Robert Bellah and David Little at the American Civil Religion consultation at Drew University, Madison, NJ, February 1973 (Special Collections and Archives, Drew University Library).


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Robert Bellah was the last major thinker on the American Left to argue that shared religious beliefs are essential for democratic politics. In an era that saw liberalism grow progressively more secular, he defended views that dissented from elite opinion and the models of reality on which it rested. He argued that secularism is impossible, individualism is an illusion, and religious worship is inescapable. He made these arguments in best-selling books that combined learning and civility with a zeal for the ideals of democratic socialism and a dread for the practices of managerial capitalism. Bellah was the most celebrated American sociologist of his time, and it might seem absurd to suggest he was ignored. Presidents, clergy, scholars, and community leaders all sought his counsel. But if they had listened to him closely, as Bellah privately doubted they had, what would they have heard?

By the time he completed his final book, two years before his death in 2013, Bellah had concluded that America stood at the bleak end of a civilizational epoch. In its coming “time of trial,” as he called it, Americans would realize the values that had created their culture had also impaired their ability to understand or control it. Bellah’s writings over seven decades offer a unique interpretation of this paradox. They span his work on American history, his pioneering studies of Asian, Islamic, and Native American traditions, and a concluding magnum opus on the history of religious evolution. Bellah consistently denied that our ordeal could be solved through conventional forms of activism, argument, or piety. It can be survived, he claimed, only through a painful reckoning with how our most cherished values created the very systems that now enslave us—and how they can be repaired only by learning from religious traditions we presume to have left behind.


In 1961, Bellah was living in Japan on a Fulbright fellowship, unaware that his next lecture would become a major academic controversy. He had turned to the study of East Asia as a graduate student at Harvard in the early 1950s out of frustration with the shallowness of American consumer culture and a growing fascination with traditional societies. The lecture had been inspired by an encounter with a group of Shinto priests years before. During a visit to Cambridge, they pressed the young Japan specialist to explain why the Allies had required their country to privatize the Yasukuni Jinja, a shrine for the war dead, in accordance with the separation of church and state, while Arlington National Cemetery was allowed to operate under the federal government. Bellah’s lecture was his attempt to explain to his Japanese hosts the role of religion in American civic life.

When it was later published in 1967, “Civil Religion in America” sparked intense debate. The article was written as Americans began to question the belief that their nation had charted paths—in economics, politics, culture, and religion—that other modernizing nations were destined to follow. Bellah acknowledged that America was in several respects the most modern of societies. But in other ways, he suggested, it was not so different from even primitive societies. This was especially the case in the relationship between religion and politics, where he saw clear evidence that America endowed its civic traditions with sacred significance. Bellah strongly disagreed 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. He interpreted American history through the lens of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim, who argued that all societies—even those that seemed most secular—express their identities in religious symbols. For Durkheim, the nonobservant son of a rabbi, the truth of a religion is not found where both believers and unbelievers often assume it to be—in its official dogmas—but in the practices that promote group solidarity and commemorate social bonds. Bellah maintained that, when viewed from this perspective, America clearly possessed a national cult. It had 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 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.”

Bellah was raised Presbyterian. He was a descendent, he later joked, of “those dreadful people who march around Northern Ireland.” As a teenager he experienced a conversion to the Social Gospel, and apart from a brief Marxist phase, he was outspoken about his faith during his four decades at the University of California, Berkeley. His 1967 article appeared at a moment when thinkers like Harvey Cox and John Rawls were proposing visions of the “secular city” that left little place for religion. Bellah’s critics accused him of sacralizing politics and idolizing the nation. He responded by noting that “a pure liberalism is a reductio ad absurdum and a sociological impossibility.” 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.

America’s civil religion was therefore the core of its national identity—a fact, Bellah lamented, to which contemporary scholars were usually blind. Its celebration in speeches, holidays, and elections held together a diverse people, joining, though never fully harmonizing, the different values and traditions that informed the country’s founding. How did it do so?

Bellah’s interest in theology was unusual among sociologists. He credited the work of Paul Tillich for rescuing his faith during a period of religious doubt, and for decades he advised students at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. America’s public theology, he explained, was neither sectarian nor systematic. It was doctrinally vague, culturally pervasive, and legally invisible. It could not be found in the nation’s laws or in its Constitution. It had no official text or clergy, and its interpretation was left up to politicians, poets, and preachers. But it served the essential dual purpose of both legitimizing American institutions and providing grounds for their criticism.

