Comment on Matteo Bortolini’s A Joyfully Serious Man: The Life of Robert Bellah

Social science was born as the intellectual pendant of liberal ideology. If it remains this, it will die as liberalism dies. Social science built itself upon the premise of social optimism. Can it find something to say in an era that will be marked by social pessimism? I believe that we social scientists must totally transform ourselves or we shall become socially irrelevant and relegated to some minor corner of some minor academy, condemned to while away our time in meaningless rituals as the last monks of a forgotten god. I believe that the key element in our survival is to return the concept of substantive rationality to the center of our intellectual concerns.

—Immanuel Wallerstein, “Social Science and Contemporary Society”

Matteo Bortolini has made a remarkable contribution to postwar intellectual and social history, using as its prism the trajectory of one scholar to show some of the complex and conflicting tendencies of the time. I believe his book is a resource that any future intellectual or social history of the period would find relevant, and perhaps even indispensable. It offers the life story of someone who moved from the dominant intellectual consensus of the time to the edges of this consensus.1 Bortolini thereby offers (among many other things) an elaboration of the space of Cold War social science traversed by Robert Bellah and others like him, whose training and funding reflected Cold War interests even if they sought to resist its ideological strictures.

If significant aspects of social science disciplinary formation took shape during the interwar period, the Cold War was more lasting in its influence since it created a kind of force field, as Nils Gilman has called it, one that defined the contours of intellectual activity during that time. Cold War social science was not simply research intended to assist in accomplishing the goals of that war. It could also be scholarship that channeled attention toward those topics whose importance was presumed by policymakers, and away from those where official attention was limited and opportunities were scarce. Gilman (2016, 516) calls this “second order cold war social science,” research whose conditions were shaped in part by the Cold War even if the research did not align with Cold War concerns in any overt way.

In an essay published after his book, Bortolini has suggested that Bellah’s work can be understood as second-order Cold War social science. Such a statement is hardly meant to conclusively define a major scholar; rather, it is to identify key unresolved tensions running through his work that indicate its historical provenance. In this short essay, I will try to explore the scope and limits of his suggestion.

Bortolini offers circumspect homage to postwar US social science, arguably rose to become internationally dominant due to a combination of circumstances. Academics formed in this context were also intellectually ambitious in ways that can be opaque to those whose intellectual formation occurred much later. One sign of the field’s ambition is suggested in the scope of what was perhaps Bellah’s greatest interest, a theory of religion across space and time. He sought, among other things, to elaborate on the relationship of the contingent to what Mikhail Bakhtin called “great time”; the latter is allied to notions of the transcendental and unchanging (Bellah 2017; on great time, see Bakhtin 1986, 170 passim). Its ambition notwithstanding, such a stance broke away from the dominant mode of progressivism of the postwar period, with its conviction that science and social engineering could settle all the unresolved problems of human history, with the United States leading the way. Bellah, as a man of his time, certainly retained the idea of a future that could be improved through human effort, his own work included. But his sense that “nothing is ever lost,” together with a growing despair about what was to come, meant that he looked to the past, as much as or more than to the future, for answers to his questions. If ideas and interests, play and work, conviviality and conflict, and symbolism and materiality formed the poles of regnant debates, Bellah resisted the social sciences’ tilt toward the second of each of these terms in preference to the first. “Religion” as he understood it brought these foci together.

One can scroll through many histories of postwar social science and find little discussion of religion. Some indices don’t list the word at all.2 We might say that attempts to fit religion into nomothetic, generalizing explanations did not prove satisfactory; the more specific and idiographic accounts fared better. Hence it was in anthropology and in area studies that religion figured as a key concept, not in modernization theory, including Talcott Parsons’s structural functionalism, except as a term whose relevance declined with time (although Parsons apparently never approved of the residual status religion acquired in postwar social science). If religion connected the physical with the metaphysical world and explained why things were the way they were, modernity (in modernization theory) was assumed to be postmetaphysical. Immanuel Wallerstein (1999, 154–55) has observed:

The modern world has been resolutely this-worldly. Whatever it promised was to be validated here and now, or here and shortly. Its quest was in fact resolutely materialist in that it promised economic improvement, ultimately once again for everyone. Its nonmaterial promises, ensconced in the concept of liberty, were all ultimately translatable into material benefits, and supposed liberties that were not translatable in this way were usually denounced as false liberties.

Postwar social science, too, was resolutely this-worldly, turning away from philosophy and cosmological speculation with their world-making properties, toward studying and improving human society. In this conception, modernity, as conceived by modernization theorists, was the summit of human achievement, with religion apparently denoting an inferior stage of development. This was in part a definitional problem: modernity, as for instance in Parsons’s AGIL system, was conceived at a higher level of abstraction than religion.

