Matteo Bortolini’s biography of Robert Bellah, A Joyfully Serious Man, is a rich and stimulating treatment of one of the greatest sociological thinkers of the twentieth century. As such, it is bound to raise questions about the interpretation of Bellah’s life, changes in his thinking over time, and the relevance of Bellah’s ideas to current concerns. Three questions are raised here. The first question concerns the role of Freudian psychoanalysis in biographical work. A second question concerns the role of individualism in American culture, which was an enduring concern for Bellah. A third and final question concerns the implications of Bellah’s ideas, nearly a decade after his death, for our current political conjuncture.
Matteo Bortolini has written the definitive biography of the American sociologist Robert Neelly Bellah (1927–2013). While Bortolini certainly deserves to be lauded for this impressive accomplishment, there is no need to repeat what I’ve already written in a very appreciative review forthcoming in Sociological Forum. I will simply say here that such a rich and stimulating treatment of one of the greatest sociological thinkers of the twentieth century is bound to raise questions about the interpretation of Bellah’s life, changes in his thinking over time, and the relevance of Bellah’s ideas to current concerns. I would like to use this forum in Civic Sociology to highlight three questions that A Joyfully Serious Man raises for me.
The first question concerns the role of Freudian psychoanalysis in biographical work. Bortolini offers intriguing Freudian interpretations of important relationships in Bellah’s life that often seem ripe for such interpretation. Bellah himself described Harvard University as his “adoptive mother” (p. 201), albeit one that failed him in multiple ways (pp. 48, 61, 103), and Bortolini suggests that Talcott Parsons, Bellah’s mentor at Harvard, served as a substitute for Bellah’s biological father, who killed himself in 1931. This becomes a recurring theme in the book. For example, when describing how Bellah’s reading of the philosopher Norman O. Brown’s book Love’s Body in the late 1960s triggered “a great storm of creativity” (p. 116), Bortolini suggests that the book served as a “transitional object” in the psychoanalytic sense that helped Bellah “leave the intellectual grip of mother Harvard and father Parsons” (p. 137). Later, when Parsons criticized Bellah’s book The Broken Covenant as too pessimistic, Bellah was “ready to stand his ground without doubting his own scholarly abilities.” In a Freudian allusion that brings to mind the parricide of the primal father in Totem and Taboo, Bortolini describes this moment as a “liberating homicide” (metaphorically speaking) of “father Parsons” (p. 176; cf. 191). Bortolini also suggests that the literal death of Parsons in 1979 freed Bellah to reclaim the “intellectual legacy” of Parsons on his own terms. Bellah’s remarks at the 1979 meeting of the American Sociological Association were “a public declaration that Parsons’s passing was the closest thing to a father’s death he could think of…. With his gaze fixed on his father’s rebellious children, Bellah had praised the one who had begotten him, asked forgiveness for his sins, and defiantly claimed his right of primogeniture” (p. 223). This interpretation invites questions about the value, appropriateness, and possible limitations of Freudian psychoanalysis. I think the psychoanalytic tradition offers rich insights into the meaning of people’s actions, and I find Bortolini’s Freudian interpretations illuminating. But others who are more skeptical or critical of Freud may contend that a Freudian framing is unnecessary to understand Bellah or perhaps limits or even distorts our understanding. We might therefore wish that Bortolini had been more explicit about his reasons for drawing on the psychoanalytic tradition and the value he thinks it adds to his biography of Bellah.
A second question concerns the role of individualism in American culture, which was an enduring concern for Bellah. Already in 1975, The Broken Covenant examined the tensions between the biblical and republican traditions, on the one hand, and utilitarian individualism, on the other hand. In 1976, Bellah traced “the new religious consciousness” of that time to (in his words) “the inability of utilitarian individualism to guarantee a meaningful model of personal and social existence, especially when its alliance with the biblical religion began to give in because of its destruction” (p. 182). Bellah’s most influential critique of utilitarian individualism appeared a decade later in Habits of the Heart, written jointly with Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton. The book added expressive individualism to the utilitarian individualist, biblical, and republican traditions that Bellah previously identified in The Broken Covenant. The authors did not reject individualism, nor did they wish to return nostalgically to a communitarian past, but rather they sought to restore balance among the multiple traditions that constitute American culture. The persistent and seemingly intractable imbalance subsequently led to a significant shift in Bellah’s thinking. Where Bellah once saw in American culture “a precarious balance of a plurality of traditions,” Bortolini writes, by the late 1990s he came to see a single common culture of utilitarian individualism (p. 289). And where Bellah once saw the biblical tradition in American culture as a countervailing force against utilitarian individualism, he moved close to a “blanket critique of the Protestant Reformation” (p. 290) as the source of America’s hyperindividualistic culture. What are we to make of this reassessment? As Bellah’s biographer, Bortolini refrains from editorializing or evaluating Bellah’s changing ideas. But I am curious what Bortolini the sociologist and social theorist thinks about this shift in his subject’s thinking. In short, was the early, pluralist Bellah or the later, monistic Bellah correct? Which Bellah is the better guide for conceptualizing and interpreting American culture?
