Robert Bellah’s Powerful Legacy: A Mixed Blessing for Religious Studies?

I have been a fitful and inconsistent reader of Robert Bellah’s work. However, at critical points in my career, Bellah inspired those of us who work in the social scientific study of religion, but whose appetites were not satisfied by the mainline practices and methods of empirical social research.

Why, we wondered, was an historical perspective anathema? Why did our data seem limited to American or, at best, North Atlantic, cultural material? Was there really nothing to be learned from rigorous cross-cultural comparison?

At other points, however, I think Bellah’s pastoral and prophetic urges undid some of the great good he had done. Perhaps, it was Bellah’s heart-felt concern to make the university a place infused with high moral, even religious, purpose that played him false?

There is abundant room for argument here about the place of moral purpose and religious perspectives in the modern public university. I should at least try to kick off that argument by suggesting that the clash of Bellah’s prophetic and moral seriousness over against an intransigent academic secularism had repercussions still felt within the University of California system. The clash resulted in nothing less than a virtual train wreck that threw religious studies off the tracks of establishment at the flagship campuses of the University of California system at Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Let me begin with a grateful appreciation for both Bellah the scholar and the man. I admired the way Bellah deviated from mainline social research, because much of what Bellah did, especially in the early decades of his career, gave my field a deeper, more rounded presence in the university. 

Many of us in religious studies, who did comparative studies, were delighted to find a Harvard sociologist like Bellah doing cross-cultural comparison that took religion seriously. In this, he distinguished himself among his American social science colleagues, whose minds seldom strayed beyond the borders of the Lower 48 or outside Jewish and Christian religious traditions.

Bellah undertook comparative sociological work on Japan when virtually no one else did. In addition, he did so with the dedication and integrity few American social scientists were willing to invest in the study of another culture, much less Japan. 

(A small personal note might bring out what demands this dedication made on Bellah. At a critical point in my own career, I needed advice about the direction of my own work. I was so impressed with the Japanese intellectual history Bellah had written that I thought of following a similar path. I reckoned Bellah was the person to advise me of the wisdom of my choices, so I just up and wrote him. To my surprise, he responded with a long and detailed personal letter. I shall always be thankful for the stern warning he gave me in that letter of the painful difficulties I would face in mastering Japanese. Doubtless, he spoke these words as someone who knew first-hand what that pain was like. Liberated from the burden of weighing the Japanese option further, I ran off at full speed in another direction.)

Another reason I admired Bellah’s work was his original insights into and timely appropriations of the great sociologist Émile Durkheim. While American sociologists were fretting over the relation of their discipline to history — in the narrow academic interests of establishing sociology’s disciplinary autonomy — Bellah turned maverick. His essay 1959 “Durkheim and History,” showed that Durkheim, the acknowledged father of sociology, was both historian and sociologist. Bellah exposed the sterility of this pedantic academic effort to divide history and sociology by revealing how Durkheim might have looked on himself and his own work. Durkheimian sociology, as Bellah explained, was simply social inquiry—historical or contemporary —that offered explanations of social facts, rather than mere descriptions or statistical representations of them.

Recognizing Bellah’s efforts, the leader of today’s Durkheim revival, Steven Lukes, paid tribute to him in his masterwork, Émile Durkheim (1972) But, by that time, Bellah had moved on from being an historian of Durkheimian thought to one of its main appropriators. In 1967, he published another landmark essay, this time on what he called “civil religion.” 

While Bellah relied, in this influential essay, on a European intellectual backdrop, from Rousseau’s coinage of “civil religion” to Durkheim’s speculations on a “lay” religion of the future, he made a point of situating his notion of civil religion in a specifically American context.

Bellah’s American civil religion appealed explicitly to Biblical archetypes like “God,” “Election,” “Providence” and such. They fit comfortably into the vocabulary and practices of American civil religion because of the very different historical conditions of the American founding. A notion like sacrificial death, for instance, found ready appeal at a time of national trial and trauma like the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Gunned down at the height of his troubled presidency, when legislation over civil rights seemed deadlocked in the Congress, was Kennedy’s death a sacrifice? Did Kennedy need to die, Christ-like, so that Black America could live?

