Chapter 6: The Birth of New American Myths

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

Chapter 6: The Birth of New American Myths


In the messianic atmosphere surrounding the birth of the republic it was common to refer to England, or Europe generally, as Babylon, in contrast to the New Jerusalem which was America. Today we hear angry voices cry "Babylon" against America. William Blake, who had a profound imaginative sense of the meaning of America in the Context of the revolutionary situation in the Atlantic world, saw Albion as "aged ignorance" clipping the wings, or trying to, of youthful America. But revolutionary youth too quickly turns into aged ignorance and today it is America that engages in clipping wings. The covenant, as we have seen, was broken almost as soon as it was made. For a long time Americans were able to hide from that fact, to deny the brokenness. Today the broken covenant is visible to all.

In 1888 Whitman said, "America is really the great test or trial case for all the problems and promises and speculations of humanity and of the past and present." In the 1970s the eyes of all peoples are still upon us, trying to discern how the great experiment in newness is faring. History lays a heavy burden upon us and there is little ground for optimism. What Whitman wrote in Democratic Vistas a century ago is even more apt today:

For history is long, long, long. Shift and turn the combinations of the statement as we may, the problem of the future of America, is in certain respects as dark as it is vast. Pride, competition, segregation, vicious willfulness, and license beyond example, brood already upon us. Unwieldly and immense, who shall hold in behemoth? who bridle leviathan? Flaunt it as we choose, athwart and over the roads of our progress loom huge uncertainty, and dreadful, threatening gloom. It is useless to deny it: Democracy grows rankly up the thickest, noxious, deadliest plants and fruits of all -- brings worse and worse invaders -- needs newer, larger, stronger, keener compensations and compellers.

Our lands, embracing so much, (embracing indeed the whole, rejecting none,) hold in their breast that flame also, capable of consuming themselves, consuming us all. Short as the span of our national life has been, already have death and downfall crowded close upon us -- and will again crowd close, no doubt, even if warded off. Ages to come may never know but I know, how narrowly during the late secession war . . . our Nationality, . . . just grazed, just by a hair escaped destruction. . . .

Even today, amid these whirls, incredible flippancy, and blind fury of parties, infidelity, entire lack of first-class captains and leaders, added to the plentiful meanness and vulgarity of the ostensible masses -- that problem, the labor question, beginning to open like a yawning gulf, rapidly widening every year -- what prospect have we? We sail a dangerous sea of seething currents, cross and under-currents, vortices -- all so dark, untried -- and whither shall we turn? It seems as if the Almighty had spread before this nation charts of imperial destinies, dazzling as the sun, yet with many a deep intestine difficulty, and human aggregate of cankerous imperfection, -- saying, lo! the roads, the only plans of development, long and varied with all terrible balks and ebullitions. You said in your soul, I will be empire of empires, overshadowing all else, past and present, putting the history of old-world dynasties, conquests behind me, as of no account -- making old history a dwarf -- I alone inaugurating largeness, culminating time. If these, O lands of America, are indeed the prizes, the determinations of your soul, be it so. But behold the cost, and already specimens of the cost. Thought you greatness was to ripen for you like a pear? If you would have greatness, know that you must conquer it through ages, centuries -- must pay for it with a proportionate price. For you too, as for all lands, the struggle, the traitor, the wily person in office, scrofulous wealth, the surfeit of prosperity, the demonism of greed, the hell of passion, the decay of faith, the long postponement, the fossil-like lethargy, the ceaseless need of revolutions, prophets, thunderstorms, deaths, births, new projections and invigorations of ideas and men.1

Certainly today we stand in need of those new invigorations and new projections. The burden of the present with all its special problems makes us wonder about our past. What does it mean to us? How can we appropriate it? In 1926, while working on his great mythic poem, "The Bridge," Hart Crane expressed one side of the problem: "The form of my poem rises out of a past that so overwhelms the present with its worth and vision that I’m at a loss to explain my delusion that there exist any real links between that past and a future destiny worthy of it."2 And yet, out of what we know now, comes the opposite doubt: Amid the pride, sin, weakness, and error of our past is there any strength for us? Is there a foundation on which to build?

The recognition of the broken covenant does not mean to me the rejection of the American past. We are not innocent, we are not the saviors of mankind, and it is well for us to grow up enough to know that. But there have been Americans at every point in our history who have tried to pick up the broken pieces, tried to start again, tried once more to build an ethical society in the light of a transcendent ethical vision. That too is part of our tradition, and if we can find no sustenance there, our prospect is even darker than it now seems.