If there was a lack of attention given to religion in the social sciences, the opposite was the case in American culture and society more generally during the Cold War. To quote one historian on the subject:

…[R]eligion surged in the 1950s. American leaders hailed it as a bulwark against Communism, and a religious revival swept the country. Billy Graham softened Fundamentalism’s hard edge; the National Council of Churches convened for ecumenical cooperation; Bishop Fulton Sheen utilized the new medium of television to launch a national ministry; and Conservative Jews went on a suburban building spree, erecting synagogues and community centers. Religion already was a staple of many newsmagazines; now newspapers paid attention, too. Some even elevated their coverage to a distinct beat assigned to a designated religion writer. Reporting reflected the era’s mores, stories on white Protestants predominated. Outsiders—whether Hindus, Buddhists, or African American Christians—were covered either as peculiar or problematic. (Winston 2012, 10) 

Religion was a matter of national identity, and its institutions and their members were subject to vigorous lobbying, in ways that had public effects. Yet social scientists typically treated religion in the United States as a private or sectional matter, since secularism was held as a fait accompli. “Religion” might have appeared to social scientists to denote a relatively unified referential field. In fact, it was understood variously. At a minimum, we can say that what the term denoted was stratified, comprising among other things a front stage and a back stage that were not subject to the same dynamics, either at home or abroad. Hence, for example, Washington’s preference for Christian Democrats in Europe and for conservative monarchy in the Middle East, while upholding the separation of church and state at home. The intent was anticommunist, and the rationale was that communism represented godless tyranny.3 The political constraints of the Cold War could thus lead to reversing the secular hierarchy assumed by social scientists, but without questioning the assumption that secularization was the overall trend of history.

Religion was therefore a subject of great but underacknowledged sensitivity. Not surprisingly, its study tended to be divorced from questions of politics. Clifford Geertz’s (1973, 90–91) definition of religion as a symbolic system whose effects were perceived as “religious” is an influential example. If religion can be conceived as a system, it was assumed that it could be analyzed in terms that were internal to the system. Furthermore, for religion to have effects, its symbols required communication—a concept that Geertz (1973, 89), following Suzanne Langer, treated as crucial. Whether the terms of communication across systems (e.g., religious, economic, and social) were the same as they were within was not theoretically specified, even if empirical observations were made about it. It is noteworthy, in this connection, that the charge of being naive with respect to power was often leveled at Bellah, whose views on religion were close to those of Geertz.

Bellah was acutely sensitive to power differentials, but he believed that ideas were more influential than material relations of power. Bellah rejected the American exceptionalism inculcated by Cold War ideology, but the intellectual consensus of the time left its traces on his work. Thus his approach to the category of religion, which involved existential and philosophical self-interrogation to an extent that is rare, did not include analyzing the relationship between the object of knowledge and the concept itself, and the changes in that relationship over time. His interest was not in sketching the historical epistemology of religion. Rather, he was fascinated by the concept of religion—more specifically, by what he thought the concept referred to.4

Bellah’s enthusiasm for the idea of communication was symptomatic of Cold War–era social science during the years of his intellectual formation (Rajagopal 2020). He once telephoned to urge me to read Habermas (specifically, volume 2 of Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action), who in some respects is closer to Talcott Parsons than to those in the Frankfurt School, among whom Habermas is usually classified.5 Habermas endorsed a conception of communication as structured by ideal speech assumptions that everyone necessarily holds. Such an ethically freighted view of communication, as something reflecting and affirming a collective consciousness or unconsciousness that held society together, drew Bellah’s interest. Perhaps this interest was due to Bellah’s own background; it is quite inapt for Hinduism, however, where the lowest castes are forbidden access to the scriptures and, in a sense, are spiritually excommunicated from the start. Bellah’s prompting, however, made me inquire into interconnections between religion and communication, something Habermas turned his attention to late in his career (Calhoun et al. 2013).

Communication occupied a peculiar place in modernization theory: it was functionally crucial but theoretically overlooked; it never received treatment from US social scientists commensurate with its systemic importance until the work of Habermas himself, perhaps. Why communication, if it was such an important concept, had little history of inquiry into it before the twentieth-century American enthusiasm for it was seldom asked. Its importance had become self-evident for reasons that were political, technological, and historical.

Very briefly, communication provided the ability to justify appeals to substantive forms of rationality, and hence appeared like a way to emerge out of Weber’s iron cage, since modern societies are otherwise trapped in systems based on instrumental rationality and control. The appeal to communication also appeared to simultaneously meet the challenge of Marxism/communism and transcend it philosophically, evoking similar concerns of sharing and mutuality while not registering the possibility of political antagonism. Communication appeared to represent formal and substantive rationality both, at the same time—but, in fact, it evaded the question of what values would be communicated. Revealingly, Cold War social science defined itself around freedom and against control, and, in so doing, excluded Marxism and, in fact, tacitly defined itself by this exclusion.

Bellah’s own reluctance to engage with Marxism—and his argument for Tocquevillean “habits of the heart,” made with four coauthors—was an attempt to locate a public across regnant political divisions, and to some extent this was achieved (Bellah et al. 1985). It takes nothing away from Bellah’s success if we reflect that his choices unavoidably included tactics reflecting the constraints of his time. I suggest that we could characterize his success as an instance of Cold War social science.

