Pod people: Oprah, mainline evangelist

We are going to be done with Oprah Winfrey finale stuff sooner or later. I promise.

However, you will not be surprised — if you read some of the amazing first-person sermons that appeared in major media after her last rite — that I was still thinking about America’s favorite guru when it came time for this week’s Crossroads taping. That’s the GetReligion podcast, of course. Click here to listen to it (or head on over to iTunes and get it automatically every week).

I don’t want to add a whole lot here to what gets said in the podcast, but I do want to connect a few of the dots about why this subject fascinates me so much.

Let’s start here. If you had been reading GetReligion from the get go, you know that we have always argued that the shape and content of the Religious Left has been one of the most under-covered subjects in the mainstream press. The Religious Right has generated oceans of ink, while many corresponding subjects, debates and trends on the left have received little attention.

I mean, right now in Google News, a search for “Religious Left” gets you 19 references. A few minutes later, a search for “Religious Right” gets you 330. Actually, that’s a down day for the right. It’s time for a Sarah Palin bus tour!

I bring this up because, in my opinion, the decline of the Protestant mainline left — a basic fall of about 40 percent in membership in the last third of the 20th century — was one of the most under-covered subjects in that era. But while the moral, cultural and religious left declined in pews, pulpits and at altars, it’s clout evolved and grew elsewhere.

Like on television, at the mall and at the multiplex. And in Oprah’s Book Club.

One could also make the case that, without the decline of the mainline left, there never would have been a growing hole in the public square to be filled, for better and for worse, by the Religious Right.

So the Religious Right became the huge news story. The opening that allowed its rise? That received less analog and digital ink.

This leads us to that amazing Sally Quinn quote the other day in the Washington Post “On Faith” cyber-section, the one about the Rt. Rev. Oprah Winfrey and her impact on American civil religion (I think that is what she was saying changed):

In recent years, religious behaviors have changed dramatically. More people have left traditional religions to join congregations which are self validating. Gone were the fire and brimstone, you’re-all-going-to-hell-unless-you-accept-Jesus-Christ-as-your-personal-savior, the judgment, the fear, the punishment. Many religious and spiritual leaders have taken the lead on this, realizing people don’t want to be lectured to and made to feel guilty for common human failings. People want to feel hopeful, as though they matter. They want to feel empowered.

Oprah led the way.

So Oprah led the way to a faith without fear, judgment or punishments — eternal or temporal. A faith without a Savior who would ever dare to say, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

As a reporter, Quinn’s summery of the Oprah gospel sounds like the message that has grown to become the heart of the mainline liberal Protestant faith, especially at the level of seminaries and ecclesiastical bureaucracies.

So here is my question: Was Oprah the most successful mainline Protestant evangelist of her era? If so, why does her theology work so well at the mall and not in the sanctuaries of many or most mainline churches? I don’t know how one would investigate that story — but there is a story there.

Enjoy the podcast.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber H. E. Baber

    OK I’ll keep this on topic: how the press (fails to) “get” religion.

    The Washington Post article rehearses the conventional theme: “traditional religions” are all about fire-and-brimstone–condemning, preaching at people about judgement and punishment. But now we have Oprah! And the new spirituality that’s all about hope, empowerment, self-validation, etc.

    This is false. First of all (my statistics are from Putnam, _American Grace_) the percentage of Evangelicals has held pretty constant over the past 50 years at about 23-24% of the population and, moreover, the overwhelming majority of them don’t believe “you’re-all-going-to-hell-unless-you-accept-Jesus-Christ-as-your-personal-savior.” As a matter of empirical fact, within living memory, the overwhelming majority of “traditionally religious” Americans, of churchgoers, have not bought into this crude, puritanical, punitive style of religiosity. Nevertheless, lots of (most?) journalists represent this as the standard brand: instead of looking at the data, or just looking around, they reproduce the bigoted, anti-religious myths propagated by Mencken and Sinclair Lewis writing almost a century ago.