Today the American civil religion is an empty and broken shell. It was from the beginning an external covenant. That in itself is no fault, for external covenants are necessary. Until we are all as angels, external law and restraint are essential for any kind of social existence. But in a republic an external covenant alone is never enough. It is of the nature of a republic that its citizens must love it, not merely obey it. The external covenant must become in internal covenant and many times in our history that has happened. In a series of religious and ethical revivals, that external covenant has become filled with meaning and devotion. Even though that inner meaning and devotion has often been betrayed, genuine achievements have been left behind. It is better that slavery has been abolished. It is better that women have the vote. But the internal covenant can never be completely captured by institutions; its life is that of the spirit and it has its own rhythms.

What we face today, however, is not simply a low ebb in that spiritual rhythm such as we have laced many times before. It is not that our external covenant is performing its function while waiting once again to be filled with a new measure of devotion. The external covenant has been betrayed by its most responsible servants and, what is worse, some of them. including the highest of all, do not even seem to understand what they have betrayed. Nor can we discount the events that were disclosed in the second presidential term of Richard Nixon as the work of a small band of wicked men. The men in question, it seems, were not notably more wicked than other Americans. When the leaders of a republic no longer understand its principle it is because of a history of corruption and betrayal that has affected the entire society.

The New England Puritans were certain that a broken covenant would not go unpunished. Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address spoke of the retribution that was being exacted from the nation because of slavery. It is not easy to discern the workings of Providence. But is it not possible that our punishment for breaking the covenant is to be the most developed, progressive, and modern society in the world? What those adjectives point to is utter devastation -- of the natural world in which we live, of the ties that bind us to others, of the innerness of spiritually sensitive personality, as we have seen in earlier chapters. Our punishment, ironically, lies in our "success," and that too not for the first time in history.3

If our economic and technological advance has placed power in the hands of those who are not answerable to any democratic process; weakened our families neighborhoods as it turned individuals into mobile, competitive achievers; undermined our morality and stripped us of tradition -- as I think it has -- then we must consider where else to turn. It is natural that we should turn to tradition in time of need. But our relation to tradition, which is the subject of this book, is an ambiguous one. On the one hand our ties to tradition, whatever religious or ethnic group we come from, have been enormously eroded in the last century by the advance of modernization. For that reason any living link to tradition is precious. But on the other hand, in many curious ways, tradition is the cause of our present condition. Our reappropriation of tradition then must be in a sense "negative" -- that is, critical -- recognizing the brokenness with the wholeness, the defeat with the victory. Above all any reappropriation of tradition must be made in the full consciousness of our present experience of loss. In these ways an authentic reappropriation is the direct opposite of the nostalgic, sentimental, and uncritical presentation of tradition in the mass media. They offer tradition as palliative. We need tradition as stimulus to rebirth.


The delineation of tradition in every chapter of this book has been critical. But perhaps we need to dwell for a few pages more on that moment of negativity that is so essential in our coming to terms with our history. "Success" with all its ambiguities has been the main story. Perhaps we need to look a little more explicitly at defeat. If we are to free ourselves for the future we must remember what we would rather forget.

Defeat is not a common experience in America, or perhaps I should say it is not a majority experience, and there have been many ways to mitigate its consequences. When the going got tough Roger Williams could go to Rhode Island and Jonathan Edwards could go to Stock-bridge. The history of the Mormon is one of the most instructive in this regard.4 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was the largest and most successful of all the 19th-century communitarian experiments, and its history is almost a paradigm of that of the nation. Harassed in New York and Ohio, the early Mormons under Joseph Smith moved to Missouri. Driven out of Missouri, they built their thriving city of Nauvoo in Illinois. With the prophet murdered and Nauvoo burned, they set out in the dead of winter under the leadership of Brigham Young to cross the prairies and the mountains and found a new Zion in Utah. There they established an independent and self-maintaining agricultural society only very loosely under American governmental control. In the 1880s they were finally defeated in Utah too and lost their economic independence to the superior power of the dominant society. But once again they adapted, making a virtue of their economic marginality to carve a secure place in the larger society. Today they have almost obliterated from their memory the experience of one of the most crushing series of persecutions and defeats any community has ever suffered at the hands of the American government.

