How Robert Bellah (1927-2013) Changed the Study of Religion

Juergensmeyer:  “In his 1967 essay in Daedalus on “Civil Religion,” Bellah founded a whole new enterprise for religious studies scholars: probing the political significance of religious ideas and the religious significance of political ones. In this case it was Emile Durkheim that Bellah evoked, taking up Durkheim’s notion of the spiritual character of all collectivities. In his examination of the inaugural addresses of U.S. Presidents, Bellah showed there was a strain of patriotic religiosity in American public life that was both nationalistic and religious—specificially Protestant Christian. He borrowed the phrase, civil religion, that Jean-Jacques Rousseau coined in The Social Contract to describe the moral underpinnings of public order.

In the American context, however, Bellah saw this moral patriotism as infused with religious images and rhetoric that came from what politicians liked to call “the Judaeo-Christian tradition,” an imagined homogenous religious stratum underlying American political culture. This interest in the political significance of religion seems obvious now, in an era of strident religious movements and the rise of religious nationalism around the world, but when he first wrote “Civil Religion,” it was a bold new idea and an innovative way of thinking.”

Over fifty years ago Bellah rocked the field of religious studies with a pioneering study on Japanese religion. When he died suddenly this past week he was working on a book that was set to land him as a pioneer yet again.