastern wisdom and Lost Christianities and the New Age and Esalen-style mystical humanism. Where the spiritual worldview blurs into secularism, it’s usually claiming scientific bona fides; where it blurs into traditional religion it’s usually talking about Jesus. And Oprah herself, with her Obama-endorsing, #MeToo politics and her tendency to mix spirituality with pseudoscience, is clearly somewhat on the blue-state side of that divide …but only somewhat, because 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.
Which is not to say that it’s a good force in its own right; you could fill a book (as I once tried to do) with theological and sociological arguments about what’s wrong with religious individualism, its false ideas and fatal consequences. 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.
I know, I know: You’ve stuck around this long to find out what all this religious business means for an Oprah presidential campaign. The disappointing answer is that I have no definite idea. It could be that Oprah would cease to be a figure of the spiritual center the instant she assumed a partisan mantle, that in entering in the political fray she would automatically lose her papal tiara. 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 anti-clerical left wing.
It could be that she would be extremely effective in the increasingly imperial role that our presidency plays, effectively uniting throne and altar and presiding over our divisions with a kind of spirituality-drenched “mass empathy” (to quote Business Insider’s Josh Barro) that our present partisans conspicuously lack. Or it could be that by turning the spiritual center to partisan ends she would hasten its collapse, heightening polarization and hustling us deeper into metaphysical civil war.
All of these scenarios seem possible, even as the most plausible scenario remains the one where she decides being a prophetess is better than being a president and declines to run at all. But either way, the Oprah boomlet is a chance to recognize her real importance in our culture – and the sheer unpredictable weirdness, perhaps eclipsing even Trump’s ascent, that might follow if our most important religious leader tries to lay claim to temporal power as well.