The other night I learned via a friend’s Facebook post that Bob Bellah had died. The tributes have already begun to flood in. A brilliant sociologist of religion and analyst of American culture, mentor to so many students, and prominent public intellectual, Bellah was in his mid-80s, but his death still registered as a shock. Last December, when he spoke in New York about his latest work, a mammoth book about religion in human evolution, he was as sharp as ever. Afterwards, at a group dinner, he regaled us with stories of Talcott Parsons, opinions of Obama (he was, in the main, impressed), the story state of higher education in a neoliberal era, and the three-book series he was madly trying to finish because, he said, “I don’t know how much time I have left.”
He was a member of a dying breed: an engaged intellectual who lived for ideas, who was dedicated to translating those ideas and sharing them with as many people as possible. Habits of the Heart, for all of its flaws, was a path-breaking book that dissected American culture’s love affair with individualism. I read it as a first year graduate student the year it was published, and it had an enormous impact on me–as much as for its form as for its content. At a time when sociologists were working on issues of diminishing scope, dividing the world up into smaller and smaller pieces, that book made a big argument about what it meant to be an American. It was beautifully crafted, written in a style that any “educated” person could read and understand. It wore its deep theoretical lineage lightly, and was written expressly to be read and talked about–and it was.
I was not the sort of person who would normally have gravitated toward Bob. He was always surrounded by a coterie of young male theorists –and I was clearly not in that league. Though committed to social equality, he was culturally pretty conservative, at least in his public pronouncements, and I was a feminist, and a lesbian to boot. (I never forgave him for characterizing gay and lesbian communities, in Habits of the Heart, as transient “lifestyle enclaves” versus “communities of memory”). And finally, he was a Christian believer who thought that religion should be a foundational part of public life, and I was an agnostic Jew.
And still, in our conversations in his small office in Barrows Hall, he always made me feel that I had something important to say, and I will always be grateful to him for that.