Bellah’s “Civil Religion in America” was an unexpected turn for a scholar whose previous work had ranged from Apache kinship systems to the history of Tokugawa Japan. He later regretted that his “Babylonian captivity” to American studies had delayed his long-planned book on the evolution of religion. But it established him as a leading interpreter of American religious life. He wrote the article believing that civic religion had inspired the best of America, including the progressive causes he ardently supported. But almost as soon as it was published, Bellah began to doubt the ability of America’s civil religion to solve lingering problems of economic and racial justice. He also came to question the character of a country whose values it enshrined.

Bellah began to doubt the ability of America’s civil religion to solve lingering problems of economic and racial justice.


As America emerged from the upheavals of the 1960s, Bellah turned to examine the religious impulses beneath its social unrest. He did so not by reflecting on the latest trends in theology, but by returning to the earliest questions of sociology. Bellah had entered his discipline when it was imbued with a belief in scientific and political progress. Its prestige in the postwar era reflected confidence in its power to solve social problems at home and to project American values abroad. Bellah shared the ambitions of sociology to offer a master explanation of human behavior, and his reputation as a “universal scholar” was well deserved. But his style of sociology, which preferred history to statistics, aligned it more closely with questions in the humanities than with the methods of the hard sciences.

What makes modern culture so different from the cultures that came before it? How did individualism, capitalism, and critical rationality come to transform human life? And why did modernity promise freedom to all but deliver oppression to so many? Sociology began in the nineteenth century as an attempt to understand the shattering transition from the settled patterns of traditional society to the disruptive revolutions of modern life. Its founding thinkers wanted to ameliorate the worst aspects of modern life—its loneliness, exploitation, moral chaos, and perceived meaninglessness—by showing how human beings are rooted in the structures of their societies. For a time, Bellah believed Karl Marx best answered these questions. He even joined the Communist Party—a decision that would later imperil his career. Though he always remained a man of the Left, he eventually broke with Marxism because he concluded that human behavior could not be explained entirely by material or economic factors. “Modernization,” he countered, “is always a moral and a religious problem.”

Bellah regarded religion as the central category for understanding human life. “The analysis of modern man as secular, materialistic, and in the deepest sense areligious,” he wrote, “seems fundamentally misguided.” He possessed a remarkable knowledge of the history and variety of religions. By “religion” he did not mean only one’s personal beliefs about God or the supernatural, as Western thinkers have sometimes assumed. Bellah was sharply critical of the idea that individual beliefs defined religion more properly than “embodied, nonverbal practices.” For Bellah, it is nonverbal language—the silent languages of gesture, body movement, and even facial expressions—that convey the most complex religious meanings. Taking the “deep history” of humanity as his guide, he therefore understood religion as the way that human beings construe the world through symbol, myth, and ritual. He called his theory “symbolic realism,” and refined it throughout his career. As Bellah saw it, everything that we do as human beings—our ability to think, speak, imagine, create, socialize, or play—is possible only through the symbolic forms by which we understand our place in the world:

We have not begun to understand the full implications of religious language and symbolism. Social science has not begun to fathom the deep insights into human motives and human action that the religious tradition contains. But we do know that religious symbols are the way man has related himself, from the beginning of his existence as a cultural being, to the conditions of his existence. Through religious symbols man has symbolized to himself his own identity and the order of existence in terms of which his identity makes sense. These symbols are not “made up” by the human ego or deduced by rational reflection. They are born out of the tragedy and the suffering, the joy and the victory of men struggling to make sense out of their world. (Beyond Belief)

When Bellah applied his theory to 1970s America, what he saw alarmed him. His 1975 book, The Broken Covenant, described a nation being undone by its own symbols. The severity of its criticisms and the direness of its tone surprised many. Published on the eve of the nation’s bicentennial, the book examined the dominant moral traditions in American history from the colonial period to the present, concluding that they could no longer be united in a common democratic purpose. “Today the American civil religion is an empty and broken shell,” Bellah announced. His most unsettling suggestion was that Evangelical Protestantism and Enlightenment liberalism, widely thought to be antagonists in the drama of American political life, had spawned an ideology that was undermining American institutions. What Bellah critically termed “individualism” was not the creed of self-governing citizens. It was the misguided ambition of individuals to be free from all unchosen commitments and the symbols that expressed them.

