In the past quarter-century Oprah has become shorthand for self-help: a spiritual guide, a confessor and a warm shoulder for her adoring American public. Now in the final season of her revolutionary daytime talk show, Oprah’s pronouncements have become the Word to live by for a staggeringly diverse audience. In fact, you could argue she is a religious leader for an America increasingly skeptical about organized religion.
It’s an idea that Kathryn Lofton explores in “Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon.” Assistant professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale, Lofton sees religious preaching methods in the way Oprah hosts her show, as well as a formulaic, sermon-like approach to every topic — whether it’s healing the wounds of sexual abuse or what new exfoliating cream you should buy. Oh Oprah, who art on television, tell us how to live a good life.
Salon spoke to Lofton over the phone about Oprah’s message, the daytime guru’s own skeptical views of religion, and what our love of Oprah tells us about the American hunger for help and guidance.
What was it about Oprah that made you think of her in the context of American religious history?
Within these very corporate formats of daytime television, extraordinary forms of suffering were being confessed to and described. There’s a great book about Oprah by Eva Illouz, “Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery,” and Illouz points out something that I dig into, and that is the strange way in which the extremity of human despair — not merely estranged spouses, we’re talking stories of people coming home and seeing that their spouse has murdered all their kids and then themselves — are being dealt with in the same way as these topics that are seemingly shallow. Good glasses for a spring party, best new strategies for boyfriend wear. This exposure of human need at 4 p.m. on a weekday afternoon made me think, “What is this thing?” We’re so accustomed now to reality programming and a whole spate of shows spun off from Oprah, but, as a scholar of a religion, I think it’s one of our jobs to be cued into how people manage pain, and the idea of evil, or whether or not we live in a just world.
What is Oprah’s religious background?
Oprah talks about a Baptist church that her grandmother took her to in Mississippi. She tells an anecdote about how she was a successful young churchgoer and was asked to preach in front of that audience and was a very good girl who memorized scriptural passages. Then in her adulthood, she has some criticism of male figures in the church and the dominance of male authorities and it seems that by the time we get to the ’90s, it’s circulating that she’s no longer a member of the church but she continues to use Christian idioms in her conversational speech. She says, “Jesus lives.” She’ll say, “Amen.” She’ll occasionally sing lines from obviously Protestant hymns, but she claims now that she’s no longer interested in organizational religion, and she’s more interested in a personal relationship with God. Indeed, she has around her a large collection of spiritual purveyors of a wide variety: Buddhist, Hindu, Unity Church. Every flavor of the contemporary, spiritual rainbow is welcomed into her studio.
What does our reverence for Oprah say about our culture and religion in America today?
I think it says that most Americans see very little that is contradictory about connecting consumption and spirituality. I think it also shows that no matter how anti-establishment, or anti-authoritarian, or freedom-hungry Americans claim to be, they are also, always, hungry for help. Hungry for recognition. Hungry for guidance in the mad excesses of the American material world. Hungry for someone to limit their choices a little, and offer some discriminating preferences on your behalf.
If Oprah is a preacher, what is she telling us? What is her gospel?
Her gospel — her good news — is you. The good news is that if you take hold of your life; if you discover (as she says) your best life, anything is possible. Of course, this good news is translated not only through her exhibition of you — you through her audience members, guests, columnists, message board commentators — but also through the unending rehearsal of her. The good news is her revelations about her best life — lived, she says, in service to you.
Why do you think so many people who shun religion are comfortable looking to Oprah for “spiritual guidance”?
Precisely because she says she doesn’t seem typical in her authority. Because she represents — in her race and gender and origins — being utterly outside established power. Also, she isn’t preaching to sell you something singular. She says, over and over: I am here to let you be you. My answers are mine, and they made my struggling life something fantastic to share. You’re not joining a group, you’re just finding your inner fabulous. This is appealing to people who associate religion with controlling authority, rigid dogma or social adherence. This is a religion for those who don’t want to be religious, but want to feel revelation.
You connect Oprah to early traditions in American evangelical preaching. Not just her charisma and eloquent speaking ability, but less obvious connections. Can you explain that?
I connect her to two figures — George Whitefield, a prominent 18th century minister, and Charles Finney, a 19th century minister — who weren’t merely interested in spreading the gospel but also eliciting conversion. There’s an idea that a gospel is true if the purveyor is willing to talk about how it’s made. Oprah does that every time she does a show about “Oprah without makeup” or a confession about her weight gain — this is her showing the strings of her own construction.
The other tradition I connect her to is the emergence of women as evangelical preachers, who always had to be conscious that they were being somewhat insurrectionist to the Word by even being out in the public. Oprah tries to appeal to an audience that wants to see a successful and capable woman without being too perfect. She can’t be too obnoxious in the face of the conservative domestic idea that we still have for women. So Oprah isn’t married nor does she have children because if she had those things and was also trying to be Oprah, her audience would be uncomfortable. That she is free to minister only to them and is not responsible to a domestic life actually puts her in a long line of preachers with similarly ambiguous lives.
What do you think of Oprah after spending so much time scrutinizing her?
I think that I’d be doing a great disservice to her work if I don’t emphasize that her viewers take from her inordinate comfort and a life that they describe as asking too much of them. The second thing that I think about is the extraordinary American fact of her. She talks about this a lot too, and this is where she becomes a great subject for me. She is an indication of the American dream. I’m interested in how that dream is unbelievable, extraordinarily powerful, and possibly corrupt.