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Is There a Common American Culture?


Robert N. Bellah

This article is reprinted with written permission from Oxford University Press and was originally published in The Journal for the American Academy of Religion, Volume 66, Number 3, Fall 1998, pages 613-625.


I might begin my talk this morning somewhat facetiously by asking the question, not whether there is a common American culture, but how is it that a plenary session of the American Academy of Religion is devoted to this question in a society with so powerful and monolithic a common culture as ours?  The answer, however, is obvious:  it has become part of the common culture to ask whether there is a common culture in America. 

K. Anthony Appiah, Professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy at Harvard, in a review of Nathan Glazer's recent book We Are All Multiculturalists Now (whose very title makes the point) quotes the book as saying "The Nexis data base of major newspapers shows no reference to multiculturalism as late as 1988, a mere 33 items in 1989, and only after that a rapid rise-more than 100 items in 1990, more than 600 in 1991, almost 900 in 1992, 1200 in 1993, and 1500 in 1994. . . "(7)  Appiah adds, "When it comes to diversity it seems we all march to the beat of a single drummer." (32)  There is something very congenial to multiculturalism in common American culture, but such congeniality is not to be assumed as natural or shared in all societies today.  It is worth looking at the contrast case of France.  Rodney Benson, a graduate student in my department, is writing a most interesting dissertation, which, among other things compares the fate of multiculturalism in France and the U.S.  Benson describes a nascent French multiculturalism of the late 1970s and early 1980s as ultimately being rejected by virtually the entire ideological spectrum in favor of a universalistic republicanism in the late 1980s, just when multiculturalism in the U.S. was taking off.  Why American culture has been so singularly receptive to multiculturalism as an ideology is a point to which I will return.

But first, a sociological point about why there not only is but has to be a common culture in America:  culture does not float free from institutions.  A powerful institutional order will carry a powerful common culture.  An example of just how important this relation between culture and institutions is comes from the recent reunification of Germany.  In the last days of the German Democratic Republic the protesters chanted "Wir sind ein Volk," and the chant stirred euphoria among West Germans as well.  But the painful and unexpected experience of living together, as made vivid to me by an outstanding Harvard doctoral dissertation filed earlier this year by Andreas Glaeser, using the integration of East and West German police officers into a unified police force in Berlin as a microcosm, showed that they were not, after all "ein Volk," but indeed "zwei."  It wasn't just that the "Ossies" and the "Wessies" ("Easterners" and "Westerners") had different views on common problems, they had different and to some degree mutually unintelligible ways of thinking about the world altogether.  Forty-five years of radically different institutional orders had created two cultures which to this day are very far from united, although the experience of a unified institutional order will, almost certainly, though not without time and pain, ultimately reunite them.

The United States, surely, has an exceptionally powerful institutional order.  The state in America, even though it is multi-leveled and, to a degree, decentralized, has an enormous impact on all our lives.  For example,  the shift in marriage law in the late sixties and early seventies toward "no-fault divorce" was a response to but also an impetus for the emergence of "divorce culture" in America as a serious competitor to "marriage culture."  The state is even responsible to a degree for the construction of multiculturalism through the little boxes that must be checked on a myriad of forms.  Haven't you ever been tempted to check them all or to leave them all empty?  If the state intrudes in our lives in a thousand ways, the market is even more intrusive.  There is very little that Americans need that we can produce for ourselves any more.  We are dependent on the market not only for goods but for many kinds of service.  Our cultural understanding of the world is shaped every time we enter a supermarket or a mall.  I  taught a senior seminar of about 20 students this spring, roughly divided into one-fourth Asian-American, one-fourth Hispanic, one-fourth African-American, and one-forth Anglo.  What was remarkable was how easily they talked because of how much they shared.  Beyond the ever-present state and market, they shared the immediate experience of coping with a vast state university, with its demands and its incoherence. 