Others have not been so fortunate and have had to give defeat a more unflinching look. The South in the Civil War was the only part of our nation ever to experience directly the devastation of modern warfare in what was one of the largest and most destructive of 19th-century wars. While an indelible consciousness of defeat has lingered in the South it was softened by two contrasting strategies: one was the sentimentalization and glorification of the "lost cause"; the other was the identification with the aggressor which has made Southerners among the most nationalistic and militaristic supporters of American imperialism. However, in the work of William Faulkner, perhaps the only 20th-century novelist worthy of standing beside Hawthorne and Melville, the southern sense of defeat has been deepened into a genuine apprehension of tragedy, not so much by dwelling on the actual military defeat as by an unsparing delineation of the triumph of rapacious commercial values that followed it. Faulkner’s description of the rape of the land, the destruction of a stubborn and hard-pressed peasantry, and the corruption of the southern middle and upper classes by those values transcends its particularly southern context and applies to America generally.5

Without any question it is the racial minorities -- Indians, blacks, Mexican Americans, and Asian Americans -- who have known defeat most deeply, most bitterly, and most continuously in American history. It is only in the last ten years that we have begun to become aware, partially and ambiguously, of the spiritual meaning of those defeats. There is of course more than one way to respond to radical defeat. One response is sheer disintegration and its spiritual expression a wordless scream. American history is punctuated with such screams out of the darkness. Another way, as with the South after the Civil War, is to identify with the aggressor and parody the worst aspects of the dominant system. Oppression often dehumanizes and there is nothing to be gained from hiding that fact. But there is the possibility of a third response. In the face of defeat one can attempt to build and maintain some kind of community that will not only aid in physical survival but be a model of human values in stark contrast to the oppressing society. Such efforts are likely to fail more often than they succeed, but even the defeats can be instructive. Many examples could be discussed, but I would like to consider one from that group whose present existence is perhaps the most damning testimony against the course of American history: the American Indian.

It would be instructive to analyze the Second Battle of Wounded Knee. Its effort to create community in the face of suspicion, its combination of idealism and despair, its testimony to the corruption of both oppressor and oppressed, and its tragic heroism in trying to actualize human values against impossible odds is a kind of microcosm of much of American history, but it would take a book to do it justice. Instead I would like to take the simpler but no less stark example of the death of Larry Casuse.6

On the first morning of March 1973, Larry Casuse, a young Navaho student at the University of New Mexico, entered the office of Frankie Garcia, mayor of Gallup, and put a gun to the mayor’s head. He marched the mayor to a nearby sporting goods store which was quickly surrounded by police. The mayor escaped by jumping through a window and Larry Casuse was shot to death. Exactly what this previously peaceful young Navaho had in mind was not clear. Perhaps he wanted to hold the mayor hostage to negotiate about Indian problems in Gallup. Perhaps he merely wanted to humiliate the mayor and show the often humiliated Indian population that officials are only human. Certainly, if his intention had been murder, he could have carried it out easily. Some observers saw his action as suicidal from the beginning.

Larry Casuse was born and grew up in Gallup and his effort to learn about the traditional Navaho way had only begun in adolescence. He had become fascinated with the Navaho ideal of harmony with nature and man and the contrast to that ideal that American society presented. He became president of the Kiva Club, the Indian society at the University of New Mexico, and guided its interest toward both a recovery of traditional Indian thought and efforts to improve the conditions of Indians in American society. Larry and his friends were intrigued with the Navaho conception of "false people," so lacking in human feeling and so hypocritical that they can scarcely be considered human. Frankie Garcia, the mayor of Gallup, was a prime example of such a false person because, while owner of a tavern catering to Indians, he was chairman of an alcoholism project. When Garcia was nominated as a regent of the University of New Mexico, Larry Casuse went to Santa Fe to testify against the nomination. "The man is an owner of the Navaho Inn, where numerous alcoholics are born, yet he ironically is chairman of the alcohol-abuse rehabilitation committee," he told the senators. "Does he not abuse alcohol? Does he not abuse it by selling it to intoxicated persons who often end up in jail or a morgue from over-exposure?"7

When Garcia’s nomination as a regent was confirmed by the legislature in January, Larry Casuse was very bitter. That may have helped bring on the March confrontation. After his death a statement from the Kiva Club, addressed to "All Human Beings," said, "The real issue is not who-shot-whom, as the national media seem to imply, but rather why Larry Casuse so willingly sacrificed his life in order to communicate with the world his dream of unifying human beings with Mother Earth, the Universe, and Humanity."8 We may agree that Larry Casuse died for a conception of community that he found sadly lacking in his social environment. But we must also ask why his action so utterly violated his own ideals. He made the classic American mistake of defining his community too exclusively, distinguishing too radically the subhuman "false people" from the "Human Beings."

