After 50 years of studying religion, Robert Bellah remains hard at work in retirement, battling gloom, preaching hope, and struggling to 'hold together the great polarities of the modern world'
By Barry Bergman, Public Affairs | 26 October 2006
Robert Bellah is a sociologist and a sermonizer, a believer in God and in reason, a Jeremiah and an apostle of hope. His books and essays over five decades have provoked the ire of the Christian right (for economic views some find heretical) and the secular left (for religious views some deem politically incorrect). Now 79, he admits to a deepening gloom over the perilous state of the nation and the world, a confession he punctuates — as he does much of his conversation — with hearty bursts of laughter.
It's tempting to see Bellah, Berkeley's Elliott Professor of Sociology Emeritus and arguably the world's most widely read sociologist of religion, as a study in contradictions. Bellah, though, resists any such efforts at reductionism, whether as a scholar or as an object of scrutiny. Devoted to rigorous critical analysis in his Marxist youth, he remains so today as an avid churchgoer, and insists the undergrad and the emeritus share much the same ethical concerns. A snapshot of how his views have evolved during his long career — and how they have remained, in their way, constant — has just been published as The Robert Bellah Reader (Duke University Press), a collection of 28 probing essays on religion, politics, America, the academy, and the search for meaning.
From "Civil Religion in America" (1967)
"Until the Civil War, the American civil religion focused above all on the event of the Revolution, which was seen as the final act of the Exodus from the old lands across the waters. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the sacred scriptures, and Washington the divinely appointed Moses who led his people out of the hands of tyranny."
From "Flaws in the Protestant Code" (2000)
"Whatever may be true of revolutions elsewhere, the American Revolution was not anticlerical. Indeed, the Protestant clergy provided the ideological legitimation and the day-to-day agitation and propaganda that made the revolution successful."
From "The History of Habit " (2001)
"I have heard it said that the world's knowledge doubles every two years, and I am not prepared to doubt it, though I don't know how that is quantified. But of this I am sure: the world's meaning is not doubling every two years. Indeed we might be tempted to argue that the more information, the less meaning."
Excerpted from The Robert Bellah Reader (Duke University Press, 2006). Reprinted by permission.
"I try to keep a balance," Bellah explains, taking a break from research and writing at his home near Memorial Stadium for a visit to Barrows Hall, where he served on the faculty for 30 years before retiring in 1997. "Criticism without any substance ultimately is self-destructive. It undermines everything and leads to nihilism. But substantive belief without any critical perspective also suffers the fate of disaster, because it tends toward actions which are out of the control of reason."
As an example of the latter, Bellah points to President Bush and the war in Iraq. "It's more the religion of neoconservatism than any kind of biblical religion, though Bush himself uses biblical language," he observes. "I think they were so ideologically convinced that they felt they didn't need to look at any data. They were just so sure they would be greeted with roses and were going to create a happy, democratic, capitalist society that would love Israel. Overnight. Without any notion of the history of this country? It's unimaginable."
Bellah first won fame as a public intellectual with his 1967 essay "Civil Religion in America," an examination of the use of religious symbolism by U.S. political figures from the Founders through John F. Kennedy and a plea for "an awareness that our nation stands under higher judgment." The essay grew out of his opposition to the Vietnam war, a moral and political crisis he argued had sparked America's "third time of trial," a period of testing and soul-searching akin to those of the Revolution and the Civil War.
Forty years later, he believes, we are still in crisis.
"I think the third time of trial is a long, drawn-out affair," Bellah says, "and really has to do with how we will deal ultimately with the role we have in the world, which became evident after the Second World War — economically, politically, militarily, and culturally the most powerful nation in the world, and a society that is in many ways extraordinarily parochial. And we are still faced with that challenge, and we are still messing up."
Along with the echoes of Vietnam, Bellah discerns disturbing parallels between Bush and the "axis of evil" he has vowed to destroy. The similarity was brought home to him, he says, when he met recently with Akbar Ganji, the Iranian journalist who spent six years in prison for criticizing repression in his own country.
"He said to me, in this very room, 'The trouble in our situation between the United States and Iran is that both of our presidents are fundamentalists.' And what could I say? I mean, I'm not prepared to say that Bush and [Iranian leader Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad are identical, or equally bad, or anything of the sort. But that both of them use religion as a cover for other things they want to do seems to me very clear, and very problematic.
"I can say this, and I don't go to jail," Bellah adds. "But when constitutional rights are being eroded, how far down the line will it be when criticism will be punishable? I'm old enough to have lived through the McCarthy period. I know that having speech and association that are protected by the Bill of Rights offered no protection under McCarthy. So to think it can't happen here, we're a democracy — well, watch out."
Bellah, in fact, was no mere witness to Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist fear-mongering. He was denied a teaching position at Harvard when he refused to "name names" of others in the Communist Party, to which he'd belonged as an undergrad from 1947 to 1949. Bellah headed to Canada, spending two years at McGill University's Institute for Islamic Studies before finally being offered a job as a Harvard lecturer after McCarthy's death.
Looking back, Bellah says he naively failed to realize how "extremely evil" the Soviet regime was, or how authoritarian the American Communist Party was. (The Harvard chapter of the party, he notes, was not typical.) But he continues to view socialism as "a very, very powerful idea. It was a way of expressing what was wrong with unrestrained capitalism."
