A Language of Solidarity

From the Archives: The Writing of Robert N. Bellah

Robert N. Bellah, who died in July at the age of 86, was a contributor to Commonweal for more than twenty years. Here are selections from some of his articles, the first of which appeared in 1982. Follow the links to read the complete archived versions.

From “The Church & the Search for the Common Good,” in 1982 (.pdf): 

Modern society replaces the older ideal of organic hierarchy with a new idea of functional differentiation of spheres of life. In this new society the central institution is no longer religion or even the political order but the economy. But because the economy lacks a telos of the sort that religion and politics had (the end of religion is salvation, of politics the common good), the economy does not replace them as a new kind of dominant hierarchical institution. Rather it radically undermines all older conceptions of ethical hierarchy and replaces them with functional or even technical utility instead. In so doing modern society produces a new worldview, one that reverses the traditional conception of higher and lower energies. The modern ideology is radically egalitarian and individualistic and hopes to create a good society through unleashing and manipulating egoistic and selfish desires. The new social philosophy, in the form of classical liberalism, replaces the older conception of ethical, political, practical reason, even in the political sphere. Even as early as Hobbes the problem of political leadership was replaced by the problem of regulation, of the management of human beings conceived as the material to be subjected to technical manipulation.

All of these changes were not without their precursors and accompaniments in the religious sphere, as we know from Max Weber. Yet as we also know from Weber, the increasing dominance of functional rationalization changes the place of religion as it was known in all previous societies. Religion is to be displaced from its role as guardian of the public worldview that gives human life its coherence (a role that it retained in early Protestant communities as well as in Catholic ones). Religion is now relegated to the purely private sphere where it is to be considered merely one of a variety of possible private options.

From 1987’s “Resurrecting the Common Good” (.pdf), in which Bellah considered the pastoral letter Economic Justice for All:

The pastoral letter asserts criteria in terms of which the functioning of the economy can be judged. The fundamental norm is stated in paragraph 28: The dignity of the human person, realized in community with others, is the criterion against which all aspects of economic life must be measured. What the bishops are saying is that the economy is made for human beings, not human beings for the economy. But contemporary economic ideology is premised on the idea that the world economy is an inexorable, objective mechanism. We must adapt to it, not it to us. If we are not sufficiently competitive it will crush us and we will, heaven forbid, become a second-class nation. …

For a long time we have produced defenders of the market economy, what we call free enterprise, who proclaim that its invisible hand is the most effective means to moral and material progress in the history of the world, and we have numerous supporters of that view today, not least in the religious community. And yet, over two hundred years after Adam Smith's promise of an economy that would be so enormously productive that it would free us from material necessity, the dark shadows of the iron laws have begun to lengthen in America (they have never been absent in most of the world). Don't we have to regain our competitive edge, and doesn't that mean lowering our expectations, tightening our belts, and working longer hours for less pay? Otherwise, the iron laws of international economic competition will consign us to oblivion. Our economic survival is at stake. The Darwinian notes are clear. To the extent that we accept this view the ethical consequences are obvious. If it is a matter of survival, competitiveness is what is at issue. Who has time to think of justice, much less charity? …

Our issue of July 12, 1991, featured a lengthy excerpt (.pdf) of Bellah’s book The Good Society (co-authored with Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven Tipton), a part of which follows:

There is an ambiguity about the idea of institutions that is hard to avoid but that we will try to be clear about. Institutions are normative patterns embedded in and enforced by laws and mores (informal customs and practices). In common usage the term is also used to apply to concrete organizations. Organizations certainly loom large in our lives, but if we think only of organizations and not of institutions we may greatly oversimplify our problems. The corporation is a central institution in American life. As an institution, it is a particular historical pattern of rights and duties, of powers and responsibilities, that make it a major force in our lives. Individual corporations are organizations that operate within the legal and other patterns that define what a corporation is. If we do not distinguish between institution and organization, we may think that our only problem with corporations is to make them more efficient or more responsible. But there are problems with how corporations are institutionalized in American society, with the underlying pattern of power and responsibility, and we cannot solve the problems of corporate life simply by improving individual organizations: we have to reform the institution itself.

If we confuse organizations and institutions, then when we believe we are being treated unfairly we may retreat into private life or flee from one organization to another--a different company or a new marriage--hoping that the next one will treat us better. But change in how organizations are conceived, changes in the norms by which they operate--institutional changes--are the only way to get at the source of our difficulties.

