Even a forgettable movie can have a memorable moment.
In the film “Gray Matters,” one of the minor characters discusses her love for Oprah Winfrey. “I think she is so great that she should start her own religion -- that’s how much I love her,” the woman enthuses. This view isn’t especially unusual, of course. Oprah’s made billions because she inspires millions.
But this character’s already missed the boat. After all, Oprah has, in all the ways that matter, already founded a religion.
Let’s start with the amount of time her followers devote to her. The Oprah Winfrey show is on five hours per week, and draws millions of viewers. Most churches, by contrast, struggle to get people to come in for one hour a week, although, to be fair, in order to attend church one must actually get off the couch and drive a bit.
And now Oprah’s in direct competition with many churches, because she’s expanded her franchise to Sundays. Her show “Oprah’s Big Give” (of course, it had to have her name in the title) was watched by more than 15 million Americans when it debuted last month.
Oprah’s also got her own disciples. Maybe not quite 12 yet, but a growing number. They go out into the world and spread the good news. Starting on Oprah’s show is the best way to begin a showbiz career. Just ask Rachael Ray, Dr. Phil or Gayle King.
Like any good religious leader, Oprah doesn’t want to limit herself to just an hour a day of someone’s life. So she makes herself available 24 hours a day through her Web site, her XM radio channel and her growing stable of magazines. The flagship publication, “O, The Oprah Magazine,” has featured her smiling face on every cover since it launched.
In the May edition, Oprah tells her followers -- er, readers -- “Spirituality for me is recognizing that I am connected to the energy of all creation, that I am a part of it -- and it is always a part of me.”
That certainly sounds like a religious creed, even though Oprah insists it isn’t. “Spirituality is not religion,” she asserts. But it is a guiding framework for her life. “It is what and who I am,” she says, in a section of the magazine called “What I Know for Sure.” There are plenty of religions (the ones that call themselves religions) that aren’t as definitive about what they believe.
Oprah’s spirituality has, rightly, earned her a mention in The Washington Post/Newsweek blog called “On Faith.” On April 1, “I found Oprah, [spiritualist Eckhart] Tolle and several hundred thousand people in the midst of a spiritual revival,” Claire Hoffman wrote. “Oprah meditated! She read a poem! She recalled childhood beatings! Something is going on over there at oprah.com, and it is not to be ignored.” Indeed, it’s virtually impossible to ignore Oprah, even if one wants to.
Of course, Oprah’s not the only religious leader reaching out to Americans this week. A more traditional figure, Pope Benedict XVI, is also here for a series of meetings and masses.
His Roman Catholic Church certainly tries to tell its members how to live their lives, but Americans have long been known for their selective attentiveness to church teaching. We created the term “cafeteria Catholic” to describe a believer who, for example, goes to mass but also uses birth control.
Meanwhile, Oprah seems to be doing somewhat better with the directives she issues to her followers -- maybe because, while the church offers only eternal life, Oprah frequently hands out rewards right here on earth. Selected audience members have received college scholarships, houses and brand-new cars.
The religion of Oprahism tells people what to eat (healthy food) what to wear (special “O bracelets”), how much to sleep (getting enough rest purportedly leads to “Intelligence. A better figure. Sex,” according to O magazine) and even which candidate to vote for (Sen. Barack Obama, naturally).
We’re living in a new era.
“When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing. He believes in anything,” G. K. Chesterton said. These days, it’s certainly true that many Americans don’t believe in God. Many seem to, however, believe in anything … anything that Oprah tells them to believe in.