    Oprah is not an evangelist for the Protestant mainline. Within popular culture, channeled by most journalists, who are contemptuous of religious belief and Christianity in particular, conservative evangelical Christianity is the standard brand and the only alternative is New Age bs–including Oprahism. This is a false dichotomy. This New Age b.s. works in the mall but not in most mainline churches because this isn’t what mainline is about. But the anti-religious, anti-Christian propaganda of these journalists ignores mainline or liberal Christianity, identify Christianity with the puritanical, punitive “you’re-all-going-to-hell-unless-you-accept-Jesus-Christ-as-your-personal-savior” that doesn’t exist, and offer New Age “spirituality” as the only religious alternative.

    I recognize that most here aren’t sympathetic to liberal Christianity, but at least recognize that it exists. And please recognize that the options the media represents as exhaustive–conservative Christianity or New Age b.s. aren’t–and that they’re motivated by the anti-religious, anti-Christian prejudices of most journalists.

    Why doesn’t Oprah’s garbage work in the sanctuaries of most mainline churches? Because, please give us a break, we mainline, liberal Christians are not into this baloney. Some of us believe in the supernatural, in the existence of a personal God, in postmortem survival, in the Trinity, in the metaphysics of Christianity.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.com/ Randy

    Why doesn’t Oprah’s garbage work in the sanctuaries of most mainline churches? Because, please give us a break, we mainline, liberal Christians are not into this baloney. Some of us believe in the supernatural, in the existence of a personal God, in postmortem survival, in the Trinity, in the metaphysics of Christianity.

    Who says it does not work? Do you see a lot of liberal Christians calling Oprah’s ideas garbage? I think you are in a minority in that respect. Does Oprah call liberal Christianity garbage? No. Almost by definition liberal Christianity has lost the dogmatism she would object to. But really she rarely point out the problems in anybody’s spirituality. Mostly she just focuses on what she finds good about somebody’s belief system.

    People ignore liberal Christianity because it lacks power. It does not evangelize. It does not change people’s opinions. It tends to just affirm people where they are. That is nice but it is not news.

  • hmm

    I would say Oprah’s the most successful liberal spiritual leader of all time (not just her era only). Her genius was she understood the primitive human impulse to believe in a higher power, but mixed it with the modern tolerant accepting society she helped create. She’s so brilliant. A true original thinker.

  • Bram

    “Some of us believe in the supernatural, in the existence of a personal God, in postmortem survival, in the Trinity, in the metaphysics of Christianity.”

    The key word in the sentence above is the first one — “some.”

    Only “some” liberal Christians affirm the supernatural, a personal God, resurrection, the divinity of Christ, and other metaphysical aspects of Christianity.

    Where — as in liberal Christianity — orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy is therefore proscribed, and one is halfway, or more than halfway, to what tmatt calls Oprah America.

    Thus the stiff competition Oprahism represents for liberal Christianity, and thus Oprahism’s status as a harbinger of what may well be the coming post-Christian or neo-Unitarian-Universalist liberal “mainline” or liberal “oldline.”

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    I see no evidence that Oprah has any mainline affiliations, so I don’t know how she could possibly represent mainline liberal Protestant anything. Her statement that “God is a feeling experience and not a believing experience. If your religion is a believing experience [...] then that’s not truly God” is about as churchless a religion as one gets, unless one is content to be a Unitarian.

  • Ann

    “So Oprah led the way to a faith without fear, judgment or punishments — eternal or temporal. A faith without a Savior who would ever dare to say, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.””

    Yes, anyone that has read tmatt’s blogs knows his opinion about mainline churches. It is even more apparent by the many allowed comments attacking mainline churches that have nothing to do with journalist’s coverage of religion. This blog has nothing to do with journalist coverage of mainline church. It is an opinion of tmatt that mainline churches believe what is in the above paragraph, which is not factual.

    I am a member of the largest mainline church. I frequently hear “No one comes to the Father except through me.” I hear about great gnashing of teeth, etc. about judgment for not living as Jesus taught.

    The “I am a better Christian than you” is not a Christian attitude and will not be very successful in convincing people that you are correct. It is preaching to the choir.

