U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Albatross Concept

I have had a brief exchange with sociologist Robert Bellah about my characterization in God and War of his 1967 essay, “Civil Religion in America.”  The gist of the exchange would not surprise any one who has even a passing understanding of Bellah’s relationship to the concept.  Almost from the moment his essay appeared he sought to distance himself from what became the popular implications of the term–that America had a collection of ideals that generations of its people could appeal to as a kind of normative faith.  Obviously, Bellah had good reason to disavow such a notion.  If we continue to search for the elusive/illusive singular American civil religion that will guide a consistently troubled nation, we will suffer the fate of Captain Ahab.

Bellah’s response to me made me think of another allegory, the one to right: the plight of the mariner in Samuel Taylor Coleridge famous poem.  The albatross hangs around the mariner’s neck as a reminder of an action with almost mythical portents.  It was, at first, an act that guided the ship and its crew to safety but its legacy led to great regret, felt most acutely by the mariner himself.  Bellah relationship to civil religion has not ended his career nor condemned his nation to some awful fate–in short he is not to blame for American ideological rigidity, stupidity, or naiveté.  But his desire to downplay the significance of his particular relationship to civil religion demonstrates a curious intellectual problem–the Albatross Concept.

Bellah published his essay on American civil religion in 1967 in the midst of the Vietnam War and in the middle of debates about the origins and responsibility of the cold war.  He was not the only scholar wondering what the times said about the identity and ideals that many Americans believed were in jeopardy (or that even existed).  Sidney Mead and Sidney Ahlstrom both wrote in this vein.  But Bellah’s deployment of civil religion struck a particular chord with scholars because, it seems to me, he summarized ideas and sensibilities that were swirling around his era–everything from the secularization of the west to the rise of religious conservatives promoting the nation as a divine entity.  And even though Bellah had no plans to develop this term any further–he was a scholar of Japan and, more broadly, the sociology of religion–he became saddled with civil religion for the better part of his professional career.

This is the second such person I have worked on who had to endure a similar problem.  I wrote my master’s thesis at SUNY Albany on George F. Kennan and worked with John Lewis Gaddis (the Pulitzer Prize winning-biographer of Kennan) at Ohio University.  Kennan, of course, went down in history as the “father” of the containment doctrine.  Containment was, for lack of almost any other real competitor, the foreign policy of the American cold war.  Kennan’s authorship of this concept derives from his “long telegram” of 1946 and his “Mr. X” article in 1947.  From relative obscurity, Kennan rose rapidly in the U.S. State Department on the strength of these two documents.  Very much like Bellah, Kennan’s distinction lay in his ability to bring together streams of thought that had been circulating throughout the upper levels of government and intellectual life; he provided eloquence and clarity to ideas that would have existed in disparate ways without him.  But his use of the containment did appear and did strike a chord with the right people at the right time.  And, also like Bellah, Kennan spent the rest of his life distancing himself from the implications of a term that hung on him (and I don’t think this is too dramatic to say) like a dead albatross.

The albatross concept is a curious problem to have.  I think most of us would be fairly pleased to have a  well-known idea associated almost exclusively with something we had written.  I don’t know this for certain, but I imagine James Davison Hunter has enjoyed his run with “the culture wars.”  At the same time, though, Bellah’s scholarship has almost nothing to do with American civil religion.  As he reminded me, his book The Broken Covenant (a text I channeled but did not dwell on in God and War) is a thumping conclusion to his relationship with civil religion. And yet, I find Bellah’s original essay to be such a fascinating historical window on to a time that he captured.  But like Kennan, Bellah’s reflection of a historical moment came through a term that lived long beyond its author’s intention.  For that reason, the term itself has had a life outside of the author (as all terms do, of course) but will, for better and worse, pull the author along as it weaves its way through history.  As much as Bellah and Kennan and others would like to disengage from those terms that define part of their lives, they–the authors and the terms–become historical partners.  And the albatross remains.