Chapter 7: New Religious Consciousness and the Crisis in Modernity

Varieties of Civil Religion
by Robert Bellah and Phillip E. Hammond

Chapter 7: New Religious Consciousness and the Crisis in Modernity


(This chapter was originally published as Chapter 5 in The New Religious consciousness (University of California Press, 1976), edited by Charles Y. Glock and myself. It has been somewhat revised for inclusion here. The New Religious Consciousness is a report of research that Glock and I directed from 1973 to 1974 on new religious groups in the San Francisco Bay Area. In this chapter I attempt to sum up the meaning of our study. Our research project was an effort to understand the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s. We chose to study what we believed to be the deepest dimension of that upheaval, that is to say its religious dimension, and to interpret that meaning in the context of modern American history. As it turned out, our study got under way just when the upheaval in its most dramatic forms had subsided. We studied the successor movements to the counterculture rather than the counterculture in its effervescent stage. But to interpret our findings I must begin with the developments of the 1960s that lie immediately behind our study and with the nature of the society in which those developments occurred. If, as I argue, the 1960s represent a break in the line of continuity in American culture generally, they certainly also represent a break in the line of continuity of American civil religion. Toward the end of this chapter, I speculate on the meaning of that break.

Signs of Crisis

The disturbances and outbursts in America in the 1960s are hardly unique in modern history. Indeed, in reviewing a century where irrationality and horror of all sorts -- mass executions, mass imprisonments, wars of annihilation, revolutions, rebellions, and depressions -- have been common, the events of that decade might even be overlooked. But it is precisely the significance of that decade that the irrationality and horror of modern history were seriously borne in upon Americans -- so seriously that for the first time mass disaffection from the common understandings of American culture and society began to occur. Far more serious than any of the startling events of the decade was the massive erosion of the legitimacy of American institutions -- business, government, education, the churches, the family -- that set in particularly among young people and that continued, if public opinion polls are to be believed, in the 1970s even when overt protest had become less frequent.

The erosion of the legitimacy of established institutions among certain sectors of the populations of many European countries -- particularly the working class and the intellectuals -- began at least a hundred years ago. In many of the newer third-world countries the nation-state and modern institutions have not yet gained enough legitimacy to begin the process of erosion. But in America, in spite of a civil war, major social and religious movements, and minor disturbances of occasionally violent intensity, the fundamental legitimacy of the established order had never before been questioned on such a scale. This is in part because that order was itself a revolutionary order, the result of one of the few successful revolutions in the modern world. The messianic hope generated by the successful revolution and nurtured by the defeat of slavery in the Civil War for long made it possible to overlook or minimize the extent to which the society failed to achieve its own ideals. The promise of early fulfillment, which seemed so tangible in America, operated to mute our native critics and prevent mass disaffection, at least for a long time. But in the decade of the sixties for many, not only of the deprived but of the most privileged, that promise had begun to run out.

Biblical Religion and Utilitarian Individualism

By way of background we may consider those interpretations of reality in America that had been most successful in providing meaning and generating loyalty up until the sixties: biblical religion and utilitarian individualism. The self-understanding of the original colonists was that they were "God’s new Israel,"a nation under God. (From this point of view the addition of the phrase "under God" to the pledge of allegiance in the 1950s was an indication of the erosion of the tradition, not because it was an innovation but because it arose from the need to make explicit what had for generations been taken for granted.) In New England this understanding was expressed in the biblical symbol of a covenant signifying a special relationship between God and the people. American society was to be one of exemplary obedience to God’s laws and subject to the grace and judgment of the Lord. The notion of Americans as an elect people with exemplary significance for the world was not abandoned but enhanced during the revolution and the period of constructing the new nation. It was dramatically reaffirmed by Lincoln in the Civil War and continued to be expressed in the twentieth century in the thought of men like William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson. This biblical aspect of the national self-understanding was strongly social and collective, even though it contained an element of voluntarism from its Protestant roots. Its highest conception of reality was an objective absolute God as revealed in scriptures, and its conception of morality was also based on objective revelation.1

A second underlying interpretation of reality that has been enormously influential in American history, utilitarian individualism, was never wholly compatible with the biblical tradition, complex as the relations of attraction and repulsion between the two were. This tradition was rooted ultimately in the sophistic, skeptical, and hedonistic strands of ancient Greek philosophy but took its modern form initially in the theoretical writings of Thomas Hobbes. It became popular in America mainly through the somewhat softer and less consistent version of John Locke and his followers, a version deliberately designed to obscure the contrast with biblical religion. In its consistent original Hobbesian form, utilitarianism grew out of an effort to apply the methods of science to the understanding of man and was both atheistic and deterministic. While the commonsense Lockian version that has been the most pervasive current of American thought has not been fully conscious of these implications, the relation between utilitarianism and Anglo-American social science has been close and continuous from Hobbes and Locke to the classical economists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to the social Darwinists of the late nineteenth century and finally to such influential present-day sociologists as George Homans.

