This article originally appeared in the February 3, 1989, issue of Christianity Today.
Sociologist Robert Bellah, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, has been at the center of some of America's most important public debates in the last three decades.
In 1966 he wrote an essay that injected the phrase "civil religion" into the public discussion of the place of religion in a pluralistic, and supposedly secular, society. (Bellah now regrets the phrase and its association with uncritical patriotism, although he still stands by the central assertions of the essay.)
More recently, Bellah and four other sociologists wrote Habits of the Heart. The book is one of a handful mentioned constantly in arguments about the good and bad effects of American individualism.
Not so widely known is the vigorous Christian faith that now undergirds Bellah's vision of what a better America would be like. He was raised, as he puts it, "among the fragments of a once coherent, Southern Protestant culture," rarely missing Sunday school at a Presbyterian church that "was conservative without being fundamentalist." Later years took him away from a solid faith; but still later years have brought him back. For the last decade, Bellah has been active in a local Episcopal church. He preaches occasionally and is pleased that, after some public lectures, people wander up to him with a copy of Habits of the Heart in hand and ask what church they should attend. (Bellah suggests they seek a church in the tradition in which they were reared.) He believes his "ministry" is "to bring my intellectual training into a relationship with my faith in a way that can speak to other people."
In the following interview with Rodney Clapp, Bellah applies this ministry ...