    I did a search for opinions about the main message at the Joplin memorial yesterday from Rev. Aaron Brown, UMC. The only negative I found was from a anti-religion person. I found it humorous that one of the most positive came from Sarah.net link


    “These are the kind of speeches I just love to post. This one was from Reverend Aaron Brown of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Joplin who spoke at the Joplin Memorial service today. He is a man who truly loves Jesus and a man who isn’t afraid to say it in front of politicians and a national audience.

    It’s not a long speech but one that I found truly inspiring. If I lived in Joplin I’d be at his church next Sunday.

    I encourage you all to listen to it. Kudos to Fox News for carrying it.”

  • Ignominious

    Harry Emerson Fosdick once asked “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” With the Coming of Oprah, the answer, as far as it concerns who exerts the most influence on the larger American society, is a resounding “no.” They lost and lost big.

    However, beside the question of whether Oprahism directly competes with “mainline liberal Christianity,” the more interesting question for me concerns to what extent her influence affects the language evangelical churches use in presenting their message. I suspect the influence of Oprah is greater than most would imagine. If you look in various places, from Rick Warren or Joel Olsteen, to some “emergent” groups, I think you’ll detect a very horizontal-oriented “therapeutic” cast in how things are preached. For example, in the past, God was out to save souls from sin. Now, He’s in the business of saving “relationships.”

    Maybe Oprah is not the cause of this, but I suspect there might be at least a correlation.

  • Bram


    Neither tmatt nor anyone else here is “attacking” the liberal mainline, of which the United Methodist Church is only uneasily a part, given its much more orthodox stance on most divisive issues than the rest of its peers among the old mainline.

    No, tmatt and others here are not “attacking” anyone, but only recognizing facts on the ground.

    And one of those facts — for better or for worse — is that in most of the old mainline what H. H. Baber calls “the metaphysics of Christianity” are only optional things, not essential things, not first things.

    Instead, they are merely feelings, opinions, emotive tropes — in other words, as much or more the stuff of Oprahism as of Christianity as it’s been understood in most times and in most places during Christian history.

    Now maybe most Christians in most times and in most places have misunderstood Christianity, and have failed to grasp its genuine essence as only the old liberal mainline, among all nominal Christians, have ever been able to do.

    But that’s a very provocative, a very presumptuous claim.

    A much *more* provocative and much more presumptuous claim than the claim of tmatt and others here that the liberal mainline resembles Oprahism — especially from the outside looking in, where the view could be more distorted, but could also be more clear.

  • http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber H. E. Baber


    It is just plain false that liberal churches have reduced their message to “feelings, opinions, and emotive tropes.” Last time I looked the Episcopal Church repeated the Nicene Creed every week in its liturgy. That is metaphysics. Now it may be that some people, including priests, say it with their fingers crossed–historically, all churches, not just liberal ones, have included hypocrites and liars. So what else is new?

    By suggesting that the only alternative to conservative Christianity is Oprahism you are endorsing the assumption of secularists, who dominate the media, that conservative Christianity is the standard brand and that the only alternative is New Age “spirituality.” The only difference is that they reject conservative Christianity in favor of Oprah rather than rejecting Oprah in favor of conservative Christianity.

  • Bram

    H. E. Baber,

    Prior to 2003, the most well-known Episcopalian was John Shelby Spong, who has systematically denied the truth of every word in the Nicene Creed, yet still remains a bishop emeritus on the payroll and in good standing within TEC.

    Since 2003, the most well-known Episcopalian is Vicky Gene Robinson, who has stated in an interview that his reason for joining the Episcopal Church was that his vicar told him that he and every other Episcopalian could pick and choose which parts of the Nicene Creed he chose to believe.

    Those are facts on the ground.

    Now, granted, there’s more to the Episcopal Church than John Shelby Spong and Vicky Gene Robinson, just as the old mainline as a whole is more than the Oprah Winfrey Show.

    But the Spongs and Robinsons are more in the ascendant every day within TEC, and comparable though maybe more low-key figures are equally in the ascendant in every other denomination in the old mainline, save, maybe, the United Methodist Church, which has probably now gone as far theologically left as it is ever going to go, and therefore perhaps ought not to be grouped any longer in the old mainline — especially as the old mainline looks to drift even further theologically left than it already has, toward something, again, very much like the Oprah America that tmatt describes.