Bellah’s concerns about American moral decline echoed those of a rising generation of American conservatives. He scorned the idea that society exists to liberate individuals from the burdens of nature and history, enabling them to achieve what they have the right but not the means to accomplish by themselves. But if Bellah was suspicious of liberalism, he was even more suspicious of conservatism—and not only in its libertarian forms. For one thing, he thought that religious conservatives often amplified the worst aspects of individualism. The Protestant emphasis on personal belief, he claimed, tended to absolve believers of communal responsibilities and blind them to social injustices. For another, Bellah was eager to learn from non-Western traditions, including those that harshly criticized American folkways. He was especially interested in the new religious movements emerging from the California counterculture, seeing in them glimpses of “a culture of imagination and not calculation,” as he wrote in his 1970 book, Beyond Belief.

Bellah’s openness to experiments in living was not limited to New Age spirituality and Bay Area religious movements. In the prefaces to his books, he often reflected on the personal experiences that influenced his scholarship, wondering whether his consuming interest in religion was a way of coping with the childhood trauma of his father’s suicide. Bellah reserved more private thoughts for his diaries. As Matteo Bortolini revealed in an excellent biography, A Joyfully Serious Man, in the 1970s, Bellah experimented cautiously with LSD, an open marriage, and sexual relationships with men. His life had been turned over by the sudden and tragic loss of two daughters in a span of three years, and the decade was one of personal anguish and professional disappointment. Bellah had met Michel Foucault during the French scholar’s visits to Berkeley, but in Bortolini’s sensitive telling, Bellah’s explorations of the Castro District had little of Foucault’s transgressive spirit. Bellah told his wife, Nancy, that he was not gay—merely a pretend “bigamist” with unresolved confusion about his personal identity.


How was individualism changing American life? In search of an answer, Bellah undertook the only significant fieldwork of his career. Over a period of five years, he and his team extensively interviewed more than two hundred people. His subjects included business executives, stay-at-home mothers, activists, clergy, nurses, and union members. Some of them, like “Sheila,” who revealed that she had created her own religion of “Sheila-ism,” became among the most famous research subjects in the history of sociology. Bellah and his colleagues were interested in responses to a single question, which they posed in searching ways: How do you determine what is good and right in your daily life? They wanted to learn about the deepest sources of moral motivation and purpose—not as theorized by academics but as experienced by average people. Bellah set aside the writing of sociologists to listen to the voices of everyday Americans.

The resulting book, Habits of the Heart, became his biggest professional success, quickly selling nearly half a million copies and being named a Pulitzer finalist. Published in 1985, when Bellah was fifty-seven years old, it was celebrated as one of the most important works of sociology since David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950). The book offered vivid portraits of Americans living amid what Ronald Reagan had recently called, on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, “the age of the individual.” Habits of the Heart was eagerly embraced by leading Democrats, including Walter Mondale and Jerry Brown, who hailed it as an indictment of the policies of the reelected Republican president. Bellah was a committed Democrat and had been an advisor to Jimmy Carter, who brought Bellah to the White House before writing his notorious “malaise” speech in 1979. But the book avoided partisan debates, made no policy recommendations, and was welcomed by more than a few conservatives, including Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak.

Habits of the Heart was fundamentally a study of the impoverishment of moral language. It explored the dissonance between the way Americans lived their lives and the way they talked about them. It made two acute observations. The first was that virtually all Americans, no matter their religious background or political persuasion, spoke a single moral language. Bellah called this the “first language” of individualism. When people explained how and why they made moral choices, Bellah discovered that they used a narrow ethical framework. They explained their decisions in terms of their own idiosyncratic preferences—saying that what is “good” is what they found personally satisfying or rewarding. Americans spoke highly about happiness, citizenship, and success. But they justified these values almost entirely in terms of their subjective preferences, rather than how they connected to higher obligations or a higher good. The important thing, they explained, is to be true to one’s interests and sincere in expressing them.

