U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Robert Bellah’s Legacy and a Lingering Question

bellahI had one exchange with Robert Bellah and I missed an opportunity to ask him perhaps the most obvious question: how did he know American civil religion exists?  Our exchange was about my book, God and War, which the press had sent him in galleys.  He wrote me an email, as I have blogged about before, explaining that while he thought I had “moved the discussion of American civil religion in a good direction,” he hoped to avoid association with the term.  My fault had been to use his 1967 essay, “Civil Religion in America” as a foundational text, or touchstone, for the argument in my book.  In my defense, I explained to Professor Bellah that I hoped to introduce a somewhat novel reading of his essay.  Rather than see it as theoretical piece, akin to Rousseau’s concept of a normative civil religion, Bellah’s essay was a historical piece, created amidst the Vietnam War and very much a product of the convergence of historical trends streaming out of the cold war.  In short, Bellah’s civil religion was born of war.  That was my basic contention in the whole book, that postwar America had developed a civil religion born of an almost constant state of war–the sacralization of war made it possible for Americans to affirm the moral authority of Martin Luther King as a leader of civil rights but condemn him when he spoke against the Vietnam War.

Recently, Cory Robin and Ben Alpers (at the S-USIH facebook page) have both mentioned the controversy Bellah encountered as a young scholar at Harvard in the mid-1950s.  While I did not cover these events as exhaustively (see, rather, the great exchange in NYRB), I did try to link them to Bellah’s use of civil religion later.  I have copied the part of my book that suggests this argument.  I did not get a chance to discuss my argument at much length with Bellah, but I do intend to continue to discuss it with my students and colleagues, recognizing and writing about the deep irony he developed within his understanding of civil religion in a time of war.


While Bellah’s 1967 essay sprang from “concern with the American Vietnam War,” he admitted that he wasn’t “fully aware of the new religious phenomenon” that he had observed. “It was a sense of moral crisis in the United States being engaged in a war that had such negative qualities to it that made me [ask], was there anything in our past that would help us avoid this catastrophe we were in.” Indeed, in the middle of the Vietnam War Bellah had captured the way that war galvanized a moral understanding of the nation—not merely a moral critique of the nation but an accounting of whether the United States might be a force for good to its own people, let alone to other people around the world. And he came to his insights in quite a Niebuhrian way.

Bellah wrote his essay in late 1966, when he was a professor at Harvard University. That was his second stint at Harvard. His first experience there occurred in the mid-1950s as a graduate student with hopes of accepting an instructorship following the completion of his doctoral work. However, Bellah left Harvard for a research fellowship at the Islamic Institute at McGill University. It was a decision he was forced to make. During the mid-1950s, Harvard, like many other universities, colleges, and schools across the United States, experienced a wave of “loyalty” probes in which faculty and staff had to make clear their pro-American, anticommunist sympathies by helping authorities identify “subversives” on campus. Bellah declined to participate and had to leave Harvard for Canada. But this experience confirmed in Bellah a faith in what he referred to as a chastened, existential, Protestant liberalism. “For all its failures” he explained, “I came to believe that American society needed to be reformed rather than abandoned. In other words, politically I became a liberal, but it was the chastened liberalism of a man with few illusions.” From Montreal, Bellah understood that although his nation had forced him into a kind of exile, there was no other nation in which he could place his “hope.” Thus Bellah developed an appreciation for the Christian doctrine of sin and its application to national crises, a belief gleaned from the era’s two leading theologians, Niebuhr and his colleague at Union Theological Seminary Paul Tillich.

Bellah explained, “I saw that the worst is only a hair’s breadth away from the best in any man and any society. I saw that unbroken commitment to any individual or any group is bound to be demonic. . . . The totalism of Communism and the totalism of the ‘Free World’ are both equally destructive.” Like Niebuhr, Bellah feared the excesses of America’s “good” intentions. And also like Niebuhr, he believed that “modern Western society, especially American society, in spite of all its problems, is relatively less problematic than the developing societies with their enormous difficulties in economic growth and political stability.” Thus the Vietnam War did not strike Bellah as a natural extension of American life but as a moral crisis that required the application of “core American values, at least in their most self-critical form.”