Education, which is linked largely though not exclusively to the state, and television (and increasingly the Internet) linked to the market, are enormously powerful purveyors of common culture, socializers not only of children but of all of us most of our lives.  Not only are we exposed from infancy to a monoculture, we are exposed to it monolingually.  The cultural power of American English is overwhelming and no language, except under the most unusual circumstances, has ever been able to withstand it, which is what makes the English Only movement such a joke.  As Appiah notes, 90 percent of California-born Hispanic children of immigrant parents have native fluency in English and in the next generation only 50 per cent of them still speak Spanish.  One more generation and you can forget about Spanish.  When third generation Asian-Americans come to college they have to learn Chinese or Japanese in language classes just like anyone else-they don't bring those languages with them.  Appiah contrasts our society with his own experience growing up in Ghana where there were three languages spoken in the household:  English, Twi and Navrongo.  "Ghana," he writes, "with a population smaller than that of New York State, has several dozen languages in active daily use and no one language that is spoken at home-or even fluently understood-by a majority of the population." (31)  Ghana is multilingual and therefore multicultural, in a way that we, except for first generation immigrants, have never been.  When language, which is the heart of culture, goes, then so, in any deep sense, does cultural difference.  I don't say identity, which is something I will come back to, but culture.  Serious multicultural education would begin by teaching native English speakers a second language, but that, unlike most of the rest of the world, almost never happens in the United States.  The half-hearted effort to teach Spanish in California public schools results in very few native English speakers with a secondary fluency in Spanish.  Why don't most Americans speak another language?  Because we don't have to-everyone in the world speaks English-or so we think.  Tell me about multiculturalism.  (The truth is that American culture and American English are putting their stamp on every other culture in the world today.)

There are exceptions, though they are statistically small, but I had better talk about them.  Enclaves of genuine cultural difference, centered on a language different from English, can persist, or even emerge, under special conditions:  where socio-economic status is low and residential segregation is effective.  A particularly poignant example is the emergence among one of the oldest groups of English speakers in America, African-Americans, of enclaves of Black English dialects in a few inner cities in the Northeastern U.S. that are mutually unintelligible with standard American English.  This can happen under conditions of hyper-segregation where opportunities to participate in the larger society are almost completely denied.  Native American languages survive on a few reservations, though many are dying out, even with strenuous efforts to maintain them.  Since there is much less hypersegretation of Hispanics or Asians than of Blacks, enclaves of Spanish or Korean, or other Asian languages, have the generational transience of, say, Polish or Italian a hundred years ago. 

If I am right, there is an enormously powerful common culture in America and it is carried predominantly by the market and the state and by their agencies of socialization:  television and education.  What institutions might withstand that pressure and sustain genuine cultural difference?   In simpler societies kinship and religious communities might do so, but in our society families and churches or synagogues are too colonized by the market and the state to provide much of a buffer.  They may give a nuance, an inflection, to the common culture, but families and even religious communities are almost always too fragile to provide a radical alternative.  Nevertheless such nuances and inflections are important, not only in their own right, but because they can provide the wedge through which criticism of the common culture, and the possibility of altering it, can occur.

What, then, is the content of this common culture?  If we realize that the market and the state in America are not and have never been antithetical, and that the state has had the primary function, for conservatives and liberals alike, of maximizing market opportunities, I believe I can safely borrow terminology from Habits of the Heart and say that a dominant element of the common culture is what we called utilitarian individualism.  In terms of historical roots this orientation can be traced to a powerful Anglo-American utilitarian tradition going back at least as far as Hobbes and Locke, although it operates today quite autonomously, without any necessary reference to intellectual history.  Utilitarian individualism has always been moderated by what we called expressive individualism, which has its roots in Anglo-American Romanticism, but which has picked up many influences along the way from European ethnic, African-American, Hispanic and Asian influences.  Here, too, the bland presentism of contemporary American culture obliterates its own history.  Our Anglo students do not come to college with a deep knowledge of Jane Austen or Nathaniel Hawthorne any more than our Japanese-American students bring a knowledge of Lady Murasaki or Natsume Soseki.  What they bring, they bring in common:  Oprah Winfrey, ER, Seinfeld, Nike, Microsoft,  the NBA and the NFL.  If the common culture is predominantly Euro-American, or, more accurately, Anglo-American, in its roots, the enormous pressure of the market economy, and the mass media and mass education oriented to it, obliterate the genuine heritage of Anglo-American, European, African and Asian culture with equal thoroughness. 

