The great scholar Robert N. Bellah, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at U.C. Berkeley and winner of the National Humanities Medal in 2000, died last week. (He was also a colleague and friend.) Bellah’s seminal contributions range from analyses of Japanese society to a recent, epoch-spanning book on the history of religion. For many, and for this blog, his contributions to understanding American culture, particularly the role of religion, are especially important.
Bellah (in my reading) argued that American culture was and has long been fatefully torn between a utilitarian impulse – what’s in it for me? – and a biblically-, prophetically-rooted, communal impulse – what is the common good? Spurning the Olympian distance of the social scientist and sometimes donning the cloak of a Jeremiah, Bellah evangelized for the communitarian American impulse.
Faith and Nation
Bellah argued that religion was not just a part of American society, but that the religious ideals of dissident Protestants, working from their base in New England, set the terms of a distinctive American culture. Bellah wrote of America’s “civil religion,” the sacredness with which Americans endow their nation, its symbols, and leaders, as a secularized form of Protestant themes: chosen-ness, mission, grace, the uniqueness of each individual soul, and the voluntary coming together in a community of “saints” to do God’s work.
“The deep structure of American culture is Protestantism,” Bellah wrote, “and … the Protestant pattern of conversion and covenant, with all its secular permutations, including revolution and constitution, is the key to American culture.” [here, p. 4]
Bellah also shared with the New England divines a sense of “declension,” the feeling that Americans have suffered a fall from grace, a degradation of spirit and of community since those early days. The intrusion of utilitarianism, rising to power with the market economy in the 19th century, challenged founding, communal values. And the two impulses remain in contest in America today. Bellah’s concerns that Americans’ communitarian principles have been dislodged by the glorified pursuit of self-interest are developed in Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Bellah’s award-winning and best-selling 1985 study of American contemporary culture. (Disclosure: my wife is one of Bellah’s four co-authors of Habits.)
This brief gloss only hints at the rich and provocative analyses that Robert Bellah brought to understanding the character of our society and the religious roots of that character.
On a more personal note, Bellah seems to have been among the last in a generation of scholars, prominent in the middle of the last century, students of society who were deeply learned in philosophy and history; masters of many languages, including the classic ones; and embroiled in a global discussion about modernity and what it means for the human soul. Bellah was distinctive among these figures in struggling with modernity as an American experience and in being himself American of American heritage – indeed, Oklahoma-born and Los Angeles-bred. It showed.