We have said that defeat in America has not been a majority experience. American history has usually been presented as a great "success story, and much in that story is true. But there has been a compulsive concentration on the means of attaining success with little concern about the broader terms in which success is to be measured. William James warned us about the pitfalls of this compulsive preoccupation, what he called he called the bitch-goddess SUCCESS, around the turn of the century. But Americans have not wanted to hear about pitfalls. They have been compulsively afraid of defeat and have preferred to banish "negative thinking" from their consciousness while they magically reiterate the theme of self-confidence and victory. But in the late decades of the 20th century it is becoming increasingly difficult to exercise that form of mind control. The shadow of defeat keeps appearing, as I have suggested, not somewhere at the periphery but in the very midst of our alleged success. A nation that has never known anything but military victory has recently twice had to settle for a draw, not because we have really been beaten, but because our very intoxication with our own power has led us into untenable situations where the cost of "victory" became so great that it was no longer tolerable. The illusion that our power allows us to be the world’s policeman is now gone and there is the growing realization that our relative power in the world is in decline.

But far more serious are the inner problems that we face at home. Mostly brought on by our long love affair with economic development without adequate attention to anything else, there are everywhere signs of ecological and social breakdown. The economy itself seems unresponsive to the "fine tuning" of the new economics or to the cruder measures of the old. As our defeats and failures become ever harder to deny, the specter of complete collapse looms on the horizon. We may indeed, as John Winthrop warned, "perish out of this good land whither we passed over the vast sea to possess it." Or perhaps we may still gain some wisdom by looking at the abyss, which has been there all the time but which we in America have for so long steadfastly refused to see.

Of course, not all Americans, even in the majority community, have refused to see. The Puritan fathers were quite aware of the darkness that is so important a part of human existence, and even in the 19th century, when progressive optimism seemed to carry all before it, there were those who saw the truth. The personal experience of our greatest artists revealed to them that to which their compatriots remained blind. Hawthorne, for example, in 1859, on the very verge of the Civil War, saw "that pit of blackness that lies beneath us, everywhere. The firmest substance of human happiness," he said, "is but a thin crust spread over it, with just reality enough to bear up the illusive stage scenery amid which we tread. It needs no earthquake to open the chasm. A footstep, a little heavier than ordinary, will serve; and we must step very daintily, not to break through the crust at any moment. By and by, we inevitably sink!"9 In 1876 Melville, in describing the happy domestic scene of a mother and child, remarked, "Under such scenes abysses be -- / Dark quarries where few care to pry.10 Perhaps he remembered that day not ten years before when his own eldest son, 18 years old, shot himself to death in his room at home. But deep as was the sense of personal tragedy in Hawthorne and Melville, it was part of a larger vision of social tragedy. Both men worried deeply about the future of their society. Melville expressed his concern about the coming "Dark Ages of Democracy," since the New World had come too suddenly "to share old age’s pains -- / To feel the arrest of hope’s advance." And then mankind will hear the sad cry, "No New World to mankind remains!"11 Melville already foreshadows the transformation of New Jerusalem into Babylon.

Melville and Hawthorne were able to turn their own defeats, their own experiences of nothingness, into great art. Their art was not only a personal triumph but a social triumph, for it showed that even in this raw new country tragic understanding was possible. How can we today turn the defeat that hangs over us, the defeat that ripens in the very midst of our "success," into understanding and action? For that we need also the life-giving, positive aspect of tradition that was much closer and more accessible to Hawthorne and Melville than it is to us. We need to see as they did that the negative and the affirmative aspects of tradition are not ultimately separate. Only through a sense of tragedy is it possible to be instructed by the past. But for them tradition was still something lived, complex as their relation to it was. For us tradition is on the way to becoming something we know about but do not live. While our knowledge is more complete and more accurate than ever before, it is also disembodied, alienated from our daily lives. Our lives are ruled by an insistent commercial culture that is a parody of any tradition. We need to consider then, not only what can speak to us, but how to make it genuinely our own.


As a first step, I would argue, we must reaffirm the outward or external covenant and that includes the civil religion in its most classical form. The Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution have never been fully implemented. Certainly the words "with liberty and justice for all" in the Pledge of Allegiance are not factually descriptive. But while I can understand the feeling of a Garrison that such hypocritically employed documents should be rejected, I would follow the course of a Weld and insist that they be fulfilled. If they have never been completely implemented, neither have they been entirely without effect. If the liberty they protect is largely negative, largely a defense against encroachment, it is still the indispensable condition for the attainment of any fuller freedom. It is for this reason that the reassertion of constitutional principles in the face of the recent challenge is so essential. If we allow the external covenant to be subverted utterly. then our task is infinitely greater: not to renew a republic, but to throw off a despotism. Given the technical resources of the modern world, challenging a despotism is overwhelmingly difficult. But to stop at the reaffirmation of the external covenant may ultimately defeat even that goal.