Cold War social science here was defined more by its aloofness from science (along the lines of C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures”) than in its having an agreed-upon definition of humanism. The famous “debate” between Heidegger and Sartre had been around the issue of whether humanism was an essence that preceded its existence, or if its existence proceeded to define its essence; Heidegger eventually dismissed both positions as mired in metaphysics (Sartre 2007; Heidegger 1976; on the debate, see, e.g., Bernasconi 2013; Rabinbach 1994). Arguably, Cold War humanism was postmetaphysical—as, for example, in modernization theory, where human malleability and not any defined essence was presumed. It is a by-product of the idea of the three worlds, following Bandung, when political agonism organizes the global public sphere, but the focus is on utilizing technological infrastructure, bureaucracy, and scientific expertise to subsume, euphemize, and/or muffle overt antagonism into forms of what we can today recognize as societies of command and control. Even as the sociotechnological grows, the mystique around it grows; the social sciences, far from interrogating this development, tended to protect it from scrutiny.

Two key terms that gave Cold War social science such coherence as it acquired, communication and religion, have concept histories whose comparison is instructive. While discussions of the latter can be dated back to Cicero, the discovery of communication as a concept for the modern era is perhaps as recent as the interwar period. In 1949 it was written into the Charter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a fundamental right. The provision was usually interpreted to mean that nothing should deter a free market in information. The slogan “free flow of information” became informal US government policy and, interestingly, was embraced by Silicon Valley’s counterculture and acquired the status of common sense in a way that few government policies have.

The Cold War–era mobilization of the idea of communication built upon a genuine discovery of communication as something like the conceptual equivalent of DNA and a foundational element of both living and nonliving systems (e.g., Wiener 1948). The conception of communication as expressed in slogans for the free flow of communication, however, omitted mention of its increasingly technological mediation and celebrated its expressive implications as purely human. The cultural coding of democratic countries as exemplifying “free communication” implied that communist as well as developing nations suffered from communication that was unfree and imperfect by comparison with countries like the United States.6 There was, arguably, a sense of Orientalism built into the idealization of the term.

There was a similar coding of the concept of “religion,” a term emerging from the history of Christianity and then applied to systems of belief and practice outside the West. To understand a religion and to understand a non-Western “other” were understood as convergent processes that did not necessarily require scholars to be reflexive about their own religious backgrounds (Asad 1983). Bellah’s rejection of “otherization” (to put it crudely) can be related to his idealization of communication. It also corresponds to his ideal-typical treatment of religion; for him, both were arguably categories where ends and means were potentially united, while their worldly entailments were external to this core characteristic.

Religion and communication were ideas that acquired different kinds of political weight in Cold War social science. Religion could not easily appear salient as an analytic term when it was significant as a term of common sense and of political calculation both. In other words, it was ideological. Religion’s ideological character is reflected in the difficulty scholars had in reflecting on its historical deformation by the Cold War, something that becomes more apparent in our own time.

We might say the same of “communication,” although in this case the concept was clarified a century after Marx remarked in The Communist Manifesto on its prodigious political force. Thus cybernetics, in Norbert Wiener’s (1948) formulation, is a term that expresses the inseparability of communication from control; it is precisely with the elision of the latter term that the incantation of “communication” acquires an ideological character. The implication that means can be the end itself is perhaps the most important aspect of this ideology—for example, that the communication of freedom and fulfillment can substitute for the things themselves. More broadly, however, the reliance on communication reflects the postmetaphysical philosophy of modernization theory, where the belief in the numinous and the transcendental has waned, and when serious answers to the questions about the meaning of life that, for example, religious practices may provide are lacking.

If the denigration of religion in modernization theory was postmetaphysical, the exaltation of communication alongside actually provided a fertile context for religions and religious forms of thinking to flourish, forms of thinking that scorned proof and made claims about the lived world that were unverifiable. For this as well as other reasons, the way in which the Cold War was fought, which shaped modernization theory, also contributed to the eventual failure of that theory. After the victory won by liberal capitalism over communism, capitalism became illiberal, and here, too, religion was an ally. Bellah’s instinct was that it was from the ground of religion that the most important battles have to be engaged, for historical and social understanding more broadly. The amplitude and richness of his own engagement, which Bortolini has illuminated so brilliantly, made him one of the most widely read and influential sociologists in the United States. But his influence was greater outside the discipline of sociology than within (“It’s a ghetto!” he once remarked). The discipline had changed, and the times had changed. Thereby hangs a tale.

I hope Bortolini’s important book will initiate a wide-ranging discussion on Bellah’s significance as a scholar—on what he achieved, and what his success in turn illuminates.

My thanks to Ruben Flores and the editors of Civic Sociology for their suggestions.


My distinction here between a putative core and periphery pertains to the historical prestige of the forms of knowledge involved, not to the intellectual value we might assign them today.


This was, for example, a view expressed by John Foster Dulles. See Kinzer 2013, 79 passim.


Eduardo Mendieta (2012) suggests such a reading in his review of Bellah’s last book.


Personal conversation with Robert Bellah, spring 1988, Berkeley, CA.


See, in this connection, Pietz 1988.

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