(Andreas Guther/Flickr)

(Andreas Guther/Flickr)

Where do we come from and go to? What are we here for? No one wrestled and played more deeply with these questions than did Robert Bellah, or more broadly embraced the mystery of what we must do to be saved. Bellah brought its axial arc down to the ground of great world images and moral stances, not only there and then, once upon a time, but here and now, enacted in whole ways of life. From Micah and Plato, Buddha and Mencius, through Durkheim and Weber, to Paul Tillich and Talcott Parsons, Bellah heeded his teachers and made friends with them through history, and he taught generations of students and colleagues to do likewise.

Born in Oklahoma in 1927 and raised in Los Angeles, Robert Bellah first read Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism at Harvard College, where he majored in social anthropology and wrote his senior thesis on Apache Kinship Systems. His first book, Tokugawa Religion: The Values of Pre-Industrial Japan, emerged from his work at Harvard to complete a joint doctoral degree in sociology and Far Eastern languages. After accepting a research fellowship at the Islamic Institute at McGill University in 1955, Bellah returned to teach at Harvard in 1957, then moved to the University of California at Berkeley in 1967, where he continued to teach for more than thirty years. In 1970 he published Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World, followed in 1975 by The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial. With Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and myself, Robert Bellah co-authored Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985) and The Good Society (1991). For more than a dozen years Bellah concentrated on researching and writing Religion in Human Evolution (2011). He was at work on a related project on religion and the challenge of modernity when he died last month following heart surgery at the age of 86.

Robert Bellah’s work spanned the social sciences and comparative cultural inquiry to embrace the global diversity and coherence of religion as the key to culture across civilizations and epochs within the framework of human evolution. Formally trained as a student of tribal cultures, East Asian civilization, and Islam, Bellah engaged the West, and the United States specifically, as problematic cases that can be understood only in the broadest comparative perspective on human cultural development. This global perspective informed his conceptions of religious evolution in general and civil religion in particular that stood at the center of his life’s work.


BELLAH’S MONUMENTAL INQUIRY into Religion in Human Evolution reaches back to his landmark essay on “Religious Evolution” in 1964. It draws on biblical sacred history, mediated by Hegelian historicism threaded through Durkheim, Weber, and Marx. It shows how religion is enacted in cultural, social, personal, and bodily forms that unfold in history, and cannot be grasped outside it. Cultural symbols and beliefs, social practices and institutions, personal habits and attitudes, embodied disciplines and expression all interpenetrate in constituting religion. Each exercises a degree of autonomy in their interaction that makes it irreducible to any one of the others. They mutually constitute each other through history, and religion is historically constituted through all the dimensions of human action.

Religious rejection of the world emerges in the axial age of the first millennium BCE in Israel, Greece, India, and China at the core of every historic salvation religion, defining the Weberian axis of religious evolution in Bellah’s original formulation. Renouncing the world represented within the framework of cosmological dualism crystallizes an otherworldly true self, or Buddhist non-self, deeper than the flux of everyday experience, facing a reality over against itself. It holds up an overarching ethical aim and stance, unified into a whole way of life, to answer the question of what we must do to be saved. Conversely, the collapse of cosmological dualism and world rejection marks modern modes of religious symbolization, action, and organization within complex societies. They multiply and divide the cultural meaning of our moral integrity. They separate religion and politics into separate institutional spheres of church and state, each governed by its own members. Modern acceptance of the world rests on its monist conception as the only world there is, centered on a multi-dimensional self. Each person is responsible for critically self-conscious and conscientious participation in the process of religious symbolization itself, shared among a modern priesthood of all believers no longer bound by obligations of doctrinal orthodoxy imposed by the tutelary authority of state-established religion.

But since religion is centrally the narrative self-interpretation and ritual enactment of all human cultures, Bellah argues, the whole of the history of religion is our own. We remain deeply embedded in it, from tribal peoples to the present. This holds true even when—especially when—we think of religion in peculiarly modern Western terms as primarily private beliefs held by individuals and voluntary associations made up of like-minded believers or spiritual seekers. Religion is a dimension of the whole of life in pre-modern societies, shifting shape as social and cultural forms of complexity evolve together. World-rejecting religious symbols, rites, and congregational communities break through the cosmological and moral unity of archaic and tribal societies in tandem with their political and economic structures. But we need to understand tribal and then archaic religions and societies in their own terms to grasp how such salvific breakthroughs carry the whole of human cultural and religious history into modernity world-acceptance. This includes the early modern Protestant patterning of modern American religion and politics, grounded in convictions of the providence of our progress, the covenant of our constitution, the sacred souls of our human rights, and the sovereign conscience of our individual freedom to choose.

