Mormons know much about prophets; they are the sine qua non of Mormon theology and culture. It’s no wonder that members recoil at the idea of modern-day “media prophets” such as John Lennon when he pronounced, “We’re more popular than Jesus” during 1960’s Beatlemania. As a procession of 10,000 walked by Elvis’ grave holding candles last year, the word, “prophet” was used to describe the singer. Oprah Winfrey, by far the most influential talk-show show host in television history, drew this title in the book, The Gospel According to Oprah by Marcia Nelson. Oprah’s advice for families and thoughtful self-help programs earned her respect among LDS women. She had broad influence: when Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was recommended by her book club, most stores sold out the next day. Since her show ended, Oprah, while still influential, slipped considerably from public view begging the question of who will be the next pop culture prophet. Perhaps more important is the issue of whether such figures can be reconciled with Mormon belief and assist members in reaching religious goals. An unlikely possibility to many is Ellen DeGeneres, given she’s a stand-up comedian and gay activist. Yet it’s difficult to ignore her entrance into the public discourse on animal rights to education reform to fighting hunger. With a loyal audience in the millions, the time may be right to touch on the moral themes of the DeGeneres phenomenon, which has broken the boundaries of the TV talk show genre and made her an opinion leader across the nation.
Given the sensitivity of the subject in LDS circles, let’s address the same-sex marriage issue head on. As a gay woman, she was among the first to promote gay rights in the press, drawing reactions like the article in the Christian Post, by Evangelical Larry Tomczak who identifies Ellen as champion of the gay agenda “celebrating” lesbianism. Though many conservative Christians affirm this observation, DeGeneres’s audience includes members of many faith communities; Forty three percent of Evangelical Millenials aged 18-33 support marriage equality, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. A recent tweet by Michael Sweet of the Christian glam band, Stryper, reflects this sentiment: “No matter what you agree with or disagree with, stand for or stand against – love conquers all. Love prevails, hate fails…” Theoretically, DeGeneres’ fans, whatever their stand on gay marriage, seem to embrace her rhetoric at the more general level of compassion and kindness. She asserts: “We focus so much on our differences, and that is creating, I think, a lot of chaos and negativity and bullying in the world. And I think if everybody focused on what we all have in common – which is – we all want to be happy.”
If she were a preacher, her dominant themes would be kindness, anti-bullying, and friendship. But, perhaps most salient, and what seems to resonate most, is the admonition to be yourself, which she expresses in religion-like prose: “Find out who you are and be that person. That’s what your soul was put on this Earth to be. Find that truth, live that truth and everything else will come.”
More comfortable with the term, “barrier-breaker,” she shuns the tag of politician: “I’m not an activist; I don’t look for controversy. I’m not a political person, but I’m a person with compassion. I care passionately about equal rights. I care about human rights. I care about animal rights.” Her emphasis of moral reasoning rather over political rhetoric is easily translatable to religious tenets, and this includes Mormonism. Equating success with compassion, parallels Latter-day Saint values of service and charity. Having seen the show dozens of times, my impression is that moral principles are ubiquitous, with less time devoted to hot button issues such as same-sex marriage, although they emerge sporadically.
All this is delivered with comedic wit and a well-crafted upbeat show. Her tradition of dancing with the audience to start, reminds me of the communal joy expressed in primitive religion, but suppressed in many faith communities today. She dances, tells jokes, and gives away college scholarships. The show raised over fifty million dollars for charity, by the way. She’s funny and nice, speaking the language of entertainment like a true postmodern media icon. Whether she’s the next pop culture prophet is yet to be determined. I’m reasonably confident, however, her influence is expanding at a time when rising numbers of church “un-affiliateds” are finding religion in media. There’s more to the show than trivial talk. Ellen has bigger things in mind, chief among them a celebration of the self and the need for daily inspiration. While we wait to see precisely what kind of impact DeGeneres will have, we can heed her call to “Be kind to one another” in the meantime.