Whereas the central term for understanding individual motivation in the biblical tradition was "conscience," the central term in the utilitarian tradition was "interest." The biblical understanding of national life was based on the notion of community with charity for all the members, a community supported by public and private virtue. The utilitarian tradition believed in a neutral state in which individuals would be allowed to pursue the maximization of their self-interest and would be allowed to pursue the maximization of their self-interest and the product would be public and private prosperity. The harshness of these contrasts was obscured, though never obliterated, by several considerations. The biblical tradition promised earthly rewards as well as heavenly for virtuous actions. The utilitarian tradition required self-restraint and "morality," if not as ends then as means. But the most pervasive mechanism for the harmonization of the two traditions was the corruption of the biblical tradition by utilitarian individualism so that religion itself finally became for many a means for the maximization of self-interest with no effective link to virtue, charity, or community. A purely private pietism, emphasizing only individual rewards, that grew up in the nineteenth century and took many forms in the twentieth, from Norman Vincent Peale to Reverend Ike, was the expression of that corruption.2

The increasing dominance of utilitarian individualism was expressed not only in the corruption of religion but also in the rising prestige of science, technology, and bureaucratic organization. The scientific instrumentalism that was already prominent in Hobbes became the central tenet of the most typical late American philosophy, pragmatism. The tradition of utilitarian individualism expressed no interest in shared values or ends, since it considered the only significant end to be individual interest maximization, and individual ends are essentially random. Utilitarianism tended therefore to concentrate solely on the rationalization of means, on technical reason. As a result the rationalization of means became an end in itself. This is illustrated in the story about an American farmer who was asked why he worked so hard. To raise more corn, was his reply. But why do you want to do that? To make more money. What for? To buy more land. Why? To raise more corn. And so on ad infinitum. While utilitarian individualism had no interest in society as an end in itself, it was certainly not unaware of the importance of society. Society like everything else was to be used instrumentally. The key term was organization, the instrumental use of social relationships. "Effective organization" was as much a hallmark of the American ethos as technological inventiveness.

The central value for utilitarian individualism was freedom, a term that could also be used to obscure the gap between the utilitarian and the biblical traditions since it is a central biblical term as well. But for biblical religion, freedom meant liberation from the consequences of sin, freedom to do the right, and was almost equivalent to virtue. For utilitarianism it meant the freedom to pursue one’s own ends. Everything was to be subordinate to that: nature, social relations, even personal feelings. The exclusive concentration on means rendered that final end of freedom so devoid of content that it became illusory and the rationalization of means a kind of treadmill that was in fact the opposite of freedom.

That part of the biblical tradition that remained uncorrupted or only minimally corrupted found itself deeply uneasy with the dominant utilitarian ethos. Fundamentalism in America is not simply an expression of backward yokels. Even Bryan’s opposition to evolution was in part an opposition to the social Darwinism he saw as undermining all humane values in America. But that opposition remained largely inchoate, in part because it could not penetrate the facade of biblical symbols the society never abandoned even when it betrayed them.

The Challenge of the 1960s

It was this dual set of fundamental understandings that the eruption of the 1960s fundamentally challenged. It is important to remember that the events of the sixties were preceded and prepared for by a new articulation of Christian symbolism in the later fifties in the life and work of Martin Luther King. King stood not only for the actualization of that central and ambiguous value of freedom for those who had never fully experienced even its most formal benefits. Even more significantly he stood for the actualization of the Christian imperative of love. For him society was not to be used manipulatively for individual ends. Even in a bitter struggle one’s actions were to express that fundamental love, that oneness of all men in the sight of God, that is deeper than any self-interest. It was that conception, so close to America’s expressed biblical values and so far from its utilitarian practice that, together with militant activism, was so profoundly unsettling.

