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Robert N. Bellah dies at 86; UC Berkeley sociologist

Robert Bellah's 'Civil Religion in America' argued that a central feature of U.S. politics was the belief in God as a higher authority over the nation.

August 03, 2013|Elaine Woo
  • Robert Bellah's writings on civil religion made him one of the foremost public intellectuals in the United States.
Robert Bellah's writings on civil religion made him one of the foremost… (UC Berkeley )

Robert N. Bellah, a UC Berkeley sociologist who turned the analysis of religion's role in American society into a bestselling book and a thriving academic pursuit, died Tuesday at an Oakland hospital. He was 86.

The cause was complications after heart surgery, said his daughter, Jennifer Bellah Maguire.

Bellah made his mark with a provocative 1967 essay titled "Civil Religion in America," which argued that a central feature of the American political tradition was the belief in God as a higher authority over the nation.

The essay, with its examination of presidential speeches going back to the founding fathers, propelled the study of religion from the backwater of his discipline to the forefront, spurring a flood of popular and scholarly writing, conferences and college courses.

"No one was talking about religion when he wrote that essay," said Alan Wolfe, a political scientist who directs the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. "He made religion relevant even to people who don't put it at the center or who know nothing about religion. It was really path-breaking in that sense."

Bellah went on to co-write the bestselling "Habits of the Heart" (1985), a study based on interviews with an array of middle-class Americans that illuminated the dangers of a "radical individualism" rampant in American culture in the 1980s.

"We are concerned," Bellah and his four co-authors wrote, "that this individualism may have grown cancerous … that it may be threatening the survival of freedom itself."

Many critics regard "Habits of the Heart" as his most enduring work. By the end of its first decade in print, it had sold close to 500,000 copies, placing it, as one critic noted, among "that rare breed of sociological works … with sales figures beyond the total number of practicing sociologists in the world, past and present."

Among the book's claims to fame is an expression that lit the imagination of a generation of religion scholars: "Sheilaism."

The term was derived from the pseudonymous Sheila, the name Bellah and his collaborators gave to a non-churchgoing believer in God who had invented a belief system so private and personal that she described it as "Sheilaism. Just my own little voice." Sheila became a symbol of the individualism that many spiritual leaders cited as a major reason behind the decline of organized religion.

Bellah wrote or collaborated on more than a dozen books, including "The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial" (1975) and "The Good Society" (1991), a wide-ranging critique of contemporary American institutions written with his "Habits of the Heart" co-authors, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Steven M. Tipton.

His last book, "Religion in Human Evolution" (2011), was an audacious synthesis of science and history that fulfilled Bellah's long-held desire to understand the origins of religion. Hans Joas, the eminent German social theorist, called it "the opus magnum of the greatest living sociologist of religion."

Robert Neelly Bellah was born in Altus, Okla., on Feb. 23, 1927. His father, a newspaper editor and publisher, died when he was 2, leading his mother, Lillian, to move the family to Los Angeles, where she had relatives.

Bellah attended Los Angeles High School, where he and his future wife, Melanie Hyman, were editors of the student newspaper. They were married in 1948 after she graduated from Stanford University, and he began studying at Harvard University after a stint in the Army.

At Harvard, Bellah was driven to study tribal cultures and later East Asian civilization because of a self-professed "ambivalence about America."

"It seems I could make sense of the apparently chaotic society in which I lived only by taking triangulations from distant positions," he wrote in "The Robert Bellah Reader" (2006).

He earned a bachelor's degree in social anthropology in 1950 and a doctorate, also from Harvard, in sociology and Far Eastern languages in 1955. His dissertation, "Tokugawa Religion," published in 1957 and still in print, established him as an authority on Japanese history and culture.

He was fluent in Japanese and literate in Chinese, French and German. He later studied Arabic at McGill University in Montreal, where he wound up after a painful experience at Harvard.

As an undergraduate, he joined the Communist Party and was a member from 1947 to 1949. He was a graduate student completing his doctorate in 1954 when McGeorge Bundy, then Harvard's dean of faculty, pressured him to confess his activities and name his former Communist associates. Bellah refused and headed to McGill when his Harvard fellowship was canceled.

"Harvard did some terribly wrong things during the McCarthy period," he wrote in a letter published by the New York Review of Books in 1977.

He returned to Harvard as a lecturer in 1957, as McCarthyism was waning, and later became a full professor of sociology.

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