Lecture 11 Outline

Religious Organization: Church, Sect & Denomination

April 21, 1999



Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996 [1985]. Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, & Steven M. Tipton

Field work: more than 200 in-depth interviews in and around Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Francisco.

Presuppositions: Multiple cultural traditions of American society

  1. biblical
  2. republican
  3. utilitarian individualism
  4. expressive individualism (romantic)

Premise: language as modes of moral discourse that include distinct vocabularies and characteristic patterns of moral reasoning (e.g., cost-benefit analysis is a kind of language people use, especially policy makers, to justify a policy or a course of action).

First language of contemporary American culture: Individualism

Second languages: biblical and republican traditions

Fundamental question posed: "How to preserve or create a morally coherent life"?

Another possible subtitle of the book: Is America Possible?

In Democracy in America 1969 [1835-40], Alexis De Tocqueville defined INDIVIDUALISM as

a calm and considered feeling, which disposes each citizen to isolate

himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of his

family and friends; with this little society formed to his tastes, he gladly

leaves the greater society to look out after itself…. …there are more and more

people who though neither rich nor powerful enough to have much hold over others, have gained or kept enough wealth and enough understanding to look after their own needs. Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands. Such people forget not only their ancestors but also their descendents and even lose touch with their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may shut up in the solitude of his own heart (506-508).

Bellah and his co-authors claim that this describes the mentality of the American middle class today and their key argument is that there is a problem of language.

That is, it has become increasingly difficult to express, those impulses, those commitments that really do tie us to one another, and that identify us through those ties and commitments, not against them.

Note : Marx saw radical individualism as the perfect complement to bourgeois system of anonymous commodity exchange, i.e., capitalism.

Chapter 9, "Religion" KEY POINT: throughout the chapter there is a dialectic, even A conflict between withdrawal into purely private spirituality and the impetus to see religion as involved in with the whole of life.

Key finding: Tendency in America in the Direction of Religious Privatisim


Tocqueville on religion in America

  1. first of its political institutions
  2. religion supports mores that make democracy possible
  3. religion places limits on "utilitarian individualism"
  4. religion expresses benevolence & self-sacrifice, which are anti-thetical to competitive individulaism

Second Languages—offset the worst tendencies of our individualism

  1. biblical tradition
  2. republican tradition

these traditions or languages provide a better alternative, Bellah et al. argue, than the expressive individualism de Tocqueville prized.


Lincoln & King as examples

What’s wrong with religious individualism or the privatization of religion?

When religion becomes, like the family, a "haven in a heartless world" that tends to reinforce a world dominated by utilitarian values, by caring for its casualties, rather than challenging its assumptions. That’s the problem the authors see with religious individualism.

Religious individualism tends to be tenuous & to ignore serious stuff such as evil and aggression.

Types of Religious Organization: Church, Sect, & Mystic—see email handout

(Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches. Trans. Olive Wyon. University of Chicago Press Phoenix Edition, 1981 [1911]; see esp. vol. I, pp. 328-82 & vol. II, conclusion)

Bellah et al. are not criticizing individualism as such. They speak very positively (see chapter 6 of Habits) of an ethical individualism rooted in an understanding of individualism in a dialectic with community, not an either/or, not a zero-sum. That’s very hard. But when community is construed as illegitimate coercion and when institutions come to be seen as illegitimate coercion, then a society that stakes its whole existence on the sovereign individual self is not going to sustain such an individual

Religious individualism has much to contribute as well but what worries the authors of Habits of the Heart the most is that the radical emphasis on individual autonomy will turn into the atomism Tocqueville feared, a situation that creates, they claim, the conditions for despotism.