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 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…