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Oprah Winfrey: A religious leader for modern times

May 25, 2011 | 11:47 am


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

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