The book did not, however, depict Americans as decadent or narcissistic, even if it noticed ominous trends in budding solipsists like Sheila. Bellah’s second observation was equally penetrating: the way Americans justified their moral choices was often refuted by how they actually lived. He observed that Americans spoke as if they were “arbitrary centers of volition”—as if their moral impulses had no deeper foundation than their passing personal desires. Yet their actions suggested they sought enduring social commitments and binding civic obligations. They often gave generously, served their communities, and honored those who put the common good before their own. Bellah’s conclusion was striking. The shallowness of the dominant moral culture prevented Americans from plumbing the depth of their own lives. The “first language” of individualism impaired their self-understanding, making their lives “sound more isolated and arbitrary than they actually are.” Bellah lamented that Americans lacked the “secondary languages” of biblical religion and republican virtue, which earlier generations were able to draw upon.

Habits of the Heart portrayed a people suffering from a crippling case of moral mutism. Stripped of the ideas, narratives, and symbols that could express a richer vision of life, Americans were inarticulate about what mattered to them most. The book’s most haunting sections showed people struggling to explain even the real sacrifices they had made for their families and spouses, describing their genuine self-giving as calculating self-interest. Bellah argued that the language of individualism had the effect of making people opaque not only to each other but also to themselves: “There are truths we do not see when we adopt the language of radical individualism.” His deepest fear was not that Americans were morally confused but that, as they became habituated to the attitudes they expressed, their innermost identities would be altered as well—a degradation of character following a deterioration of language. “The irony,” Bellah concluded, “is that just where we think we are most free, we are most coerced by the dominant beliefs in our culture.”

Bellah’s book saw into a future that is now our present. Its worries about the creeping loneliness and aimlessness in American life would be confirmed decades later by Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. Bellah offered few practical solutions to the crumbling of community life, saying only that Americans needed to preserve “communities of memory” that engaged in “practices of commitment.” He spoke as well of the need for an Aristotelian ethics of virtue, aligning himself with communitarianism, an intellectual movement that criticized liberalism for its neglect of how human identities are shaped by culture and history. Bellah was returning with renewed fervor to the questions that had inspired his career, and to the monumental book he had always hoped to write. If America was to survive its time of trial, he concluded, it would have to look beyond modernity, beyond Western culture, and even beyond written history for religious guidance. “Perhaps the truth,” he suggested, “lies in what most of the world outside the modern West has always believed.”

If America was to survive its time of trial, he concluded, it would have to look beyond modernity, beyond Western culture, and even beyond written history for religious guidance.


If Émile Durkheim helped Bellah understand American ideals, the German sociologist Max Weber helped him confront American realities. Bellah’s deepest criticism of individualism was that it undermined the very conditions that make it possible. Its vision of human beings as free to choose their own identities and commitments had not brought about a more creative or reflective society. It had resulted in people who were lonely, disoriented, and servile to the power of markets, states, and public opinion. Weber called this condition the “iron cage” of modernity. It was a “masterless slavery,” he explained, because it was enforced through the power of impersonal rules and bureaucracies that fused state and market into a single system. But it was also a world of our own making—indeed, as Weber demonstrated, the “iron cage” was built on the values of bourgeois individualism.

In the last two decades of his life, Bellah explored ways to escape this ideological prison while still preserving democratic values. The great question of our time, he proposed, “is whether we can control the very economic and technical forces, which are our greatest achievement, before they destroy us.” In a controversial 1998 article, “Is There a Common American Culture?,” Bellah argued that American culture was threatened by a “monoculture” that diminished its ability to imagine alternative ways of life. Its embrace of “diversity” promoted the just treatment of minorities, but it also concealed the hegemony of a technocratic liberalism that strips us of any shared morality other than that of market exchange. Weber himself believed the “iron cage” could not be escaped, finding no tenable place for virtue ethics in an amoral world of power politics and capitalism. He saw no solution to the tragic paradox that the highest achievement of Western culture, its all-embracing rationalism, was also the source of its fatal disenchantment. Bellah did not share Weber’s fatalism, but he did share his interest in archaic religion. It was there, in the remote prehistory of our species, that Bellah found guidance for the future.

