Love her or loathe her, Winfrey has become proof that you can’t be too rich, too thin or too committed to rising to your place in the world. With 49 million viewers each week in the USA and more in the 122 other countries to which the show is distributed, Winfrey reaches more people in a TV day than most preachers can hope to reach in a lifetime of sermons.
"One of the things that’s key," says Marcia Nelson, author of The Gospel According to Oprah, "is she walks her talk. That’s really, really important in today’s culture. People who don’t walk their talk fall from a great pedestal — scandals in the Catholic Church, televangelism scandals. If you’re not doing what you say you do, woe be unto you."
In Ellen DeGeneres’ stand-up comedy act several years ago, she included a joke about getting to heaven and finding that God is a black woman named Oprah.
Last fall, at the start of this 20th season of The Oprah Winfrey Show, guest Jamie Foxx said much the same thing, but he wasn’t joking. "What you have is something nobody can describe," Foxx said to Winfrey on the air. Then he explained about how he told Vibe magazine: "You’re going to get to heaven and everyone’s waiting on God and it’s going to be Oprah Winfrey."
In a November poll conducted at Beliefnet.com, a site that looks at how religions and spirituality intersect with popular culture, 33% of 6,600 respondents said Winfrey has had "a more profound impact" on their spiritual lives than their clergypersons.
Cathleen Falsani, religion writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, recently suggested, "I wonder, has Oprah become America’s pastor?"
One of Winfrey’s most appealing subtexts is that she’s anti-institutional, says Chris Altrock, minister of Highland Street Church of Christ in Memphis. He says Winfrey believes there are many paths to God, not just one. After doing his doctoral research three years ago on postmodernism religion, a religious era that began in the 1970s as Christians became deeply interested in spirituality and less interested in any established church, he came up with what he calls "The Church of Oprah," referring to the culture that has created her.