The same logic applies throughout our social life. There are certainly better families and worse, happier and more caring families and ones that are less so. But the very way Americans institutionalize family life, the pressures and temptations that American society presents to all families, are themselves the source of serious problems. So just asking individual families to behave better, important though that is, will not get to the root of the difficulties. Indeed there is a kind of reductionism in our traditional way of thinking about society. We think in the first place that the problem is probably with the individual; if not, then with the organization. This pattern of thinking hides from us the power of institutions and their great possibilities for good and for evil.

From Bellah’s piece on “the Bush doctrine” in 2002:

I have been pondering for quite some time just how to describe the new American Empire, but now, quite suddenly, my task has become much simpler. On September 20, the White House issued George W. Bush’s The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, which describes the new empire with crystal clarity. America will strike any nation or any group that it deems dangerous, whenever and however it feels necessary, and regardless of provocation or lack thereof….

On top of the declaration of absolute military supremacy throughout the globe, the document reiterates, in the epigraph to chapter 3, Bush’s intention to "rid the world of evil," first uttered on September 14, 2001, in the National Cathedral. Apparently what even God has not succeeded in doing, America will accomplish….

Yet the central point I want to make is that the American polity is in no way prepared for this world-historical role that has been thrust upon us, making it doubtful that we can sustain the hegemony the national security document asserts. We remain a profoundly provincial, monolingual nation. Our current president, whether legitimate or not, is in some ways typical: when Bush visited Europe after taking office, it was said that it was his first trip to that continent. It is not just his ignorance (which has played into the hands of the small cabal of foreign-policy advisors that in fact makes the decisions) but his lack of interest in the rest of the world that is typical. Most Americans are not interested in the rest of the world and certainly don’t know much about it. Foreign news has been in decline as a proportion not only of television news, but even of newspaper reporting for decades. Our degree of national pride is unmatched in the world. Even before September 11, the National Opinion Research Center found that 90.4 percent of Americans agreed with the statement "I would rather be a citizen of America than of any other country in the world" (rising to 97.2 percent after September 11). Only slightly fewer Americans agreed with the statement that "America is a better country than most other countries." After September 11, almost half of our people agreed with the statement "The world would be a better place if people from other countries were more like the Americans." In his cover letter to the National Security Strategy document, President Bush asserts that there is "a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise." The document itself makes it clear that all other nations not merely should, but must, follow this single model--or else.

Writing on the 2008 election in “Yes He Can”:

Hearing Obama give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was one of the most electrifying experiences of my political life. “Who is this person?” I thought. How is it possible for anyone today to formulate the very best of the American tradition in such eloquent terms? (Needless to say, with a sense of the centrality of rhetoric to the Western political tradition from Aristotle and Cicero to Jefferson and Lincoln, I have never accepted the derogatory use of the word. I believe that speaking well and thinking well usually go together, and vice versa, as the incumbent president so vividly illustrates. It will be easier for John McCain to attack Obama’s “rhetoric” than to equal it.)…

I believe both Clintons have read Habits of the Heart and The Good Society, because they have told me that they have, and I believe Hillary Clinton would try to put into practice some of the things that I and my coauthors were talking about in those books. I have no reason to believe that Obama has read the books, yet he has caught their spirit in a most remarkable way and expressed it more eloquently than anyone in living memory. In Habits of the Heart I and my coauthors described four traditions that are powerful in America today. We called our primary moral language “utilitarian individualism,” the calculating concern for self-interest that is natural in our kind of economy, and a language that all candidates, Republicans and Democrats, must often use as they appeal to various interest groups to support them. But we have three secondary moral languages that give a greater richness and moral adequacy to our discourse (even as they are often shunted aside by the dominance of the language of self-interest), expressive individualism, biblical language, and the language of civic republicanism. All candidates use the language of expressive individualism when they try to show us their human side, tell their individual stories and the stories of those who support them. But the substantial alternatives to the language of utilitarian individualism are biblical and civic republican. Biblical language, like all the others, comes in several forms, but here I am referring to the language of Martin Luther King Jr. and William Sloane Coffin—that is, a language that expresses the dominant biblical concern for those most in need, a language that reminds us of our solidarity with all human beings.