The defense of negative freedom, of civil rights and liberties, while ignoring massive injustice, poverty, and despair will be self-defeating. Negative freedom only defends the individual against incursions, whereas positive freedom actually creates the conditions for the full participation of all Positive freedom, what Jefferson called public freedom, has always been an element in American political life, even though its meaning has changed over time. That larger freedom that not only defends self-interest, as negative freedom does, but fulfills it in the common good, is the essence of the inward or internal covenant. It is to that end that revivals, reawakenings, and renewals have occurred. As part of the increasing dominance of technical reason the idea has grown up, at least in the 20th century, that positive freedom is a purely technical problem, one that should be left to the experts and the bureaucrats to solve. Matters of "public policy" have been seen as largely instrumental, involving the effective use of means. However, cut off from some larger end that is understood and internalized by the society as a whole, and particularly by the recipients of the public policy in question, purely technical and administrative solutions have again and again broken down. Instead of solving problems they have only created new ones, as in the cases of urban renewal and the welfare system. Once again we find that the autonomous technical reason that is the basis of our success carries the seeds of our doom.

It is not technical reason as such that is at fault but the fact that it has come unhinged from a larger religious and moral context. Technical reason can never tell us about ends, and the public freedom we need is always related to that telos that end in terms of which society as a whole makes sense. But how do we know that end? Neither sociology nor economics nor political science nor even law and government can teach it to us, though we may hope that they are all informed by it. There are two ways we can know the end. One is through tradition, or that part tradition, myth, that summarizes the deepest experiences of the group. Myth tells the story of those encounters that are considered sacred because they have revealed what reality is and how we should act in relation to it. The other way is through reason, not technical reason but that more comprehensive reason that gives us knowledge of the whole, what can be called transcendental reason or ecstatic reason. As examples of ecstatic reason we might cite Plato’s vision of the Good, Spinoza’s intellectual love of God, or Edwards’s and Backus’s love of Being and all beings.12

In a period like our own, when we have lost our sense of direction, when we do not know where our goal is, when our myths have lost their meaning and comprehensive reason has been eclipsed by calculating technical reason, there is need for a rebirth of imaginative vision. In the face of such a situation imagination can sometimes fuse myth and ecstatic reason to render a new vision, a new sense of direction and goal. Such a new vision is never unrelated to older visions -- that is why tradition is so important; but neither is it identical with them -- that is why ecstatic reason must also be involved.

Given the dominance of technical reason, it might be assumed that our society would be suffering from a great dearth of imaginative vision. It is true that spiritual aridity is widespread in many sectors of our society, but if we look more closely we will see that rather than a dearth there is a superabundance of competing visions. The late 60s saw a spiritual ferment that has been compared to a great awakening. Even though the cultural revolution of at period seems to have prematurely withered, new religious groups, often with a small but fervent following, continue to proliferate.


The religious movements that grow while the established religious bodies continue to decline share one thing in common: they take a dim view of contemporary American society. In spite of great diversity of origin and symbol, and widely varying degrees of spiritual sensitivity, most of them are not only critical but contain an apocalyptic or millennial note. The numerous followers of Yogi Bhajan see the present as the last degenerate stage of a 2,000-year-old Piscean Age, into which the new Aquarian Age is about to dawn. The Hare Krishna chanters see the world at the end of the materialistic Kali-Yuga, the last cycle in a four-cycle sequence, and predict the coming of a new age of peace and happiness. The world gathering of the followers of Majaraj Ji in Houston was called Millennium ‘73. And many Pentecostal and Jesus groups see the present in biblical terms as the end of times just before Jesus is to return.

The apocalyptic note extends well beyond religious groups proper and affects many secular critics of contemporary America as well. Secular critics share with religious critics much the same image of what is wrong with present America whether they see the new age in terms of "body awareness" and "sensitivity training" or socialist revolution. Exotic as their background may be, all these critics of the present are part of a tradition that goes back continuously to the beginning of the settlement of America. Another element of continuity, conscious or not, is the idea that they are a remnant, a people called out of the larger doomed society to herald a new age.

