Among the greatest of American success stories, Oprah Winfrey arguably belongs in the top 10, right there alongside Booker T. Washington, Walt Disney, and, yes, Barack Obama.
Born to a single mother and raised dirt-poor in the inner-city of Milwaukee, Oprah would go on to become a victim of sexual abuse at the age of nine before becoming pregnant at age 14 with a baby that died tragically shortly after birth. After getting her start in radio, Oprah's talents would propel her to success in both television and film, earning her the title "Queen of All Media." She now holds a net worth of over $3 billion and is a viable presidential candidate for 2020. This past Sunday at the Golden Globes, she made history by becoming the first black woman to win the Cecil B. DeMille Award.
Oprah's personal success story represents the best of the American self-made spirit: resolve in the face of adversity, triumph over tragedy, rags to riches, grace under pressure. She checks all the boxes. If personal "success" stories were the only scale by which we measure virtue, then Oprah is well on her way to becoming a saint. Some have even already deified her. Here's how actress Reese Witherspoon put it:
Filmmaker Spike Lee spoke along similar lines regarding Barack Obama on the eve of his presidential election. Indeed, President Obama also stands among the greatest of American "success" stories. Born to an absentee father, raised by his grandmother, the community organizer would go on to become the first black President of the United States. Like Oprah or Bill Gates, it is an achievement that warrants our respect.
That does not mean they warrant our reverence.
Let's try a little thought experiment. Here's another personal "success" story that you may or may not be familiar with: He was born to moderate means as the fourth of six children to an emotionally distant father, suffered depression after the death of his beloved brother, failed in academia and then as an art student, became a decorated soldier and then a successful politician whose oratory skills captured the hearts and minds of a nation.
His name was Adolph Hitler.
Lest I be accused of reductio ad Hitlerum here, let me assure you that nobody is being compared to Hitler. The example only illustrates the inherent absurdity in measuring people by their personal "success" stories without taking into account what they stand for. Our beliefs, convictions, and the methods by which we enact them upon the world make us who we are.
Make no mistake about it, all of us, whether rich or poor, black or white, short or tall, sick or well, are headed for the same destination: six feet under a gravestone. There is no debating that. It is as certain as the words on this page. And that will be our destination for eternity. Where we go after is all we should concern ourselves with, and live out each day with that in mind. Material gains, status, worldly accomplishments, all simply serve as a means to that end.
Neither I nor anyone else can judge what lies in the heart of Oprah. We can only judge what she has said, what public figures she has supported, and what she has done. By that measure, we can deduce that she supports the continued funding of Planned Parenthood with taxpayer dollars, either emphatically supports abortion or feels ambivalent toward it, rejects sexual morality, falsely accused an innocent woman of racism, used none of her media platforms to expose industry sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein, and adheres to neo-pagan spirituality.
Sure, Oprah gives an applaudable amount of money to charity, but frankly, what public figure doesn't? The Clintons give to charity; the Trumps give to charity; Bill Gates gives to charity; Warren Buffett gives to charity; George Soros gives to charity; Hollywood gives to charity.
Rich people giving to charity are a dime a dozen in our age of immense prosperity. That doesn't negate the goodness of their actions, but it doesn't sanctify them either. Hence, why Christ said the widow who offered two measly copper coins gave more than the rich. They gave their wealth, but she gave everything. G.K. Chesterton put it best: "They may give their money away, but they will never give themselves away; they are egotistic, secretive, dry as old bones."
Conflating personal "success" with sanctity is exactly what Christ warned against when he declared, "For what profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul.” To put it bluntly: what we overcome is nothing compared to what we become. Or in cruder terms: your personal "success" is destined for the ash heap of history and you can't take it with you.
Don't believe me? Look upon the pyramids of Egypt, the statues of Roman emperors, the tombs of Pharaohs, and the ruins of Pompeii. As history unfolds, there will be dozens more Oprahs, and dozens more Trumps, and dozens more Bill Gates, and dozens more Pharaohs, and dozens more kings. Nations shall rise and fall. Cities shall be reduced to ruins. There will be heroes and there will be villains. There will be sinners and there will be saints.
For ourselves, when our moment comes, when all has passed away, when we are at our end, all that will matter is if we can answer "yes" to one question: are we saints?
That success story lasts an eternity.