Remembering Robert Bellah
BY GORDON CLANTON
Robert N. Bellah, who died at 86 in July 2013, moved from Harvard to Berkeley in 1967, the same year I arrived to begin doctoral study. As my own interests were shifting, Bellah came into my life at a critical moment. By his example, he gave me permission to keep my scope wide and integrative rather than to specialize too narrowly too soon. He once told me, “I don’t have an empirical bone in my body.” Although he made creative use of the research of others, he never did survey research. He never counted anything. His vast published works were largely without tables or graphs.
Bellah viewed teaching as a way of re-visiting the classics on a regular basis and sharing his new reading with his students. In his doctoral seminars, although discussions ranged widely, Bellah imposed the discipline of requiring students to read aloud a passage from the assigned text (with all of us reading along) and then to connect any further remarks to that passage.
My doctoral education took place against a backdrop of turmoil and rage. Berkeley in the late 1960s was a major center of opposition to the Vietnam War. Street demonstrations and police counter measures were the order of the day. Governor Ronald Reagan sent 2,200 National Guard troops to Berkeley. An army tank was parked for a while around the corner from Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue. Bellah came to class one afternoon after being tear-gassed while crossing the campus. In an era of strikes and walkouts, Bellah urged us to continue to do our reading and come to class and engage with him and with each other, because, he said, the university is an institution that makes society better, so disruption of the university is not a good thing.
Through two quarters of independent study, I visited Bellah’s wonderfully cluttered office every week to discuss what I had read – and to connect the dots. These conversations were among my most important educational experiences – unstructured, Socratic, far ranging, mind-altering. Bob welcomed his grad students into his home above the Cal football stadium for stimulating evenings co-hosted with his wife Melanie, a law student at the time.
Coincidentally, I was teaching at Rutgers University in New Jersey, when Bellah came for a year (1972-73) to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. We were scheduled to have Bob and Melanie over for dinner when they learned of the suicide in California of their daughter. Two other dinner guests had lost loved ones to suicide. It was an intense evening. The Bellahs later lost a second daughter in an auto accident. Melanie died in 2010. Bob was devastated, but he recovered and carried on. I always marveled that Bob was able to remain an essentially hopeful and positive public voice after so much personal tragedy.
Unlike K-12 teachers, most college professors never take a course on how to teach. So professors must learn how to teach, how to be professors, largely by watching our own professors. Without talking about it much, Bob was teaching us how to teach, how to evoke the dialogue of deep learning.
To mark Bob’s 80th birthday, I organized a session titled “Honoring Our Mentors” at a sociology conference. I spoke appreciatively about Bob as my mentor, and Bob spoke appreciatively about his mentor, Talcott Parsons. Bob embodied most of the virtues he attributed to Parsons, especially encouraging students to pursue their own interests rather than attach themselves too narrowly to the research agendas of their professors.
Bob Bellah produced original and penetrating analyses of American society, including The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in a Time of Trial (1976)and, with four co-authors, the magisterial Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985). Habits, which has sold more than 135,000 copies, is that rare book by sociologists that reached a wide audience and influenced the national dialogue.
Following Tocqueville, Bellah and his associates concluded that American individualism has become cancerous and, ironically, now threatens the survival of freedom itself. In the unbridled pursuit of self-interest, success-driven Americans forget that personal welfare depends on general welfare. The very institutions that should moderate our excessive individualism – family, religion, politics, and civic participation – are themselves deeply contaminated by individualism, making reform exceedingly difficult.
Because of The Broken Covenant, Jimmy Carter invited Bellah to Camp David. Because of Habits of the Heart, Bellah received the National Humanities Medal from Bill Clinton.
Bellah’s groundbreaking work in the sociology of religion includes his recent magnum opus Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011).
Two of his influential essays from the 1960s are still widely read and discussed today, “Religious Evolution” and “Civil Religion in America.” These and other early short writings (including a brief autobiography) are collected in Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World (1970). I tell my students that, while some scholars write books that should have been articles, Bellah wrote highly condensed articles that could and did become books.
Raised a Presbyterian, Bob spent time with the Marxists and the Quakers along the way but finally settled into the Episcopal Church. I asked him why he chose the Episcopalians. He said, “I am an Episcopalian because I am a Durkheimian.”
Emile Durkheim stressed the integrative function of religion, the sense of community it engenders, and the rituals that connect worshippers with their ancestors in the faith. For Durkheim and for Episcopalians and for Bellah, community, ritual, and tradition are more important than theology.
Bob Bellah was that rare intellectual who also was a warm and engaged human being, who despite deep personal and professional wounds, sustained his vocation of scholarship and his role as an engaged public intellectual to the end. In his last e-mail to me, Bob noted that his recently-deceased classmate Philip Slater had largely dropped out of academic and political life in the 1970s, adding: “I, on the other hand, have stayed in the game and fought, with varying success.”
Gordon Clanton teaches Sociology at San Diego State University.