And yet, and yet. . .  Nestled in the very core of utilitarian and expressive individualism is something very deep, very genuine, very old, very American, something we did not quite see or say in Habits.  Here I come to something that will be of especial interest to this audience, for that core is religious.  In Habits we quoted a famous passage in Toqueville's Democracy in America:  "I think I can see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on those shores." (279)  Then we went on to name John Winthrop, following Tocqueville's own predilection, as the likeliest candidate for being that first Puritan.  Now I am ready to admit, although regretfully, that we, and Tocqueville, were probably wrong.  That first Puritan who contained our whole destiny might have been, as we also half intimated in Habits, Anne Hutchinson, but the stronger candidate, because we know so much more about him, is Roger Williams. 

Roger Williams, banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony by John Winthrop, founder of Providence and of the Rhode Island Colony, was, as everyone knows, a Baptist.  The Baptists in seventeenth century New England were a distinct minority, but they went on to become, together with other sectarian Protestants, a majority in American religious culture from the early nineteenth century.  As Seymour Martin Lipset has recently pointed out, we are the only North Atlantic society whose predominant religious tradition is sectarian rather than an established church. (1996:19-20; for a detailed contrast of the influence of church and sect religion in America see Baltzell 1979)  I think this is something enormously important about our culture and that it has, believe it or not, a great deal to do with why our society is so hospitable to the ideology, if not the reality, of multiculturalism. 

What was so important about the Baptists, and other sectarians such as the Quakers, was the absolute centrality of religious freedom, of the sacredness of individual conscience in matters of religious belief.  We generally think of religious freedom as one of many kinds of freedom, many kinds of human rights, first voiced in the European Enlightenment, and echoing around the world ever since.  But Georg Jellinek, Max Weber's friend, and, on these matters, his teacher, published a book in 1895 called Die Erklärung der Menschen- und Bürgerrechte translated into English in 1901 as The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens, which argued that the ultimate source of all modern notions of human rights is to be found in the radical sects of the Protestant Reformation, particularly the Quakers and Baptists.  Of this development Weber writes, "Thus the consistent sect gives rise to an inalienable personal right of the governed as against any power, whether political, hierocratic or patriarchal.  Such freedom of conscience may be the oldest Right of Man-as Jellinek has argued convincingly, at any rate it is the most basic Right of Man because it comprises all ethically conditioned action and guarantees freedom from compulsion, especially from the power of the state.  In this sense the concept was as unknown to antiquity and  the Middle Ages as it was to Rousseau. . . "  Weber then goes on to say that the other Rights of Man were later joined to this basic right, "especially the right to pursue one's own economic interests, which includes the inviolability of individual property, the freedom of contract, and vocational choice." (1978:1209)  I will have to return to the link to economic freedom, but first I want to talk about the relation between the sectarian notion of the sacredness of conscience and what we mean by multiculturalism today, starting with the Baptist Roger Williams. 

It is worth remembering that one of the sources of Williams's problems was his unhappiness with John Winthrop's assertion that the Massachusetts Bay Colonists were building "a city upon a hill," because, in Williams's view, it was somebody else's hill!  The hill belonged to the native Americans, and if the other Puritans were inclined to overlook that, Roger Williams wasn't. 

When Williams was banished from Massachusetts Bay in January of 1636, he probably would not have survived the winter in Rhode Island without the "courtesy" of the Indians, with whom he had, not surprisingly, an excellent relationship.  Of this courtesy he wrote, in his charming doggerel:

The courteous pagan shall condemn
Uncourteous Englishmen,
Who live like foxes, bears and wolves,
Or lion in his den.

Let none sing blessings to their souls,
For that they courteous are:
The wild barbarians with no more
Than nature go so far.

If nature's sons both wild and tame
Humane and courteous be,
How ill becomes it sons of God
To want humanity. (Miller:61-62)

Williams would have nothing to do with the idea that Europeans were superior to Indians.  He wrote, "Nature knows no difference between Europe and Americans [that is, Native Americans] in blood, birth, bodies, God having of one blood made all mankind (Acts 17) and all by nature being children of wrath (Ephesians 2)." (Miller:64)  And he admonished his fellow Englishmen:

Boast not, proud English, of thy birth and blood,
Thy brother Indian is by birth as good.
Of one blood God made him and thee and all,
As wise, as fair, as strong, as personal.

