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The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial by Robert N. Bellah

Robert N. Bellah is emeritus professor of sociology and comparative studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is author of many books, including The Broken Covenant (Seabury Press 1975) and, with others, Habits of the Heart (U. of California Press, 1996). A Crossroad Book: The Seabury Press, New York, 1975.


The six chapters that make up this book were first given as the Weil Lectures at Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati in the fall of 1971, and some of them have been given at other schools since then. In spite of many subsequent revisions the spoken character of the original lectures seemed worth preserving. Since formal speech is perhaps the most native form of conscious American expression, it seemed good that this book retain that traditional characteristic.

From the beginning I would like to acknowledge my amateur status as an Americanist, though not. I hope, as an American. What value the book has lies in its interpretations rather than in new data uncovered. Throughout I have depended on the scholarship of others, most of whom are historians, literary critics, or political scientists, but the primary data are the original texts written or spoken by Americans from the 17th century to the present, that are liberally scattered through every chapter. The purpose of the book is to attempt to understand certain central features of the American tradition from the point of view of the problems of late 20th-century America. I want to interpret the tradition in terms of the present and the present in terms of the tradition, thus setting up a communication between past and present in the service of enhanced self-understanding.1 Such an enterprise differs from an effort to explain American society in terms of social and economic variables. It is an exercise in the analysis and interpretation of cultural meaning rather than in sociological explanation, though some of the latter is necessarily present. I view these two types of study as complementary rather than as mutually exclusive.

I grew up in the 1930s and early 1940s in a milieu in which there were few questions about Protestant Christianity or what were taken to be traditional American values. An essentially unbroken affirmation of American society was confirmed in my experience by America’s leadership in the great antifascist war. It was not until after my graduation from high school in 1945 that I began to have basic doubts about my society. Thus my experience is fundamentally different from that of those born since the middle forties. I do not think now that the religious and ideological heritage that I was given as a child and as an adolescent was an entirely authentic version of the American tradition, but the subjective sense of continuity with the past is an indelible experience that undoubtedly colors even my present perceptions. My break with American values, when it came, was quite radical, and I went through a period of almost total rejection of my own society.2 That experience too must influence my present views. But for the last 15 years or so my attitude toward America has embodied a tension -- odi et amo -- of affirmation and rejection. Of all earthly societies I know that this one is mine and I do not regret it. But I also know through objective observation and personal tragedy that this society is a cruel and bitter one, very far, in fact, from its own highest aspirations.

The tension would not be so great for me and, I suspect, for other Americans, if America itself were not built so centrally on utopian millenial expectations. We shall be exploring in the course of the book the religious substructure of these expectations and the distortions and perversions to which they are subject. But I do not conclude as some others do that the entire tradition of religious-moral understanding of America should therefore be abandoned. The substitution, in an effort to demythologize the political system, of a technical-rational model of politics for a religious-moral one does not seem to me to be an advantage. Indeed it only exacerbates tendencies that I think are at the heart of our problems. If our problems are, as I believe them to be, centrally moral and even religious, then the effort to sidestep them with purely technical organizational considerations can only worsen them. Perhaps a schematic statement of the argument of the book would be helpful at this point.

It is one of the oldest of sociological generalizations that any coherent and viable society rests on a common set of moral understandings about good and bad, right and wrong, in the realm of individual and social action. It is almost as widely held that these common moral understandings must also in turn rest upon a common set of religious understandings that provide a picture of the universe in terms of which the moral understandings make sense. Such moral and religious understandings produce both a basic cultural legitimation for a society which is viewed as at least approximately in accord with them and a standard of judgment for the criticism of a society that is seen as deviating too far from them. This conception of the relation between morality, religion, legitimation, and criticism has not gone unchallenged either by historic or contemporary writers, but here I can only assume it and do not defend it. In the 18th century, as I will attempt to show, there was a common set of religious and moral understandings rooted in a conception of divine order under a Christian, or at least a deist, God. The basic moral norms that were seen as deriving from that divine order were liberty, justice, and charity, understood in a context of theological and moral discourse which led to a concept of personal virtue as the essential basis of a good society.

