Academic who mapped the American soul

Prof Bellah

Robert Bellah, who has died at the age of 86, taught at the University of California, Berkeley, for 30 years and wrote extensively on faith and politics. Margalit Fox wrote his obituary for The New York Times.

Robert Bellah, sociologist of religion

February 23, 1927 - July 30, 2013

Robert Bellah, a distinguished sociologist of religion who sought nothing less than to map the American soul, in both the sacred and secular senses of the word, died (recently in) Calif. He was 86.

His death, from complications of recent heart surgery, was announced by the University of California, Berkeley, where he was the Elliott professor emeritus of sociology. Throughout his work, Professor Bellah was concerned with the ways in which faith shapes, and is shaped by, American civic life. He was widely credited with helping usher the study of religion — a historically marginalized subject in the social sciences — into the sociological fold.

"Modern America has a soul, not only a body, and Bellah probed that soul more deeply and subtly than anyone in his field or his time," Steven Tipton, a professor in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, wrote in an e-mail. Professor Bellah’s best-known books include The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial (1975), Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985) and Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011).

"He was a major moral philosopher of modernity," said Ann Swidler, a professor of sociology at Berkeley and, with Professor Tipton, one of the authors of Habits of the Heart. "He was interested in the way in which our humanity was grounded in very primitive aspects of ourselves — our need to think in terms of myth, narrative, the stories we tell about who we are as a people — and in our capacity for rational thought."

Professor Bellah, who was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Bill Clinton in 2000, came to wide attention in 1967 with a seminal article, Civil Religion in America.

Published in Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, it describes the pervasive presence in American life of what Professor Bellah called a ‘civil religion’ — a tradition, woven almost imperceptibly into the fabric of the national culture, that is neither church nor state but rather a link between the two. It involves, he argued, ‘a set of beliefs, symbols and rituals’ that originated at the nation’s birth and endures to the present day.

Professor Bellah expounded on the concept in a 1978 interview with Edwin Newman of NBC News: "It’s a complicated relationship between politics and religion. But our tradition by and large has used religion to hold the nation in judgment and to assert that it should operate under higher moral standards."

Robert Neelly Bellah was born on Feb. 23, 1927, in Altus, Oklahoma, where his father was the editor and publisher of the local paper. After his father died when Bob was about two, the family moved to Los Angeles.

Photo: Episcopal Digital Network

Full obituary in The New York Times:

Obituary in The LA Times:,0,776196.story

Wikipedia on Robert Bellah:

Robert Bellah on Robert Bellah:

Thoughts on Robert Bellah:


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