Religion & American politics:

This is our moment, this is our time

posted by Robert N. Bellah

For a long time after November 4, I found it hard to believe that Barack Obama had actually been elected President of the United States.  Even as his inauguration approaches I still find it a remarkable moment in our history.  There are two things I want to comment on about Obama: his person and what he stands for.  Mostly I want to discuss the latter, but just a word about the former.  What is most remarkable about him as a person is that he is a grown-up.  Growing up is a task for everyone in every society and most of us don’t do a very good job of it.  Even highly gifted people, in the arts and sciences as well as politics, are often not very grown up, or have obvious personal flaws, even when we admire them.  I’m not saying that Obama is perfect—no one is.  But he shows the quality of maturity that the great classical philosophies, Confucian or Stoic for example, tried to inculcate in their followers.  Extraordinary intelligence helps but we know many brilliant people who are not very grown up.  Extraordinary ethical sensitivity is closer to the core of what it means to be grown up.  My amazement and near disbelief in Obama’s victory is that I never again expected an American president to be so grown up.  In my lifetime some have come close to the mark, but for me the clearest previous example is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom I, as a very young person, heard and admired.

There is a great deal of talk about what Obama stands for and many commentators claim it is hard to know.  He is placed along a continuum in which the words “center-left” and “center-right” often appear.  In fact in America we have never had a very clear left-right split; the very idea of one is rooted in European traditions we have not shared.  For all the talk about culture wars, what in America unites left and right, liberals and conservatives, is a fundamental individualism that is perhaps the strongest, though not the only, strand in our tradition.  It is rooted in the earliest and most pervasive religious culture in America, Protestantism, which has deeply influenced every other religious tradition that has entered our common life.  It does not divide Evangelicals from liberal Protestants—it is something they share.  We may argue about the value of the market or the state but the purpose of both to most Americans is to allow the maximum of individual freedom with the least encumbrance.

Some reviewers of Habits of the Heart believed the book affirmed a continuous decline of community and an increase of individualism throughout American history, whereas in fact the authors of Habits believed that we have had  cycles of individualism alternating with periods when social solidarity was emphasized.  Some historians even accused us of offering only another version of the old nostalgic “loss of community” narrative, applied to virtually every period in American history.  In our current situation, as Obama seems to be emphasizing that we are all in this together, the cyclical theory is resurfacing, especially in Michael Lind’s argument that there have been four republics in America—corresponding to the presidencies of Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and now Obama—when a period of radical individualism has been reversed and a new emphasis on the common good has followed.  Neither in Habits nor elsewhere have I ever argued for the long-term decline of community in our history, since I see individualism as powerful from the very beginning and social solidarity as always weak and vulnerable in American history, though stronger at some times than in others.  Our fundamental individualism was vividly represented by the seventeenth-century New England Puritans.  When the Church was no longer seen as the mediator of salvation but the exclusive club of the elect, whose members must experience conversion all by themselves before being admitted, we had a new emphasis on the solitary individual.  When the Word eclipses the Sacrament, then it is society that suffers.  Such an emphasis released enormous power, economically, culturally, and politically, but the price was high.

Efforts to restore a viable balance by reappropriating a sense of the common good and social solidarity have marked Western history for the last couple of centuries.  In Europe such efforts were spearheaded by Catholic social teaching and democratic socialism, whose political expression in Christian Democratic and Social Democratic parties created the decent societies that have marked the recent history of Britain and Western Europe.  When the present Pope in his last year as Cardinal Ratzinger met with Jürgen Habermas, he expressed his sympathy with the tradition of social democracy and said that it was similar to Catholic social teachings.  In its fullness that is surely the case, but when American Catholic ideologues reduce Catholic ethics to an exclusive concern with abortion and gay marriage they take the social out of Catholic social teachings and become spokesmen not for the authentic Catholic tradition but for a narrow quasi-Protestant sect.

For the reasons I have just suggested, radical individualism is what I call the default mode of American culture.  It is where we go when things are relatively stable and we face no enormous challenge, or are denying that we do.  It is the power of this core tradition that has given rise to American exceptionalism, what makes us so different from most other advanced nations in the world, none of which share this strand to the same extent.