We are accustomed to think of the "costs" of modernization in the developing nations: the disrupted traditions, the breakup of families and villages, the impact of vast economic and social forces that can neither be understood nor adapted to in terms of inherited wisdom and ways of living. Because it is our tradition that invented modernization, we have thought we were somehow immune to the costs or because the process was, with us, so slow and so gradual, we had successfully absorbed the strains of modernization. The sixties showed that in America, too, the costs have been high the strains by no means wholly absorbed. In that decade, at least among a significant proportion of the educated young of a whole generation, occurred the repudiation of the tradition of utilitarian individualism (even though it often persisted unconsciously even among those doing the repudiating) and the biblical tradition, too, especially as it was seen, in part realistically, as linked to utilitarianism. Let us examine the critique.

The criticisms of American society that developed in the sixties were diverse and not always coherent one with another. What follows is more an interpretation than a description. In many different forms there was a new consciousness of the question of ends. The continuous expansion of wealth and power, which is what the rationalization of means meant in practice, did not seem so self-evidently good. There were of course some sharp questions about the unequal distribution of wealth and power, but beyond that was the question whether the quality of life was a simple function of wealth and power or whether the endless accumulation of wealth and power was not destroying the quality and meaning of life, ecologically and sociologically. If the rationalization of means, the concern for pure instrumentalism, was no longer self-evidently meaningful, then those things that had been subordinated, dominated, and exploited for the sake of rationalizing means took on a new significance. Nature, social relations, and personal feelings could now be treated as ends rather than means, could be liberated from the repressive control of technical reason.

Among those who shared this general analysis there was a division between those who emphasized overthrowing the present system as a necessary precondition for the realization of a more human society and those who emphasized the present embodiment of a new style of life "in the pores," so to speak, of the old society. The contrast was not absolute, as the effort to create politically "liberated zones" in certain communities such as Berkeley and Ann Arbor indicates. And for a time in the late sixties opposition to the Vietnam War, seen as an example of technical reason gone mad, took precedence over everything else. Yet there was a contrast between those mainly oriented to political action (still, in a way, oriented to means rather than ends, though it was the means to overthrow the existing system) and those mainly concerned with the actual creation of alternative patterns of living. The difference between demonstrations and sit-ins on the one hand and love-ins, be-ins, and rock festivals on the other illustrates the contrast. Political activists shared some of the personal characteristics of those they fought -- they were "uptight," repressed, and dominated by time and work. The cultural experimenters, represented most vividly perhaps by the "love, peace, groovy" flower children of the middle sixties, believed in harmony with man and nature and the enjoyment of the present moment through drugs, music, or meditation. In either case there was a sharp opposition to the dominant American ethos of utilitarian instrumentalism oriented to personal success. There was also a deep ambivalence to the biblical tradition, to which I will return.

The question of why the old order began to lose its legitimacy just when it did is not one I have felt equipped to answer. Clearly in the sixties there was a conjuncture of dissatisfactions that did not all have the same meaning. The protests of racial minorities, middle-class youth, and women had different causes and different goals. In spite of all the unsolved problems, the crisis was brought on by the success of the society as much as by its failures. That education and affluence did not bring happiness or fulfillment was perhaps as important as the fact that the society did not seem to be able to solve the problem of racism and poverty. The outbreak of a particularly vicious and meaningless little war in Asia that stymied America’s leadership both militarily and politically for years on end acted as a catalyst but did not cause the crisis. The deepest cause, no matter what particular factors contributed to the actual timing, was, in my opinion, the inability of utilitarian individualism to provide a meaningful pattern of personal and social existence, especially when its alliance with biblical religion began to sag because biblical religion itself had been gutted in the process. I would thus interpret the crisis of the sixties above all as crisis of meaning, a religious crisis, with major political, social, and cultural consequences to be sure.

The New Revival

Religious upheaval is not new in American history. Time and time again after a period of spiritual dryness there has been an outbreak of the spirit. But the religious crisis was in more ways a contrast to the great awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than a continuation of them. By all the measures of conventional religiosity the early 1950s had been a period of religious revival, but the revival of the fifties proved to be as artificial as the cold-war atmosphere that may have fostered it. The sixties saw a continuous drop in church attendance and a declining belief in the importance of religion, as measured by national polls. It is true that conservative and fundamentalist churches continued to grow and that the major losses were in the mainline Protestant denominations and in the Catholic church after the full consequences of Vatican II began to sink in. But in terms of American culture the latter had long been more important than the conservative wing. Although clergy and laity of many denominations played an important part in the events of the sixties, the churches as such were not the locale of the major changes, even the religious ones.

