Robert Bellah Memorial at the American Sociological Association

Robert Bellah

Robert Bellah, the famous sociologist of religion who passed away last week, received a thoughtful obituary today in the New York Times.

He also be remembered at this year’s annual meetings of the American Sociological Association on Saturday, August 10, 2013, at 7 pm. The event is being organized by Jeffrey Alexander of Yale’s Department of Sociology. It will be held in the Regent Room on the 2nd floor of the Hilton New York Midtown.


Remembering Robert Bellah

This is a guest blog written by Jeff Guhin, a sociologist doing a post-doc at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at UVA. His current work is on morality and citizenship in public schools. He’s also interested in theory, science studies, qualitative methods, religion, and how to be a decent human being. He originally posted his reflections on his own blog, and gave me permission to re-print it here.

By Jeff Guhin

Robert Bellah

In their books, authors can appear wise and kind, with moral courage and keen aesthetic sense.  Yet in person, these same authors often disappoint: they can be lechers or snobs, mean spirits or simple bores.  A gifted writer is not necessarily a good speaker, and neither is a capacious mind necessarily a generous soul.  Margo Rabb wrote about this very problem in a recent New York Times article, and now, as I reflect on Robert Bellah’s death, I’m struck by a quote in the article from one of my favorite writers, George Saunders.  He said, “You can read Mailer or Hemingway and see — or at least I do — that what separated them from greater writers (like Chekhov, say) was a certain failing of kindness or compassion or gentleness — an interest in the little guy, i.e., the nonglamorous little guy, a willingness and ability to look at all of their characters with love.”

Bellah had this very generosity, this concern for the little guy.  It’s what made him a communist and what made him a Christian.  He shares that move—from radical leftist to radical Christian—with another of my heroes, Dorothy Day.  The two had a lot in common: a gift for writing, a mysticism of quiet wonder, a sense that their lingering questions about community and meaning and God could be answered in a community of fellow travelers who cared about personal relationships and common meals and the idea that small steps like this could change the world.  They were also both brave.  Day stood up to her church and her government, and Bellah stood up to his government too, and the first church of every academic, Harvard University, going into Canadian exile rather than naming names during the McCarthy era.  Yet he eventually found his way back to Harvard, where he got tenure, and besides a brief controversy at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, he finished his life and work at the University of California, Berkeley, where many of my most important teachers and mentors worked with him.

Bellah was an author who lived up to his beautiful books. And the books were beautiful: gracefully written, intellectual without being obtuse, full of moral urgency yet without didacticism or despair.  Newcomers should look especially at his books on America: Habits of the Heart, and its sequel, The Good Society. Look also at his work on civil religion and the relationship between religion and sociology in Beyond Belief and The Broken Covenant.  Here’s how we work, Bellah wanted to say, and he was a talented enough sociologist to convince many of us he was right.  His teacher was Talcott Parsons, who famously attempted an important synthesis of Weber and Durkheim (along with Marx, the two are considered the founders of sociology).  Parsons’s synthesis was criticized and then completely attacked just as Bellah was coming into his own as a scholar.  The tension put Bellah in an odd position as he was in many ways Parsons’s star student. Yet he was also a member of the new guard, and a friend since graduate school to celebrity anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who advocated, with Bellah, a new focus on interpretation in the social sciences, borrowing techniques from literary theory and hermeneutic philosophy.If Parsons’s fusion of Weber and Durkheim was conservative, focused on structural stability instead of change, then Bellah’s was reformist, describing how our symbols work and also how that work works to either bring us together or pull us apart.

Unlike his teacher, Bellah was more indebted to Durkheim’s later work on religion than his earlier work on social structures, and it was this focus on meaning that influenced a generation of cultural sociologists.  Perhaps most important was his essay, “Civil Religion in America,” which showed not only the late Durkheimian basis of our national life but also the Weberian contingency of our connections.

Amidst a new generation—led by the world systems theory of Immanuel Wallerstein—who insisted that economics and power were the only ways to understand sociology, Bellah insisted that meanings were more than just superstructure.  His sociology was neither quantitative nor especially variable-driven, which made him less popular as his field moved towards scientisism.  Yet it also made his work an early prophecy of a post-positivist future.  Along with a scattered few colleagues across the country, he was a voice crying out in the wilderness, making straight the way of culture.  Jeffrey Alexander, one of Bellah’s most successful students, is not exaggerating when he says that “There is a sense in which every contemporary sociologist is Bellah’s child, niece, or nephew.”\

Besides showing how we work, Bellah wanted to show us why that question mattered and how, by asking that question, we are able to imagine other ways we could live, ways that might provide greater justice, or compassion, or community.  That focus on community was not only theoretical. From everything I have heard, Bellah took his relationships very seriously—with his students, his colleagues, his friends, his family, and his wife of many years.  He was a remarkably happy man—I thought of Aquinas’s adage that “joy is the noblest virtue” when I met him—and the smile that you see on the cover of the Robert Bellah reader was surely not a pose.  I get the sense that’s often just how he looked.

