On the Death of Robert Bellah: "I have to look elsewhere, and, with Heraclitus, declare that life and death are one."

Michael J. Altman

Sociologist of religion Robert Bellah passed away this week at the age of 86 from complications following surgery. Among Americanists, Bellah is best known for his article "Civil Religion in America" and his 1985 book Habits of the Heart. Bellah's most recent work is Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Harvard, 2011). For more on that book check out this interview from the Immanent Frame. Or the audio and video below.

I haven't turned to Bellah's work much in my short academic career, mostly because I've been so immersed in the 19th century. But I might not have ever gotten into this whole religious studies gig had it not been for him. My junior year of college I took my capstone seminar in religious studies, "Religion and Politics After 9/11." It was the spring semester of 2005 (pardon my youth) and we read Bellah's essay on civil religion the week of President Bush's second inauguration.

Watching President Bush take the oath of office I saw the "elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America." As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq plodded forward, Bellah's essay from the midst of the Vietnam era rang in my ears. "Is this our fourth trial?" I wondered. I read and re-read the final paragraphs of the essay, trying to figure out what they meant for my generation and our wars.

Behind the civil religion at every point lie biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But it is also genuinely American and genuinely new. It has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols. It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all nations.
It has often been used and is being used today as a cloak for petty interests and ugly passions. It is in need-as any living faith-of continual reformation, of being measured by universal standards. But it is not evident that it is incapable of growth and new insight. 
It does not make any decisions for us. It does not remove us from moral ambiguity, from being, in Lincoln's fine phrase, an "almost chosen people." But it is a heritage of moral and religious experience from which we still have much to learn as we formulate the decisions that lie ahead.
At the end of that semester, I started planning my applications for graduate school.

Mark Silk shared an email Bellah sent him about "Civl Religion in America" and his ambivalence about the essay.
In spite of the fact that my article is profoundly critical of America and came out of a period of deep opposition to the Vietnam War, it has been widely interpreted as a hymn to religious nationalism, something I above all hate. I discovered in some of my journeys of the last two years that I am understood in such places as China and Germany as exactly the opposite, that is my use of the civil religion idea is seen as an alternative to religious nationalism, not a form of it, and that, since it is based on civil society and not the state, is seen as democratic and open to ongoing argument and criticism. Some (intelligent) Americans have seen that, but far too many put me together with Pat Robertson, to my horror.
Let no one put Bellah with Pat Robertson.

Bellah was a thinker and writer whose work influenced disciplines ranging from history to religious studies to ethics. A number of remembrances have already been written: Crooked Timber, Harvard University Press, Duke University Press, and UC Berkley. A major testament to Bellah's breadth as a thinker is the combination of remembrances from the Buddhist Tricycle Magazine, the Catholic First Things, and the evangelical Christianity Today.

Fascinating stories from Bellah's life have emerged since the news of his passing. For example, Corey Robin's account of Robert Bellah's encounter with McCarthyism at Harvard. Also, there's the e-mail Bellah sent a student upon the death of the student's father. Read the whole thing.

But most Americans who believe in life after death think they will rejoin their dead family members and live happily ever after. A very modern, bourgeois, kind of afterlife, hardly what traditional Christians thought. But I have no interest in destroying the beliefs of others. If thinking one will rejoin one’s loved ones helps bear the pain of death then I’m all for it. I have to look elsewhere, and, with Heraclitus, declare that life and death are one.

During a week where discussions of "the religion scholar in public" have abounded online and in cable news, Bellah's passing is a reminder of a thinker who paired rigorous academic work with a public voice that was as humble as it was expert. And he never stopped teaching.

A20-203 A Conversation with Robert Bellah on "Religion in Human Evolution" from American Academy of Religion on Vimeo.


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