Indeed, it was easier for many in the biblical tradition to relate to the political than to the religious aspect of the developing counterculture. The demand for social justice fitted closely with the prophetic teachings of Judaism and Christianity. The struggle for racial equality and later the struggle against the Vietnam War drew many leaders from the churches and synagogues, even though the membership as a whole remained passive. But in spite of the leadership of Martin Luther King and the martyrdom of divinity students in the civil rights movement and in spite of the leadership of the Berrigans and William Sloane Coffin in the peace movement, those movements as a whole remained indifferent if not hostile to religion. By the end of the sixties those churchmen who had given everything to the political struggle found themselves without influence and without a following. For most of the political activists the churches remained too closely identified with the established powers to gain much sympathy or interest. As dogmatic Marxism gained greater influence among the activists during the decade, ideological antireligion increased as well.

But the churches were even less well prepared to cope with the new spirituality of the sixties. The demand for immediate, powerful, and deep religious experience, which was part of the turn away from future-oriented instrumentalism toward present meaning and fulfillment, could on the whole not be met by the religious bodies. The major Protestant churches in the course of generations of defensive struggle against secular rationalism had taken on some of the color of the enemy. Moralism and verbalism and the almost complete absence of ecstatic experience characterized the middle-class Protestant churches. The more intense religiosity of black and lower-class churches remained largely unavailable to the white middle-class members of the counterculture. The Catholic church with its great sacramental tradition might be imagined to have been a more hospitable home for the new movement, but such was not the case. Older Catholicism had its own defensiveness, which took the form of scholastic intellectualism and legalistic moralism. Nor did Vatican II really improve things. The Catholic church finally decided to recognize the value of the modern world just when American young people were beginning to find it valueless. As if all this were not enough, the biblical arrogance toward nature and the Christian hostility toward the impulse life were both alien to the new spiritual mood. Thus the religion of the counterculture was by and large not biblical. It drew from many sources, including the native American. But its deepest influences came from Asia.

In many ways Asian spirituality provided a more thorough contrast to the rejected utilitarian individualism than did biblical religion. To external achievement it posed inner experience; to the exploitation of nature, harmony with nature; to impersonal organization, an intense relation to a guru. Mahayana Buddhism, particularly in the form of Zen, provided the most pervasive religious influence on the counterculture; but elements from Taoism, Hinduism, and Sufism were also influential. What drug experiences, interpreted in oriental religious terms, as Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert did quite early, and meditation experiences, often taken up when drug use was found to have too many negative consequences, showed was the illusoriness of worldly striving. Careerism and status seeking, the sacrifice of present fulfillment for some ever-receding future goal, no longer seemed worthwhile. There was a turn away not only from utilitarian individualism but from the whole apparatus of industrial society. The new ethos preferred handicrafts and farming to business and industry and small face-to-face communities to impersonal bureaucracy and the isolated nuclear family. Simplicity and naturalness in food and clothing were the ideal, even though conspicuous consumption and oneupmanship ("Oh, you don’t use sea salt, I see") made their inevitable appearance.

Thus the limits were pushed far beyond what any previous great awakening had seen: toward socialism in one direction, toward mysticism in the other. But perhaps the major meaning of the sixties was not anything positive at all. Neither the political movement nor the counterculture survived the decade. Important successor movements did survive and they have been the focus of our study, but the major meaning of the sixties was purely negative: the erosion of the legitimacy of the American way of life. On the surface what seems to have been most drastically undermined was utilitarian individualism, for the erosion of the biblical tradition seemed only to continue what had been a long-term trend. The actual situation was more complicated. Utilitarian individualism had perhaps never before been so divested of its ideological and religious facade, never before recognized in all its naked destructiveness. And yet that very exposure could become an ironic victory. If all moral restraints are illegitimate, then why should I believe in religion and morality? If those who win in American society are the big crooks and those who lose do so only because they are little crooks, why should I not try to be a big crook rather than a little one? In this way the unmasking of utilitarian individualism led