I was lucky enough to be at a dinner for him after a talk he gave at Yale, and a former student of his asked him about his experience of graduate school.  “I really enjoyed it,” he said.  What about being a junior professor? “I enjoyed that too!” he said, smiling.  The former student asked him, “Was there ever a period of life you didn’t enjoy?” He smiled and paused thoughtfully.  “Well, my wife died recently, and that was simply a fact I had to endure.  But, basically, I enjoy life.”I barely knew this man, and I had only managed to finagle my way into this dinner because I knew the organizers and I had recently written a review of Bellah’s last book, on the relationship between evolution and religion.  The book is an incredible achievement, not least for finally bringing Bellah back to his early interest in East Asia and evolution. As I describe in the review, I was struck by the intellectual breadth, the ethical sensibility and, the exuberant excitement in the many ways we’ve found to be human.  He didn’t deny that we all might destroy ourselves, a worry Bellah had for some time. Yet it was his deep appreciation for everything human culture can achieve that made his worries matter: for all the evil we can do, you got the sense from Bellah that it’s good we’re still here, and we should think hard about how to get better at it.

Unlike the authors Margo Rabb mentioned, I was struck by how similar Bellah’s person was to his written work: the same optimism, the same combination of intellectual luminosity and straightforward, exuberant joy.  I’ve rarely met someone about whom I immediately thought, here is how I should live. Which is not to argue that I have anywhere near Bellah’s mind—or, for that matter, his soul.  But still, it’s nice to know that real people like him existed.  Even if for a time.When we talked at that dinner, I told Bellah about a poet whose work I love, Marie Howe.  He hadn’t heard of her, and so I e-mailed a poem she wrote about her brother’s death, “What the Living Do.”

Here is what Bellah wrote in response: “Thanks so much–this is quite lovely.  Perhaps you know that I lost my wife of 61 years in 2010.  Anyway the poem strikes home and I want to read more of her.”  As I look over the poem myself, I find myself weirdly thinking of Bob Bellah, despite not having had more than two e-mails and four hours with him.  Nonetheless, to quote the poem’s last lines:

“But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass, say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless: I am living. I remember you.”

Goodbye, Robert Bellah

Robert Bellah

Robert Bellah once wrote: “Because good social science is always morally serious, we can transpose Weber’s saying that only a mature man can have the calling for politics into the statement that only a mature person can have the calling for sociology. Moral vacuity creates cognitively trivial work.” (The Robert Bellah Reader, p. 400)

One of the greatest American sociologists, Robert Bellah has passed away in these finals days of July. I got the email from my graduate school mentor Robert Wuthnow of Princeton while I sat in a coffee shop at Yale with Phil Gorski preparing for this morning’s philosophy of social science seminar. We were both shocked. The email only said his death was caused by  complications following surgery. 

I wrote about my conversations with Bellah previously on Black, White and Gray, and I’m immensely glad I got to meet a living legend just months before he passed away. At that meeting, Bellah spent as much time talking about how much he loved his recently deceased wife of more than 60 years as he did telling me about his latest book, Religion in Human Evolution, and we chatted about his new interest Catholic social teaching. Aristotle said that often we can’t tell if a person’s life has been flourishing until after they have died. May Bellah’s flourishing intellectual legacy and his example passion for people, ideas and the truth live on long after his death.


Conversations with Robert Bellah

Robert Bellah

Sitting in his office perched above the hills in Berkeley, California, yesterday I got to meet one of the legends of sociology: Robert Bellah. Among other accomplishments, Bellah’s co-authored book Habits of the Heart from 1985 has sold half a million copies, his essay Civil Religion in America is widely discussed and cited, and his very recent magnum opus Religion in Human Evolution has caused quite a buzz in the academic world. (See the lively discussion of it on the Immanent Frame).

Now in his 80s, Bellah greeted me warmly in his home office. He’s quite tall—around 6 foot 4 inches, and he has a bright smile. His first words were a very personal introduction, saying,

“My wife died about 2 years ago after 61 years of marriage.” During our hour and a half conversation, he must have mentioned his love for his wife at least a half dozen times, telling me, “She really was my other half. I really believe the Biblical narrative that when people get married (at least in good marriages), it really is like a one-flesh union of two people. I felt like half of me was amputated when she died. I couldn’t write for about a year, but I could read. I felt this deep desire to be united with her, but my work, my children, and my grandchildren keep me going.”

Bellah sometimes feels that the popularity of his essay, “Civil Religion in America,” takes attention away from his other important works, even calling that article “that darned piece on civil religion!” However, I explained I assign Bellah’s Civil Religion essay and show students John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Presidential Inaugural Address that Bellah analyzes in “that darned piece!” Although Kennedy does mention “Almighty God” or Bible verses about 5 times in that speech, he refers to the nation as having a sacred mission at least 25 times. As Bellah so aptly describes and Kennedy’s speech perfectly illustrates, our nationality is not just something that gives us rights and responsibilities, our nationality is a moral, sacred belonging. Presidents before and after Kennedy rarely proselytize their particular religion, but they all describe the nation as sacred. Simply showing students that group belonging (like nationality) is not always a matter of personal choice  and that those group belongings have powerful moral narratives opens their eyes to how profoundly social human beings are and how human action has a moral dimension.