American exceptionalism is often interpreted to mean how exceptionally good we are.  In some respects this is warranted:  I can think of no other society that has so successfully integrated immigrants.  Race has been harder to overcome, but Obama is surely right that this is the only country where he could have achieved what he has.  But it is important to remember also how exceptionally bad we are in comparison with other advanced nations.  It is our radical individualistic culture that allows us to tolerate a level of poverty higher than any other advanced nation, a degree of income polarization that would be unacceptable in most advanced nations, a health system that leaves tens of millions without insurance, that is the most expensive in the world but leaves the health of our citizens only slightly above that of many third world nations, an environmental policy that has not only failed to lead the world to greater sustainability but actually stood in the way of the things which almost all the other advanced nations have tried to do, and these are only the most obvious of the many ways we have differed for the worse from most of the advanced world.

But when we are faced with challenges that we cannot deny, we do have other resources we can draw on, resources that we described in Habits of the Heart as Biblical and Civic Republican.  Neither of these traditions is without an element of individualism (see the new Introduction to the 1996 paperback edition of Habits), but both of them have the capacity to talk about the common good in a way that the core tradition of radical individualism cannot do.  Ruth Braunstein in her recent post has emphasized the centrality of the idea of the common good in Obama’s thought, drawing as he does from both the Biblical and Civic Republican traditions.   He has found in the Black church tradition, and even in the theologically somewhat vacuous UCC tradition, an emphasis on social justice and the plight of the poor that is at the core of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.  Although I have no evidence for it, I would be surprised if Obama has not also been influenced by Catholic social teaching with its focus on the common good, perhaps when he was a community organizer.

But our default individualist tradition finds the very idea of the common good incomprehensible.  This is well illustrated in an article by Simon Critchley in the November Harper’s entitled “The American Void,” where Critchley describes Obama’s talk of the common good as “an anti-political fantasy.”  Critchley seems to be unaware that the idea of the common good lies at the core of the Social Democratic and Christian Democratic traditions in Europe that have led to the creation of the most humanly viable societies, for all their imperfections, that this earth has yet seen.  He is also unaware of how profoundly political the idea of the common good is, how strongly it is resisted, and what power, in ideology, public opinion, and legislative votes, is required to implement it.

If you look at Obama’s specific policy concerns you will find the common good at the core of almost all of them.  Universal health care is an obvious example.  And why, except for our culture of radical individualism, don’t we already have it as every advanced society in the world has it?  Because in normal times common good arguments do not carry the day in America.  Obama’s jobs program, his environmental program, his foreign policy concerns are all examples of making the common good the focus of politics.  What all this leads to in my opinion is that Obama is not concerned with center-left or center-right but with making America into a country with a concern for all its citizens and not just the privileged few, a country like other advanced countries and less like a third world country.

There is another element in Obama’s thinking that needs comment:  his concern for America and its historical promise.  It has been hard for his opponents to call Obama unpatriotic when he speaks so glowingly of our nation and its heritage.  It is the eloquence with which he did that in his keynote address in 2004 that first told me that a remarkable new presence had arrived on the American scene.  But what Obama has stressed is the promise of America, one that is still unfulfilled.  It is our task as he has so often said to help create a more perfect union because this one is so imperfect.  Obama has rejected the idea that supporting the Iraq War is a measure of patriotism.  He has said, in effect, that the true patriot will oppose such a war.

Already in 2004 this reminded me of what I wrote in my most frequently reprinted article, “Civil Religion in America,” which was a call to see that the best of our tradition required opposition to the Vietnam War, not support of it.  Too many have read that article as describing American civil religion as “integrating,” or “Durkheimian,” in a way that doesn’t appreciate the radicalism of Durkheim.  Some friends who do understand what I had written in 1966 told me they thought Obama had read it.  I have no reason to think he has.  He doesn’t need me to see that the promise is the core we must celebrate, not the often desperately disappointing reality, which he notes when he promises to close Guantanamo and renounce torture as American policy.  That one can see America as a beacon of hope, even, in Lincoln’s words, as “the last best hope of earth,” while also recognizing that America has committed the gravest of crimes from the colonial period to the present, seems to escape critics from the left and the right.  Obama would never speak like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but he knows, as any serious American knows, that Jeremiah Wright was telling the truth, even if not the whole truth, and that denial of the terrible side of our history is no more healthy for us than it would be for Germany or Japan.