Bellah’s chastened civil religion was born from the theological crisis precipitated by Vietnam. To start, Bellah believed it important to acknowledge the less-than-noble causes the United States had defended on the basis of its nationalistic morality, such as the general design of Manifest Destiny, which ran through from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1930s, and, following World War II, the lumping of those “on our side” into a single category of the “free world.” The key was to extend the role civil religion played in the struggle for civil rights and make it work in foreign policy. Yet that would require a sense of judgment that Bellah feared was fading from American life just at the moment when the nation needed a renewed sense of morality. In short, the nation needed God. “But today,” he observed in 1966, “as even Time has recognized, the meaning of the word God is by no means . . . clear or obvious. There is no formal creed in the civil religion,” Bellah lamented. Thus, he implored, “it is not [too] soon to consider how [this] deepening theological crisis may affect the future of [civil religion’s] articulation.”

Vietnam quite simply tested the fundamental existence and operation of an American creed. Bellah declared it the “third time of trial.” The first time of trial was “the question of independence,” the second was the “issue of slavery”; and each experience brought forth figures and symbols that contributed to a collective understanding American morality. Such experiences provided landmark statements on the shortcomings and promise of the United States. Figures such as Washington, Jefferson, and, most profoundly, Lincoln, reflected on struggles and sacrifices made by Americans who would not reap the benefits of their efforts. Following World War II, “every president since Roosevelt,” Bellah observed, “has been groping toward a new pattern of action in the world, one that would be consonant with our power and our responsibilities.” Thus, like previous periods in which civil religion was revised, the postwar period provided new leaders and symbols. But which leader and which moment would define this time of trial? In light of how civil religion operates—how it taps into promise and calls upon judgment—Martin Luther King seemed the obvious choice as the era’s defining figure. But that was not the case. Instead, Bellah’s essay punctuated a moment in which reforming the nation became an end in itself. King wanted something deeper than that to be revealed. Bellah, perhaps inadvertently, discovered that merely renewing faith in the nation was about as far as this reckoning was going to go. In short, the United States was too big to fail.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “Judeo-Christian” is a 20th century neologism, but America’s deity has always been Jehovah, not Christ.

    “May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, and planted them in the promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven, and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.”GWash, Letter to the Savannah Jews, 1790

    You’ll also find the infidels Jefferson and Franklin quite comfortable with the image of the Pillar of Fire leading the Israelites in the desert*, and even [in]famous deist Ethan Allen reports in his autohagiography that he demanded the British surrender Ft. Ticonderoga “In the name of Jehovah and the Continental Congress!”

    Of course there was much water under the bridge between the Founding and MLK in the 1960s, but that’s how the God of the American civil religion could support racial equality-as-liberty on one hand but still fight the godless commies with the other.

    MLK’s last speech, of course, employs the Promised Land metaphor, Lincoln was the “New Moses,” etc. Jehovah was the one god [One God!!] everybody could agree on.

    [The doctrinal weeds get tall pretty quickly on the Christ angle. Best to leave it be. Even though “Christ” makes an appearance in the Battle Hymn of the Republic, it’s along with some Grapes of Wrath and a Terrible Swift Sword.]

    [Of course none of this applies to the social justice Christianity-as-Beatitudism of this past century. That’s a brand new bag of loaves and fishes, not the usual grapes and swords.]

  2. Ray – I appreciated your post and was sorry to hear of Bellah’s passing. At the same time, I wonder if, as a sociologist with a long personal history, he may not have felt your way of historicizing tells only part of the story. I realize your book is not a study of Bellah, nor do I wish to quarrel with your thesis about the links between civil religion and war; but to me your post creates the impression that his civil religion formulation was rather straightforwardly a product of the Cold War and Vietnam War contexts. Of course there are many ways to contextualize any historical topic, but I think yours misses some important stuff.

