Oprah Winfrey's influence on the mind, body and spirit of viewers of The Oprah Show is hard to overstate. However she has been curiously hesitant to talk about the influence and importance of religion during the show's 25 year run. How has the host addressed her own religious beliefs? What have her guests said about religion and faith? What role does spirituality play in the wider mission of the Oprah Winfrey Show? What follows is a brief survey of religion on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
An undated clip from the show's early years is the closest thing to a heated argument about religion that you will find online:
Apparently realizing that arguments such as this one have the potential to become hostile and alienating to large segments of her audience, Oprah has made a point throughout her show's run of establishing definitional barriers in order to talk about "spirituality" while separating it from the "R" word.
In 2009 the show hosted a panel in which Oprah is joined by the Rev. Ed Bacon, Michael Bernard Beckwith, and Elizabeth Lesser. Hear how they distinguish spirituality from religion generally, and specifically in response to a viewer's question about homosexuality (the video's subhead, "False Teaching" hints at what some Christian groups think of Oprah's message):
When browsing Oprah's body of work, a very clear message of openness and inclusiveness begins to emerge. A 2001 interview with The Dalai Lama reveals that the international icon of peace and the television giant are very much on the same page when it comes to the big questions.
Oprah: So the whole reason we are on this planet is to serve each other?
Dalai Lama: That's right.
Oprah: Can a person be good without practicing religion?
Dalai Lama: Yes. And he or she can also be happy.
Oprah: Is it possible for everyone to be happy?
Dalai Lama: It is possible -- absolutely. And it is worthwhile for one to make an effort to achieve happiness. Just as the purpose of a plant is to grow, so it is that the main purpose of every human being is to survive and to grow until death. As far as mental development is concerned, we should never be complacent. We can develop our minds infinitely -- there is no limitation. Many of us are discontent with how many possessions we have, but we're content when it comes to our spiritual development. That is the mistake we make.
Oprah: That's big! If we all understood that our sole purpose is to help others, wouldn't that change humanity?
The show has hosted a number of similar discussions over the years, oriented to Oprah's mantra for her viewers, "live your best life." In addition to His Holiness, Oprah has interviewed important Buddhist leaders such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron. It is noteworthy that for Oprah the religion of Buddhism is less treacherous than other faiths, and seems to naturally align with her messaging.
These Buddhists and other spiritual teachers and authors have also strongly influenced Oprah's personal beliefs. Click to the 5:48 mark of this clip for Oprah's explanation of how Eric Butterworth's "Discover the Power Within You" helped redefine her Christian convictions:
Oprah's imprimatur has proven to be a powerful boon to many of the most successful "New Age" gurus. Her endorsement was a major factor in the success of Rhonda Byrne's "The Secret" and in 2008 she launched a major campaign behind author Eckhart Tolle and his book, "A New Earth".
In 2002 Oprah was named by "Christianity Today" as one of America's "most influential spiritual leaders", perhaps saying as much about the developing beliefs of the American audience than those of the host. The publication noted Oprah's natural fit into an inclusive multi-faith event taking place in the wake of September 11.
Her carefully crafted message of empowerment was also the subject of a recent book by Yale professor Kathryn Lofton. In "Oprah: The Gospel of An Icon", Lofton explores the host's ability to deliver a product to her audience that has broad appeal and an uncanny similarity to the transformative themes of many major religious movements.
Some cynics might say that Oprah's theme of spirituality-not-religion is a conveniently ratings-friendly construction, but the positivity of the message is undeniable and, based on the evidence, it would seem that Winfrey is fully buying into what she is selling. Throughout her show's run, she's consistently suggested that to "live your best life" requires a consideration of the religious, err ... spiritual.