Robert Bellah, preeminent American sociologist of religion, dies at 86

Robert Neelly Bellah, a preeminent scholar of religion in America, bestselling author and the Elliott Professor of Sociology Emeritus at UC Berkeley, died Tuesday, July 30 of complications related to heart surgery. He was 86.

Robert Bellah, an influential sociologist and scholar of religion, died earlier this week. He was 86.

Widely known as one of the world’s most influential sociologists, Bellah was a Harvard-educated social theorist who taught for three decades at UC Berkeley. Best known for his scholarship on how religion shapes ethical, cultural and political practices, his literary legacy includes “Religion in Human Evolution” (2011), “Tokugawa Religion”(1957),”The Broken Covenant” (1975) and “Beyond Belief” (1970). His writings were said to have irked both the religious right and the secular left at various times. He was profoundly loved and respected by many of his students and peers.

“Bob Bellah was a towering intellectual figure and a remarkable friend, colleague, and teacher – not just of his own students, but of people all over the world,” said Ann Swidler, a UC Berkeley professor of sociology and friend, colleague and former student of Bellah’s.

“He was also funny, irreverent, generous, loyal, high-minded and down-to-earth. In his person as well as in his work he held together what our society conspires to drive apart — the life of the intellect and the moral life. For him reason really was the search for the good, and reason devoid of moral purpose was utterly irrational,” added Swidler, who along with Bellah and others co-authored “Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life” (University of California Press, 1985).

Raka Ray, chair of sociology at UC Berkeley, echoed that sentiment. “Robert Bellah was a towering intellect, not just in the department — which he served so well for 30 years – but also in the discipline of sociology,” she said. “Not only did his scholarship transform the way we think about religion, American civic life, and the common good, but his teaching and mentoring shaped generations of scholars in the field.”

“Since his passing, I have already received numerous notes of condolence from former students and colleagues who have shared their admiration and deep respect for all that professor Bellah did and stood for,” she added.

News of Bellah’s death spread quickly and widely on Wednesday, prompting comments about his legacy on such blogs as Crooked Timber, First Things and Black, White and Gray. “An entire generation of students is profoundly in his debt,” commented Michael McKale, a professor of religious studies at St. Francis University in Pennsylvania and a former student of Bellah’s.

Born in Oklahoma, raised in Los Angeles

Bellah was born in Altus, Okla. on Feb. 23, 1927 and raised in Los Angeles, Calif. His father was the editor and publisher of the local newspaper in Altus. He died when Bellah was just two, and the family moved to Los Angeles, according to Daniel Horowitz’s book, “The Anxieties of Affluence,” which profiles prominent American thinkers.

Bellah attended a Presbyterian church there, but mixed with people of all faiths. At Los Angeles High School, he began to read Marxist literature. After serving in the U.S. Army from 1945 to 1946, he entered Harvard University and assumed a leadership position in the John Reed Club, an affiliate of the Communist party. Among his chief mentors at Harvard was sociologist Talcott Parsons, whose theory of “social action” greatly influenced modern sociology.

In 1948, Bellah married his high school sweetheart, Melanie Hyman, who moved to Cambridge, Mass., to be with Bellah after she graduated from Stanford University. They went on to have four daughters.

Coined “civil religion”

He won acclaim as a public intellectual with his essay “Civil Religion in America,” which examined how U.S. political figures use religious symbolism. His views were strongly influenced by the major events of that period, including the Vietnam War.After teaching sociology at Harvard, Bellah took the position of Ford Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley in 1967. His wife studied law at Boalt Hall, the campus’s school of law, and went on to practice family law.

Tragedy struck the Bellahs twice in the 1970s when two of their daughters, Tammy and Abby, died in unrelated incidents. Melanie Bellah wrote about Tammy’s 1973 death in a biography published in 1999, and about the impact of both deaths in her book “Abby and Her Sisters,” published in 2002. Melanie Bellah died in 2010.

Samuel Porter, a former student of Bellah’s who is now a research associate at the University of Oregon, recalled how Bellah’s “Sociology of Religion” class in 1980 “blew” his mind.

“He was developing a general theory of religion in that course and some of that is reflected in chapter one of ‘Religion in Human Evolution.’ said Porter, whose father, Charles Porter, served in Congress from 1957 to 1961. “He helped me through his teaching and writing to integrate my dad’s secular, political views with my religious sensibilities. He gave me a sense of life’s coherence and opened up, on a number of different levels, the world to me.”

Among other things, Bellah served as chair of sociology and chair of the Center for Japanese and Korean Studies during his three decades at UC Berkeley. His many accolades include the Harbison Award for Gifted Teaching; the Sorokin Award of the American Sociological Association for “The Broken Covenant,” a Los Angeles Times Book Award for “Habits of the Heart”; The C. S. Lewis Foundation Faculty Forum Award for Distinguished Lifetime Contributions in Faith and Scholarship and the Berkeley William Sloane Coffin Award.

In 2000, President Clinton awarded Bellah the National Humanities Medal “for his efforts to illuminate the importance of community in American society. A distinguished sociologist and educator, he has raised our awareness of the values that are at the core of our democratic institutions and of the dangers of individualism unchecked by social responsibility.” In 2007, Bellah received the American Academy of Religion Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion.

He is survived by daughters Hally Bellah-Guther of Berkeley, Calif.; Jennifer Bellah Maguire of Los Angeles and five grandchildren. Plans for a memorial service are pending.

A 2006 UC Berkeley profile of Bellah
: Of God, justice and disunited states