Much of the content of the criticism of American society is familiar. It sees America as infatuated with materialism, on a "power trip" or an "ego trip," trying to force its will on nature, other societies, and the deep interior of the self. The dominance of technical reason, the success ideal, and control by unresponsive bureaucracies, aspects of American society discussed in this book, are frequently mentioned by these critics. But some go much further and turn away not only from modern America but from the whole Western tradition. They reject biblical religion and choose instead one of South or East Asian origin. In so doing they reject a biblical conception of God and the idea of obedience to God as the chief form of religious action. Rather they emphasize the experience of mystical illumination and seek in their religious action to overcome all dualisms and find unity with nature and the universe. They deny the clear distinction between God and the self that is so central in biblical religion. Many of them also reject the mastery of humans over nature and of men over women and children that biblical religion has often nurtured. On the latter point the evidence is ambiguous, since masculine dominance has frequently been part of oriental religion. But westerners have drawn what they saw as the clear implications of these traditions for sex relationships less informed by masculine dominance. When western female Zen masters were ordained in Japan, something without traditional warrant, there was no objection. If the biblical tradition has been rejected so has the Greek. The obligation to give a clear intellectual account of one’s faith, one of the Greek elements in western religion, is not felt as compelling by those who have taken up oriental cults. The emphasis is rather on direct experience, unmediated by reflective intelligence. The oriental traditions too have their intellectual tradition but in America today there is much less emphasis on studying the sutras, say, than on the practice of meditation.

Interest in oriental religion goes back in America to the early 19th century, as we have seen, but never before have significant numbers of people gone beyond reading books to become adepts and engage in arduous practice. The followers of oriental religions are still few, perhaps less than one per cent nationally, but they are from a strategic group. They come by and large from the most privileged, best educated strata of American youth. They include many who would have been expected to excel in conventional career patterns. A negative attitude toward established American economic and political institutions is clearer among those practicing oriental disciplines than among those who are drawn into new forms of Christian community. Many of the former have chosen to live communally and to work in nonprofessional occupations in order to make the collective self-sufficient. Many turn to manual jobs or crafts and some in rural communes engage in farming. They reject mass culture along with the dominant economic system and create their own art, music, and festivities. In all these ways they demonstrate a clear witness in opposition to the major trends of American society.

The followers of oriental religions are in a sense counterparts to and sometimes refugees from radical political groups that have been active in America since the early 6os. They share much the same analysis of American society and culture though they have adopted a different strategy. Those among the older established religious groups who have become dissatisfied with conventional religiosity may also be divided into those opting for direct political action and those seeking to form new religious communities. Jews, Catholics, and Protestants have been led by the ethical demands of their faith to direct political action, as in the case of the Berrigans and William Sloan Coffin. Others have found in the recent disarray of American society occasion to intensify their specifically religious commitment. Hasidism has had an appeal to young Jews as have Pentecostal and Jesus movements to Catholics and Protestants. While often not sharing the radical political views of their activist coreligionists, they too tend to withdraw from the main society, establish separate social and cultural enclaves, and await a better time.

While this spiritual ferment does not threaten the established order, it does signal a shift in the main line of American culture. Now, as before in American history, the still small voice that is heard only by the spiritually sensitive may portend seismic changes for the society as a whole. The dominant liberal utilitarian culture has been challenged many times but perhaps never by such an array of political and religious alternatives. While it would not be true to say that faith in technical reason is dead, it has sustained a succession of severe shocks. Many Americans, more than in a long time, have come to feel that our problems do not arise merely from a faulty choice of means but from a failure of our central vision. They seek a new or renewed vision and turn to the great myths and symbols of the world’s religions to find it. In humanistic psychology and in certain areas of philosophy, anthropology, literary criticism, and religious studies concerned with the meaning and function of myth and symbol, there is a return to comprehensive or holistic reason, a new emphasis on the immediacy of experience, that makes the appropriation of religious traditions more possible for educated people than has been the case for a long time.13

Much that is happening can be understood in terms of the Protestant conversion/covenant pattern -- even when it does not use that language. But there is a renewal of the sources of religious imagination that have been dry for two centuries. Most of that renewal has come from outside the Protestant tradition -- from the oriental emphasis on immediate experience and harmony with nature, from the Catholic emphasis on community and the sacramental life, from the Jewish experience of keeping the faith in the midst of disaster. But the millennial note, the ethical criticism of society, and the insistence on the role of a remnant that already embodies the future, are thoroughly in consonance with the central theme of the American Protestant experience.14


In spite of these voices in the wilderness, the main drift of American society is to the edge of the abyss. Nor are the new developments entirely without problems.