Religion in Human Evolution was the book Bellah lived to write, and he died not long after it was published to wide acclaim in 2011. It stands as his final and most expansive interpretation of the problem of modernity and religion, which had first drawn him to the study of sociology in the 1940s. The eight-hundred-page work is impossible to summarize, impossible even for a single reviewer to competently evaluate. It is best understood as belonging to the genre of modernity criticism, and best read alongside Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations. This might seem odd advice about a book whose history ends in the fourth century BC, and which expends enormous scholarly energy in imagining the vanished worlds of religions for which we have no written records. But Bellah’s “autobiography of the human race,” as he called his big book, was not simply a work of historical reconstruction. Its ambition was to offer a new interpretation of modernity, by viewing it from the longest historical perspective possible.

By evolution, Bellah did not mean simply biological evolution. He also meant the evolution of culture, the process through which human beings actively cooperate in their own transformation. As Bellah told it, the history of our species is the story of its expanding capacities for language and culture, capacities that enhanced our ability to cooperate with and learn from one another. Human beings are uniquely “self-domesticating.” Not only did we evolve in ways that improved our fitness for survival and reproduction. More astonishingly, we nurtured capacities that freed us from selective pressures, allowing us to form families, societies, and eventually institutions that offer shelter from the grim competition for life and resources. The key to understanding our species, Bellah argued, is found in our ability to create these “relaxed spaces,” where distinctly human abilities—for reflection, love, creativity, and play—have the freedom to flourish.

At the heart of Religion and Human Evolution is an account of how our species evolved to live in “multiple realities.” What Bellah called “everyday life” is the world of work and survival, in which we understand reality through our immediate biological and material needs. Although this dimension of life might seem uniquely real, it is not. Bellah’s most important claim was this: no one can live in the world of everyday life all the time. Essential to every human life and society is our capacity to escape this brute reality—to transcend the domain of animal immediacy and instrumental reasoning. We leave the world of everyday life whenever we enter spheres of life that are not dominated by evolutionary pressures, and we do so frequently. Beginning in infancy and ending only near death, our lives are punctuated by “play.” Games are play, but so are conversations, social rituals, novels, songs, paintings, and religion. “In some important sense,” Bellah wrote, “we never leave childhood.”

Bellah’s picture of history is shaped by his claim that religion emerged from what historian Johan Huizinga called “the primeval soil of play.” To say that religion is the highest form of play does not mean religion is unserious—it simply means it is the opposite of work. Religion and Human Evolution chronicled the emergence of religion in tribal and archaic societies up to its transformation in the Axial Age. Drawing on work in archeology, anthropology, and evolutionary psychology, Bellah contended that at each stage of cultural evolution, religion integrated societies into an ordered unity. In its most primitive stages, it did so not by priestly rule or by prescribing beliefs about gods or God (features of religion that developed only later, Bellah speculated). Instead, it did so by ritual, the founding action of the first human societies. Ritual makes society. In ritual, we transcend everyday life by participating in an action expressed in common symbols and gestures. We enact a vision of the social world as it is “meant to be,” overcoming, if only for a moment, group envy, competition, and strife. “Only ritual pulls us out of our egoistic pursuit of our own interests and creates the possibility of a social world.”

The great thinkers of the Axial Age fundamentally altered archaic religion, marking a watershed in cultural evolution. Socrates, Plato, Confucius, Mencius, Buddha, and the Jewish prophets—Bellah’s sprawling book shows how each of these figures introduced a radically new element into cultures previously governed by the holy repetitions of ritual and myth. The “birth of criticism” enabled human beings, for the first time, to put into serious question the authority of traditional ways of life. Stories, laws, and rituals could now be judged from a higher and more universal order of values. Human beings also began to develop second-order thinking skills, eventually coming to see themselves as having identities and agency of their own. Bellah’s ambivalent verdict on the Axial Age set the stage for his interpretation of modernity. He praised Axial thinkers for raising human moral consciousness and for opening archaic societies to rational evaluation. But he also lamented its long-term influence on Western culture, which began to uproot human rationality from its embeddedness in relationships of trust and dependency.

In Bellah’s telling, modernity’s story was tragic.