A third and final question concerns the implications of Bellah’s ideas, nearly a decade after his death, for our current political conjuncture. Reading Bortolini’s biography, I was struck by how Bellah’s engagement with the 1960s counterculture shaped his thinking. Bellah seems to have viewed the counterculture as salutary in important respects—as witnessed, for example, by his enthusiasm for Love’s Body and the “new religious consciousness,” as well as his “brief but intense fascination for LSD and group dynamics” (p. 101)—but also in need of “sound direction” (p. 148). The post-1960s appropriation and co-optation of countercultural themes by consumer capitalism, lamented a quarter century ago by Thomas Frank in The Conquest of Cool, is certainly not the sound direction that Bellah had in mind. (Bellah’s idea of sound guidance was instead personified in “Durkheim as the archetype of the impassioned but rigorous civil theologian” [p. 115].) Cybercapitalism illustrates the problem well. The California communes of the 1960s may have been a model for the early internet, envisioned as “an idealized political sphere … in which authority was distributed, hierarchies were leveled, and citizens were linked by invisible energies” (Turner 2006, 219), but today the internet serves to instrumentalize and exploit expressive individualism for data harvesting and profit-making. Would these kinds of developments have led Bellah to reconsider the counterculture had he lived longer?
I was also struck by Bellah’s interpretation of “the rise of Ross Perot’s populism [in 1992] as still another example of American anti-institutionalism” (p. 279), a feature of American culture that Bellah had already highlighted in The Broken Covenant and that dovetails seamlessly with consumerist libertarianism and the post-Fordist cult of “flexibility.” What does this interpretation imply about Donald Trump’s radicalized populism a quarter century after Perot? Does it suggest that Trumpism has deeper cultural roots than many of us might like to think? Might it also suggest, as I have argued elsewhere, that Trump appeals less to an authoritarian personality craving submission than a rebellious personality longing to overthrow troublesome moral restraints and release suppressed sexual and aggressive drives?
Bellah passed away early in Barack Obama’s second term as president of the United States and did not live long enough to see Trump’s assault on the best of the American political tradition. It is not surprising that Obama “stirred Bellah’s political hopes” (p. 326). As the political scientist Andrei Markovits and the sociologist Jeff Weintraub pointed out, Obama eschewed “interest-group liberalism” in 2008 in favor of a message of “active moral and political solidarity,” underpinned by “religious imagery of compassion, covenant, and redemption,” to “bind together and revitalize a more comprehensive national community” (Markovits and Weintraub  2011). Here was a president who spoke like a civil theologian, who might usher in that “new eruption of the sacred” that Bellah had long hoped would “recreate the collective effervescence of exceptional moments such as the Great Awakening and the Civil War” (pp. 170–71, 173). Interestingly, as Markovits and Weintraub ( 2011) noted, the rhetoric of “solidarity and the common good” that appealed to Bellah was at odds with the emphasis that “many of [Obama’s] most ardent progressive supporters” placed on “competing interests” or “an irreducibly fragmented ‘identity politics’ based on fetishizing ‘difference.’” Utilitarian and expressive individualism are by no means found exclusively on the political right. And America’s Trumpian turn to a politics of divisiveness and resentment remind us that if there is no new eruption of the sacred, then we cannot compel it to appear however much we may wish for it. While I am sympathetic to Bellah’s hope for a new eruption of the sacred, the prospect of such an eruption appears remote today. Must we not soberly acknowledge that excessive individualism, social malaise, and anomie instead carry the day? Perhaps in these circumstances it is not Durkheimian themes but Max Weber’s words from “Wissenschaft als Beruf” that are most appropriate: Nothing is gained by yearning and tarrying alone; we must set to work, then, and meet the demands of the day.