I think we must distinguish between core and periphery in the social criticism of America. At the core are those actually experimenting in a serious and disciplined way with new forms of community and symbolic expression. A much larger number, however, perhaps a majority of a whole generation, has been influenced by the criticism of the old order but has accepted no new discipline in its stead. For them the critical rhetoric may simply reinforce the narrow individualism and concern with self-interest that is the underside of the old American tradition, but now with few ethical restraints, because the older social justifications have lost their legitimacy. Some critics of American society welcome this erosion of all normative order in the society and see it as a prelude to "revolution." I do not. Cynicism and moral anarchism, whether expressed in crimes against persons and property by the dispossessed or in self-interested manipulation by the better-off, are, if I read modern history right, more likely a prelude to authoritarianism if not fascism. Those who would criticize all the accepted conventions of our society -- all the inherited obligations to family, friends, work and country -- as "bourgeois" may be sowing bitter seeds. A period of great social change always produces a certain amount of antinomianism and anarchism. But by that very token a time of great change is a time of great danger. Change can be, as anyone who reads the 20th century can see, for the worse as well as for the better.

What I am calling the "core groups," those actually trying to live a new vision, give hope in that they are actually working out a new balance of impulse and control, energy and discipline, rather than abandoning all control and discipline. But here too there are problems. In the great welter of urban and rural communes, political and religious collectives, sects, cults, and churches that have sprung up in recent years, there are many interesting developments. A new balance of manual and mental labor, work and celebration, male and female traits have been experimented with. Harmony with nature and one’s own body, a more "feminine" and less dominating attitude toward one’s self and others, an ability to accept feelings and emotions -- including feelings of weakness and despair -- a willingness to accept personal variety, have all been valued and tried in practice. Elsewhere I have indicated that whereas biblical religions are oriented to a sky god, the new religions, explicitly or implicitly, seem more oriented to an earth goddess:

Unlike the religions of the sky father this tradition celebrates Nature as a mother. The sky religions emphasize the paternal, hierarchical, legalistic and ascetic, whereas the earth tradition emphasizes the maternal, communal, expressive and joyful aspects of existence. Whereas the sky religions see fathers, teachers, rulers and gods exercising external control through laws, manipulation or force, the earth tradition is tuned to cosmic harmonies, vibrations and astrological influences. Socially the [earth tradition] expresses itself not through impersonal bureaucracy or the isolated nuclear family but through collectives, communes, tribes and large extended families. 15

The very extent to which these new emphases are merely the reversed image of the old ones raises questions. Much of the "counterculture" was the bringing to consciousness of what was present but repressed in old American culture, and most followers of the counterculture have all the old traits present but repressed in themselves. The willingness to actually experiment with new forms of personal and social existence has been most valuable. Ideas that are not lived are seldom effective. But one may doubt that a synthesis adequate to our problems has yet been attained. Probably more of the old biblical culture needs to be included in a new pattern for America than the counterculture would allow. The Jesus movements have not made the synthesis either, for they have not really absorbed the new challenge to the inherited culture.

Lived experimentation with new forms is one of the few hopeful things in contemporary America. We may learn much from it. But the results are not all in, and the transferability of small group patterns to the whole society may turn out to be slight. For example, recent experiments with new patterns of authority seem to show, just as did similar communitarian experiments in the 19th century, that the more egalitarian the group, the more ephemeral it is. Groups with strong leaders, unquestioned authority, rituals and ethical codes seen as beyond doubt seem more likely to survive over time. Such authoritarian patterns can be quite oppressive within the group, but since members can leave to return to the larger society or to find a more congenial group, there are limits to their despotic potential. But America under the leadership of the Maharaj Ji or America organized along the lines of the Children of God, would not be a pleasing prospect.

While decentralization and community decision-making are in themselves a valuable lesson for the larger society, the kind of socialism that marks the practical existence of small groups cannot be simply generalized to the nation. Communes provide few clues to the reorganization of large-scale industry, technology, and science that are needed if we are to survive our third time of trial.

The emphasis on experience and practice in the new groups is among their most valuable contributions, but they are not greatly helpful with the larger intellectual problems that face us. A serious intellectual critique of our society must be based on a fuller analysis than most of them have made. They may contribute to that revival of comprehensive reason that could lead us to a new sense of social telos, but alone they are not likely to create it. Their abstention from mass culture is admirable, though the temptations toward co-optation are great. But they have not done more than create a stimulus toward a larger cultural revival. Finally, their concerns are personal, local, and universal but seldom national; and many of our severest problems can only be handled at the national level.