How far we have come from that common set of understandings is illustrated by the almost negative meaning of the word "virtue" today. It is only a step beyond the derogation of virtue to another current linguistic usage in which the word "bad" is used to mean "good." It is not my point that people in the 18th century were more virtuous or better than people today. The relation between language, morality, and behavior is not so simple. The erosion of language, however, is a symptom of the erosion of common meanings, of which there is a great deal of evidence in our society. This takes the form, which is by now statistically well documented, of a decline of belief in all forms of obligation: to one’s occupation, one’s family, and one’s country. A tendency to rank personal gratification above obligation to others correlates with a deepening cynicism about the established social, economic, and political institutions of society. A sense that the basic institutions of society are unjust and serve the interests of a few at the expense of the many, is used to justify the inapplicability of moral obligations to one’s self.

For some this disillusion with the moral validity of American institutions leads to a passionate sense of injustice and a struggle for a more just society. But for many others it leads only to an admiration of the few who have manipulated the system in their own favor, and to a desire to emulate them, if not in actuality, then in fantasy. Nor would it be difficult to show that the mainline churches, Protestant and Catholic, that have provided the religious framework for the traditional morality, are in disarray, have declining income and attendance, and themselves are the objects of the same suspicion with which all established institutions are viewed. There are very important countertendencies to this moral and religious erosion in particular sectors of the society that will be investigated later, tendencies both to conserve the old understandings and to pioneer radically new ones. But the major tendency in the society at large seems to be erosion rather than reaction or reconstruction.

The erosion of common moral and religious understandings is not identical with increasing moral and social corruption, though there is much evidence of the latter in contemporary America. The increase of crimes against persons and property has many causes, and a declining sense of the immorality of such crimes is certainly one of them. The increase of shoplifting by people of all social classes is a case in point, especially when the excuse, from youths who are by no means radical activists, is that one is "only ripping off the capitalists." Far more serious is the corrosion of morality at the highest reaches of government and business of which we have heard so much in recent times. In spite of the widespread outcries, it remains to be seen whether the internalized moral restraints among the powerful have really been strengthened.

Yet simultaneous with widespread evidence of corruption has been continuous pressure for higher standards of moral behavior. Eighteenth-century Americans with a few notable exceptions tolerated slavery; we do not. Nineteenth-century Americans tolerated violence and discrimination against immigrants and ethnic minorities; we do not. The early 20th century tolerated the notion that women were basically inferior to men, even while giving them the vote; we do not. In the treatment of blacks, ethnic minorities, and women we still have far to go, but it would be hard to argue that we were better in these respects at any earlier period in our history.

The paradox of a declining sense of moral obligation, together with a heightened sense of distributive justice, may be partially explained by observing that both phenomena reflect the influence of the last remaining element of the common value system: individual freedom. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as we will see, freedom was part of a whole articulated framework of moral and religious values -- it meant freedom to do the good and was almost equivalent to virtue. Under the rising criticism of utilitarianism, first in the late 18th century and then with ever greater insistence in the 19th and 20th centuries, freedom came to mean freedom to pursue self-interest, latterly defined as "freedom to do your own thing." To the extent that the Puritan and early republican notions of "the good" and "virtue" were too narrow, too bound up with repressive social and psychological mechanisms, too easily subverted to the defense of particular social arrangements, the utilitarian critique has been genuinely liberating. To the extent that the utilitarian critique was not itself able to construct a moral-religious context for a viable society, it has had to fall back on an uneasy symbiosis with the traditional pattern that it continues to undermine. As the older moral pattern declines in persuasiveness, the only remaining category for the analysis and evaluation of human motives is interest, which by now has replaced both virtue and conscience in our moral vocabulary.

Interest is itself a valid concern and the term has of course been part of the traditional systems of moral thought, but the common-sense utilitarianism that has become the dominant mode of American public morality has torn interest from its larger traditional context and understands it only in terms of the self-interest of the isolated individual. Whether the notion of self, lacking any larger identifications with social and religious realities, and the notion of interest without any encompassing context of loyalties and obligations, can provide a coherent morality for a viable society is certainly open to doubt. The present state of American society is not encouraging with respect to the outcome of that experiment. And we must remember that, no matter how undermined, a remnant of the older morality provides much of what coherence our society still has.