Late in the campaign, McCain and Palin began calling Obama a socialist, because he believes in a progressive income tax.  There is a deep irony here.  Every normal modern nation has been influenced by democratic socialism.  If that tradition has been weak in America, it, or something close to it (the New Deal and Social Security, which, like the progressive income tax, was also denounced as socialist), has never been entirely absent.  Universal health care would put it on the agenda again, leading possibly to reform in our deeply unjust educational system and other areas as well.  In the context of comparative modernity, democratic socialist equals normal.  For the first time in a long time the possibility that we too could become normal, that we could better realize our good exceptionalism and avoid more of our bad exceptionalism, seems to have arrived.  It will take a very grown up leader and massive public participation to make that happen.  But as Obama has said so often, “This is our moment, this is our time.”  I am glad to have lived long enough to see even such a possibility in this great but benighted nation.

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6 Responses to “This is our moment, this is our time”

  1. avatar Ali Sarikaya says:

    I think I was fortunate enough to read some very important writings of Prof. Bellah about the elusive nature of religion during my academic studies. But when reading this piece above I need to say that I feel a bit disappointed to see that Prof. Bellah failed to see that most of the blunders of the Bush administration was due to the same exceptionalist—if not messianistic—political culture of the US. To be sure, every people and every culture has the right to be different and enjoy it—at least to some extent. But difference should not be turned into vanity. Unfortunately, the historical luck of the US that gave way to the idea of American exceptionalism always gave the impression to the American elite that they could be saved from being beaten by history. As we all know, this is not the case anymore. The decline of American hegemony and the coming clash of civilizations are looming large on the horizon. The reformist credentials of Mr. Obama are well known and respected. But after all, politics is not a one-man show. Without the support of a strong elite, Mr. Obama can’t go far away. But American elites as well as American society are seriously divided by post-modern issues. Moreover, the dying of neo-liberal market ideology will not serve the current established elites to maintain their strategic positions as they have held for decades. Cleaning home as well as cleaning street will not be easy at all. But they will resist change with all their power. The only way out for the US government and American people that seems to me plausible is turning back to history in order to take the necessary lessons, however late may it be. The US is a part of human civilization, not the lonely cowboy in town. After all, Americans, like all other people in the world, are not immortal or infallible. Looking from abroad, I don’t agree with Prof. Bellah that this is “your moment or your time.” Nevertheless, the fact that your mistakes may bring the end of civilized life on our old planet is an undeniable fact. George F. Kennan, the late famous architect of Containment strategy had well understood the tragic nature of the so-called American century. I hope that, after having elected the worst president in American history, there are still some valuable people in the US establishment along with the new president that will pay closer attention to the ethical limits of power. But I will continue to keep the Machiavellian insight in mind that being good and powerful simultaneously is a very difficult achievement for human beings. I sincerely hope to be wrong this time.

  2. Mr. Sarikaya has a curious reading of my piece. What I am hoping for is the end of American exceptionalism and the creation of a “normal” advanced modern society. All the problems that lie in the way of that outcome are well described by him and I agree that they are enormous. That Obama cannot do much alone is also clear to me. The question is whether he has created a groundswell of popular support that will make it possible for him to push back against elite opposition. I am sure that very much remains to be seen. But in the face of the disastrous past, is it wrong to hope for something better?

  3. avatar Ali Sarikaya says:

    Mr. Bellah is wholly right when emphasizing the importance of hope. After all, democracy is nothing more than the institutionalization of the hope, of the wish of living better. I also agree with him that a window of opportunity is opened with the election of Mr. Obama. But i think he didn’t put enough emphasis on the narcissistic features of American exceptionalism. That the US must learn to be pupil of history instead of trying to be its teacher is sina qua non of being a “normal” America. This requires, on the other hand, more than the philosopher-king of Plato. I have serious doubts that the American elite is ready for such transformation of mentality even under the pressures of many SOS coming from all corners of the world. There remains much things to be seen. But as being one of ordinary men on the world, I still believe that having a hope is much better that having none.

  4. avatar Joost Van Eynde says:

