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Kathryn Lofton
Department of Religious Studies

Hal Kibbey
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Friday, December 1, 2006

Is Oprah a religion?

Oprah Winfrey's spiritual consumerism

Dec. 1, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The question from one of her students is familiar -- "Is Oprah a religion?" -- and the professor is ready with a reply: "Oprah does things in a religious manner, but she is not a religion."

In discussing how Oprah Winfrey has influenced so many people, Kathryn Lofton, an assistant professor in the Indiana University Department of Religious Studies, considers that an important distinction.

"I approach Oprah as a potentially religious subject, as someone committed primarily to spiritual change through material means," Lofton said. Winfrey's topics and language place her activities well within the scope of religious and cultural studies, Lofton added, but no study of her movement has been published.

Lofton image

Photo by: Chris Meyer

Kathryn Lofton

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Winfrey herself rejects the idea that what she advocates is a religion. "She eschews the label constantly, saying that she believes in a 'spiritual' path, not religious doctrine. But talk of spirituality is often a means to whitewash dogma," Lofton said.

Spirituality can indeed be contrasted with religion. Religion usually involves institutions that organize individuals into communities ordered by a code of behavior, a creedal relationship to a divine authority, and a set of ritual practices. On the other hand, spirituality refers to devotion to metaphysical matters rather than worldly things.

For Lofton, however, Winfrey's disavowal of religion and religious doctrine is a sleight of hand.

"She endorses some modes of theological existence, but dislikes many more. For her, religion implies control and oppression and the inability to catalog shop. The only way religion or religious belief works for Oprah is if it is carefully coordinated with capitalist pleasure. Thus, the turn to 'spirituality' -- the non-dogmatic dogma that encourages an ambiguous theism alongside an exuberant consumerism," Lofton said.

In Winfrey's view, Buddhism isn't about meditation and renunciation, it's about beaded bracelets and fragrant incense. "Christianity isn't about Christ's apocalyptic visions or the memorization of creeds, it's about a friendly guy named Jesus and his egalitarian message. As long as you can spend, feel good about yourself and look good, your religious belief will be tolerated on Planet O. The religion of Oprah is the incorporated faith of late-capitalist America," Lofton said.

Winfrey's viewers and readers are told to "Change Your Life." "I argue that lives are changed through Oprah's multimedia advocacy of specified, routine practices, such as buying, reading and writing," Lofton said.

Winfrey's system is carefully organized around prescribed individual behavior. "Behave your way to success" is one of her maxims, and a study of her television show, her Web site and her magazine reveals that prescriptive behavior dominates her message, Lofton said.

"Here's what to do, here's some sage testimony as to the utility of your newly chosen habit, here's where to go to get it done, and here are some smart products to assist and decorate your process of self-realization. And in case you don't remember all she has told you to do, she provides three modes of reminder. The point of this media assault is clear: don't just watch, do," Lofton said.

It's hard to watch "The Oprah Winfrey Show" or leaf through her magazine or scan her Web site ( without feeling a need to do something to improve yourself. But Winfrey's program tends to involve a fairly high standard of consumption. Self-indulgence, self-discovery and shopping are her keys to self-improvement.

The right goods to buy, according to Winfrey, encourage self-indulgence and relaxed reflection among individuals who spend too much time on others and not enough on themselves. "Maybe you're like so many women I've talked to over the years who have suspended their deepest desires in order to accommodate everything and everyone else," Winfrey wrote in her magazine. "You ignore the nudge to finally get on with what you know you should be doing."

In Winfrey's system, this precisely prescribed practice of buying will produce internal and external change for such women, surrounding them with a material beauty that should be reflected in their spiritual interior.