Robert Bellah on the (Dis)Ordering of Society

Robert Bellah

Commonweal recently noted the death, this July, of contributor Robert Bellah. Emeritus professor of sociology at Berkeley, Bellah began his career as a teacher at the college from which he received his undergraduate degree: Harvard.

His article “The Church & the Search for the Common Good” appeared in 1982.  Thirty years later, Bellah’s insights remain helpful as we try to understand where we 21st-century Americans are today: societal disorder is one of the costs, when economic values dominate and consume all other values (moral, aesthetic, communal, ecological, transcendent). While Bellah is tracing a century’s-old development in Western civilization, life as we have lived it in the recent, say, half-century– and the policies we have embraced, or at least to which we have acquiesced– confirms Bellah’s thesis.

The excerpt at length is below, but the executive summary is this: whereas once religion or politics served to define a telos or purpose for society, economics by its nature supplies society with no such organizing principle. Instead, a society dominated by economic values is flattened into an amoral  marketplace (not necessarily immoral, but not necessarily moral, either); and the human being is reduced to a bundle of appetites.

Bellah does not say this, but it is worth adding: a society dominated by economic values is great for those who win. The winners end up making the rules, and inevitably those rules will favor the continual winning of the winners. That’s where we are today.

Here’s Bellah in 1982:

Modern society replaces the older ideal of organic hierarchy with a new idea of functional differentiation of spheres of life. In this new society the central institution is no longer religion or even the political order but the economy. But because the economy lacks a telos of the sort that religion and politics had the end of religion is salvation, of politics the common good, the economy does not replace them as a new kind of dominant hierarchical institution. Rather it radically undermines all older conceptions of ethical hierarchy and replaces them with functional or even technical utility instead. In so doing modern society produces a new worldview, one that reverses the traditional conception of higher and lower energies. The modern ideology is radically egalitarian and individualistic and hopes to create a good society through unleashing and manipulating egoistic and selfish desires. The new social philosophy, in the form of classical liberalism, replaces the older conception of ethical, political, practical reason, even in the political sphere. Even as early as Hobbes the problem of political leadership was replaced by the problem of regulation, of the management of human beings conceived as the material to be subjected to technical manipulation.

All of these changes were not without their precursors and accompaniments in the religious sphere, as we know from Max Weber. Yet as we also know from Weber, the increasing dominance of functional rationalization changes the place of religion as it was known in all previous societies. Religion is to be displaced from its role as guardian of the public worldview that gives human life its coherence–  a role that it retained in early Protestant communities as well as in Catholic ones. Religion is now relegated to the purely private sphere where it is to be considered merely one of a variety of possible private options.

via A Language of Solidarity | Commonweal Magazine.


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