Secular Jew Pegs “Oprah” as Secular Chapel

Numerous scholars have noted that human beings are inescapably religious, and that while society may think it is “secularizing,” the religious impulse is actually simply being transferred to some other locus of devotion. Obvious places where we can find this devotion in the early 21st century are celebrities, sports teams, and the government or some political ideology. This trend is pretty evident to those who are willing to admit it, but the fact is that most people aren’t.

So I was a bit surprised to open up the Wall Street Journal today and find opposite a defense of Paul Wolfowitz (yuck) an editorial titled “The Church of Oprah” (subscription required to view online). The author, a secular Jew, was an on-and-off viewer of Oprah for 25 years who tried to figure out why the talk-show host inspired such devotion. Here are a couple of choice quotes for those who can’t access the article:

“Oprah” was nothing if not a secular chapel. Countless celebs and civilians came on to confess their sins, to push their mea-culpa memoirs, and to seek absolution or redemption (good for the soul and for the ratings). . . .

She had countless followers always willing to take her suggestions–be your best self, find your own power–as commandments. . . .

Oprah’s final show made it difficult to avoid ecclesiastical comparisons.

Maybe the scholars of religion should revise upward all those church attendance figures for the last 25 years.

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About Dr. J

I am an Associate Professor and head of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.
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4 Responses to Secular Jew Pegs “Oprah” as Secular Chapel

  1. Fred Jewell says:

    On balance, which has impacted the other more . . . the world secularizing “the church” or “the church” “spiritualizing” the world? Is there an animal species which hasn’t become the target of a organized “salvation” effort? . . . whales, harp seal pups, tigers, etc., etc., and, of course, the earth itself must be saved. The only thing that need saving, apparently, is humanity.

  2. Tony Gill says:

    I’ve always been a bit suspect of Laderman’s line of reasoning. He isn’t the first one to say people are substituting secular icons for religion, and he won’t be the last. As human beings, I do think we have some natural yearning for the transcendent. But activating that yearning takes a lot of work (e.g., going to church, reading The Bible), so it is not surprising we are somewhat sloppy in fulfilling our yearning.

    We are also critters that like a bunch of other stuff and junk because we need something to do with our spare time. I really like football. But my dedicated watching of football on Sunday (sometimes missing church to catch an east coast game) may appear ritualistic, but it is hardly religious.

    I don’t think people like Oprah because she is a substitute for God or religion, or the fulfillment of some spiritual yearning in an increasingly secular world (because the world isn’t increasingly secular). Instead, I think people watch because she does a good job at entertaining people.

    • Dr. J says:

      I haven’t actually read Laderman’s book. When I think of religion substitutes, I have in mind work done by scholars on things like nationalism that inspire people to die for a cause if necessary, or something else that people feel gives their life meaning. I suppose some people may have seen themselves in relationship to Oprah that way, although the majority of her viewers probably watched out of boredom or for the entertainment value.

  3. Tony Gill says:

    Meant to conclude with: Occam’s razor.

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