“America’s Spiritual Leader”, “The Divine Ms. Winfrey” and “Reverend Oprah” are some of the titles Oprah Winfrey has been given over the last 20 years. Maybe “The World’s Pastor” could now be added to the list, since her show is broadcast in 136 countries. In just the United States alone, her show is seen by an estimated 49 million viewers.
“Oprah has emerged as a symbolic figurehead of spirituality,” says Professor Kathryn Lofton, who has analyzed the religious aspects of Winfrey in two papers she has written. “Inspirer-in-chief” is what Marcia Nelson calls Oprah. Nelson is the author of “The Gospel According to Oprah.” A couple of years ago a poll conducted at Beliefnet.com found 33 percent of the 6,600 respondents said Oprah has had “a more profound impact” on their spiritual lives than their own clergy.
So how did the number-one talk-show host and media mogul get these monikers? Winfrey has been promoting spiritual philosophies for quite some time but lately she has become much bolder in her foray into religion and politics.
With her celebrity charm, influence and power, Oprah is going deeper into expanded areas. She’s making political endorsements, like the one she did for Barack Obama, and is now co-teaching a religious Web class to over 700,000 people with New Age author Ekhardt Tolle.
And does she have influence. Any book she recommends for her book club becomes an instant best-seller, as did Tolle’s “A New Earth,” selling some 3.5 million copies worldwide. Tolle calls himself a “spiritual teacher” and says his philosophy includes Buddhist, Islamic and Christian influences. At the first Web class Oprah told one caller, “While Christianity is a valid way to achieve high states of spirituality, it must not be considered a unique way, or a ‘correct way.’” Not only that, she said, “I don’t believe that Jesus came to start Christianity.”
Daily classes on the book, “A Course of Miracles,” written by Helen Schucman, were recently offered on her XM radio show. Along with teaching the listener that there is no sin, they are told not to make the “mistake” of “clinging to the old rugged cross,” and the name of “Jesus Christ as such is but a symbol.”
Oprah’s come a long way in more ways than one from her childhood living in Mississippi and going to a Baptist church with her grandmother. Where once she held traditional Christian beliefs, she now believes “there’s no conflict between this teaching, which is purely spiritual, and any religion.”
Winfrey’s talk-show began in 1984 in Chicago following a job at a Baltimore television station. By the late ‘90s a subtle religious message was behind the self-improvement focus she gave her viewers. She once called her “Remembering Your Spirit” portion on her daily TV show, which discusses spirituality, a “brave thing to do.”
As her popularity has grown, so have her power, influence and bank account. She is now a billionaire and one of the richest women in the world. Not only does she have a TV talk show and a prime-time show on ABC, but she has a magazine, radio show, and film production company.
Oprah explained at a fundraiser in 2001 that a trip to Israel had “changed the trajectory” of her life, and that turning point was her visit to the Holocaust Museum. Rabbi Elliot Gertel was in attendance. “What fascinated Oprah was the resilience of the Jewish survivors,” said Gertel, “but even more, the impact of Hitler—how one person could achieve such evil.” Oprah asked in her speech, “If one man could garner the forces to kill six million Jews, what could one ‘once colored’ woman do with a talk show?”
Oprah talks on her show about having “aha” moments—and this certainly must have been one for her. She realized the full extent that people with political or media power have—and she has it like no one else.
One of the reasons people are drawn to Oprah is because she is warm and generous and she identifies needs people have in their lives. But why does she hide her view under the guise of “spirituality” and not call it what it is? Religion. She has changed her view over the years and now she is trying to bring her fans along with her.
Oprah publicly threw her support for Barack Obama last May and was out stumping for Obama in December, before the early primaries and caucuses. Exhorting nearly 30,000 in South Carolina at a football stadium before the state Democratic presidential primary date Winfrey said, “South Carolina -- January 26th is your moment. It’s your time to seize the opportunity to support a man who, as the Bible says, loves mercy and does justly.”
One 26-year-old woman, Kristen Price, traveled over 120 miles -- primarily to see Oprah -- but became an Obama supporter as a result of the event at the University of South Carolina. “It was like a religious experience,” Price said. “It was inspiring.”
It looks like Oprah’s religious titles are evidently well deserved.