Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Bellah on Obama

There was a time when everyone read--or claimed to have read--Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart. I came to think of him as the contemporary equivalent of Tocqueville--not in the sweep and penetration of his vision, but rather in being often quoted and perhaps less read.

Well, Bellah hearts Obama in ways that suggest that he hasn’t read (or perhaps understood) his Tocqueville. A snippet:

In Habits of the Heart I and my coauthors described four traditions that are powerful in America today. We called our primary moral language “utilitarian individualism,” the calculating concern for self-interest that is natural in our kind of economy, and a language that all candidates, Republicans and Democrats, must often use as they appeal to various interest groups to support them. But we have three secondary moral languages that give a greater richness and moral adequacy to our discourse (even as they are often shunted aside by the dominance of the language of self-interest), expressive individualism, biblical language, and the language of civic republicanism. All candidates use the language of expressive individualism when they try to show us their human side, tell their individual stories and the stories of those who support them. But the substantial alternatives to the language of utilitarian individualism are biblical and civic republican. Biblical language, like all the others, comes in several forms, but here I am referring to the language of Martin Luther King Jr. and William Sloane Coffin—that is, a language that expresses the dominant biblical concern for those most in need, a language that reminds us of our solidarity with all human beings. When Obama says “we are our brothers’ keepers; we are our sisters’ keepers,” when he suggests, as he does in so many ways, that we all need one another, all depend on one another, he is using that biblical language at its most appropriate. And in his emphasis on public participation at every level, in his refusal to take money from lobbyists and political action committees, he is reviving the spirit of civic republicanism, of voters as citizens responsible for the common good, not political consumers concerned only with themselves.

There’s lots of biblical langauge about responsibility, sin, and hte next life that Bellah overlooks, even as Tocqueville doesn’t. And Tocqueville’s melding of religion and "civic republicanism" is much more subtle and locally oriented. But, unlike Bellah, Tocqueville’s view of the American scene isn’t frankly--I’d almost say rabidly--partisan.

Oh well, I like Putnam better than Bellah anyway.

Discussions - 2 Comments

At the heart of the matter: "civic republicanism" = socialism. The late John Wettergreen cut through that rhetoric of Bellah and other contemporary scholars.

I find it risible that Democrats are adjudged to be "frankly - even rabidly - partisan," but presumably you are not. Have you read yourself recently? You're an interesting thinker, but on electoral politics you're just another partisan hack who will find or make up any flaw in the opposition (I'm still stunned that you bought into the Limbaugh/Coulter line on Pelosi's flight "scandal" some months ago - as if it was really all that significant) while excusing and even justifying any idiocy of a Republican. Physician, heal thyself.

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