One concern about his famous civil religion essay, Bellah said, is that readers often do not know he wrote that essay in part motivated by his critique of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. As Bellah explained,

“I agree, in good Durkheimian fashion, that for Americans the nation is seen as sacred. But that can and often has been interpreted to mean that it cannot be criticized: ‘my country right or wrong.’  Since my essay came out of my deep criticism of American involvement in Vietnam, which was going on at the time, that can’t be what I meant.  I was arguing that America’s commitment to an authority higher than the nation meant it should always be criticized when it falls short of those standards.”

Most of my students have only heard the Camelot stories of  JFK and have no idea that he escalated the Vietnam War. But a close analysis of his words show exactly what Bellah says: JFK elevates the nation as sacred in part to justify the arms race and the war on communism. American citizens are not just passive recipients of the moral messages of their leaders, we should be ready to criticize those moral messages when needed and actively construct alternative moral identities.

I explained to Bellah how in my current class on positive sociology, I’m trying to get students to understand the moral narratives that underlie many social groups. In one assignment, they have to write about their experience in a group ritual, whether that is the UNC-Duke basketball game, a religious service, a sorority, or another social group with rituals. What activities, symbols, narratives contribute to group identity, moral narratives and collective effervescence? How do their experiences confirm or expand upon our readings from Emile Durkheim and Jonathan Haidt on moral narratives and social rituals?

In their next assignments, my students will use readings from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America to analyze how well their experiences at UNC  line up with the mission of UNC as explained in its charter. The 1789 charter which created the University of North Carolina begins:

“Whereas in all well-regulated governments it is the indispensable duty of every legislature to consult the happiness of the rising generation and endeavor to fit them for an honorable discharge of the social duties of life, by paying the strictest attention to their education…”

How do Tocqueville’s writings shed light on UNC’s mission statement and the actual community at UNC in students’ own experience? Do voluntary associations such as campus organizations, housing arrangements, clubs, and other social groups at UNC contribute to the well-being of individuals, the state of North Carolina and the nation? Or do they not contribute at all?

Bellah expressed great concern that today’s generation of college students is so worried about accruing debt and finding jobs when they graduate that they have lost sight of the larger purpose of being a university student. Bellah’s vision of college is not just about acquiring knowledge or gaining a credential: rather, going to college should be a larger introduction to life; college should educate citizens who have a sense of responsibility towards the rest of the world. Bellah fears that today’s social media tools like Facebook provide lots of superficial social contact but little of the group formation that form people’s sense of belonging to a larger world. In fact, in my students’ first essay on happiness, two students wrote convincing papers about how obsessions with Facebook and other social media tools can detract from deep friendship. When you know lots of tidbits about hundreds of people you have never met, and when you are constantly checking everyone’s status updates, how do you form the friendships that will generate practical wisdom and other virtues?

How do we recover a vision of the common good? Bellah told me he had just started reading Catholic teachings on human rights and the common good, beginning with one of the foundational documents of Vatican II, Guadium et spes. Bellah was “utterly blown away” by the Gaudium et spes’s unflinching defense of human dignity combined with a robust vision of social justice. It’s hard, Bellah said, to avoid an individualistic or utilitarian vision of human rights, but Guadium et spes articulates how human rights and the common good reinforce each other. What do I think of Benedict XVI’s social encyclical Caritas in veritate, Bellah asked me?

Since I had previously read numerous of Benedict XVI’s books on Christology, theology, and secularization, I was already familiar with various themes of his thought which appear in Caritas in veritate: that truth is objective rather than relative, and that virtue must be both in the heart and in action. As such, the church’s mission of charity can never be private; the church’s mission of charity is public—it is oriented to the greater good of all, regardless of religious creed. Hence, the state and church are inter-dependent in their work for the common good, something that is hard for people to understand if they think religion must only be a private matter.

I explained to Bellah that English sociologist Margaret Archer has a fantastic essay, “Caritas in veritate and Social Love” (International Journal of Public Theology 5 (2011), pp. 273–295) which is the best integration of sociological insights on human persons and social structures with Catholic reflections on human dignity and the common good. Archer masterfully shows how personal identity and the common good can, under the right conditions, build an ever-expanding civilization of love envisioned in Catholic social teaching.

Since Bellah told me one thing that facilitated his writing of Religion and Human Evolution was email correspondence and friendships with leading experts in fields that are new to him, like biology and animal evolution, I offered to be his email correspondent and friend if he wants to read more about Catholic social teaching. Even if he never takes me up on that offer, I’ll never forget the afternoon I spent in his home office as he reflected on his major intellectual works, the future of American youth, and his six decade long love affair with his wife that was transformed, but not ended, by her death.