Robert Bellah, the Sociologist of American Religion Who Went against the Secular Grain

August 11, 2023 | Matthew Rose
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At a time when the social sciences were increasingly indifferent or even hostile to religion, the American sociologist Robert Bellah—who died ten years ago—was intensely focused on the role of ritual and belief in shaping human life. Perhaps the most prominent scholar in his field during the 1960s and 70s, Bellah is best known for his analyses of what he called the “American civil religion.” He was, in Matthew Rose’s estimation, the last great thinker of the religious left, and his admirers included liberal politicians like Walter Mondale and Jimmy Carter as well as the conservative Catholic thinkers Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak. Rose writes:

Bellah strongly disagreed [with those who felt] that America’s lack of an established church and its freedom of religion made it a secular society. America was and remained a country with a sacred center on which the legitimacy of its ideals and institutions depended. Bellah called this America’s “civil religion.” He defined the term sociologically. It described the rituals, symbols, and language of civic life, not the private beliefs of individuals.

Bellah maintained that, when viewed from this perspective, America clearly possessed . . . its own civic rituals, liturgical calendar, and holy documents, as well as its own saints, prophets, martyrs, hymns, and pilgrimage sites. Bellah insisted that this national cult’s celebration was not purely ceremonial. Nor did it worship what the sociologist Will Herberg had dismissively termed the “American way of life.” “The American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation,” Bellah wrote, “but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality.”

But he also denied that America was a “Christian nation,” even if its civic life was suffused with biblical symbols and themes. America’s civil religion was its ingenious solution for religious pluralism, allowing people of different traditions to unite in pursuit of shared purposes. It did not settle political disagreements, of course, or prevent injustices. But according to Bellah, it provided the moral grammar through which Americans of different backgrounds and faiths could discuss the meaning of their common life.

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