    Perhaps Bellah’s writing the article was occasioned by the Vietnam moment – more on this later – but his conceptualization of the civil religion has clear antecedents in his Harvard education in the 1950s under Parsons, and particularly his detailed knowledge of the work of Durkheim. Omitting this could leave one thinking the civil religion concept and Bellah’s uses of it were somehow exceptionally American.

    Along with this, and relatedly, you imply a dichotomy between sociology (or theory) and history contrary to the spirit of Bellah’s work – not that you’re obligated to be true to it. [In his interview with Nathan Schneider in Immanent Frame, 2011, Bellah said, “I’ve never been one of these boundary-guarding sociologists who thinks that if something isn’t sociology I can ignore it. This is also very much the spirit of Talcott Parsons; he was the quintessential sociologist, but he never drew boundaries.”]

    You write,

    Rather than see it as a theoretical piece, akin to Rousseau’s concept of a normative civil religion, Bellah’s essay was a historical piece, created amidst the Vietnam War and very much a product of the convergence of historical trends streaming out of the cold war. In short, Bellah’s civil religion was born of war. That was my basic contention in the whole book, that postwar America had developed a civil religion born of an almost constant state of war.

    Surely this needs to be balanced against Bellah’s statement about his work in the Schneider interview –

    I was pulled by external forces. The whole preoccupation with America was particularly ironic because it was the one society I didn’t want to study. I chose to be a Japan specialist in graduate school to get as far away as I could! But once the “Civil Religion in America” paper came out in 1967, all kinds of nonacademic groups wanted to hear from me. I thought, well, this crazy country is all mixed up, and if I can help clarify things I should respond. That led to The Broken Covenant, and then the Ford Foundation asked to fund Habits of the Heart. They were worried about what was happening to the American middle class….In that way, I got distracted by various things that were intrinsically important — so important that I gave them high priority — but that kept me from doing what my life’s work was meant to be.

    In an interview the same year with Heather Horn in the Atlantic, he said –

    I got hijacked by America. That was the problem with my “Civil Religion in America” essay — it got such an enormous response at a time when things were pretty critical, towards the end of the Vietnam War. I never intended to work on America but then I got hauled into America for decades. So it wasn’t until I retired in 1997 that I finally had time to do what I’d been wanting to do all my life, which is write a big book about the evolution of religion and religion in human evolution.

    Finally, to look at an early essay, “Durkheim and History,” 1959, is to see Bellah working out a general theoretical approach later applied [I think that’s the appropriate term] to the American case in the 1967 article. In his account, Durkheim was eager to show the ideals of a society do not invariably sacralize it as it exists, which could open the door to a “demonic nationalism.” For him, the social “includes… more than the concrete existing society: it included ideals. Thus Durkheim held that that which is sacred for us is the nation insofar as it embodies the ideal of humanity.” [460]

    Bellah didn’t need the agony of Vietnam to come up with the idea that God might judge the nation, not glorify it.

  3. Great set of comments, Bill. I can’t respond fully yet but wanted to promise that I will because you bring up points that get to the heart of Bellah’s relationship to civil religion. So thanks again and more in just a bit.

