Perhaps best known for his coauthored bestselling books Habits of the Heart and The Good Society, Robert N. Bellah is a truly visionary leader in the social study of religion. For more than four decades, he has examined the role of religion in modern and premodern societies, attempting to discern how religious meaning is formed and how it shapes ethical and political practices. The Robert Bellah Reader brings together twenty-eight of Bellah’s seminal essays. While the essays span a period of more than forty years, nearly half of them were written in the past decade, many in the past few years.

The Reader is organized around four central concerns. It seeks to place modernity in theoretical and historical perspective, drawing from major figures in social science, historical and contemporary, from Aristotle and Rousseau through Durkheim and Weber to Habermas and Mary Douglas. It takes the United States to be in some respects the type-case of modernity and in others the most atypical of modern societies, analyzing its common faith in individual freedom and democratic self-government, and its persistent paradoxes of inequality, exclusion, and empire. The Reader is also concerned to test the axiomatic modern assumption that rational cognition and moral evaluation, fact and value, are absolutely divided, arguing instead that they overlap and interact much more than conventional wisdom in the university today usually admits. Finally, it criticizes modernity’s affirmation that faith and knowledge stand even more utterly at odds, arguing instead that their overlap and interaction, obvious in every premodern society, animate the modern world as well.

Through such critical and constructive inquiry this Reader probes many of our deepest social and cultural quandaries, quandaries that put modernity itself, with all its immense achievements, at mortal risk. Through the practical self-understanding such inquiry spurs, Bellah shows how we may share responsibility for the world we have made and seek to heal it.

In 1980, Varieties of Civil Religion was the latest statement in the field of civil religion pioneered by Robert Bellah. Over thirty years later, scholarly interest in the field continues to grow. By examining the force of religion in politics and society, this book offers a comparative treatment that deepens the understanding of American civil religion and provides a lens for exploring civil religion in other societies, particularly those of Italy, Mexico, and Japan.

Bellah and Hammond trace the historical development of the peculiarly American brand of civil religion as they unravel its sometimes baffling intricacies. Themes include the conviction that America is a chosen country and American power in the world is identical with divine will. The book also examines the vigorous counterbalance that has opposed unjust wars or demanded racial and social justice. Altogether, the health of a civil religion may be a prime indication of the overall health of any society.

The authors state that when civil religious symbols are co-opted by ultraconservatives, and the philosophy of liberalism seems less adequate as a guide for public or private lives, a revival of public philosophy is urgently needed. Varieties of Civil Religion supports such a revival by making the religious aspect of our central tradition understandable in a nonreactionary way. It also reaffirms that American civil religion, with its deeper tradition of openness, tolerance, and ethical commitment, can make an essential contribution to a "global order of civility and justice."
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