Near the end of 2011, I had heard rumors that media celebrity Oprah Winfrey was visiting the Osteen family who lead the largest church in the United States: Lakewood. Lakewood is near downtown Houston and more than 40,000 attend the worship service each Sunday which is broadcast in over 100 countries to millions. This is the megachurch of megachurches in the US (still fairly small compared to Yoido and other super-ultra-mega-churches around the world. So it makes sense that Oprah, perhaps the most influential woman of color, would spend some time to get to know what it’s like to be one of the most influential Christian figures in America today.
I watched this interview recently on Oprah’s new cable channel, OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network – how cool is that for an acronym brand, no wonder she’s rich!), which emerged since she stepped down from her widely syndicated show in the spring of 2011. My sociological curiosity was piqued because Oprah herself is indirectly known for her faith which these days gets dressed up in the phrase “spirituality.” Oprah was raised in a traditional African American church and is now a fairly “inclusive Christian,” a Christian who is fairly accepting of most other religions, and sees Christianity as merely one path to an integrated spirituality (or whatever term she uses).
There was nothing that surprised me in the interview I have to say, but maybe it’s because I had read a little here and there about the Osteens and their brand of Christianity. Their messages are ones that convey hope, optimism amidst adversity, a belief that God’s favor is tied to material rewards-this is the stuff of contemporary Pentecostalism and it’s clearly reaching the hearts of thousands in the US and millions around the world.
What interests me here is that when celebrities achieve a certain amount of “star power” the linkages they have with the faith with which they identify start to loosen. That is, the way they describe and practice their faith looks less and less like the kind of faith that is expressed by the rank-and-file of folks who are in that same tradition. Some might call this hubris, but I wonder if it’s more complicated than that.
Sociologist Michael Lindsay (now president of Gordon College) conducted a major study where he examined “evangelical elite Americans,” in various positions of power and influence in society. Lindsay interviewed evangelical politicians, actors, entrepreneurs, and professors. One of the main insights I picked up from Lindsay’s work is that a lot of evangelicals in these rarified worlds of great wealth and power have weaker and weaker connections with any local church or congregation. They are religious individualists as Robert Bellah and his colleagues and Richard Madsen more recently have pointed out.
So when celebrities have their own interpretation of religion or spirituality, does it affect their fan base or audience as well? In a media saturated environment, are consumers of media more like the celebrities they identify with than the people who worship with them in the pew? Religious views and practices like (e.g. church attendance, belief in God, prayer) are often used to predict one’s views and behavior on other aspects of life (e.g. politics, volunteering, parenting, sex). I wonder if identification with a particular celebrity’s spirituality might be a better predictor than the conventional religious views and practices that social scientists use?
In this sense Joel Osteen doesn’t quite fit as a celebrity since his main work is to promote his understanding of Christianity. But folks like Oprah and Glenn Beck are not out to promote their faith. Neither is Lady Gaga or Madonna or Bono, Coldplay, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Meryl Streep, Rachel Maddow and so on. Keep in mind that many Americans don’t attend church at all. Among those who do, most spend a mere hour or two tops per week. But most Americans spend lots of hours keeping up with the Kardashians or whoever is their favorite celebrity.
In sum, while it’s good to know how often one attends church, or whether one believes in heaven, might it also be important to know whether people relate to the spiritualities or moralities of some of the most watched media celebrities today? If there’s a funding agency out there interested in this, they should tune in.