Robert Bellah Has Died

by Kieran Healy on July 31, 2013

I learned this afternoon that Robert Bellah has died following complications from surgery. He was 86. Bellah was one of the giants of American sociology, especially the sociology of religion. He taught at Harvard for ten years and then at Berkeley for most of his career. Bellah was a student of Talcott Parsons, and some of that influence can be seen in his late work, Religion in Human Evolution. (Bellah was a rather better-informed theorist of social evolution than Parsons.) But he is best known for his work on American religion and society. He formulated the concept of “American civil religion” in the late 1960s and it quickly became the standard shorthand for the fusion of Christian and secular ideals and rituals that anchor much of American public life. His work on that idea led to the book The Broken Covenant in 1975, and much else besides. A little later on he was—together with Charles Glock and other colleagues and students—at the leading edge of the study of changing forms of private religious practice. Initially, in The New Religious Consciousness, the focus was on religious aspects of 1960s counterculture and their persistence into the 1970s. By the 1980s this line of thought led to Habits of the Heart (again a collective product), a study of American religious practice and its connection to the common good. Habits of the Heart had a huge influence in the field. For a serious piece of social science it sold in large quantities; it pinned down some aspects of spiritual life in the U.S. (most notably with the idea of “Sheilaism“) that were in the air at the time; it helped set the agenda for a revived sociology of culture in the United States; and its methodological mix of in-depth interviews backed by survey research was an influential template for a great deal of sociological work that followed it.

I can’t really do justice to the man and his work here. I’m sure that over the next few weeks there will be many more in-depth appraisals from colleagues and experts. But he was the sort of academic whose influence was felt both through his work and his students, and whose scholarship shaped work in subfields at one and two removes from his own, even if this wasn’t always directly acknowledged.