By nature, wrath's his portion, thine no more,
Till grace his soul and thine restore.
Make sure thy second birth, else thou shalt see
Heaven ope to Indians wild, but shut to thee. (Miller:64)

We know that the passage of the Virginia act for religious freedom and of the First Amendment to the Constitution (and it was no accident, following Jellinek and Weber, that it was indeed the First Amendment), of which I will have more to say in a moment, depended on an alliance of enlightenment Deists like Jefferson and Madison, and sectarians, largely Baptists.  The fundamental Baptist position on the sacredness of conscience relative to government action is brought out in a passage discovered by Lipset in The First New Nation.  The idea must seem quaint to us today, but in 1810 congress passed a law decreeing that mail should be delivered on Sundays.  In 1830 a Senate committee reported negatively on a bill to abolish Sunday mail delivery.  The report, written by Richard Johnson, a Kentucky senator and an  active Baptist leader, argued that laws prohibiting the government from providing service on Sunday would be an injustice to irreligious people or non-Christians, and would constitute a special favor to Christians.  The report spelled out these principles:

The constitution regards the conscience of the Jew as sacred as that of the Christian, and gives no more authority to adopt a measure affecting the conscience of a solitary individual than that of a whole community. . .  If Congress shall declare the first day of the week holy, it will not satisfy the Jew nor the Sabbatarian.  It will dissatisfy both and, consequently,  convert neither. . .  It must be recollected that, in the earliest settlement of this country, the spirit of persecution, which drove the pilgrims from their native homes, was brought with them to their new habitations; and that some Christians were scourged and others put to death for no other crime than dissenting from the dogmas of their rulers. . . 

If a solemn act of legislation shall in one point define the God or point out to the citizen one religious duty, it may with equal propriety define every part of divine revelation and enforce every religious obligation, even to the forms and ceremonies of worship; the endowment of the church, and the support of the clergy. . .

It is the duty of this government to affirm to all-to the Jew or Gentile, Pagan, or Christian-the protection and advantages of our benignant institutions on Sunday, as well as every day of the week. (Lipset 1963:164-165)

My fellow sociologist of religion, Phillip E. Hammond, has written a remarkable book, With Liberty for All:  Freedom of Religion in the United States, which I have been privileged to see in manuscript, detailing the vicissitudes of this sectarian Protestant concern for the sacredness of the individual conscience as it got embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution and has been given ever wider meaning by the judicial system, especially the Supreme Court, ever since.  For Hammond, the key move was to extend the sacredness of conscience from religious belief to any seriously held conviction whatever.  A key moment in this transformation was the Court's decision to extend the right of conscientious objection to military service to those whose beliefs were not in any traditional sense religious, but were fervently held nonetheless.  Individual conviction and conscience have become the standards relative to which even long-established practices can be overturned.  Hammond argues that Roe v. Wade is an example of the extension of this principle, and that its logic will ultimately lead to the legitimation of gay marriage.  In the course of the extension of the sacredness of individual conscience from religion to the entire range of belief, Hammond argues, the sacred core of the conscience collective, the very sacred center of our society, what might even be called our civil religion, has moved from the churches to the judiciary.   Whether we need to go that far with Hammond could be argued, but he has surely uncovered something very important about our society, something deeper than utilitarian or expressive individualism, the sacredness of the individual conscience, the individual person.  And, I might add as an aside, here, in the city of San Francisco, where you can probably do almost anything within reason and still not raise an eyebrow, it is all ultimately thanks to the Baptists, even though some Baptists today find it rather upsetting!

It is with this background in mind that I think we can understand why multiculturalism as an ideology is so appealing to Americans today, but why the emphasis on culture is so misleading.  A common culture does not mean that we are all the same.  Common cultures are normally riven with argument, controversy and conflict.  Those who imagine that in Habits of the Heart we were arguing for homogeneous "communities" languishing in bland consensus could hardly have gotten us more wrong.  Difference between communities (and we must also remember that there are differences within communities, starting with the family, which someone recently defined as "the place we go to fight"), even when the cultural differences between them are remarkably thin, such differences can give rise to significant differences in identity.  Identity is not the same thing as culture, but it can be just as important.  Remember Bosnia, where Serbs, Croats and Muslims share a common language and probably 99 per cent of their culture, but where the memory of ancestral religion, in a highly secularized society, has led to murderous conflicts of quite recently constructed political identities.[i] 