    I don’t say any of this out of malice or spite, but merely from a simply desire to tell the truth as I take it to be.

    And I’m a former member of both two different denominations in the old mainline, so I know wherever I speak just as much as you and Ann, and maybe more so, it seems to me.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Bram, prior to 2003 the most well-known Episcopalian was probably George Washington. After 2003, he was probably still the best-known.

    Of course nobody really worries about the specific denomination of people who aren’t clerics, unless they can make an issue about it. The particularly galling thing about Spong was and is that hardly anyone in the church agrees with him, even among clerics.

  • Bram

    C. Wingate,

    Oh, I beg to differ about how hardly anyone in TEC agrees with Spong and especially about how everyone in TEC is galled by Spong.

    Again, he remains a bishop emeritus on TEC’s payroll. Not only has he not been defrocked but he continues to be feted and given platforms from which to speak all around TEC, including, on multiple occasions, at the invitation of TEC’s presiding bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori. And this even as Schori and the leadership of TEC continue to pursue vindictive lawsuits against dioceses and congregations who want out of TEC so they can keep faith with Anglican tradition unhindered by the likes of bishops and vicars like Spong.

    As for George Washington, I was only referring to famous *living* Episcopalians. In any case, Washington, whatever his merits otherwise, is hardly someone whom you’d want to put forward to exemplify Christian orthodoxy in TEC or anywhere else.

    This is drifting off-topic, so let’s bring it back. Within the Anglican Communion, whom do you think would be more likely as a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show: John Shelby Spong or John Milbank? Vicky Gene Robinson or N. T. Wright?

    I think you know the answer and I think that the answer confirms what tmatt and I have been trying to say. Which is — like it or not — that the old mainline does indeed often represent an Oprahesque version of Christianity, with contemporary TEC representing an Oprahesque version of the Anglican stream.

  • Dave

    The Quinn quote cited defines the religious left in terms of what it isn’t, not what it is.

  • http://www.gracetc.org Daniel P. Richards

    I am a cleric in a mainline Episcopal church. I stand up every week without my fingers crossed and recite the Nicene Creed. At least once a day I recite the Apostles Creed as part of the Daily Office. I read the Scriptures daily, study, and teach them. Our church feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, visits those in prison, and proclaims the name of and leads others to follow Christ. Proudly and with love. Yes, some of our leadership and clerics and lay people have become unabashed unitarians or libertines. That is lamentable and at times worse. They make themselves hypocrites by taking part in the liturgy of the Church. But to somehow say that Oprah has anything to do with what we do and say every Sunday is to blaspheme the Spirit. I follow Christ. My people follow Christ. Pray for us. Pray for our leadership. But unless you discount the letters of John or the prayer of Christ in John’s Gospel, stop disgracing the church.

    The article makes a claim that is false. Oprah is a lot of things, and her work shows how far American Pop Religion is from its roots in Evangelicalism. But she doesn’t speak for me, my church, or my faith. She doesn’t claim to and we don’t claim her.

  • Bram

    Daniel P. Richards,

    With all due and genuine respect, I feel that Vicky Gene Robinson, who crosses his fingers in unspecified parts of the Nicene Creed, John Shelby Spong who denies the whole of the Nicene Creed, and Katherine Jefferts Schori, who enables and declines to discipline both Robinson and Spong, do more to “blaspheme the Spirit” than anything that I’ve said here. And nothing that I’ve said here denies the letters of John or the prayer of Christ in John’s Gospel, so please stop disgracing the church yourself by denying that it does.

    And please re-read (or read for the first time) my comment #4, where I take note of H. E. Baber’s admission in his comment #1 that only “some” members of the old mainline still affirm what he calls “the metaphysics of Christianity.”

    The obverse of that is, of course, that *some* still *do.* I have nowhere denied that that’s the case, and I’m pleased that you and H. H. Baber are among the group who do.

    That doesn’t change the fact that the two most well-known current Episcopalians — Robinson and Spong — do *not* do so in all respects, and, in Spong’s case, not in *any* respect.