Bellah argued that the founders never believed that American civil religion competed with Christianity, nor, as in Durkheim’s France, that it was meant to supplant Christianity. Nonetheless loyal to the original Durkheimian insight, Bellah argued the case for an overarching scheme of common national civic values, local variants notwithstanding. American civil religion simply mirrored a great deal of American Christianity’s symbolic universe, just as Durkheim’s religion of humanity echoed the French historical experience of the Revolutionary tradition. 

But, in Bellah’s hands, instead of a meditation on threats to individualism from an aggressive intransigent French right wing, such as Durkheim battled in the hothouse atmosphere of the Dreyfus Affair, Bellah and company explore the dangers of 20th century ‘selfish’ American obsessions with psychotherapy and progressive politics. Once again, making allowances for local variants, Bellah takes many of his cues from the agendas and preoccupations of Durkheim.

Thus, as a Durkheimian, I admire Bellah’s attitude toward the great sociologist’s thought. He refuses to let the insights of the classics of social thought degenerate into clichés; for Bellah, Durkheim’s thought is alive, standing as a rich source of theoretical insights particularly applicable in the modern world. 


“A New Religious Consciousness” on Campus?

Arguably less admirable, however, are latter-day Bellah’s conceptions about the nature of the university. These may well have become part of the rationale for shutting the doors to the establishment of religious studies at flagship campuses of the University of California system at Berkeley and Los Angeles. Granted, we in the University of California system proudly boast three campuses with fine PhD programs in religious studies—Davis, Riverside, and Santa Barbara. Yet, the flagship campuses have yet to ‘nail the colors’ of the study of religion to their masts. This grates for all who care for the national reputation of the study of religion.

I am no judge of whether the fault for this failure lies with a militantly intransigent secularist corps of senior Berkeley faculty or with Bellah. There may well have been enough blame to go round. Bellah may have simply been the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time to make religious studies a viable part of the Berkeley repertoire of departments. Campus politics being as dirty as we all know, most anything is possible.

The intransigent secularists were rumored to fear infection from the Graduate Theological Union bordering the main campus on ‘Holy Hill.’ To them, a Bellah-led department of religious studies might have rolled onto the main Berkeley campus like a Trojan Horse preparing for an invasion of the campus by theologians. The problem is, however, that too much of what Bellah published while at Berkeley did little to allay these gaudy fears. Let me explain.

Let me start with the moral tone of Bellah’s work. I had simply chalked it up to his personal piety and religious socialization. Was there more of real substance beneath this principled style, doubtless acquired growing up in the bosom of an emotionally rich religious community? How much of the substance of a religious prophet, for example, lay beneath the ethical style of Bob Bellah was hard for me to tell.

In his classic essay, “Civil Religion in America” (1967), Bellah seems to speak as a kind civic moralist and caretaker of American civil religion, saying that “we have much to learn” from the lessons of the history of American civil religion “as we formulate decisions that lie ahead.” But, in which voice precisely does he speak? Who are the “we”? Alternatively, when he says, “Without awareness that our nation stands under higher judgment, the tradition of civil religion would be dangerous indeed,” for which “our” does Bellah speak? Is it not the voice of the prophet-reformer as well whom we hear in Bellah’s advocacy of a national ideal “which would lead to a revitalization of the revolutionary spirit of the young republic, so that Americans would once again attract the hope and love of its citizens”?

Bellah is invested, even piously so, in American civil religion, and feels called to rally us in its behalf. Habits of the Heart simply intensifies the image of Bellah’s pastoral concern for the moral health of the republic, threatened as it is by impoverishing individualism. In addition, indeed, this is the Bellah who gradually emerges in his later work—an evangelist of republican virtue.

Bellah’s evangelical civic spirit leads him to ponder reforms for the familiar institution of the university. In Bellah’s hands, the university becomes a place not only where knowledge for its own sake is pursued, and even less where education is reduced to the “relationship between a closed subject and an alien object.” Instead of producing “bureaucratic, technological, and manipulative” graduates who reject “all transcendence,” the university should reprise its traditional role in the formation of the whole person. That means that “religion and morality” will be “at the heart of its enterprise.”

