For more than two decades, sociologist Robert Bellah has been the reigning interpreter of how American religion influences America’s unique political culture. In 1967, Bellah published “Civil Religion in America,” an essay that aroused a controversy whose conclusion is not yet in sight. For Bellah maintained that, although the Constitution not only avoids references to God but also forbids the establishment of a state religion, the republic was nevertheless conceived in religious terms. Thomas Jefferson’s appeal to “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence is only the most famous manifestation of America’s “political religion.” James Madison was convinced that prior to one’s membership in civil society, there is the society constituted by one’s allegiance to “the Universal Sovereign.” In George Washington’s farewell address, religion and morality were called “indispensable supports [of] political prosperity.” For Abraham Lincoln, the claims of both slave owner and abolitionist must be placed in a higher context of divine justice. The use of such allusions to religion continues into current history, as when Mario Cuomo, governor of New York—in terms reminiscent of the book of Amos—corrected Ronald Reagan’s appropriation of the biblical symbol of the “city set upon a hill.”
If there has been a sustaining “political religion” in America, one may inquire into its present condition. Bellah has long been interested in tracing the life history of America’s peculiar “public piety.” In particular, he has been concerned to measure its fortunes at the hands of individualism, the dominant cultural value in America. Bellah’s guide in this research effort is Alexis de Tocqueville, the remarkable Frenchman who produced Democracy in America (1835-1840), possibly the most penetrating sociological analysis of a culture ever made. In Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (the title itself comes from Tocqueville), Bellah digests five years of research and reflection into the present condition of American individualism. Specifically, the book attempts to see if Tocqueville’s fears about individualism have been refuted in modern experience. The gravest of Tocqueville’s warnings was that individualism would, if unchecked, lead to a new form of despotism. Bellah does not conclude that Americans are in immediate danger, but the long-range prognosis is not good. For, maintains Bellah, even the inheritors of the tradition of American civil religion have been damaged by the pervasive effects of individualist ideology. Those who find the time to cease the pursuit of “success” and attend to the common good often have difficulty explaining themselves. Public life, its nature and calling, is seriously weakened by the inadequacy of our deepest theories about peoplehood, self-expression, and the status of moral imperatives.
Clearly then, Habits of the Heart is meant to engage our fullest powers of national and personal reflection. That Bellah and his talented associates intend to provoke strong public discussion is clear from their research method. The springboard for theoretical analysis is material derived from interviews with more than two hundred persons. Some of these interviews were very extensive and led Bellah’s team into participant observation. Four interview subjects achieve paradigmatic importance in the work. They are a top manager in a Silicon Valley firm, a public-relations director of a large manufacturing company with a branch office in a small town near Boston, a psychotherapist with a private practice in a large Southern city, and a community organizer for the Campaign for Economic Democracy, a leftist organization in Southern California. Three of these four are males; all are white; all are middle-class.
Whatever the scientific shortcomings of this focus—Bellah defends his methodology in the preface, but critics have not found him persuasive—the fact that Habits of the Heart has “characters” adds immensely to its interest and partly explains the passions that the book has stirred. The four are permitted to speak freely and thoroughly. Their utterances are then discussed and analyzed in terms which sociologists, political scientists, and historians have fashioned to understand the nature of individualism in American culture. The reader is therefore enabled to discover the personal significance of such theoretical concepts as “moral ecology,” “bureaucratic individualism,” “lifestyle enclave,” and “community of memory.”
Individualism is a notoriously tricky notion. Like democracy, or community, or freedom, it is both shibboleth and symbol, analytic construct and social epithet. For the disciplined Communist, individualism represents a failure of scientific and organizational understanding. Military establishments use it as a term of abuse. Tocqueville always tried to distinguish individualism from egoism, a philosophic notion rooted in extreme versions of subjectivist epistemology. The individualism that Tocqueville spoke of was a milder (but perhaps more pernicious) sort: the tendency to look to one’s own fortunes before considering those of the community; the sentiment that the community ultimately benefits from an enlightened and fair-minded pursuit of one’s own fortune; the impulse to withdraw into a small private world of family and a few friends.
Tocqueville was aware that the Puritans had embraced yet another variant of individualism: the right of the individual to interpret Scripture and offer conscientious objections to religious authority in matters of ecclesiastical policy. Puritan...
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