Valuable as the current group experimentation is, it alone will not solve our problems. Only a national movement, by which I do not mean a single national organization, can begin to meet these problems. Such a movement would have a political, I believe socialist, side. It would also have an intellectual and a religious side. Whatever we might wish, the national community exercises control over our fate and in part over the fate of the world. It is our moral responsibility as Americans not to give up the struggle at the national level. As I have argued throughout this book, critical Americans must not leave the tradition of American idealism entirely to the chauvinists. The history of modern nations shows that segmentary rational politics is not enough. No one has changed a great nation without appealing to its soul, without stimulating a national idealism as even those who call themselves materialists have discovered. Culture is the key to revolution: religion is the key to culture. If we win the political struggle, we will not even know what we want unless we have a new vision of man, a new sense of human possibility, and a new conception of the ordering of liberty, the constitution of freedom. Without that, political victory, even were it attainable, could have no lasting result.


The present spiritual condition of America is not very cheering. Melville wrote of our condition more than a century ago when he spoke of landlessness: ‘as in landlessness alone rests highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God -- so better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety."16 Landlessness is a condition of being "at sea" and that is where we are, and in a rising storm. If the storm wakes us from false innocence, makes us see our world as it is and not as we blindly wished it to be, then it may be the beginning of liberation. We certainly need a new ‘Great Awakening." The inward reform of conversion, the renewal of an inward covenant among the remnant that remains faithful to the hope for rebirth, is more necessary than it has ever been in America. The great experiment may fail utterly, and such failure will have dark consequences not only for Americans but for all the world.

We should not be so overawed by the late American worship of technical reason that we enter once again the illusion of omnipotence. One of the tenets of the early Puritans that we could well remember is that the millennium is brought by God, not man. Above all, - Americans need to learn how to wait as well as to act. We have plunged into the thickets of this world so vigorously that we have lost the vision of the good. We need to take again to see visions and dream dreams. But as Plato wrote so long ago, the vision of the good does not exempt us from life in the cave. Faith is not utilitarian but neither is it an escape from the search for the useful.

We do not know what the future holds and we must give up the illusion that we control it, for we know that it depends not only on our action but on grace. While recognizing the reality of death, we may return finally to Winthrop’s biblical injunction:

Let us choose life.



1. The Works of Walt Whitman, Vol. II, Funk and Wagnalls, 1968, pp. 256-257.

2. Quoted in R. W. B. Lewis, The Poetry of Hart Crane, A Critical Study, Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 228.

3. If, as I believe, we are choking on our own progress, perhaps we can agree with Max Horkheimer that what we need "is no longer the acceleration of progress, but rather the jumping out of progress [der Sprung aus dem Fortschritt heraus]." Quoted in Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination, A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1930, Little, Brown, 1973, p. 157.

4. I did field work in a Mormon community in New Mexico in 1953 and at that time read a great deal about the history of Mormonism. Recently I had the opportunity to read an as yet unpublished book on the Mormons, The Evolution of Mormonism, by Mark Leone. My remarks are in part indebted to Professor Leone who was also kind enough to make some helpful suggestions on my first draft.

5. See Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner.’ The Yoknapatapha Country, Yale University Press, 1963.

6. My account of the life and death of Larry Casuse is based on Calvin Trillin, "U. S. Journal: Gallup, N. M." in The New Yorker, May 12, 1973.

7. Ibid., p. 127.

8. Ibid., p. 131.

9. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun, Chapter 18, Signet Edition, 1961, p. 122.

10. Melville, Clarel, p. 52.

11. Ibid., pp. 483-484.

12. See Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, University of Michigan Press, 1960, and for Backus the passage on page 20 above.

13. See Robert N. Bellah, Beyond Belief Part III. I do not mean to imply that the many serious problems involved in the reappropriation of traditional religious symbols in the present cultural situation have all been solved.

14. Much of this section is based on research on religious consciousness among young people in the San Francisco Bay area conducted by a research group under the direction of Charles Glock and myself between 1971 and 1974.

15. Robert N. Bellah, "No Direction Home -- Religious Aspects of the American Crisis." in Myron B. Bloy, Jr., Search for the Sacred. The New Spiritual Quest, Seabury, 1972, p. 68.

16. Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter 23, Modern Library, 1950, p. 105.