And yet in America the rise of identity politics on a local or a national scale, probably signifies something else, something much closer to the core of our common culture.  Again, Anthony Appiah has put it well:

But if we explore these moments of tension [between groups in contemporary America] we discover an interesting paradox.  The growing salience of race and gender as social irritants, which may seem to reflect the call of collective identities, is a reflection, as much as anything else, of the individual's concern for dignity and respect.  As our society slouches on toward a fuller realization of its ideal of social equality, everyone wants to be taken seriously-to be respected, not "dissed."  Because on many occasions disrespect still flows from racism, sexism, and homophobia, we respond, in the name of all black people, all women, all gays, as the case may be...  But the truth is that what mostly irritates us in these moments is that we, as individuals, feel diminished.

And the trouble with appeal to cultural difference is that it obscures rather than diminishes this situation.  It is not black culture that the racist disdains, but blacks.  There is no conflict of visions between black and white cultures that is the source of racial discord.  No amount of knowledge of the architectural achievements of Nubia or Kush guarantees respect for African-Americans.  No African American is entitled to greater concern because he is descended from a people who created jazz or produced Toni Morrison.  Culture is not the problem, and it is not the solution. (35-36)

If the problem is disrespect for the dignity of the person, then the solution is to go back to that deepest core of our tradition, the sacredness of the conscience and person of every individual.  And that is what a great deal of the ideology of multiculturalism is really saying:  We are all different; we are all unique.  Respect that. 

But there is another problem, a very big problem, and its solution is hard to envision.  Just when we are moving to an ever greater validation of the sacredness of the individual person, our capacity to imagine a social fabric that would hold individuals together is vanishing.  This is in part because of the fact that the religious individualism that I have been describing is linked to an economic individualism which, ironically, knows nothing of the sacredness of the individual.  Its only standard is money, and the only thing more sacred than money is more money.  What economic individualism destroys and what our kind of religious individualism cannot restore, is solidarity, a sense of being members of the same body.  In most other North Atlantic societies a tradition of an established church, however secularized, provides some notion that we are in this thing together, that we need each other, that our precious and unique selves aren't going to make it all alone.  That is a tradition singularly weak in our country, though Catholics and some high church Protestants have tried to provide it.  The trouble is, as Chesterton put it, in America even the Catholics are Protestants.  And we also lack a tradition of Social Democracy such as most European nations possess, not unrelated to the established church tradition, in which there is some notion of a government that bears responsibility for its people.  But here it was not Washington and Hamilton who won but Jefferson and Madison, with their rabid hatred of the state, who carried the day. 

Roger Williams was a moral genius but he was a sociological catastrophe.  After he founded the First Baptist church he left it for a smaller and purer one.  That, too, he found inadequate, so he founded a church that consisted only of himself, his wife and one other person.  One wonders how he stood even those two.  Since Williams ignored secular society, money took over in Rhode Island in a way that would not be true in Massachusetts or Connecticut for a long time.  Rhode Island under Williams gives us an early and local example of what happens when the sacredness of the individual is not balanced by any sense of the whole or concern for the common good.  In Habits of the Heart we spoke of the second languages that must complement our language of individualism if we are not to slip into total incoherence.  I was not very optimistic then; I am even less so today.  Almost the only time this society has ever gotten itself together has been in time of war, and I am sure that my understanding of America is deeply formed by experiencing the depression as a child and the Second World War as an adolescent.  It is not easy to hear those second languages today and some of those who are too young to have shared my experiences seem hardly able to recognize them even when they hear them.  But the poignant reality is that, without a minimal degree of solidarity, the project of ever greater recognition of individual dignity will collapse in on itself.  Under the ideological facade of individual freedom, the reality will be, is already becoming, a society in which wealth, ever more concentrated in a small minority, is the only access to real freedom.  "The market" will determine the lives of everyone else.  So, much as we owe the Baptists, and I would be the first to affirm it, we cannot look to them for a way out.  All you have to do is look at the two Baptists in the White House to see that.  And yes, I know Hillary is a Methodist-I meant Clinton and Gore. 

