Last February, an email arrived in my inbox from Robert Bellah, the distinguished sociologist of religion who died yesterday at the age of 86. We’d never met but he’d read an old article of mine and wanted me to know how much he’d liked it — the rarest of occurrences in academia, whose stock in trade is showing other scholars they don’t know what they’re talking about. Bellah was not your run-of-the-mill academic.
In the tradition of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, the founders of his discipline, he was drawn to the very largest questions concerning religion and society. His magnum opus, published just two years ago, traces the role of religion in human evolution from paleolithic times to the birth of Jesus.
For all his books, Bellah remained best known for a 21-page essay, “Civil Religion in America,” that appeared in the magazine Daedalus in 1967. It not only created a way of thinking about the place of religion in American civic life, but also kicked off a cottage industry that over the decades has produced thousands of articles and books exploring civil religious phenomena past and present throughout the world.
In the final paragraphs of his email to me, Bellah suggested that he was hoping to connect his work on civil religion to his evolutionary story.
As you may know, in 2011 Harvard UP published my Religion in Human Evolution, which has kept me on the road ever since. But what I really want to do is write a relatively short “extended essay” on the last 2000 years (RHE ends at the year 1 approximately) that will deal mainly with modernity but give a rough sense of what preceded it. Your article gets at core issues that I will have to address, though I will have to look also at China for the same period of time just as a control case to avoid “Western-centrism,” though in fact the West is central enough, since 1500 and even more, since 1800.
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.
Anyway, thanks for all your fine work and especially for your venture into deep history. What you say there will be with me throughout the work on the next book if I am able to complete it.
I suspect that one of the reasons Bellah encountered the resistance he did in this country to his formulation of civil religion was that Americans have never experienced anything like the kind of political religion that the Germans and Italians had in Nazism and Fascism, or that the Russians and Chinese had in Stalinism and Maoism. By those standards, America’s civil religion is religious nationalism at its most benign.
But even benign civil religion remains a problematic thing, for reasons indicated in the next-to-last paragraph of the article I wrote, “Numa Pompilius and the Idea of Civil Religion in the West“:
What is the proper place of the divine, of God or Providence, in a nation’s creed: Does religion create a good society, a powerful one, both, or neither? The questions are ancient ones and persist in the present day. Robert Bellah, whose 1967 essay, “Civil Religion in America,” reanimated scholarly interest in the subject, dismissed the French revolutionaries’ anti-Christian civil religion and celebrated America’s godly one, while at the same time suggesting that in a new age of “genuine trans-national sovereignty” the latter should simply become one part of a new civil religion of the world. Despite such efforts to valorize and even ennoble it, the idea of civil religion remains somewhat disreputable — which might be its saving grace. Even in moments of full-throated patriotism westerners have been reluctant to claim that public liturgies were spiritually sufficient and that a nation-building religious agenda was enough.
It’s a shame that Bellah was not able to complete the capstone work that would have addressed these issues. But with the 50th anniversary of “Civil Religion in America” fast approaching, we have much to celebrate as we mourn his passing.