Habits of the Heart

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 15, 1985, pp. 499-501. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Marty reviews the book Habits of the Heart, by Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Steven Tipton. The authors describe how the self-reliant American leaves home, leaves church. Thus today citizens may believe in God, but their liberal religion has few holds on duty. Meanwhile our rigorous sectarian religion promotes few impulses toward the public good; rather, it stands off, supporting privatism beyond the walls of the church, individualism in the public zone and incoherence overall.

Look closely. The authors are smiling. They have enjoyed their common work. Yet the smiles are forced; their subject does not elicit natural smiles. They are individuals. On the lower left, leaning in, is William M. Sullivan, who has already made a name for his important Reconstructing Public Philosophy. Next to him is Ann Swidler, a Stanford expert on schools. She allows a fraternal hand on the shoulder by Steven M. Tipton, standing right. This Emory professor is winning wide recognition as a “comer” in the new generation of social scientific experts on religion. His reaching, cordial posture helps symbolically to enclose the group. Richard Madsen, upper left, has written on morality and power in a Chinese village. We don’t know him yet, but we will. His hand in his pocket frames the picture just as Tipton’s does across the photograph.

In the center top position, standing a bit to the back and beaming most of all — a mentor but not a patriarch — is the best-known figure. Berkeley sociologist Robert N. Bellah. He has said, and is saying through this posture and this photograph, that this is a venture of people committed to the project, each other and a vision. Yet he is also an individual, one who has made a name and left a stamp. The public does not know him for his early work on Tokugawa Japan. But he scored in 1967 with a well-timed and now classic essay on civil religion in America. The theme is his patent. If that essay was cheery, he followed through a few years later, in a more sour time, with the somber The Broken Covenant (Seabury, 1975). The smile that he wears so easily does not disguise the heaviness of heart that has characterized his work through the ‘70s and 80s. This book is his book and not his book. He says that it is “his” most important to date, and that he is urgent about getting its message out. He is responsible for its final form. Yet it is genuinely an endeavor of common commitment. The four coauthors deserve and receive full credit. That is how things are and should be, where character, duty and virtue survive in a poor and broken world. Yes, the photograph can serve either as the books foreword or as its epilogue.

It is hard to picture a less fashionable book, one less tuned to the Zeitgeist. Those determined not to accept its theme will classify lines they do not like as ‘60ish. Those who find congenial its dream of a freshly committed American public community might think of it as offering a deferred hope, and thus as ‘90ish. Whatever else it is and does, it is not a cheerful report on the ‘80s and its “bread and circuses” politics. It does not cheer the simple competitive individualism that may be born of greed or may be born of altruism — that offers so much short-term opportunity for managerial zealots and contains so much long-term threat of human debris and loss of community. Bellah and his coauthors are not at home with the emergent ethos, with its offer of what Robert Heilbroner has called ‘private morale” at the expense of social or public morale.

They are not at home in America, but they wish to be, and they write about people who are nostalgic for a time when smaller-town values, continuity, tradition and a sense of duty and public virtue presumably colored common life. To do their research and make their points they interviewed some 200 citizens. Studs Terkels they are not, and the voices of their subjects are a bit strained and muffled. We cannot know how representative these 200 people are. Their comments serve as texts for meditations by the five authors, meditations on themes from — where else? — Alexis de Tocqueville. A conservative aristocratic pessimist, and thus a man of insight into an emerging future we would not entrust to him to run. Tocqueville is regarded as the most profound, astute and complex observer of a nation espousing the ideals of equality and freedom. He serves Bellah and company well; their book should inspire many readers to revisit his Democracy in America.

Like Tocqueville, the authors and subjects of Habits of the Heart concentrate on “our character,” on “how to preserve or create a morally coherent life.” Tocqueville spoke of relying on “habits of the heart” to achieve this end. Looking at contemporary American society, the authors find nostalgia, without coherence, striving without goal, hope without plausible concurrent action. The result is a “cancerous” form of individualism.

The authors focused on four research projects: Swidler explored “how the private realm of love and marriage gives shape to people’s lives” Tipton interviewed therapists, psychologists. psychiatrists, clients and others involved in psychotherapy; Madsen “attempted to understand how Americans become involved in public life”; and Sullivan studied two groups dedicated “to political organizing in bringing about social change.” All conducted a portion of their interviews in California, although three also interviewed in a major Southern city,” in Boston and in Philadelphia. One gets the impression that while California is ahead of the rest of us in anomic individualism, the authors find little regional difference; they make little, perhaps too little, of the “where” of respondents. Although they talk about “America,” they concentrate on the white middle-class — an apt limitation, since they wish to focus on norm setters. Consistently they find that mythic, remembered, dreamed-up, hoped-for, instinctual, stereotyped talk of individualism is our “first language,” accompanied though it may be with numbers of second languages.

Behind the best of our languages they find, as Tocqueville did, relatively inert traditions that all five authors presumably wish were more active: biblical thought and imagery, and republican discourse and institutions. Each of these traditions shows high regard for the individual. Even as they see the traditions recede or as they contribute to their erosion, citizens draw on their motifs. But the public shows less and less awareness of the ways that common and committed life is integral to both heritages.