“Nothing is ever lost” in the whole of religious evolution, as Bellah deepened its conception over the course of his work, culminating in Religion in Human Evolution. It incorporates developmental and evolutionary psychology to chart the evolution of human consciousness through the mimetic, mythic, and theoretic stages of its development, beginning with our biological history as a species that gives rise to culture and then co-evolves with it. For most of a million years before members of the genus Homo began speaking in sentences, they communicated and expressed themselves through their bodies. Through mimetic movement, gesture, and example, they learned to make meaning as well as tools. Through sharing the rhythmic action of “keeping together in time” at the root of ritual, they composed the harmonies of moral community as well as the survival strategies of social solidarity, as Durkheim observed. Endless interaction rituals continue to compose bodies politic no less than bodies of faith. They orchestrate everyday life today from greetings to good-byes, just as formal rites of passage continue to mark the movement of generations from birth to death.

For most of the tens of thousands of years since humans began speaking and praying in sentences, religiously inspired and morally charged narrative in the form of myth ruled human consciousness and political community without conceptual challenge. The most encompassing forms of cultural self-understanding today continue to unfold in mythic narrative, Bellah stresses, as we tell the story of our uniquely individual selves in culturally common genres. Literacy turns practical theoretic consciousness toward more critical questioning of myth in terms of second order “thinking about thinking” at the core of the axial breakthroughs. But theories do not replace stories as the source and substance of the spheres of ethics, politics, or religion, and none of these spheres has been reborn within the bounds of reason alone. Narrative is the way we understand our lives, criticized and clarified by rational argument, to be sure, but also revealing in its own rational way that “reason” itself has a long history with multiple meanings and practical differences that resound through public squares and religious assemblies.

Bellah’s work reveals religion shaping the social order, and being reshaped as society becomes more complex. Relatively egalitarian forager tribes give way to more hierarchical chiefdoms and archaic kingships, which call for new forms of symbolization and moral enactment to make sense of their growing division of labor, wealth, and power. Theoretic culture emerges to question mythic narratives, at once rejecting and reorganizing them to create new rites and myths, and challenging their particular authority in the name of spiritual and ethical universalism. Religion in Human Evolution ends with the great world-rejecting breakthroughs of ancient Israel, Greece, India, and China, but it situates modernity within the history of the human species. It reframes the story of how theoretic culture becomes partially disembedded from mimetic and mythic meaning to give rise to the achievements and predicaments of modernity. By asking what our deep past can tell us about the kind of life human beings have imagined was worth living, Bellah illuminates the often implicit worldviews we hold and contest in the modern world. He points toward the critical reappropriation of their underlying mimetic and mythic dimensions in an ongoing dialectic with our theoretical understanding to find common ground on questions of our common good, including the future of the environment, the justice of the economy, and the possibilities for peace in the world we share.


CIVIL RELIGION IN AMERICA is the phenomenon that Bellah is most widely known for crystallizing by his insight into the dialectical coherence of civil religion in the moral argument of public life in modern societies. Bellah develops this insight over the course of his work, beginning with his 1967 article on “Civil Religion in America,” defined in Durkheimian terms as a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rites with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity. In “Religion and the Legitimation of the American Republic,” published in 1978, Bellah elaborates the critical interplay of civil religion and public theology in the free exercise of religion in America, institutionalized in ways that mediate but never resolve the tension between civic republicanism and constitutional liberalism in its ambiguous political identity.

Conceived as a dimension of depth in American culture, civil religion frames modes of moral discourse and imagination to enable coherent cultural conflict in successive times of trail, which give rise to contrasting public theologies that contest the meaning of civil religion and reshape it in turn. This dialectical logic extends to the model of cultural conversation and argument across multiple moral traditions seen as continuities of conflict in Habits of the Heart, The Good Society, and Bellah’s later work, by contrast to construing civil religion as a unitary moral foundation that is once fundamentally fixed and then fragmented by culture wars. A century ago, Emile Durkheim concluded that an increasingly international kind of social life, gradually developing through the global expansion of the division of labor in the world’s economy and its political-legal regulation, would universalize forms of religious belief. A generation ago, Robert Bellah anticipated that if a genuinely transnational sovereignty emerged with the attainment of some kind of coherent world order, it would precipitate new symbolic forms of civil religion, whether they were to grow from the flickering flame of the United Nations or from the latter-day light spread by thousands of multiplying NGOs such as those in the human rights and environmentalist movements.

