Deckman Dines With Oprah

By Emma Way


What do you believe? Oprah Winfrey, known for her highly-rated talk show, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” asked this question when she created the new documentary film series titled “Belief.” Dr. Melissa Deckman, Louis L. Goldstein professor of public affairs and chair of the political science department at Washington College, got the chance on Sept. 17 to engage in that question with other religion scholars and Winfrey at her Santa Barbara home.

Dr. Deckman was invited to dinner and a film screening by Winfrey through her connection with the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), where she chairs the board and regularly contributes to their blog. “I was just fortunate because I got to tag along…with Dr. Robert Jones,” who is the CEO of PRRI, she said.

Dr. Melissa Deckman was invited to the home of Oprah Winfrey for a preview of Winfrey’s new doccumentary series, “Belief.”
Dr. Melissa Deckman was invited to the home of Oprah Winfrey for a preview of Winfrey’s new doccumentary series, “Belief.”

PRRI is a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that performs and publishes research “at the intersection of religion, values, and public life,” according to their website. Dr. Jones founded the organization in 2009 with the mission of aiding everyone from journalists to scholars to clergy to the general public in understanding current religion and politics discussions.

Winfrey invited 200 of the nation’s leading religious experts, including Dr. Jones and Dr. Deckman, to participate in a larger dialogue of religion and the role of spirituality. Her goal through the film series and dinner was to gather like-minded individuals to discuss the commonality of different religions.

One’s religion, or any part of one’s culture, is often subject to a variety of stereotypes and judgments. Through “Belief,” Winfrey hopes to show the human quality behind each religion to emphasize that despite different beliefs, all humans are the same at the core.

“Belief” highlights the positives of spirituality by putting a face to a variety of religions. Each episode features people of different faiths from all over the world and attempts to tell their stories. These stories are told through the “eyes of the believers,” according to Winfrey’s website.

These first-hand accounts of faith are informative and inspirational and even moved Dr. Deckman to tears. The documentary series will premiere to the public on Oct. 18 at 8 p.m. on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Dr. Deckman was particularly interested in this topic because of her background in religion and politics. “My first passion in academia is to study religion and how it intersects with politics,” she said.

She researches how a person’s religion or religious beliefs affect how engaged he or she is in politics – like voting habits and public office pursuits.

Although the dinner and film series only briefly touched on the political side of religion, gaining a basic understanding of faith as it is interpreted in a variety of cultures all around the world is hallmark in bringing religion into the political sphere.

Aside from the documentary series preview, the night was also filled with many moving speeches by Winfrey and an impeccably planned and delicious dinner. “It was a great honor and… was just very surreal,” Dr. Deckman said.

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