An important half-truth colors the base from which the authors measure. They believe that earlier, Protestant-dominated small-town America was run by people who had access to a more coherent Puritan-Republican symbol system. I wonder whether Bellah et al. do not share something of the nostalgia of their subjects. Was that small-town life so coherent for all? Was it not dominated by elites who have left distorting images? The more adept we are at social, history and the more the historians get close up to small-town America, the more they find an anarchic and chaotic reality. Small-town America was often scofflaw America, full of biting, eye-gouging, bearbaiting, spouse-beating citizens. As for the commonality that was presumed to flow from shared languages: when did more Americans more vigorously seek recourse to biblical and republican languages of coherence than just before 1861-1865, our time of most drastic national disagreement? Yet one must have some standpoint from which to measure a falling off or erosion, and Protestant-Republican small-town America has to serve if one does not wish to reach outside of history to mythic golden ages or future utopias.

To the degree that the picture of where we have come from is true, it is easy to see that we are not there now. We now live in a rationalized, “vastly more interrelated and integrated [society] economically, technically, and functionally.” The authors make much of how the self-reliant American leaves home, leaves church. Citizens believe in God, but their liberal religion has few holds on duty (this is not a book to cheer liberals) and rigorous sectarian religion promotes few impulses toward the public good; rather, it stands off, supporting privatism beyond church, individualism in the public zone and incoherence overall.

Having left home and church, people ground the self in whatever suits them, and concentrate more on “feeling good” than on “being good.” The media, the ethos of the day, the therapies all contribute to encouraging wants associated with that concentration. “Values” becomes an overused code word for “the incomprehensible, rationally indefensible thing that the individual chooses when he or she has thrown off the last vestige of external influence and reached pure, contentless freedom.”; The ideal self is unencumbered.” And these encumbering authors can still smile for their photograph? Now the smiles look like those of the grimly determined who have not given up.

Whatever else the authors may be, they are not condescending or above-the-battle academics. They come across as empathic, concerned, self-critical and aware of the ambiguity of their own participant-observer roles. They believe in the quest for character and find exceptional people who pour their lives into charity, public concerns and the virtues close to home. “A good society . . . depends in the last analysis on the goodness of individuals, not on the soundness of institutions or the fairness of laws,” they conclude. That statement would sound banal had it not come far along in a book that shows how hard it is to reach such simple more-than-half truths.

More than most social analyses, this one gives great place to religion. Yet its most pathetic pages deal with the efforts that private Americans make to develop private faiths. Weep for Sheila Larson, who has the courage and insight to call her religion “Sheilaism.” “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Her comments inspire the authors to make one of many quite apt canvasses across American history — efforts to assess where we have come from and where we are.

The authors know we cannot go all the way home again. We are, they are, citizens of metropolis and cosmopolis who value, and would have others value the local. They are Madisonian pluralists who stress Federalist Paper No. 45 as the preferred side of Madison: “The public good, the real welfare of the great body of the people, is the supreme object to be pursued: and that no form of government whatever has any other value than as it may be fitted for the attainment of this object.”

Over against this, for a mere ten-page stretch, Ronald Reagan makes a cameo appearance as a disrupter of this vision and as an advocate of a nostalgic Individualism that in effect promotes greed. Bellahites always make much of presidential rhetoric. Yet, there is no venom here, and Reagan is seen as much as an exemplar and product of the age as he is its producer. Reagan sees “we the people” as “a special interest group, defining itself by occupation and situating itself not in a polity but in an economy. The Reagan vision is expressed by Justin Dart, who spoke in “franker terms than Reagan himself”: “I have never looked for a business that’s going to render a service to mankind. . . . Greed is involved in everything we do. I find no fault with that’’; while “these crappy issues like equal rights’’ can be treated indifferently. Then, for only three ambiguous lines, Jerry Falwell makes an appearance; he is criticized for his effort to “bring back decency to America” without getting to root problems. Fortunately for the tone of the book, the authors quickly drop the attempt to find or make villains responsible for what is a pervasive ethos.

Robert Bellah is a social scientist who outwaits current fashions and lives with and by a vision even when it may be dismissed as utopian or misguided. I do not believe the vision expressed in Habits of the Heart is utopian; it is too locked into biblical and republican faith and has appeared too frequently and survives too promisingly to be forgotten. It may seem misguided from the angle of extreme individualist or collectivist philosophies, but those who would be guided by biblical and republican texts and norms will find in it a base for measurement, sighting and seeking direction.

Bellah hungers for wholeness in a world of overspecialization, fragmentation and restlessness. He knows enough about 20th-century political life not to look to integrators, engineers of consent or managers of totalist governments to provide wholeness. In the book’s final pages he and his co-conspirators settle for “coherence.” And they conclude with the least fashionable note of all, given the “Sheilaisms” and “anticrappy-issues” outlook of the day. It’s difficult not to think of their closing paragraphs as a sermon: ‘‘It would be well for us to rejoin the human race, to accept our essential poverty as a gift, and to share our material wealth with those in need.” While those in power smile smugly, the public shrugs, the cynics sneer and the bored yawn, it is likely that some fellow Madisonians and Tocquevilleans will respond as one might to a sermon: “Amen”