"I'm not saying that socialism can be revived," he explains. "I'm saying that criticism of a market economy without any kind of ethical constraint is a valid criticism, and it will continue to be expressed in one form or another — I hope not in an ideologically extremist way, but nonetheless it needs to be expressed. So in that sense, there is a continuity, which is ultimately rooted in the Hebrew prophets and the New Testament, in their ringing opposition to oppression and poverty. So it's part of the great tradition."
Balancing faith and reason
It was at Harvard that he encountered the work of theologian Paul Tillich, whose writings disabused him of the idea that religion was "belief in the unbelievable." "Tillich is the only way I could have become a Christian again," says Bellah, who was raised in a Protestant household in Southern California. What resonated for him was the notion of God as "a power" rather than "a person," separate from the world. "To say God is a being, even the highest being, is blasphemous," he says, "because a being is alongside other beings. Being itself is not alongside other beings, [but] the power of being in all there is."
That power, he goes on, "makes it possible for us to exist, but also to love and care for others. We did not create ourselves, human beings did not create the human species. We are part of something larger that includes us."
His belief in connection and community — which finds its most profound expression in the ritual of the Eucharist — has its secular underpinnings as well, particularly in the writings of Émile Durkheim. "Another part of me is a sociologist, and a Durkheimian, so that group belonging is inherently a fulfillment of our humanity, [and] the idea of living totally alone, in isolation, is totally unnatural."
The political left, Bellah contends, has ceded much of the moral ground to conservatives, who now claim the mantle of family and community. "Poverty and social justice. Are these not value issues? To think that values consist solely of homosexuality and abortion? Give me a break." Even the term "social justice," he says, "comes out of Catholic social teaching," which in turn "came out of a deep criticism of modernity, but particularly of capitalism, and a deep concern for the people who were getting shafted by capitalism."
"This mobilization of the Christian right is a matter of decades. It does not go back very far in our history. If you talked about religion and politics in the '60s, what you were talking about was Martin Luther King and Bill Coffin and the divinity students going down South and sitting in, and the Quakers, and so on."
"The morality that is present in the Western world is heavily indebted to the religious tradition," he says. "And there is a danger if that heritage gets forgotten, or completely misunderstood." For Bellah, "The great danger is radical individualism — 'I'm in it for myself,' 'I'm my own brand,' as somebody said. This is a kind of terrible reductionism of an ethical individualism to pure self-interest."
Religious fundamentalism, on the other hand, is a reaction to modernity — including the same self-interest and breakdown of institutions that Bellah himself has long criticized — but a distorted one, he says, in which "people absolutize their faith in a way that is totally untraditional."
What is needed, he insists, is a balance of tradition and rationalism, of faith and reason. "Holding together the great polarities of the modern world," he warns, "is a question of survival."
He is not optimistic. But he is hopeful.
"One way of putting it is we have to base our action on something other than calculation," he explains. "And both pessimism and optimism are based on calculation." Hope, by contrast, "is a theological virtue. It's not based on optimism. It's saying, if you trust in God, then you have the capacity to hope. … Tillich uses the term 'in spite of' — in spite of all the horror there still is beauty, justice, goodness. And that's what we have to hold onto."
That such ideas can be "problematic for modern intellectuals" is something Bellah knows all too well. "I'm totally a child of the Enlightenment," he laughs. "I've been through Marxism, the whole thing. The last thing on earth I am is any kind of traditional person. I grew up in Los Angeles — you couldn't possibly grow up in a more totally decultured world than that."
A decade into retirement — and, in his case, the word is used advisedly — Bellah continues to speak at colleges and universities, where he meets with appreciative audiences. "I feel there is a very significant part of American society that understands what I'm trying to say, and responds to it," he says, noting that Habits of the Heart, which he co-authored in 1985 and for which he is probably best-known today, has sold more than a half-million copies. "We just don't have terribly many people articulating it. And the most articulate voices are the ones that want one side of the polarity and not the other."
Which explains why Bellah — who has described himself, tongue in cheek, as a sort of Jeremiah, the prophet whose warnings of Jerusalem's destruction went unheeded — is hard at work on an ambitious, two-volume project he says had been gestating during much of his tenure at Berkeley, but for which he never had time until he retired.
"I believe very much in the unity of human beings, that we are all part of a common project, and that we need all the resources we can get, because we're faced with challenges in the modern world that threaten our extinction as a species," he says of the work-in-progress. "My effort is to go all the way back to the Paleolithic and look at how human beings have tried to understand the world. That's my broadest definition of religion — it's the way human beings have tried to understand the world."
It is also, for Bellah, a way to remain hopeful. If the virtue of age is wisdom, he says, "the temptation is despair, or even disgust. So I have to fight this degree to which I'm gloomy…. When I speak to undergraduates, which I still do from time to time, I'm never gloomy. Undergraduates are at a fragile emotional stage, and they're easily depressed, and they're easily elated. But if you want to encourage them to be active citizens, the worst thing you can do is to tell them that everything is going to hell."
And therein, perhaps, lies a sermon.