  4. Bill, I have no quarrel with your identification of Bellah’s notion of civil religion originating with his studies under Parsons or his reading of Durkheim. Check out Bellah student Philip Gorski’s take on civil religion here: http://www.thearda.com/rrh/papers/guidingpapers/Gorski.pdf
    My engagement with Bellah was an attempt to historicize him and that famous essay. I understand that Bellah has a fuller theory of civil religion and that his view of political theory can have little to do with immediate historical circumstances. However, his essay in 1967 came from his response to the Vietnam War and was not merely an extension of his academic training or the result of some research agenda. That was the reason I wanted to write about the essay itself–to rescue it from the normative existence it has had since the 1970s. It was not Bellah’s statement on a normative existence of an American civil religion–akin to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations, a take on the contemporary world that seeks to speak definitively about the state of history and politics. So, in one sense, I failed, of course, to convince Bellah that I tried to place his essay in historical context and remove him as a touchstone for all discussion of civil religion in America. In another sense, I had to include Bellah and his essay because it appeared at a time when others were also writing a similar vein, but his essay had the additional significance of making explicit mention of periods of war–times of trial–generating the kind of discussion that his essay was not a part of.
    Phil Gorski is writing a sociological history of American civil religion that will take up precisely the kind of themes you note in your comments above. I wrote about a debate among folks who were trying to make sense of America in a period of constant war. One way some made sense of that period was to consider how Americans might bring a moral evaluation to bear on their contemporary moment. Bellah undoubtedly contributed to that debate.

  5. Ray – Sure: Let many contexts bloom! I didn’t mean to imply a utopia of complete stories. Or to suggest that the article was “merely an extension” of his academic work. But I still think it’s worth making a distinction between the historical moment or occasion of his writing and the way in which he conceptualized the civil religion.

    I wonder if your sense that you failed to convince Bellah might reflect his memory of a longer personal history that he had drawn upon in responding to the Vietnam War — particularly in light of his apparent regret at having been “hijacked” and “hauled” by America, instead of sticking with the intellectual project he saw [retrospectively?] as his life’s work. Or maybe it’s analogous to an actor type-cast by a single performance, who keeps trying to salvage an open future while there’s still some time left.

    Thanks for the reference to the Gorski article — I’ve already printed a copy.

  6. Hi Bill–I wrote a post that sort of speaks to your second comment: http://s-usih.org/2012/08/the-albatross-concept.html

    I think Gorski’s work is going to do more to disentangle Bellah from the civil religion project that anyone else has because Phil is going to take a longer view of the concept theoretically and historically. Always good to get a comment from you!!

  7. Ray – Thanks much. You certainly did get at much of what I was suggesting! I’d saved a copy of “Albatross,” but had forgotten about it.

    I like your comparison to Kennan and James Hunter. Reminds me to hope that Andrew Hartman’s culture wars book is well received, since there’s zero chance it won’t be noticed.

    Was it that Bellah came to think he had represented America in too positive terms, as you suggest? And/or was it, as I speculated, that he resented being turned aside from what he came to see as his proper life’s work? – the regretful public intellectual.

    It will be interesting to follow along with Philip Gorski’s work.

  8. Ray – I ran across the following after posting the previous comment. As part of a short “intellectual autobiography” – USIH 5.5.12 – George Nash wrote –

    I share these fragments of autobiography partly to emphasize the curious, contingent factors that can shape a career or a field of inquiry — and partly for another reason. Today historians and other scholars often speak about our “projects” and our research agendas. Perhaps this is a subtle reflection of the hold of postmodernism on the academic imagination: If truth is merely a construct derived from the interplay of power relationships, perhaps it must appear to some that whenever we write a book we must have some hidden, long-term purpose.

    In my own case, I have occasionally noticed in the literature what seem to be intimations that The Conservative Intellectual Movement in American Since 1945 was intended to establish the parameters for the field and to marginalize other approaches to the study of American conservatism. Why, for instance, did the book start with 1945? Why not 1933? Was I attempting thereby to “privilege” the Buckleyite New Right at the expense of the pre-World War II “Old Right”? And so on.

    Perhaps the funniest hint that the book had some grandiose ambition was probably a case of a typographical error. In the 1980s someone in a bibliography mistakenly cited my book as The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1492!

    Let me assure all present that I had no such grand design when I began. In 1970 I was a twenty-five-year-old graduate student anxious to do my best on a manageable subject that seemed worth studying and then, with my degree in hand, to enter Academia. If I had done so in the conventional manner, I have no idea what my second book would have been about.

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