    Reading this blog and some of Professor Bellah’s other works I am reminded of the power of story-telling and ‘story-believing’. I remember being a little kid, poised on the edge of the kitchen cabinet with mask and cape, unshakable in my belief—after watching Superman—that flight was within the realm of my possibilities. Similarly, I can recall many a sleepless night wondering whether hairy monsters with razor-sharp teeth were on the prowl in the darkness of my bedroom. These stories gave me wings, and made me fear. And, they can do the same for Americans. In some way, I believe Professor Bellah is pointing out President Obama’s will, desire to breathe new life into the story of America—a story racked by trial and tribulation, true, but a story of beauty and success and hope. It is the story of The Broken Covenant, of a nation borne out of an idea that it almost immediately abandoned. “The Covenant … was broken almost as soon as it was made,” Bellah writes. “For a long time Americans were able to hide from that fact, to deny the brokenness. Today the broken covenant is visible for all.” Of course, it is incredibly dangerous to take words written in one historical context and introduce them into another, but the echo of Bellah’s words still, or perhaps again, resounds in these times. Today, Obama has not only dispelled that denial, but he has shown Americans the pieces of the puzzle. The story of America he presents is the story of a shattered nation and a renewable promise; it is about “the nation’s original sin of slavery” he said in his speech on race, but also about that “noble idea … the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” It is a story that instills fear of monsters in the closet in the hearts of Americans, but also a tale of soaring hope in the dreams of a better America. It is the same story that other great theologians in the civil religious tradition have told before, from Washington and Lincoln, to Kennedy and now Obama. If Obama tells the story of hope, Americans have to draw on that story in order to fulfill a promise long overdue. But that promise also extends beyond the boundaries of America (and race). This is not about the rescue or revival of American Exceptionalism nor about the vindication of an economic model or cultural paradigm, it is about responsible interaction with and in this “revolutionary” world. Questions like the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and torture highlight the significance of an America that lives up to the creed upon which it was founded. The Obama administration has sent a clear message to the world in that respect, but a lot remains to be done. This is, indeed, “our moment,” “our time,” but it is “our story,” as well. All Obama can do is tell the story, it is Americans that have to believe they can fly.

  5. avatar Ariel Schecter says:

    I feel very ambivalent about this tension between American individualism and a belief in the common good. In one sense, the cyclic history of these two national attitudes clearly suggests that the US has been able to bounce back from hardship as a community before. Furthermore, in the days of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, there was an impending horizon of hardship unlike any that had been seen before, much like our present situation. The stories of these times are indeed part of the civil religion that Obama invokes in our current day.

    The reason for my ambivalence is that change in the direction of the common good, in my opinion, is not sparked by choice, or by hope, but rather by necessity. Real growth or change does not come by standing at the edge of a cliff and trying to find one’s wings. In the stories of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, it was only once the nation had already fallen halfway down, mid-freefall, that the nation found its wings and was able to recover to some degree. Is our present situation halfway down right now? I think not, although we might be heading in that direction.

    My point is that despite all of Obama’s rhetoric about sacrifice and good works on the part of individual citizens, I still don’t think that Americans on the whole are ready to commit. James Baldwin once said that “people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.” More than action, sacrifice, charity, and work toward the common good, I see people acting within the safety of liberal bumper stickers, hipster Obama t-shirts, and Bill Maher recordings on Tivo machines. True, this might be a reflection of the suburban environment in which I grew up. But I think it also speaks symbolically to the national situation at large, because people have simply not been pushed off of the cliff yet (or have not yet chosen to jump). Our current position does not compare much to the heat of the American Revolution, the Civil War, or the Great Depression (yet).

    The danger inherent in action for the common good comes from a release. It comes from letting go of powerful beliefs and identities that reign during an era of individualism, and in particular it comes from letting go of a related set of myths. The true colors of this nation show in times of extreme hardship because therein exists a moment in which we must consent to being momentarily lost amidst a conflict of identities. It is in this moment of release that we can rise to the occasion and sort out intentional, meaningful individual/national identities from those mythological ones of unilateral and universal individualism. And in general, we are only willing to make this leap, to be momentarily lost, if there is no other option.

    In this sense, I am actually excited about our present situation. Although I do, of course, sympathize first with those who are struggling to feed their families and take care of their loved ones, I also think that our society needs to be pushed off of a cliff and feel lost in a (hopefully brief) freefall if we are to find our wings.

    As this relates to Bellah’s vision of embracing a more “normal” advanced modern society, I think that the US is different from other advanced modern societies. Our history is one of extremeness, in the senses of diversity, power, development, and yes, individualism. To move toward the common good is to struggle with this heritage, which is a struggle unique to the US. In the postmodern, globalized world, it is important to acknowledge this kind of situated-ness if we are ever to have agency and the capacity for change. I certainly have hope in moving toward social democracy like other advanced modern nations, and I see our path as being quite particular to our unique history and place in this world.

    I do think that Obama represents hope, and I believe in this hope myself. I also agree with Bellah that Obama is “grown up” in that he understands the way that this age fits into our nation’s larger (and in some ways beautiful) struggles with identity and freedom. I just don’t think the nation is ready to confront itself, to be lost, and is perhaps not prepared to find itself either. It is neither our moment nor our time quite yet. This is more than a roundabout way of saying that things will get worse before they get better. This is to say that our world and our nation are on the verge of struggles that are larger than politics, policies, and economics. The kind of change that is really needed is on a far more introspective scale of our identities, both as citizens and as a nation. We might very well be on our way, and I hope that Obama (or another leader as grown-up as him) is ready to lead once we truly become immersed in these struggles.

