Community and Political Thought Today

By Peter Augustine Lawler; Dale McConkey | Go to book overview

4
Does Robert Bellah Care About History?

BRUCE FROHNEN

It may seem odd, perhaps even unfair, to ask whether a sociologist like Robert Bellah "cares" about history. In one sense he obviously must. The institutions and practices that are his objects of study are shaped by historical events and circumstances. In another way the sociologist clearly does not care about history. A sociologist is not, after all, a historian, interested in recapturing as fully as possible the truth about past events for its own sake.

But particularly in Habits of the Heart Bellah repeatedly resorts to the authority of one historical figure -- the French statesman and philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville -- -in setting forth his arguments concerning America's cultural ills. More important, he describes American character through analysis of what he claims are the historically rooted traditions of individualism and republicanism. Finally, Bellah points to "communities of memory" -- that is, groups bound together by a shared sense of their history -- as the proper cure for the ills afflicting our society.

It is fair, then, to ask whether Bellah presents credible accounts of Tocqueville's thought, American traditions of thought and action, and the grounding of communities of memory. If, as I will argue here, he does not, this raises further, more interesting questions: Is Bellah merely attempting to mislead us for his own political purposes? Or does Bellah truly believe that historical truth and historical practice do not matter? And if, as I will argue is the case, he believes the latter, to what end does he make historical references and analyses in his work?

I will begin by arguing that Bellah uses references and terms from Tocqueville for distinctly un-Tocquevillian ends, and that he knows that he is being untrue to Tocqueville's vision. Next I will argue that Bellah, far from caring about the

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