    Nor does it change the fact that this appears to be quite alright with the presiding bishop of TEC — as opposed to leaving TEC on orthodox theological grounds, which is not alright at all, as witnessed by vindictive lawsuits by TEC’s leadership against those who have tried so to do.

    Nor, finally, does it change the fact that the gallimaufry of emotivism and identity politics behind all this has an Oprahesque caste for many outside observers of these goings-on, whether or not that resemblance is welcome or not on the part of TEC.

  • Julia


    The linked memorial speech in Joplin was remarkable.

    The other night somebody on the radio from California was asking about the Mid-West’s reported ability to take heart and get through difficulty through community. That talk sure was a good example.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I have been on the road for a day and away from keys — thus allowing this thread to explode into all kinds of wars between straw men.

    Folks, I am wall aware that there are creedal churches and even conservative regions within the mainline world. Trust me on that. This is why I always try to reference these churches in terms of their entrenched establishments — especially seminaries and bureaucracies.

    Note, for example:

    … Quinn’s summery of the Oprah gospel sounds like the message that has grown to become the heart of the mainline liberal Protestant faith, especially at the level of seminaries and ecclesiastical bureaucracies.

    Traditionalists have had few wins in decades in the structures of their national churches. That is where you find the OprahAmerica bishops, professors, etc. In some settings, Oprah would be in the middle or on the right….

    Dave: You nailed it.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    The linked Joplin sermon WAS remarkable. I watched it all.

    Has anyone seen decent MSM coverage of that sermon and the gov’s remarks?

    If so, send the URLS to us!

    Use the SUBMIT page, since I am without steady wifi in a mountain region and will rarely get to check this thread.


  • Bram

    In line with what tmatt says in #17, please note that my take on TEC is based on public statements and actions by TEC *leaders,* by TEC *bishops,* including TEC’s *presiding bishop,* and *not* on generalizations about the mass of parishioners in TEC. No doubt TEC and the other mainline denominations become less and less Oprahesque the further down the pyramid one goes and the closer to the pews.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Bram, I don’t think so. I’m unwilling to subject myself to any more of Spong’s sophomoric writing, but I do not see him having much similarity to the kind of religiosity that Oprah assigns to herself. She, for instance, would not have bothered to write something titled Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Perhaps his latest book may represent yet another change of direction but he has been retired for years and nobody in the church has cared abut his views for approximately that long. Anyway the point is that bishops, by their very nature are institutionalists, and Oprah emphatically is not. Regardless of what individual (and under-disciplined) bishops may say, the liturgies of Episcopal Church still have us reciting the Creed every Sunday. Her religion is churchless and perhaps creedless, but ours is not. It’s amusing to people here to sneer at mainliners for being bad at this kind of stuff, for being lax and insufficiently hard-headed, but for all that, it’s not the same as saying that religion is about feeling and not about believing.

  • Bram

    C. Wingate,

    You continue to try to make what is an argument about mainline denominations as *institutions* into an argument about mainline parishioners as *individuals.*

    Much of the institutional leadership of the old mainline is indeed Oprahesque in its general approach to theology.

    So much so that even in creedal, liturgical contexts like that of an Episcopal mass one has to ask oneself the same question that tmatt asked in his podcast regarding Oprah’s references to “Jesus” and “God” — What do those words *mean* to speaker here? How does the speaker here *define* those words? And are those meanings and definitions the *same* ones to which the speaker’s listeners hold, or the same ones to which the speaker’s fellow speakers hold, in the case of creedal liturgy.

    Just as Oprah would rather not answer the question of *exactly* what she means when she says “Jesus” and “God,” there are plenty of institutional leaders in the old mainline who would rather not define just *exactly* what they mean by the words in, say, The Nicene Creed or The Apostles’ Creed.

    Creeds and liturgies are double-edged swords in the old mainline. They allow many good and faithful Christians to remain within the old mainline, but they also allow too many not-so-good and not-so-faithful clergy to remain there too, under false or at least disingenuous pretense.

    There’s a certain condescension toward the flock and a certain manipulation that, again, seems Oprahesque to me.

