Robert N. Bellah

National Humanities Medal


Robert Bellah has a reputation for posing tough questions and refusing to accept easy answers. By questioning how Americans define moral living, he has expanded the definition of both sociology and the sociologist. Commenting on his book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Bellah says, "We found that though Americans say they value community, they don't want to be held responsible for it." Habits of the Heart compares how Americans believe they ought to live with how they actually conduct their lives. The book, written with NEH support, is based on interviews with middle-class Americans.

"Individualism became a focus in Habits because we chose Alexis de Tocqueville as our framework. Where are we 150 years later? Is his analysis still relevant?" Bellah asks. "We found that yes, indeed, his work was still very relevant. De Tocqueville warned that the emphasis on individualism running through American life would lead to people withdrawing into isolated, contained groups. This has turned out to be true." Bellah and his co-authors extended their study of American character and the country's social institutions in The Good Society.

A practicing Christian, Bellah has also written widely on the sociology of religion in Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditionalist World, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in a Time of Trial, and Varieties of Civil Religion.

"It's ironic that I turned out to be so focused on the United States. This was not my original intent," Bellah says. He became interested in Eastern religion while an undergraduate, and went on to complete a Ph.D. in sociology and Far Eastern languages at Harvard in 1955. Bellah continues to be active in Japanese studies, but he became known for his analysis and critique of American life.

Like many college students of his time, Bellah was attracted to Marxism as an answer to society's ills. This early interest created problems for him during the McCarthy years, when he refused to sign an anti-Communist statement that was a prerequisite to teaching at Harvard. He took a position at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University instead. In 1957, he returned to Harvard, where he taught for ten years before joining the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley. Bellah retired from teaching in 1997 and is Elliot Professor of Sociology Emeritus at Berkeley.

At the age of seventy-three, Bellah continues to lecture on college campuses and to church groups, addressing issues of individualism in American society. He is currently writing a book that traces the evolution of religion from the Paleolithic period to the present.

By Katie Towler

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.