Kathryn Lofton argues that “Oprah is a way to survive the secular.” This is a brilliant, keen, insightful, clever, and ultimately illuminating encapsulation of Lofton’s book-length exploration of Oprah (as opposed to “Oprah”). Watching Oprah through Lofton’s expert lens tells us much more about religion, consumerism, and individual choice than one might expect, not least because surviving the secular is what most of us are trying to do.
Those who call themselves “religious” are the most obvious examples. Both Evangelical Christians, who often see themselves as beleaguered or oppressed by secular culture, and Hasidic Jews, who cordon themselves off from English and American culture by creating Yiddish-speaking enclaves in Brooklyn, do this. For these communities, secularism is a constant threat, couched at the door of their churches, synagogues, schools, and communities. With overly sexualized television programs and other entertainments that pander to people’s base desires, secular culture is waiting to pounce on unsuspecting religious folks and drag them down into its amoral maw.
Yet, similarly, those keen on calling themselves secular are engaged in a parallel pursuit: trying to survive, create, or discover meaning in the wakes of disenchantment and rationalism. This kind of survival is never easy; one cannot simply look toward a book or a code or a personal relationship with the divine for guidance or meaning. Questions about human existence cannot be easily deferred to the divine, and engaging them existentially can be taxing even for secularism’s most ardent affiliates. Secular life, despite its roots in the rationalism and logic of the Enlightenment, remains awfully murky to navigate.
And then, of course, there are those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” “traditional but not religious,” or “spiritual seekers.” These account for the 44 percent of Americans who identify with faith traditions that are different from those into which they were born, whom the Pew Research Center cleverly called America’s “faithful unfaithful.” Americans are notoriously choosy, and in recent decades religion has become another of the many options people pursue in search of a richer, more meaningful life.
Whether you see “the secular” as a threat or a refuge, an option or an impulse, we are all trying to survive it, and one could argue that religious folks are trying to survive the secular far more ardently than secular folks are trying to survive the religious (at least in the United States). Of course, most of us fall somewhere in between—looking for and cobbling together meaning in and around the edges of religious and secular schools of thought and belief. Yet, for all of the boundary marking and making, secular and religious are not mutually exclusive; they are mutually constitutive.
And that’s where Lofton (along with an audience of millions) finds Oprah: at the intersection of religious and secular, in between spiritual and material, personal and communal, ritual and improvisational. And it is a brilliant discovery.
Oprah, Lofton reminds us, is not a religion, but Oprah moves in religious ways. From confessions to consumer goods, from rituals of self-care to reading sacred texts, Oprah operates religiously without operating like a religion. She’s got rituals (of reading and watching), she elicits confessions and grants abdications, she promises “useful” information, and she offers salvation to those in need of help. For all the miracles she documents on her show, she’d be a shoe-in for sainthood.
For Oprah, religious sensibilities are crucial for surviving the secular, but religion, as such, is not. In this way, she is the perfect figure for shedding light on contemporary American religious culture, which is increasingly characterized by individual choices, by withering denominational structures, and by the spread of the “faithful unfaithful.” One need not find a religion to be religious, and one need not be religious in order to be spiritual. For many, Oprah provides a venue for doing just that—that is, for surviving the secular without opting for religion.
It is, as Lofton shows us, the enshrinement of individual choice as the marker of American religious culture and the fullest conjunction of consumerist and religious ethos. “Abundant consumption and abundant selectivity in that consumption pose no moral threat” in Oprah’s religious-without-religion universe. Oprah’s path of the religious is beset on all sides by sumptuous goods, candid confessions, jaw-dropping books, and opportunities for spiritual reflection, provided one has the proper accessories.
And you’ll know if you have the proper accessories because Oprah will have anointed them with her iconic O. The O will guide viewers through the desert of individual choices, like a pillar of fire or a column of smoke. Though she endows the glory of individual choice on her viewers, they should not be left with too much choice, lest they stop their subscriptions or find something better to do at 4:00 PST, each weekday.
Because Oprah is ultimately a business, it cannot simply support “choice” (either religious or material) in the abstract. Oprah has to advocate for particular choices—this pen, that journal, this time slot. For all of Lofton’s close readings, Oprah cannot quite be the prophet of personal choice, because Oprah needs her viewers, readers, followers, consumers, and advertisers. And, like jealous gods and charismatic leaders that have preceded her, she needs them to behave. In this way, Oprah is closer to Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor than she is to his prisoner.
Yet, this is precisely why Oprah is so vital to conversations about American religious life: because she talks the talk of individual choice and spirituality, of consumerism and confessions, while embodying the needs, structures, and desires of her industry. She’s not ready to grant her followers access to the transcendent truths just yet. So she’ll keep them in the dark, and keep them watching for just one more episode, one more issue, one more book, celebrity interview, makeover, great prize giveaway, journal, bath. . . . She’ll keep them tuning in, scratching and scraping to survive secularism, all the while convincing them that that’s the best that they can hope for.