America has recently marked the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001, a tearful remembrance of horror in the skies, the loss of our proud towers and the transformation of our national life. Though it is seldom recalled, the events that followed that dark day also included a milestone in yet another transformation -- understandably obscured as it was by grief over lives lost and a nation bruised. It was the transformation of Oprah Winfrey.
At a September 23, 2001, event in New York called "A Prayer for America," Winfrey joined co-host James Earl Jones to emcee an afternoon of prayer, song, consolation and remembrance led by leaders from nearly every religion in America. That Jones served as host was little surprise. Americans were used to his narrations -- he was, after all, the voice of CNN -- and to his dignified presence at national events. "Besides," quipped one broadcaster, "his grand, sonorous voice is the surest proof of the existence of God."
The presence of Winfrey, though, caused some to wonder. It was true she was well-known, having risen to fame as a brilliant interviewer gifted with intelligence, boldness and an uncanny ability to make her audiences think she was one of them. Still, not long before, she had been dubbed a daytime television "slime queen" because of the often-sordid themes treated on her groundbreaking talk show. Critic Tom Shales had called the Winfrey show "talk rot." Ralph Nader charged that Winfrey was a "polluter." Even a leading academic journal called Winfrey "shameless."
The words stung and, at a days-long 40th birthday celebration in 1994, Winfrey pondered with her closest friends how she might lift herself to a higher plane. One friend suggested she should join with the pope to lead the world in prayer. Another urged that she interview Mother Teresa. Still other possibilities were discussed, but everyone knew that a moment of change loomed for the program Winfrey called "my ministry."
Not long after, that change came. In December of 1994, Winfrey announced to her audience that her show would begin to explore more elevated themes. She started this ascent by inviting Marianne Williamson, a leading teacher of alternative spirituality, as her guest. This was the beginning. Clearly, Winfrey had decided to offer to her audiences the brand of religion that had long been her private well of inspiration. Over the following years she would feature such figures as Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, Iyanla Vanzant, Roger Kemenetz, Gary Zukav, Elizabeth Lesser, Carolyn Myss, Reverend Ed Bacon, Eckhart Tolle, Wayne Dyer, Byron Katie and Andrew Weil, among many others.
What resulted was the airing of religious ideas and practices in a manner that had rarely occurred before an American television audience. There is little question that these broadcasts permanently recast perceptions of spirituality for millions of Winfrey's faithful. Yet what stunned some viewers and critics was not that religion now took center stage on the highly rated show, but rather that the brand of religion Winfrey touted was so entirely alternative, so non-traditional -- what some called occult or "New Age." On one episode of Winfrey's show, John Gray, the author of "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus," taught audiences to chant, "O glorious future, my heart is open to you. Come into my life." Gary Zukav assured Winfrey's audience, "Your feelings are the force field of your soul." Iyanla Vanzant urged viewers to "surrender to the God of your understanding," while financial guru Suze Ozman proclaimed "Money is a living entity and responds to energy" and "your self worth equals your net worth." Winfrey joined in, explaining to her adoring fans, "I am defined by the world as a talk show host, but I know that I am much more. I am spirit connected to greater spirit."
Critics were appalled by this new version of Winfrey. Jeff MacGregor of The New York Times charged the show with "host worship" and "mind numbing clichés of personal improvement." Late night comedians told jokes about "Deepak Oprah." When clips of Winfrey's shows were posted on YouTube -- showing her denying that Jesus Christ is the only way to God or claiming that Christ came not to die for the sins of the world but to teach all men of their Christ nature -- conservative Christian leaders became alarmed. Winfrey was called a traitor to her Baptist faith, a "new age guru" -- even the antichrist.
Still, this new, spiritual Oprah won hearts and rewrote Winfrey's image in the popular mind. Pundits began respectfully speaking of her as "America's Pastor." The New York Times referred to "the secular chapel" of her program." Biographer Kitty Kelley would call her "a one woman cathedral." By the "Prayer for America" event following the collective trauma of 9/11, Winfrey had confidently taken her place on the stage of America's religious leaders.
Now, in the months following the widely celebrated final program of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," it is time to begin assessing the legacy of Winfrey's spirituality and its impact upon American society in particular. It may be, too, that it is a legacy still being fashioned. The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) has welcomed many of the same religious spokesmen who once appeared on the daytime talk show. Some analysts expect that when the current programming of the ratings-challenged network runs thin--and reruns of the making of Oprah's final episode and "behind the scenes at John Hopkins hospital" are likely to grow thin quickly -- Winfrey will turn again to the drama of alternative spirituality. This only will deepen her religious impact and strengthen her hold on the role some believe she already claims unchallenged -- the role of the most influential religious figure in America.