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Analysis: Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump Promote the Same Populist Theology

Time logo Time 1/13/2018 Elizabeth Dias
Oprah Winfrey, Herschel Walker are posing for a picture: Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump attending a party after the Tyson-Spinks fight © Time & Life Pictures —The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump attending a party after the Tyson-Spinks fight

Oprah Winfrey’s public image could not be more different from Donald Trump’s.

While the longtime talk show host is famous for getting her guests to open up emotionally, Trump’s signature move on The Apprentice was firing contestants, who often left the boardroom crying.

But beneath their vastly different images, Winfrey and Trump share the same populist theology. Both preach a gospel of American prosperity, the popular cultural movement that helped put Trump in the White House in 2016.

If Oprah Winfrey runs for president in 2020 — as some are clamoring for her to do after a powerful speech at the Golden Globes Sunday — she may test how followers of that movement will respond to a different manifestation of it.

Winfrey and Trump both preach a gospel of wealth, health, and self-determination, following in the relatively recent prosperity gospel tradition, which broadly speaking says that God wants people to be wealthy and healthy and that followers are responsible for their own destiny here on Earth.

In fact, some argue there is perhaps no one better than Winfrey to represent its influence in American life right now. “Oprah is no longer a word that just means a person,” says Kathryn Lofton, a Yale religious studies professor who wrote Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon in 2011. “It also represents an idea, an idea about the world, an idea about what it is to be a person in the world and create a good life.”

Winfrey sees herself as both a Christian and a critic of Christianity, says Lofton. She was raised in the Baptist church, describes herself as a consistent reader of the Bible, and through her television show, basically built the church that she wanted.

“She has found deep and sustaining power in the New Testament, in the Bible, and in the theological interpretation that the good that you receive is a representation of the good you bring into the world,” Lofton says.

Winfrey has also promoted ideas that are influenced by a range of religious thought. On her talk show, she pushed The Secret, a best-selling New Age self help book that argued that if you put out the energy you want to receive, you can create the life you want. “She is this polyglot consumer of religious thought ideas,” Lofton explains, citing how Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism and more all come together in Winfrey.

Trump also raised up a brand of the self-help gospel that tracked with his ideas of winning and success. He billed himself as “the very definition of the American success story” in his bestselling autobiography The Art of the Deal. It’s no surprise, then, that Trump even mentioned wanting Winfrey to be his running mate in both 1999 and 2015.

Many of Trump’s early religious supporters were evangelical outsiders and prosperity-minded preachers, including his longtime personal pastor, televangelist Paula White of New Destiny Christian Center in Florida. White brought dozens of prominent preachers in this broader movement to pray for Trump early in the campaign, including Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Trinity Broadcasting Network founder Jan Crouch, “Preachers of LA” reality star Clarence McClendon, and others.

Read More: Meet the Pastor Who Prays With Donald Trump

Trump himself, though not particularly religious, was a longtime disciple of “the great Norman Vincent Peale,” as he has called him the famous 20th century evangelist who preached positive thinking and reached millions through his television and radio programs. Trump’s family attended Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan growing up, and Trump hosted a 90th birthday party for Peale at the Waldorf Astoria in 1988.

Duke University professor Kate Bowler, historian of the prosperity gospel, says that both Winfrey and Trump are people who believe everything happens for a reason, and they rely on themselves to push forward to matter what. She points to Winfrey’s quote, “I don’t believe in luck. For me luck is preparation meeting the moment of opportunity.”

“America is famous for this language of intoxicating self-determination,” Bowler says. “There are no setbacks, just set-ups. Today’s underdogs are tomorrow’s victors. There are no accidents in this divinely ordered world where tragedies are simply tests of character.”

While Winfrey and Trump share a similar theology, they come from different places. Trump was born to wealthy parents; Winfrey to almost impossible circumstances. Winfrey’s rise to wealth and fame inspires her fans, while critics often question Trump’s portrayal of his own success in business and his image as a self-made man.

The two also have far different audiences. As a black woman who supported President Obama twice, Winfrey is part of the growing multicultural demographic that worries some Trump supporters. “He was voted for by people who didn’t want that multicultural incorporation that Oprah incarnates,” Lofton explains. “He represents himself as a simple Christian man who reconciled faith and money … Oprah knows that tradition but is concerned that it is filled with hucksters.”

Like many other things in America, the prosperity gospel community is divided along racial lines. While Trump had the support of a handful of African-American pastors who follow this thinking, his support among black voters was weak and many black pastors turned out to support Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Instead, Trump drew strong support among white evangelicals, 80% of whom voted for him. Since taking office, Trump has also tended to this base, nominating Neil Gorsuch for a Supreme Court seat and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. It remains to be seen how that audience would respond to a very different candidate preaching a similar gospel.

“I don’t imagine that their perfect presidential candidate is a black woman who hopes for a pluralist America,” Bowler says.

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