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Oprah Winfrey: A religious leader for modern times


With the end of Oprah Winfrey's 25-year-old talk show has come a deluge of opinionators weighing in on her legacy: icon, self-help guru, pop cultural force, one-woman economic stimulus. Some are even comparing her to a religious leader with a group of cult-like fans, who, interestingly enough, are comprised mostly of white women over the age of 55. Kathryn Lofton, professor of religious studies at Yale, has written a book on the topic -- "Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon" -- and is making the rounds to discuss. Here she is on the the "Madeleine Brand Show" on KPCC-FM (89.3) Wednesday morning:

One of the things I look at is all the different religious capacities that she takes up […] from being a spiritual counselor to a guru to a minister to the spiritual power of her best friend and an older sister. It's her mutability, that she can be many things and play many different kinds of roles and all the while she’s articulating that through one thing: her show, "The Oprah Show." That's the forum that I’m really interested in in my book, is the show and the products of her empire, in which she gets to be this religious leader to all people and in many different ways. […]

It's that amalgamation, a combination that she has where there's Buddhist things, there's Unity Church elements, Methodist, Baptist, she combines it all. […] What she says, the primary message, she and her universalizing way, is the message of all religions, all right religions in her mind, is you. That the good news of this life is that you can change the world and what she tries to do is connect the viewers to their best lives, to their individual greatness and she does that by talking about her own.

Lofton also wrote an opinion piece for CNN:

In an era in which religion was increasingly portrayed as either idiotic or extremist, Oprah plotted a middle way in which her viewers could be both believers and critics, both consumers and missionaries. She criticized religious institutions on her show but she encouraged spiritual practices. She encouraged everyone to buy her favorite things but also to offer the gift of themselves to the world.

To be sure, Oprah’s message focused on a particular audience. Women disproportionately found comfort in the set of problems Oprah introduced as hers (and, therefore, yours).

Yet it is important to note that her corporate makeover increased not only her spiritual consequence for women around the world, but also her profit margin. Beyond the show’s new look and focus, she began to develop her brand, including, eventually, her book club, magazine, website and her Angel Network. Her spiritualization enhanced her media incorporation.

And here she is again for the New York Daily News:

So as we proceed to a world without Oprah's afternoon interventions, it is important to consider not only what she was, but also what we needed when we first turned to her. "Oprah" may be over, but the practices of hope she supplied will reappear, again and again, wherever human struggle finds a communal voice.


What Oprah wrought

Reflecting on Oprah's legacy

Photos: 25 great 'Oprah' moments

Oprah's Book Club: She spoke, we read

Critic's Notebook: Oprah's revolution will continue to be televised

-- Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: Oprah Winfrey raises a champagne toast to Dr. Mehmet Oz after announcing his departure from her show to launch "The Dr. Oz Show" in 2009. Credit: Harpo Productions


Comments () | Archives (6)

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John Dale

Oprah a religious leader?

Well, given the amount of fact free superstitious drivel and pseudoscience she spoon feeds to her hard of thinking followers, I'd say that was pretty accurate.


Oprah's religious meanderings are simple-minded at best. She rejects much of Christianity because she once heard a minister state that the Bible says 'God is jealous for our praise'. It's the word 'jealous' that Oprah can't get over. Did she check it out and ask those who know the complete context of the quote? Nope, she rejected it. It's all on audio tape - do a search and you can find it.

Oprah is a leftist - that is all you need to know.

Tim James

Oprah is the patron saint of the "I'm not religious but I am spiritual" crowd. In other words, she prevents a feel-good, amorphous build-your-own-custom faith, where the reality of sin, the holiness of God, the need for a Savior and the inevitability of judgment. No place for such "negativity." She is fulfillment of Paul's prophetic message to Timothy, that in the last days people will accumulate teachers in accordance to their tastes (to "tickle their ears"). A mixture of truth and error inevitably results in error. Follow her at your peril.

Tim James

Sorry, my error. Second sentence should have ended, "...inevitability of judgment are ignored."


Oprah takes the positive aspects of religion (love, hope, forgiveness) but rejects the stupidity (creationism, dogma, homophobia, self-righteousness). She's such impressive person, not just financially and philanthropically, but culturally too.

Carmen Diaz

Oprah, I'm praying for you. May you see the true Light. You have wonderful admirable qualities, placing them into the correct direction will truelly make you complete in Him. Love, Peace and Grace.



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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.

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