Civil religion, “Sheilaism,” and Robert Bellah (R.I.P.)

Those of us who follow religion and culture lost a founding father last month. Robert Bellah, the Berkeley scholar, helped open the academy doors for the sociological study of religion.


He gave us the term “civil religion,” but was best known for his (and his co-authors’) 1985 book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, which explored the ways that the American individualism that had been largely praised by de Tocqueville had, in more recent times, “grown cancerous.”

American cultural traditions define personality, achievement, and the purpose of human life in ways that leave the individual suspended in glorious, but terrifying, isolation.

Other Bellahisms:

For many, “freedom means being left alone,” or “freedom from the demands of others.”

“Sheilaism” is what we get when American-style individualism meets religion, as explained by Sheila Larson, one of the many Americans interviewed in habits:

My faith has carried me along way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.

When the kind of “expressive individualism” pioneered by Walt Whitman collided with the cultural revolution of the 1960s, the result was a new kind of mysticism that tends to “radicalize and absolutize” religious individualism.

Bellah’s prescription for recovery includes a return to tradition and community:

Perhaps common worship, in which we express our gratitude and wonder in the face of the mystery of being itself, is the most important thing of all.

Thank you, Robert Bellah.

See the New York Times obit here.

Posted in Blog, Past Is Present, Quotable

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