Monday, December 17, 2012

Robert Bellah on Obama's Civil Religion

Robert Bellah, the American sociologist and primary author of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, was recently asked to comment on Barack Obama's "vision of solidarity" in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  Here is what we wrote:

Let me quote from an article I published in Commonweal on March 14th, 2008, entitled “Yes He Can: The Case for Obama”:
"Hearing Obama give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was one of the most electrifying experiences of my political life. Who is this person? I thought. How is it possible for anyone today to formulate the very best of the American tradition in such eloquent terms? (Needless to say, with a sense of the centrality of rhetoric to the Western political tradition from Aristotle and Cicero to Lincoln and Martin Luther King, I have never appreciated the derogatory use of the word.  I believe that speaking well and thinking well usually go together and vice versa as George W. Bush, who can do neither, so vividly illustrates."
Nothing since has changed my mind.  I have been as strongly for Obama as I was from the beginning. “Civil religion” is a contested term. I have long tried to avoid it and it cannot be found in Habits of the Heart. Yet it won’t go away. It is still in play in the United States, and, I learned to my amazement, in China today, to which I made two trips in the fall of 2011 to discuss the idea of civil religion in China among other things. When I reread my original essay of 1967, “Civil Religion in America,” which has become iconic in more circles than I realized, I find I can’t disagree with it. It is not the worship of the state or an effort to “integrate”

Americans in loyalty to the U.S. It is a deeply critical call for judgment on this nation, similar to what Durkheim was doing in his defense of Dreyfus. Obama still represents that kind of civil religion, critical but hopeful.

For more responses to Obama's post-Sandy vision see the recent forum at The Immanent Frame.