American Habits: Robert Bellah and Cultural Reformation

By Wood, Richard L. | The Christian Century, September 4, 2007 | Go to article overview

American Habits: Robert Bellah and Cultural Reformation


Wood, Richard L., The Christian Century


The Robert Bellah Reader. Edited by Robert N. Bellah and Steven M. Tipton. Duke University Press, 568 pp., $27.95 paperback.

FOR FOUR DECADES, Robert Bellah's books, articles and public speeches have influenced thoughtful sectors of American faith communities. Widely known among academics and the holder of an endowed chair at one of the premier public universities in the United States, Bellah is best known in church circles for Habits of the Heart and The Good Society (both coauthored with the team of Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Steven M. Tipton). Their interpretation of the deep cultural patterns of American life has resonated with religious leaders of many stripes and has shaped sermons and adult education hours in many congregations.

A collection of Bellah's writings offers an occasion to revisit the insights of this keen interpreter of American faith life. The Robert Bellah Reader brings together many of his seminal articles and speeches on topics ranging from the cultural currents of the 1960s to the possibilities and dangers of the United States being the hegemonic world power. Many readers will recognize with sadness and anger how two strands of American culture, the deep individualism of the 1960s and a longstanding strand of traditional authoritarianism, have joined forces to forge a resurgent American nationalism under President George W. Bush--with the tragic results that we see around us.

The chapter called "The New American Empire" in particular exemplifies the way that Bellah's analysis of societal trends allows him to read the signs of the times. He notes the expansion of American unilateralism in the war on terror, especially as articulated by the Bush administration in its 2002 National Security Strategy document. Pointing to the historical pattern of empires collapsing due to military exhaustion and bankruptcy, he argues:

   It is surely in our interest to connect all nations, great
   and small, in agreements that limit weapons and mandate
   arbitration rather than assuming we will always
   have the capacity to dominate the world by force. My
   great fear is that this latest American outburst of "the
   arrogance of power" [the then-approaching Iraq war]
   will mobilize most of the world against us.... We have
   embarked on an endless "war on terrorism" in which
   the invasion of Iraq is only the next step--until exhaustion
   sets in. A chance for another course, another role
   for America in the world, depends ultimately on the reform
   of our own culture. A culture of unfettered individualism
   combined with absolute world power is an
   explosive mixture.

No other analysis published in 2002 better captures the dynamics that have so damaged American credibility, ideals and interests in the intervening five years.

In saying that our culture needs to be reforlned, Bellah looks past the fashionable calls to replace Republicans with Democrats in our government. Though surely aghast at the corruption ushered in during the recent years of Republican dominance, Bellah knows that ultimately our political life reflects trends embedded in American culture. Only if we rethink and reshape our sources of meaning and recommit ourselves to sources that can sustain a truly democratic culture--and that can elicit the vigorous adherence of millions of our fellow citizens--will American culture be reborn.

Bellah's most influential writings have been dedicated to promoting this reshaping of American culture. Habits of the Heart argued that the longstanding strength of American culture, a sense of shared destiny and communal interest, was collapsing under the onslaught of "expressive individualism" and "utilitarian individualism." It called on Americans to reclaim biblical religion and civic republicanism as crucial antidotes for our culture's ills. Habits quickly became a central text in seminaries and congregations within mainline Protestantism and Catholicism, and to a lesser extent in Judaism and in some sectors of evangelicalism. …

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