Bellah saw modernity as an attempt to free human knowledge from its primordial basis in ritual, symbol, and narrative. He never denied its advances, but he feared that they had come at heavy costs, both to our humanity and to the natural environment. In Bellah’s telling, modernity’s story was tragic. We built the modern world for purposes that we had consciously chosen: for peace, for comfort, for efficiency, for a reduction of suffering, and, above all, for an expansion of individual autonomy. But in working to make that world a reality, we lost control over the institutions and ideas that sustain it, suffering degradation by the very system that was supposed to empower us. Bellah argued this is as much a cultural catastrophe as an economic or environmental crisis. Human beings find meaning only by living in “multiple realities,” flourishing in those human sanctuaries where thought, creativity, friendship, love, and worship are nurtured and expressed. But today we are mentally trapped by the logic of competitive life, living as functionaries in a world where it seems nothing is leisure, everything is work, and the boundaries protecting the sacred from the profane are being erased every day.

Though Bellah preferred the language of sociology, he often described this condition in a Christian idiom. Our inordinate desire to possess and control, our libido dominandi, has been “externalized into structures that take on a life of their own, become like monsters, and are no longer servants of our wishes but dominate, control, and subjugate us.” In his final years, Bellah’s theological views subtly changed. He spoke less often of Paul Tillich and the Social Gospel movement and more frequently of postliberal theologians like George Lindbeck and Stanley Hauerwas. He agreed with the former that Christianity is a “cultural-linguistic” system into which believers are initiated through practice and imitation; he affirmed with the latter that Christian life bears witness to a radical form of community. Bellah’s postliberal turn explained the advice he routinely gave to secular students when they asked him for religious guidance. “I say not to worry about believing in God,” he recalled. “I tell them that if they become part of the life of the church they will begin to see how the word is used and what it means.”

Bellah’s writings cut across academic disciplines, historical epochs, and religious traditions. But they always carry the paradoxical message that human beings cannot reach the deepest sources of truth and value through abstract reason. Today we often assume that knowledge requires theory, theory requires abstraction, and abstraction requires separating cognition from outside influences. If this method is essential for grasping the laws of nature, Bellah believed, it has proven a failure for guiding the higher life of humanity. His critique of modern life was that it had inverted the proper hierarchy between reason and ritual. It had wrongly assumed that ritual actions are an impediment to reaching the highest truths rather than the royal road to them.

Bellah believed that we stand at the end of an epoch, now two and a half millennia old, that has been relentlessly anti-ritualistic. This impulse was expressed in the Axial Age, quickened in the Reformation and Enlightenment, and valorized in the ideals of Western individualism. Bellah excelled at showing the many ways that rituals and symbols continue to suffuse American life. But what our culture conspicuously lacks, he argued, are those rituals that humanize any society—rituals that interrupt everyday life, break up mundane patterns of perception, and elevate us above the profane world of survival, rivalry, and acquisition. Bellah had little interest in traditional theological debates and often said that non-Christian traditions were also worthy of belief. But he placed his hope in religious communities, both Christian and non-Christian, that preserved a truth as old as society—that there are truths so transformative that they can be understood only by being enacted.

Bellah envisioned two possible futures for America. In one, the intertwined systems of market and state will continue to colonize what remains of the human “lifeworld,” leaving Americans with diminished capacities to transcend the secular structures over which they have little control. In another, Americans will awaken again to the multiple realities of human life and commit to building protective bulwarks around the “relaxed zones” of culture and cult. Bellah placed little hope in progressive activism, which he thought was too much influenced by a deconstructive attitude of critique. “Criticism alone cannot give us solidarity or meaning,” he wrote. Human beings need to do more than demand the freedom or power they are individually denied. No less than their earliest ancestors, they need meanings found only by relinquishing the desire to control or possess. For Bellah, this kind of community was enacted in a ritual of the most intense symbolic realism. As he put it in a sermon delivered on All Saints Day:

I want to remind you that it is in the Eucharist that it all comes together: with all the company of heaven, the communion of the saints, and of all souls, all enfolded in one time, time out of time, all equally present—past, future, and to come. Nunc stans, the eternal now. That is what happens in that moment when the sacred is embodied in human community…. It is in and through the Eucharist that we can understand the real meaning of time and death, of those who have gone before us, those who are with us now, and those who are to come.

Matthew Rose is Senior Fellow at the Morningside Institute and the author of A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right (Yale University Press).

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Published in the July/August 2023 issue: View Contents
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