"Inside every social scientist," the sardonic wisdom runs, "is a prophet busting to get out." A recent collection of essays honoring sociologist Robert Bellah underscores how useful sociology can be for genuinely prophetic Christian leadership.
Bellah is perhaps best known among readers of CHRISTIANITY TODAY as the lead author of the widely read Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Harper & Row, 1985). Now his four coauthors from that book—Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton—have edited a volume of essays inspired by the sweep of Bellah's career. Among the many distinguished contributors are the scholar of contemporary religion Harvey Cox, theologian Stanley Hauerwas, historian Albert Raboteau, philosopher Charles Taylor, and sociologist Robert Wuthnow. The authors' range of disciplines and interests represent the broad impact of Bellah's work.
Indeed, Meaning and Modernity: Religion, Polity, and Self (University of California Press, 2002) covers some unexpected territory—beginning with Bellah's Harvard doctoral dissertation on the historical sociology of Japan. Yet throughout his work, Bellah has been fascinated by one topic: the symbols by which people understand themselves and their world. He has come to understand these symbols as growing primarily out of religious traditions. And he has studied them as they metamorphose by their interaction with other traditions (such as alternative religions and philosophies) and with social forces (such as economic, military, and political realities).
From this concern emerged his most famous essay, "Civil Religion in America," published in 1967. In it he coined that now-canonical term for the peculiar combination of Christian ...