Died: Robert Bellah, Sociologist Who Diagnosed American Civil Religion
Update (Aug. 2): UC Berkeley has released an obituary lauding Bellah as a "preeminent American sociologist of religion."
Robert Bellah, an American sociologist whose career "showed the promise, and limits, of the [prophetic] scholarship he made so accessible to the church," died this week after complications following surgery. He was 86.
"While Bellah was not a young man, when I saw him last December he was physically sturdy and mentally vigorous," writes First Things blogger Matthew Schmitz. "It's hard not to see this as a death out of season."
Bellah is perhaps best known for co-authoring the 1985 book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, which showed the limits of American indivudalism. But his career spanned decades on either side of that book.
"In 1966 he wrote (his most famous) essay that injected the phrase 'civil religion' into the public discussion of the place of religion in a pluralistic, and supposedly secular, society," CT reported in 1989.
In that interview, Bellah lamented the decline of family and community, noting that "Americans want the freedom of radical individualism, but they don't like the consequences."
Now, more than 50 years after Bellah diagnosed the trouble with American civil religion, social and political scientists alike still use "that now-canonical term for the peculiar combination of Christian and secular ideals around which America publicly convenes and to which American politicians routinely gesture," CT wrote in 2002.
Bellah is perhaps most deeply worried about the extent to which Americans have become ethically individualistic at a time when social forces combine to press modern people at once into more individualized and yet also more conformist ways of living. Like Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, he laments the decline of institutions and practices that stand between the individual, or perhaps the individual family, and the conglomerate power of major corporations and high-level governments.
Bellah also served for 30 years as professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, writing all the while. Bellah published his latest book, Religion in Human Evolution, in 2011.