But, if I can pull myself back from the abyss, which sometimes in my Jeremiah mood is almost the only thing I can see, I can describe even now resources and possibilities for a different outcome than the one toward which we seem to be heading.  By the time we came to publish the 1996 edition of Habits of the Heart we realized that even the biblical and civic republican traditions, which we had called "second languages," had made their own contribution to the kind of individualism that we had largely blamed on utilitarianism and expressivism in the first edition.  This does not mean, however, that the second languages haven't still much to teach us, even if what we have to learn from them must pass through the fires of self-criticism from within these traditions themselves.   Our situation is curiously similar to that of post-Communist Eastern Europe.  Vaclav Havel and others have opposed an effort to distinguish too sharply between the guilty and the innocent in the former Communist regimes, since it was the very nature of those regimes to draw almost everyone into some kind of complicity.  The line between guilt and innocence ran through rather than between individuals, it was argued.  I think of the banner in an East German church shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall which read:  "We are Cain and Abel."  With respect to our American individualism, even in its most destructive forms, it is useless to try to sort out the good guys from the bad guys.  We are all complicit, yet change is never impossible.

Here I would like to return to the reference to nuances and inflections in our common culture that I made early in this paper.  Recognizing that we are all, of whatever race and gender, tempted to exalt our own imperial egos above all else, we can still find those social contexts and those traditions of interpretation, which can moderate that egoism and offer a different understanding of personal fulfillment.  Every church and synagogue that reminds us that it is through love of God and neighbor that we will find ourselves helps to mitigate our isolation.  Every time we engage in activities that help to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, give shelter to the homeless, we are becoming more connected to the world.  Every time we act politically to keep the profit principle out of spheres where it ought not to set the norms of action we help to preserve what Jürgen Habermas calls the lifeworld (1987),  and, incidentally, to prevent the market from destroying the moral foundations which make it possible.  It must be obvious from the example of recent history that without the legal and ethical culture of public morality a market economy turns into Mafia gangsterism.  We still have more of what has come to be called "social capital" than many other nations, but it cannot be taken for granted.  It survives only when we in our religious and civic groups work strenuously to conserve and increase it.

It is the special responsibility of those of us who are intellectuals to appropriate and develop our cultural resources, even while criticizing them.  William Dean in his The Religious Critic in American culture,  has given us a splendid example of the work that needs to be done.  He draws heavily from the tradition of American Pragmatism, especially William James, and from contemporary thinkers as diverse as George Lindbeck and Cornel West, to argue for the necessity of conventions, and indeed sacred conventions, for a viable culture.  He speaks of the "religious critic" as a public intellectual, situated not just in the university, but in third sector institutions, including churches, working to criticize, but also to reclaim a viable myth of America.     

Thus, I still believe that there are places in the churches, and other religious and civic organizations, and even nooks and crannies in the universities, to which we might look.  But the hour is late and the problems mount.  In this hour of need in our strange republic, it is up to us to teach the truth as we discern it.



[i] William Finnegan in a fascinating article (1997) describes the hunger for identity but the shallowness of cultural resources for it in Antelope Valley, a recently developed suburb of Los Angeles.  For example he mentions a girl named Mindy who became a Mormon but before that she had "wanted to become Jewish.  But that had turned out to be too much work.  Becoming a Mormon was relatively easy.  All this was before Mindy got addicted to crystal methamphetamine and became a Nazi, in the ninth grade." (62-63)  Finnegan's article concludes:  "Martha Wengert, a sociologist at Antelope Valley College, said, 'This area has grown so fast that neighborhoods are not yet communities.  Kids are left with this intense longing for identification.'  Gangs, race nationalism, and all manner of 'beliefs' arise from this longing.  I thought of Debbie Turner's inability to comprehend Mindy's enthusiasm for the likes of Charles Manson and Adolph Hitler.  'The Kids reach out to these historical figures,' Dr. Wengert said.  'But it's through TV, through comic books, through word-of-mouth.  There are no books at home, no ideas, no sense of history.'"(78)  These identities that lack any cultural depth are nonetheless powerful enough to be literally matters of life and death for the young people involved.    return to text


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Bellah, Robert N., Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Steven M. Tipton, 1985, Habits of the Heart:  Individualism and Commitment in American Life.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

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