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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.