There was only one way the Oprah Winfrey Show could end after 25 years, 4,561 shows and 30,000 guests -- with a sermon.
"Here's what I learned," explained Winfrey, in a monologue now circulating as an online "love letter" to viewers. "Nobody but you is responsible for your life. It doesn't matter what your mama did. It doesn't matter what your daddy didn't do. ...
"You are responsible for the energy that you create for yourself, and you're responsible for the energy that you bring to others. ... All life is energy and we are transmitting it at every moment. We are all little beaming little signals like radio frequencies, and the world is responding in kind."
God is in there, somewhere, along with love, grace, kindness, tears, empathy, consolation, compassion, and, above all, self-acceptance. Put it all together and you have a non-threatening faith that many Americans call "spirituality," as opposed to religion.
Knowing this issue was sure to arise, Winfrey frequently played the God card during her farewell show and even used the oh-so-controversial J-word -- Jesus.
All her success, she stressed, has been built on, "My team, and Jesus. Because nothing but the hand of God has made this possible for me."
Was this any particular God? After all, Oprah's only orthodoxy has long been her conviction that there can be no one, true orthodoxy. What God was she talking about?
"I'm talking about the same one you're talking about," she told her global flock, thus combining many cultures and religions. "I'm talking about alpha and omega, the omniscient, the omnipresent, the ultimate consciousness, the source, the force, the all of everything there is, the one and only G-O-D. ...
"God is love, and God is life, and your life is always speaking to you."
The key is that Oprah has empowered her followers to have a good cry, forgive themselves and move on, urging them to evolve beyond old-fashioned religions built on doctrines linking forgiveness to the repentance of sins, according to Sally Quinn of the Washington Post, a Beltway society maven for several decades.
Americans should celebrate this trend and Oprah's role in it, she wrote, at the newspaper's "On Faith" website.
"Gone were the fire and brimstone, you're-all-going-to-hell-unless-you-accept-Jesus-Christ-as-your-personal-savior, the judgment, the fear, the punishment. ... People don't want to be lectured to and made to feel guilty for common human failings. People want to feel hopeful, as though they matter. They want to feel empowered. Oprah led the way," argued Quinn.
Many traditional religious leaders are not so sure and some, in particular, have linked Oprah's work to trends spotted by sociologists in the lives of young Americans and their parents. Crucial to these sobering discussions is "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," a belief system articulated by researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Denton. Core beliefs include:
* A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over it.
* God wants people to be good, nice and fair to one another, as taught in most religions.
* The goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
* God gets involved when we have problems we need solved.
* Good people go to heaven.
Winfrey's approach fits nicely inside the borders of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, while also combining emotional elements of megachurch evangelicalism with the modernized doctrines of liberal Protestantism, noted church historian Thomas S. Kidd of Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. Meanwhile, the non-ordained host guided her guests through on-air confessions, taught her own version of tolerance and, literally, sent her most devoted followers on mission trips to help others.
All of this, he stressed, was part of a commercial enterprise, not a religious ministry. Thus, it's possible that Oprah preached a liberalized form of the "prosperity gospel" seen in some churches. In the end, viewers were supposed to heal themselves, and grow spiritually, by consuming products -- especially books -- endorsed by Winfrey & Co.
"In the end, it's all God stuff," said Kidd. "Her whole world is infused with religious themes and images and theories that are all her own. ... I'm not sure how people are supposed to practice this religion, because to do that you would have to figure out what it all means. Oprah offered a form of faith that may only work at shopping malls."