The utilitarian morality of self-interest is only one element of a much larger social and cultural complex that has become increasingly dominant in the last two or three centuries. The rise of science on the one hand and of a market economy and industrial capitalism on the other have been important elements in that complex. The rise of commercial and then industrial capitalism in America neither explains everything nor dictates everything, but it can hardly be ignored. The affinity between this mode of economic organization and certain modes of moral and cognitive culture that have roots deep in western culture undoubtedly helps explain why those modes, utilitarianism and science, have become such central cultural forms in modern America. The complex of capitalism, utilitarianism, and science as a cultural form has its own world view, its own "religion" even -- though it is an adamantly this-worldly one -- and its own utopianism: the utopianism of total technical control, of course in the service of the "freedom" of individual self-interest. The political expression of this complex is a technical-regulative conception of political society in which the state is seen as an essentially neutral arbiter among the contending interest groups, whose competition and countervailing pressures are assumed to guarantee the interest of all.

Much criticism of American society has been based on the acceptance of the rational, technical, utilitarian ideology that I have briefly outlined, and it has been concerned to point out the extent to which that model does not in fact operate very well: that the state is not neutral as between interest groups; the self-interest of some Americans is much better served than the self-interest of others, and so forth. The critical intent of this book is quite different. I hope to show that the liberal utilitarian model was not the fundamental religious and moral conception of America, open as the latter was in certain directions to the development of that model. That original conception, which has never ceased to be operative, was based on an imaginative religious and moral conception of life that took account of a much broader range of social, ethical, aesthetic, and religious needs than the utilitarian model can deal with. Without arguing for the literal revival of that earlier conception, I hope to show that only a new imaginative, religious, moral, and social context for science and technology will make it possible to weather the storms that seem to be closing in on us in the late 20th century. I am convinced that the continued and increased dominance of the complex of capitalism, utilitarianism, and the belief that the only road to truth is science will rapidly lead to the destruction of American society, or possibly in an effort to stave off destruction, to a technical tyranny of the "brave new world" variety.

Still I do not want to present a simple scenario of good guys and bad guys. I do not think that the theologians and poets in America have all been saints and the industrialists and technicians all devils. Our technical rational accomplishments have been stunning, and if they could ever be brought into a context of genuine human sympathy, they could greatly relieve suffering both in America and all over the world. I cannot exonerate the tradition of religious and moral self-understanding, which I am trying to understand and in part reappropriate, from a share of responsibility in our present trials. The Pilgrim Fathers had a conception of the covenant and of virtue which we badly need today. But almost from the moment they touched American soil they broke that covenant and engaged in unvirtuous actions.

The story of America is a somber one, filled with great achievements and great crimes. Ours is a society that has amassed more wealth and power than any other in history. I am not sure that Americans or any other group of human beings have yet attained the wisdom to use such power without self-destruction. I am convinced, though, that the first step toward that wisdom is humility in the face of who we are and where we have come from. If this book makes even a small contribution toward that humility it will not have been in vain.

When I was an undergraduate at Harvard I attended the lectures of F.O. Matthiessen, one of the greatest Americanists of the century. His book, The American Renaissance, is the wisest of all the books about America that I have read. In addition to being a great scholar Matthiessen embodied the tragic dimension of American culture in his own life. It is to his memory that this book is dedicated.

My indebtednesses are many. In particular I would like to thank Professor Samuel Sandmel, chairman of the Frank L. Weil Foundation, for his hospitality during my time at the Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion. Dr. Sandmel and his wife and others associated with the Institute made my stay in Cincinnati a pleasant one. Conrad Cherry and Eli Sagan gave the manuscript a careful reading and made many helpful suggestions. Mrs. Julia Cleland helped with the manuscript and in this as in other projects gave her unfailing support and assistance.



1. Jurgen Habermas describes the method of the "historic-hermeneutic sciences" as follows: "The world of traditional meaning discloses itself to the interpreter only to the extent that his own world becomes clarified at the same time. The subject of understanding establishes communication between both worlds. He comprehends the substantive content of tradition by applying tradition to himself and his situation." Knowledge and Human Interests, Beacon, 1971, pp. 309-310.

2. There is no need to repeal here autobiographical details that have already been included in the Introduction to my Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World, Harper and Row, 1970.

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