No one has to tell Marcia Nelson about America's rising number of "nones" -- people claiming zero ties to a religious tradition -- because she meets them day after day while working as a hospital chaplain in Chicago.
"Lots of people want you to pray with them, but they'll also make comments that let you know they really don't like the institutional church," said Nelson. "They want you to pray, but they don't want traditional religious language. ... When you're in that situation, what you have to do is try to pray like Oprah."
America had another Oprah Winfrey moment the other day, when the 63-year-old billionaire media maven delivered a Golden Globes sermon that created rapture in Hollywood and a heady buzz among journalists and politicos.
NBC gushed on Twitter: "Nothing but respect for OUR future president."
During her remarks, Winfrey pushed many buttons that have defined her career, noted Nelson, author of the 2005 book, "The Gospel According to Oprah." Surrounded by a media storm about sexual abuse of women, Winfrey also offered praise for journalists, appeals for social justice and criticism of corrupt tyrants. She didn't need to mention the former talk-show host in the White House.
It was a secular speech, noted Nelson, but had the "pastoral touch" that the young Winfrey displayed in services at the Faith United Mississippi Baptist Church, where other girls called her "Miss Jesus."
"Oprah has always had a gift for reading what's on people's minds and this was one of those times," said Nelson.
Winfrey raced from the birth of the Civil Rights Moment to today's headlines, while focusing on the pains and triumphs of abused women.
"In 1944, Recy Taylor was a young wife and mother walking home from a church service she'd attended in Abbeville, Alabama, when she was abducted by six armed white men, raped and left blindfolded by the side of the road," said Winfrey. "They threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone, but her story was reported to the NAACP where a young worker by the name of Rosa Parks became the lead investigator on her case. … But justice wasn't an option in the era of Jim Crow."
Taylor died 10 days earlier, at age 97, Winfrey noted. The men who tortured her were never prosecuted, a common story in a "culture broken by brutally powerful men. But their time is up. … and I just hope, I just hope that Recy Taylor died knowing that her truth, like the truth of so many other women who were tormented in those years, and even now tormented, goes marching on. It was somewhere in Rosa Parks' heart almost 11 years later, when she made the decision to stay seated on that bus in Montgomery, and it's here with every woman who chooses to say, 'Me too.' "
If Winfrey seeks the presidency, she might offer Democrats a friendlier approach to faith and some of the hope Barack Obama brought to discussions of race, said Nelson. And it's hard to name another American with Oprah's ability to face a camera and tell women -- white and black, suburban and urban, rich and poor -- that a specific belief or decision will change their lives.
"Oprah can say, 'This will work,' and people believe her," said Nelson.
Clearly, this is linked to Oprah's vague, "spiritual but not religious" approach to life.
The result, according to Ross Douthat of The New York Times, is a "religious individualism that blurs the line between the God out there and the God Within, a gnostic spirituality that constantly promises access to a secret and personalized wisdom, a gospel of health and wealth that insists that the true spiritual adept will find both happiness and money, a do-it-yourself form of faith that encourages syncretism and relativism and the pursuit of 'your truth' … in defiance of the dogmatic and the skeptical alike."
Is Oprah the "pope" of the religiously unaffiliated? If that label fits anyone, it would be Winfrey, said Nelson.
"She talks about God, but for Oprah that can almost be the God of the week, the spiritual flavor of the week. … How she talks about spirituality and about truth is constantly changing. That's her gift. That's who she is. For her, that stuff will preach."