WPost: Avoiding Maya Angelou’s soul, if at all possible

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In the world of political, cultural and social studies theory there is a term — “civil religion” — that scholars have been arguing about for decades. You can talk about Rousseau and you can dig into Tocqueville and travel on to Martin Marty, but sooner or later you end up with the 1967 Robert Bellah essay entitled, “Civil Religion in America,” written by Robert Bellah in Daedalus in 1967. As the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society notes:

Bellah’s definition of American civil religion is that it is “an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation,” which he sees symbolically expressed in America’s founding documents and presidential inaugural addresses. It includes a belief in the existence of a transcendent being called “God,” an idea that the American nation is subject to God’s laws, and an assurance that God will guide and protect the United States. Bellah sees these beliefs in the values of liberty, justice, charity, and personal virtue and concretized in, for example, the words In God We Trust on both national emblems and on the currency used in daily economic transactions. Although American civil religion shares much with the religion of Judeo-Christian denominations, Bellah claims that it is distinct from denominational religion.

Back in by Church-State Studies days at Baylor University, I wrote my thesis on a topic linked to all of this, a 290-page work called “A Unity of Frustration: Civil Religion in the 15 October 1969 Vietnam War Moratorium.” Amazingly enough, you no longer have to go to my office or to the main campus library in Waco, Texas, to read it (although I have been pleased at how many researchers have used it through loaner programs). Now Google Books has made it available (sort of).

Anyway, while most people look at civil religion as something rooted in the belief of a great, unified, majority, I argued — with extensive material from interviewing Marty (key: a community of communities) — that some minority religious or semi-religious movements have, over time, been absorbed into the majority and thus into the civil religion.

Who can imagine American civil religion without the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement? I argued that the religious wing of the protest movements against the Vietnam War — with the massive, coast-to-coast Moratorium as its peak — represented a very important, yet ultimately unsuccessful, example of this process in civil religion.

So what does all of this have to do with Maya Angelou and with, when it comes to religion, her great popularizer — Oprah?

Angelou lived a roller-coaster of a life and she ended up being a religious voice, as much as anything else. What kind of religion? It was a mixture of African-American religion, readings in deeply religious literature and Unity Church, a New Thought movement that I have heard referred to as a prime example of the “old” New Age.

In other words, some would see this as a kind of lowest-common-denominator religion branching off of Christian roots. A kind of mystical civil religion? Here is an interesting take on that from the conservative Catholic Peggy Noonan at The Wall Street Journal:

Reaction to Maya Angelou’s death is going to be broader and deeper than people realize. They’ll say she was a great writer, a teller of experience, a witness. All true. But at the end she was a mystic. A friend who saw this interview, with Oprah Winfrey, said: “She was so close to Heaven.”

Angelou said love is an invisible electric current that lights the world and everything in it, and we don’t even notice. She spoke of the shattering yet building moment when she understood for the first time that “God. Loves. Me.” “It still humbles me that this force which made the leaves and fleas and stars and rivers and you — loves me. Me, Maya Angelou. It’s amazing. I can do anything and do it well, any good thing, I can do it.”

And finally:

She turned her life into art. That took not only gifts but guts, and effort. She worked hard in a career of more than half a century. “To work is to pray.” She was probably close to Heaven long before she knew it.

Looking at the tributes in the wake of her death, what I struggle to understand is how anyone can look at the dramatic sweep of her life and miss this essential note. Was she really, in the end, a primarily secular artist? Read the whole obituary in The Washington Post and this is pretty much what you get, when it comes to religion and faith:

None of her poetry or prose brought the same acclaim as “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” but critics praised her ability to weave street talk with literary references and the rhythm of church hymns.

And:

Her ability to reach a mass audience, including people who did not consider themselves poetry readers, set her apart. A fixture on the lecture circuit and a popular guest on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, her personal story became a platform for her message of renewal and hope.

“If God put the rainbows right in the clouds themselves, each one of us in the direst and dullest and most dreaded and dreary moments can see a possibility of hope,” she said in a speech at a conference at Weber State University in Utah in 1997. “Each one of us has the chance to be a rainbow in somebody’s cloud.”

Did I miss anything in that massive A1 piece? If you followed her public work, is that all of the religious content you get?

In an encounter with Marty in 2001 at the University of Nebraska, I told him that I thought anyone who wasn’t studying Oprah wasn’t studying contemporary American civil religion. He said that popular take on faith would have to be part of the big picture of American life in our public square.

So did anyone see a mainstream NEWS piece on Angelou that got the religious element right? Or were most journalists, as Bill Moyers would say, simply tone deaf?

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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.

  • fredx2

    I agree completely about Oprah. Know it or not, she instituted a new kind of religion into America, mostly absorbed by the women who watched her show. Oprah began talking about “her spirit” in an odd way, and she evangelized her audiences constantly by her choice of guests. To me, it sounded very New Age-ish, It was never officially proclaimed as religious teaching, however. It was more insidious than that. It was simply promoted as a way of living, a way of existing, a way of thinking about yourself. So many odd ideas came about: the idea that you had to find your “soulmate”. The idea that you had to take care of “your spirit”, but when they talked about “your spirit” it was not in the normal religious sense of soul, but as a spirit in the same way as pagans refer to spirits.
    The Vice of TV is that they have to present weirdness in order to make you watch the show. Normality is not something people will sit down and watch. Oddity is. Yet in order to not look completely gah-gah, that oddity needs to be presented as something plausible, something that was equally as true as normal ideas about the subject.
    So TV ends up being an inevitable promoter of bad ideas.
    As for Angelou, her appeal was strictly limited to those on the left. When that happens, the media usually portray the person as a towering figure of our time. Yet if you asked a group of ordinary Americans in a week who Maya Angelou was, I doubt many would know.


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