Bellah’s account with Phillip Hammond, in the 1980 book Varieties of Civil Religion, probes the unique character of American civil religion and the special conditions that bring it about, by contrast to Italy and Japan, for example. But in the early modern and modern stages of religious evolution, Bellah holds, there emerges in every society the possibility that a distinct set of religious symbols and practices may arise that address issues of political legitimacy and political ethics but that are not fused with either church or state. Nation-states remain the most important centers of power in the late twentieth century, Bellah acknowledges, but none of them alone can resolve the military, economic, and environmental problems that demand new forms of global concord for the very survival of humankind. There is at last for many purposes a world civitas, he judges, but its lack of civility and justice point toward the need for moral dimensions of civil religion that can nurture greater openness, tolerance, and ethical commitment in global civil society.    

The diverse forms of popular nationalism with religious roots evident around the world today tie into the dialectical interplay of civil religion and public theologies, as Bellah conceived it over the course of his work on faith in public life. These moral dramas are made up of many voices contesting the construal of multiple traditions and remaking them together, as they make moral sense of the present and its most pressing problems by enacting good examples of how we should live together, not only by giving good reasons for why we should. This contrasts with state-centered views of civil religion celebrating an ostensibly universal moral consensus in support of the state’s compulsory legal authority.

“Can We Imagine a Global Civil Religion?” asks Bellah in a paper published in 2010 that defines the direction of his ongoing inquiry into the challenge of the modern project in the light of human evolution. He answers the question of its title by distinguishing between the impossibility of a global civil religion and the necessity of strengthening global civil society to create a world order coherent enough to engage the grave problems of global warming, military-political strife, and economic inequality that interdependent nations now face. Any actual civil society will have a religious dimension, Bellah observes, not only a legal and ethical framework, but some notion that it fits the nature of ultimate reality. In fact, religion-like values carried by an emerging global market culture may worsen international problems, and place greater weight on the actual beginnings of world governance evident in world law and economic regulation today. The nation-state itself, and the principled independence of the market from the state, have arisen as cultural forms and institutional arrangements transmitted around the world over the past few centuries. So have popular sovereignty and the public sphere of civil society, even where ideals of universal human rights, democratic elections, and the formation of public opinion, freed from the state and the market, are honored in principle but not in practice. Nationalism itself has always been an international phenomenon inspired by the right of every people to self-government and by the responsibility they share for their common fate.

Bellah argued that today global market ideologies and practices threaten the capacity of nations to carry out the responsibilities inherent in their ideals of common membership, including responsibility for their least advantaged citizens through sustaining fair wages and taxes as well as public provision. What are the moral and religious resources we need to think about membership in global civil society profoundly enough to balance the autonomy of nation states and check the power of global markets? The religious roots of global ethics of human rights lead Bellah to ask if the world’s religions can mobilize their deepest commitments to universal neighbor-love and mutual recognition to give genuine institutional force to human rights regimes. Can they help turn ideals of world citizenship into a practical willingness to share responsibility for the world of which we are citizens instead of trying to transform the world into the naturalized image of our own nation? Religious motivation is needed to turn the beginnings of world law and the growth of global ethics into effective forms of global solidarity and governance. Religious insight is needed for us to recognize the primacy of the world instead of trying to force the world to recognize our primacy as a nation. A just and peaceful world of independent, equal, and self-governing states is still struggling to be born. That world embodies ideals at the center of distinctive yet overlapping forms of civil religion emerging around the globe, and it marks the contested core of an ongoing argument among diverse public theologies and philosophies seeking to shape the world to come.

The well of the past is deep, and from it Robert Bellah drew living water. He shed light on how history breathes in and through us, confounding us as we repeat it, and uplifting us as we make it by seeking to attain the impossible. Bright and clear and encompassing, Bellah’s work will go on through ever-widening waves of reading and resonance in our thoughts and arguments. Through the communion of all souls and citizens, his unwavering care and courage, his boundless curiosity and practical wisdom will live on in our hearts, world without end.

Steven M. Tipton is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Sociology of Religion at Emory University and its Candler School of Theology. With Robert Bellah he is a co-author of Habits of the Heart and The Good Society, and the co-editor of The Robert Bellah Reader.