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Liberalism and the Loss of Community

review of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, by Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Habits of the Heart was one of the publishing events of 1985, a widely acclaimed work of national self-examination by a team of four sociologists and a professor of philosophy, led by Professor Robert Bellah of the University of California at Berkeley. The book’s uncannily fortunate timing seemed to dovetail with the increasingly dour mood of the American intellectual world—not to mention the American public’s perennial appetite for national soul-searching. Indeed, our propensity for anxious and highly generalized brooding upon our national sins seems to thrive particularly in times of prosperity, such as the current one; that fact perhaps reflects the extent to which our heritage of Protestant angst persists in us, even as its supporting beliefs have become less and less of a part of acceptable public discourse.     

There is, however, plenty to be anxious about. The declension of the public realm, the disappearance of civic consciousness, the disintegration of marriage and family life, the increasingly tenuous and openly self-serving character of human relations, the near-disappearance of religious values from our shared existence—these are all matters of legitimate concern, to liberals no less than conservatives. Indeed, it has been refreshing and encouraging to see liberals finally back away—if only in theory, so far—from the absurdly dogmatic civil libertarianism that has been so damaging to criminal justice and public morals in this country, and begin to accept the proposition—again, only in theory as yet—that prescriptive values are indispensable to a free society. The wonder is that even so tentative a change has taken so long.

That the acceptance is only in theory, however, is amply confirmed by the appearance of this book. Many of its criticisms of contemporary America are quite accurate, if distressingly hackneyed; the trouble is that, particularly for anyone of genuinely conservative bent, it does not tell us anything we have not known for decades, nor anything that we have not read a hundred times in the Sunday supplements by now. We have known for a very long time that a philosophy of liberal individualism, if not moderated by some countervailing force, would erode the very basis of an orderly society by undermining the foundation for our commitments to one another. What is wanted at this point is not yet another repetition of stale formulae, but a sense of what is to be done. On that score, Bellah’s book hardly begins even to address the problem, relying instead on the incantation of abstractions that remain conveniently disembodied and unexplained.

One would think that a book dedicated to a revival of public morals and communal values would have something to say about some of the pressing moral issues of our time, particularly those—such as abortion, divorce, adultery, homosexuality, and pornography—which bear upon sexuality, that most intimate point of intersection between the public and the private, the communal and the individual. But Habits of the Heart does not, for the simple reason that, for all of its authors’ putative commitment to a post-liberal moral vision, they would never dream of being caught taking an illiberal position on such questions. The book repeatedly dwells on the need to recover a “framework of values,” upon which we all can agree and upon which we can build a rich and renewed social life together. But these values remain conveniently unspecified, for the authors clearly did not want to ruffle anybody’s feathers or challenge anybody’s sensibilities (although they are quick to fault the “unreflective” rigidity of evangelical Christians). Thus, their call for moral revival is little more than empty posturing and vague uplift, reminiscent of Norman Vincent Peale or Bruce Barton, with some Walter Rauschenbusch thrown in for good measure.

The book calls for a return to our “republican” and “Biblical” traditions, to counterbalance the dangerously amoral, selfish, radical-individualist tendencies of unrestrained liberalism. To the extent that these two bland terms mean anything at all, this would seem reasonably sound advice. But the authors show little interest in explaining exactly what these traditions are, devoting only four short pages to that task. Presumably, if these traditions have been so utterly lost as the authors imply, a good deal more explication is needed to help us recover them. The trouble is that, as a sociological investigation, Habits is interested only in the benign social effects that can be made to flow from a revival of these systems of belief; it does not consider their truth or falsehood. But, to reverse Richard Weaver’s familiar dictum, consequences have ideas; such a revival can never occur without Americans, including our social critics, taking seriously the contentofthese traditions—a good deal more seriously than Bellah and Co. do themselves.

Moreover, it gradually emerges that Bellah and Co. do not really want to revive these traditions as they actually existed. He wants them mutatis mutandis, purged of any elements that might run contrary to the conventional liberal political agenda. He wants us to avail ourselves of them piecemeal, picking and choosing what parts are appropriate to the 1980s and what parts are not, remaking the tradition as we feel necessary. But the presumption that we can pick and choose which of the Ten Commandments to obey is not much different from the liberalism he derides; if the term “Biblical tradition” means anything at all, surely it asks far more of us than that. Bellah wants all of the benefits of these traditions without paying the price for them. He wants to have strong moral values without the taintof discipline or intolerance, strong communal values without insularity, strong commitments without punishments for those who disdain them, national pride without patriotism, and so on. But this wish listis composed of insubstantial word-combinations, the fond pipedreams of tender-minded academics. They have no relationship to reality, no precedent in history.

If the book has anything even slightly new to contribute to the debate over moral revival, it is the insight that many contemporary Americans lack even the language to express profound moral distinctions. In interview after interview with their case-study subjects, this point is brought home in painful detail; the subjects cannot account for their moral sentiments in any terms other than self-interest. Even though the fit between the interviewees’ comments and Bellah’s thesis is too neat to be entirely believable—life, thankfully, only rarely imitates art—we all have known enough such people, the sort of consumption-mad, status-obsessed, new-class types Cyra McFadden satirized with merciless accuracy in her novel The Serial. Bellah has a good point here. But he does not tell us how we are to learn to speak the “language” of the “Biblical tradition” if we do not believe in it. Indeed, he does not seem to realize the extent to which his own vague sociobabble itself exemplifies the incapacity he is talking about. The inability to articulate a moral sentiment does not mean one does not possess it—just as the ability to articulate it does not mean one has fully embraced it. Nor does the “language” of moral sentiment matter for much if one is unwilling to act upon one’s convictions, or talk about specific moral questions.

Indeed, one could argue plausibly that the social sciences have played a major role in impoverishing our moral discourse, and thus in creating this problem. Hence sociologists are not likely to be part of its solution. The language of self-interest which Bellah deplores is, far more than he seems to grasp, identical with the language of the social and behavioral sciences, applied to the task of living. Is it any wonder that men and women conceive their identities as nothing more than an aggregation of impermanent social roles, marriage and family as a passing phase in the universe of possible kinship arrangements, the political order as only the legitimation of naked power, and material gratification as a perfectly respectable goal? This is what they have been taught to believe; the ones who believe it most are the ones who have been paying attention in class. Indeed, only those who have been exposed to such “advanced ideas” in college are likely to hold such a dehumanized view of humanity; and the subjects of Bellah’s study are middle-class and college-educated men and women—a very narrow sample on which to make sweeping generalizations about this country. A much more revealing book than this one might have pursued the poverty of contemporary discourse further, and asked what the effect of social-scientific thinking has been upon the moral language of Americans. But such a book is not likely to be written by a team of sociologists. They are not likely to ask whether social science itself might be the very disease it proposes to cure.

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