  • Bram


    The United Methodist Church has enough membership in the American South and in the Global South (i.e. Africa) to hold Oprahism at bay in the church as a whole. But not every mainline denomination is as fortunate as that and there are even parts of the Methodist Church that aren’t as fortunate as that. Cut tmatt some slack. I think you and others here may underestimate how exceptional your orthodox positions may be within the mainline as a whole. If you grew up Southern Baptist, then perhaps you grew up in the American South. If so, then you are probably *not,* in fact, a liberal by national standards, either politically or theologically. Southern “liberals” are actually moderates or even conservatives, by and large. Believe me. I know. I’m one. And I believe that tmatt is one.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Bram, you’re using individual bishops (and in my opinion misrepresenting them to a fair degree, but that’s beside the point) and stating that they are the position of the church. That’s not how it works. Individual mainline clerics are no more representative than individual mainline laymen; that’s the polity. I mean, we had a vote at the last GC from the bishops to endorse the virgin birth, so I think you really have to assent to the statement that the church continues to teach that even if individual bishops do not. Even if the presiding bishop’s theology is completely incoherent (which some of us would make a case for), she is not the church.

  • Bram

    C. Wingate,

    How have I “misrepresented” individual bishops “to a fair degree?”

    I’ve mentioned three individual bishops: Robinson, Spong, and Schori — Robinson, who by his own admission disbelieves in parts of the liturgy and creeds; Spong, who by his own admission disbelieves in more or less the entirety of the liturgy and creeds; and Schori, who, in addition to what you correctly describe as her “completely incoherent” theology (which I have said nothing about), has done nothing at all to discipline Robinson or even Spong.

    With what specific parts of my characterizations of those Bishops’ positions do you disagree? What specific parts of their positions have been misrepresented by me?

    As for “using individual bishops … and stating that they are the position of the church” — well, Schori is the elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Robinson is the Bishop in the defense of whose sexual prerogatives TEC under Schori’s leadership is engaged in breaking up the Anglican Communion and losing even more of its own membership than the very great proportion that it already has, and Spong is the only Episcopalian — as opposed to Anglican — theologian of the past half century of whom most laymen inside and outside TEC have taken any notice at all, with the possible exception in the 1960′s of his fellow heretical Bishop James Pike.

    It would be one thing if I were pulling three, and now four, random Episcopalian bishops out of a hat. But I’m not. I’m referencing major historical figures who have helped define TEC for better or worse — and most people think for worse — in the past fifty years.

    If that isn’t a basis for making at least some generalizations about TEC as an institution, then I don’t know what is.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    I do not think you have proven the point of how their heresies have much in common with Oprah’s “feeling rather than belief”. Spong, for instance, back when I was reading him, was closely tied to Tillichian thought, which is extremely intellectualized. It is not “feeling over belief”. One could argue, I would personally, that Tillich’s dismissal of orthodox belief lacks intellectual justification, but that’s not the same thing as rejecting intellection altogether.

    Also, here I see an interview in which VGR is flatly asked, “How much of the Nicene Creed do you believe today?” and he answers, equally flatly, “I believe all of it.” He clearly passed through some sort of phase in seminary where he thought differently, but it does not reflect his more recent belief. It’s important to a lot of people to conflate him with Spong and every other heretic in order to support the notion that any deviation leads to total deviation, but from what I can see it isn’t true of him, and in my experience it isn’t true of most clerics in ECUSA.

    As far as Spong and Pike’s publicity is concerned, well, that’s not getting religion in spades. The media isn’t interested in orthodoxy, only unorthodoxy, because it is the unorthodox that is news. You say that these people “define TEC”; the point is that the media present them as representing ECUSA in a way that they do not. It is scandalous that Spong was not deposed as it was scandalous that Pike was not deposed, and it is scandalous that we keep getting presiding bishops who are so poor at representing the faith of their church (Griswold being obscure rather than incoherent). But again, that is not how the polity works. It is a conciliar church and no individual, not even the presiding individual, speaks for the church unless he simply repeats what those councils have stated. Four supposedly random bishops (and of course they aren’t random– they’re newsmakers) are not a substitute.