  6. avatar Alice Blander says:

    Critchley’s article continues by explaining Obama’s “anti-political fantasy” of the common good as “a powerful moral strategy whose appeal to the common good attempts to draw a veil over the agonism and power relations constitutive of political life.” I don’t think he’s unaware, as Bellah suggests, that the common good, as an idea, “is profoundly political.” Rather, he suggests that Obama’s rhetoric enables us to imagine the possibility of an end of politics in the sense of an end of dialectical struggle, conflict, and partisanship—a moral possibility that merely disguises “the most brutal and bruising political activity” beneath “an anti-political veneer.” Critchley indicates that the supposed transparency of Obama’s proposed political “conversation” veils the real workings of power.

    Although cynical, Critchley’s argument makes sense to me. I have difficulty sharing people’s passionate belief that Obama will lead us toward a balance representing the common good. Critchley’s language suggests the horrifying possibility for violence masked by the phrase. This country is no stranger to the hypocrisy enabled by its ideals, to tossing around terms like “freedom” and “equality” that mask the horrors of slavery, racism, and excessive military violence.

    While Bellah is right to suggest Critchley’s inability to reconcile individualism with the common good, Bellah, too, displays ambivalence about the possibility of such a reconciliation, suggesting, rather, a shift from one to the other. But Obama’s rhetoric displays an understanding that it’s easier to solicit Americans’ compassion, to forge a collective, by calling up images of individual suffering, stating that if “a child [in] Chicago can’t read, that makes a difference in my life,” that “if there’s a senior citizen…struggling to pay for their medicine…that makes my life poorer.” These words speak of compassion as self-interest. His example of an Arab family being denied due process directly refers to the threat this poses to “my civil liberties.” He insists on a shared suffering that provides a basis for uniting self-interest and social solidarity (at least abstractly). Questions remain about the value of this rhetoric: is this reconciliation practically possible? Or do we only include those individuals we can imagine connections with? What happens if “the common good” is not also my good, or a good I can imagine? How, then, do I continue to believe that it’s “common”? Should I?

    It remains to be seen how “common” this “good” can be (and how “good” this “common” can be). I’m inclined to think that the common good will remain a myth unless we can truly reconcile individualism with social solidarity. And even if we find this common ground, there’s an infinite distance separating better and good (as Bellah’s examples of European nations “with all their imperfections” tellingly indicate) and this gap stresses that the common good remains a distant (im)possibility. Bellah writes that Obama wishes to make “America into a country with a concern for all its citizens and not just the privileged few.” I wish I could read familiar statements like these without cynicism, without nitpicking, but I stumble over phrases like “all its citizens.” What about its illegal immigrants, its resident aliens, ex-cons? Not even thinking about complex issues surrounding poverty and violence, the scarcity of organs available for transplants, for one, suggests that even in healthcare, some criteria must be used to determine whose “good” matters at the cost of someone else’s. Can we imagine a common good without erecting some boundary, even within a nation? Invoke an “all” that does not veil some exclusion? Or is it simply a matter of where we draw the line? Is there one “good” that’s common to us “all,” either as a nation or as humans? And what methods do we use to determine what this is? Is the common good just about finding the most common good, a common denominator?

    Along with the possibility of hope, perhaps we must accept, too, the possibility of violence. Bellah rightly points out that American exceptionalism means both exceptionally good and exceptionally bad. But if we agree that our history is marked by such extremes, then perhaps our future, America’s “historical promise,” contains such extreme possibilities as well. And it’s up to us to determine which of these possibilities we will come closer to realizing. Bellah writes “that one can see America as a beacon of hope…while also recognizing that it has committed the gravest of crimes.” I agree with this elegant statement, but I think we must recognize the possibility that our future will continue to be marked by such crimes. I think people are often too quick to believe in, not just hope for, the promise represented by Obama and the common good. Hope expresses the possibility of a better future, while belief, to me, suggests belief in something: trust in the direction we’ve chosen, that we’ve discovered how to get there. Like Ariel (above comment), I have doubts about our commitment. And I might not believe wholeheartedly in Obama and the common good. But I’m thankful for the possibility of hope.

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