In particular, Bellah believes that religious studies departments are the natural institutional homes for his new educational model. Religious studies departments would be places where one “takes seriously the preconceptual, nonrational aspect” of life. There, “religious symbols” would be seen as “revelatory of Being”; they would foster what Bellah calls a “new religious consciousness.” In opposition to the prevailing flattened secular worldview of “’cognitive rationality’,” religious studies departments would encourage “profound openness to the radical experiential dimension of the entire religious heritage of mankind.” They would inform “a new way of being religious within modern culture,” not a strategy for denying or fleeing from it.

I frankly find it hard to decide just what the cash value of these abstract ideas is. However, I am pretty certain the radical secularists on the Berkeley faculty thought that they knew what Bellah was getting at. The polarization at Berkeley was, and is, regrettable. On the one hand, religious studies as I have known it, necessarily exposes students to transcendence, but without Bellah’s evangelical fervor sending confusing signals. We have routinely taught our students about people who make claims that surpass the “bureaucratic, technological, and manipulative” reason that Bellah deplores. Therefore, in a way, I find it strange that Bellah believed his recommendations amounted to anything truly new, much less something as perplexing as a “new religious consciousness.”

Stranger still is why Bellah would use such tendentious language at all; especially when he must have known how many red flags it would have set off among his political enemies on campus.

Thus, when we take such talk of a department of religious studies being the breeding grounds for a “new religious consciousness” together with Bellah’s evangelizing for republican civil religion, along with his desire to inform a “a new way of being religious within modern culture,” we can easily see how Bellah got the Berkeley secularists running for their guns. What was Bellah, a sociologist, thinking, anyway? Had he forgotten all he learned and taught about first-order religious institutions? What has happened to the role of religious faith communities in articulating “a new way of being religious within modern culture”?

Even beyond the intellectual flimsiness and political clumsiness of his recommendations for the study of religion, leaving the future of religion to academics strikes me as too much like leaving poetry to the same crowd. Result: (deadly) academic poetry. Bellah confused the making of religion with trying to understand and explain it, and in doing so played into the hands of those who wished to doom the establishment of religious studies at the flagship campuses of the University of California.


Bringing Moral Seriousness into the Classroom

Let me end with a puzzle. It is clear to me that students crave the moral direction and frisson of transcendence that Bellah promoted. I do not know how this affected his teaching at Berkeley, although he was a much beloved and popular professor there for many years.

Bellah’s colleague, Walter Capps, though, taught the nationally famous Viet Nam War course at University of California, Santa Barbara, which perhaps we could see as reflecting Bellah’s vision for the study of religion. Whatever else this course provided, it did inject a strong—and arguably much needed—moral and religious element into reflection upon that war. For years, it was the highest enrolled course in the entire University of California system. Hundreds of students filled the largest lecture hall on the Santa Barbara campus at every opportunity the course was offered.

When I try to imagine what the cash value of Bellah’s ideas about the study of religion in the university might be, I always think of Capps’ course. After all, Capps and Bellah were on the same page in their views about the future of the university and the study of religion in it. Students obviously found something in what Capps (and through him, Bellah) were doing. What does the success of courses like the Viet Nam War course tell us — about ourselves, about the character of the university?

I have no answers. However, I am convinced that we need to ponder the lessons provoked by Bellah’s views and the celebrated success of Capps’ course. Those who champion what they call the “academic” or “scientific” study of religion need to confront the facts of student interest as represented in the case of Capps’ course. It is not enough to dig in our heels, soldier on, and ignore the facts of student interest. Capps clearly struck some kind of chord. What was it? Maybe, it was the wrong one? But, the desire, indeed, craving, for bringing moral (and religious) seriousness into the classroom must surely be a focus of our reflection upon the future of the university.

But how should we do this? In particular, what rules do we need to apply so that the university remains an “open” institution? How do we retain the role of the university as a venue where curiosity reigns, rather than piety—or at least only “piety” about the value of curiosity and open inquiry? How do we maintain the university as “neutral” ground where none need fear peremptory censure for voicing unconventional or unpopular views?

While I respect Bellah’s instincts about the importance of moral seriousness in education, by virtue of his evangelical style and substance, he may have been the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time to realize his best intentions.

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