Reaffirming bedrock civic values in a society devoted to the individual

Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, by Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. 355 pp. $16.95. Since John Winthrop exhorted the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay to make their experiment in the wilderness a ``model of Christian charity,'' Americans have worried about the bonds holding their highly individualistic society together. The New World from the beginning gave its European colonizers unprecedented latitude to seek their own private fortunes. But the emphasis placed by Americans on the freewheeling individual pursuit of happiness has often conflicted with their larger vision of a genuine national community, a society bonded by common purposes and shared ideals.

The five co-authors of ``Habits of the Heart'' worry that this unifying vision no longer exists for much if not most of the American body politic. They are social scientists by profession but their purpose, like Winthrop's, is moral exhortation -- to urge a new public spirit on a citizenry increasingly focused on self-seeking.

If this sounds like something you once heard in a civics class or an old Frank Capra movie -- well, the book in places reads that way. But its main point is to remind readers that the bedrock civic values affirmed in such settings, however devalued in contemporary culture, still have a place and must be taken seriously if free institutions are to survive.

The title of the book comes from Alexis de Tocqueville's classic 19th-century discussion of American character, ``Democracy in America.'' The immediate impulse behind it comes from the prior work of the most senior and prominent of the authors, Robert Bellah of the University of California, Berkeley.

Professor Bellah's controversial analyses of American ``civil religion'' in the 1960s and '70s highlighted the stabilizing role throughout the nation's history of a broad consensus of religious and political ideas. The term ``civil religion'' is avoided in ``Habits of the Heart,'' probably by conscious decision, but the concept is implicit in the book's effort to ``recover'' the insights of the ``biblical and republican traditions'' in which the earlier consensus was rooted.

Lest anyone mistake their intent, the authors stress a need to ``reappropriate'' these traditions ``creatively,'' not merely to try to return to the past. They wince visibly at the simplisms of the Moral Majority, while acknowledging that many of its criticisms of the modern secular mindset are justified. They likewise reject the dogmas of the political left, while recognizing the incisiveness of certain aspects of its analysis of economic oppression.

Historically, their own antecedents lie in progressivism, a turn-of-the-century reform movement which also sought to revitalize traditional civic values -- and which included sophisticated social scientists worried about the durability of these values in an ever more fragmented world.

If this political perspective is clear, however, it is less clear that the book should really be considered social science. The field research for ``Habits of the Heart'' consisted of interviews with 200 middle-class Americans in several distinct cultural environments. While we hear from no one below the poverty line, the authors make a reasonable case for this narrow social sampling, pointing out that the public consensus they hope to see restored has always been primarily, although not exclusively, a middle-class phenomenon.

The problem is that we hear relatively little from most of those who were interviewed. Only 33 are mentioned specifically, by this reviewer's count, some only in passing. More important, the comments drawn from these interviews are often used, like scriptural ``proof texts'' in a theological tract, to support conclusions already taken for true. The authors argue lucidly for interpreting social science broadly as ``public philosophy,'' but it is hard not to feel that the message of their book would have been substantially the same if there had been no interviews, no ``field of research'' at all.

The problem is more than academic. The authors assume the validity of moral traditions because such traditions serve a useful social purpose. But this is an assumption that modern scientific culture emphatically denies -- and that biblical religions themselves, with their insistence on a transcendent source of values (and on truth as the imperative criterion of their validity), ultimately cannot endorse. Worthy as the authors' intentions are, the issues at the heart of this century's religious crisis are too deep to be resolved simply by finding a new ``language'' of ``community.'' The significance of the work in any case is less in its uneven sociological insight than in its call for ``transforming American culture.''

While the authors astonishingly and without irony describe this as a ``modest'' proposal, they are surely right that such a transformation is necessary, even urgent, and demands the collective commitment of men and women of good will.

Thomas Johnsen has studied American culture at Harvard and Johns Hopkins Universities.

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