The Church of Oprah

As Oprah prepares to wind down her broadcast talk show Elizabeth Tenety asks in the Washington Post if her followers will lose their spiritual guide. Some evangelical Christians have condemned her for not adhering to Christian orthodoxy as they teach it, as if daytime television were indeed the church of Oprah. She’s also been criticized for her new age-like spiritual proclivities.

In this, as Tenety says, Oprah may be more like her audience than their spiritual guide. The growing edge of religious thought in the U.S. has been a claim to be spiritual but not religious. The vagueness of the phrase marks the state of belief in the culture; light on content, heavy on experience; highly personal and  internally focused.

What Oprah has created is a sense of belonging, a community of sorts. By identifying with her audience and becoming vulnerable herself, she has tapped into the needs of her audience for growth, self-understanding and a desire for connection.

Her cultural influence is indisputable. When asked if her support of Eckhart Tolle was in conflict with her Christian faith, she explained she has reconciled her Baptist upbringing with her wider interest in spirituality, particularly Tolle’s melding of psychology, philosophy and spiritualism. This is likely the form of spirituality in the foreseeable future: relationship-based, undifferentiated content, self-development oriented and informal, as contrasted to institutional. With or without Oprah, these dynamics are already unleashed. She has channeled them, and may still. But her audience was already there.

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