From the minute Oprah Winfrey became a national television star, fans wondered whether she would ever run for President of the United States. Winfrey herself consistently replied that she had a better pulpit to change the world. The last two years of national politics have led many political and media commentators—and Oprah herself—to reopen this question.
The question was at the heart of this year’s Impact of Religion Lecture, “Oprah 2020: The Problem of Celebrity and Politics in America,” which was presented to an enthusiastic NC State audience on February 22. The speaker was Kathryn Lofton, professor of religious studies, American studies and history at Yale University, where she is also Chair of the Department of Religious Studies and Deputy Dean for Diversity and Faculty Development.
Lofton discussed Oprah Winfrey’s transformation from talk-show host into “religious” icon, seeing in this process the amplification of America’s fascination with pop therapy, positive thinking, and celebrity. In the post-Reagan era, Lofton argued, these qualities have narrowed the gap between celebrities and mainstream politicians. In the era of Trump, when branding and messaging is all, Lofton saw the possibility of an Oprah presidential run in 2020 not just as an opportunity for “will she or won’t she?” speculation, but as an occasion to think about how American politics got here.
A historian of religion, Lofton has written extensively about capitalism, celebrity, sexuality, and the concept of the secular. Her first book, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (University of California Press, 2011), uses Oprah’s multimedia productions to evaluate the material strategies of contemporary spirituality. Lofton is also author of Consuming Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2017) and is editor-at-large for The Immanent Frame.