Oprahfication and Its Discontents

  The weeks following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington saw a noticeable increase in church attendance. Americans who hadn't been in churches for years suddenly felt the need to go to church. Millions of Americans watched televised memorial services from the National Cathedral in Washington and St. Patrick's in New York. This turning to religious faith caught the notice of many cultural commentators. Columnist Peggy Noonan spoke for many people when she wrote that "God is back." A new survey, however, paints a somewhat different picture. Poll results recently released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggest that the post- September 11 spike in religious influence has flattened out. According to the poll, the percentage of Americans who believe that religion's influence on American life is on the increase has dropped to pre- September 11 levels. Yet while religion as a whole may have seen its perceived influence wane since September 11, one religion still seems to be benefiting from the post- September 11 surge: Islam. Fifty-four percent of Americans hold a favorable impression of Islam, "significantly" higher than at this time a year ago. What's even more noteworthy is what Americans believe about the relationship between religion, morality, and truth. For instance, sixty percent of Americans believe that growing up in a religious home makes it more likely that a child will be a moral adult. Yet less than half say that a belief in God is necessary to be a moral person. Similarly, more than three-quarters of all Americans agree with the statement, "many religions can lead to eternal life." What's even more distressing, according to Pew, nearly half of the "highly committed" evangelicals polled agreed with that statement -- incredible! The inevitable conclusion from these polling results is that religion in America has succumbed to what has been dubbed "Oprahfication," which takes its name from the talk-show host. Columnist Terry Mattingly defines "Oprahfication" as the assumption that "all truth is based on human experiences, feelings and emotions . . . as opposed to the claims of religious doctrine, transcendent faith, or cultural traditions." Thus, the important thing about a religion is how it makes us feel, not whether it's true. In fact, questions about truth claims are considered impolite, uncivil, and even intolerant. If a particular belief makes a person happy, who are we to judge? As Mattingly has written, this is the direction that American religion, including evangelicalism, is headed, and the numbers bear him out. It's this worldview that causes people to see all religions, even those with diametrically opposed doctrines, as equally valid. And it may be why regard to Islam rose after September 11. Christians need to help people understand religion is not a matter of sentiment. It is a matter of truth. Insisting that the truth claims of Christianity, and of other faiths, be taken seriously isn't "intolerant." On the contrary, it accords them the respect they deserve -- something our "Oprahfied" religious culture can't and won't do.   For further reading: Peggy Noonan, "God is Back," Wall Street Journal, 28 September 2001. Rod Dreher, "More Oprah," National Review Online, "The Corner," 20 March 2002. "Americans Struggle With Religion's Role at Home and Abroad," The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 20 March 2002. LaTonya Taylor, "The Church of O," Christianity Today, 1 April 2002. Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, The Christian in Today's Culture (Tyndale House, 1999).


Chuck Colson


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