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The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial Paperback – January, 1984
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From Publishers Weekly
Regardless of political or religious affiliation, most Americans share similar values, understandings and purposes; here, Bellah examines how the content of this "civil religion" has changed and eroded through the years.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
From the Back Cover
This Second Edition represents Bellah's summation of his views on civil religion in America. In his 1967 essay Civil Religion in America, Bellah argued that the religious dimensions of American society--as distinct from it churches--has its own integrity and required 'the same care in understanding that any religion does.' --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Bellah, echoing his own disillusioned era, examines the flawed myths upon which Americans base our identity and actions. These include the myths of origin and chosenness, which generate arrogance; prosperity, which demands material success to prove "moral virtue and religious salvation" and produces "emotional and imaginative constriction...in a world of common sense and plain fact" (76); and pluralism, which--when coupled with chosenness--degenerates into a limited "welcome" on condition of conformity. With such skewed traditions, says Bellah, our failure is no surprise. Through racism, materialism, and other ethical crimes, the nation's original covenant, its promise of social justice, "was broken almost as soon as it was made" (139).
Bellah offers an honest look at many American flaws, and I found his critique of our nativism and disregard of community especially compelling. He takes care to show how Lockian and Calvinist ideals have come to contradict original Christian values such as humility and love of neighbor, an argument very interesting to a Christian like me. I don't think we need to reject those ideals altogether, but Bellah's argument was an effective call to consider how I apply them.
Bellah then seeks to redeem our myths, but "any reappropriation of tradition must be made in the full consciousness of [past failure]" (144). He wants a new covenant, for "unless the free act of liberation [such as 1960s rebellion] moves rapidly toward an act of institution...even the liberation itself turns into...new despotism" (34). According to Bellah, this new "act of institution" should incorporate classical and Biblical traditions but reject the selfish model of Locke, "the utilitarian morality of self-interest" (xx). And Bellah longs for an internalized covenant, which "can never be completely captured by institutions" (142). He desires personal conviction over external conformity, and such passionate conviction is better inculcated by community and churches than government.
To fulfill a covenant, however, one needs a religion. I know the objective of Bellah's covenant (social justice), but his book fails to delineate a sufficient set of "principles" for practitioners of the civil religion to follow. Bellah seems to reject established creeds and embrace a relativistic attitude, and his vague longings for "unity with nature" (155) and "immediacy of experience" (157) cannot recreate the solid "imaginative, religious, moral, and social context" of the spiritual forerunners he admires. I agree with many of Bellah's premises, but in the end, I think that he falls prey to his own fear: By shying away from absolute truth, he fails to crystallize his (very Christian) ideals within a covenant.
Bellah's book primarily examines what he famously termed, "American civil religion," the religious dimension of a people that interprets its historical experience in the light of transcendent reality (3). First, Bellah reexamines America's "myth of origin." Unlike other peoples, America as a nation began on a definite date (3). This gave the American myth a sense of "newness" that downplays tradition and allows Americans to choose its own symbols and government. Bellah next looks at both the positive and negative consequences of Americans as a chosen people. Bellah argues that from almost the beginning, while retaining the conception of chosenness, America slipped away from the obligations of the covenant and broke it through its treatment of the native Indians and institution of black slavery (37). Furthermore, in its quest for an industrial and efficient economy, America has thrown off the restraints of the puritan covenant and pursued unbounded self-interest (84).
In response to this crisis, Bellah wants a return to a "new degree of moral freedom" disciplined through renewed discovery of cultural and social norms - a new, secularized covenant (86). Bellah also considers the place of different cultural groups in American society and argues that capitalism has encouraged individual self-interest to the exclusion of communal concerns. For Bellah, recognizing the broken covenant does not mean rejecting the past, but rather forming new invigorations and projections to build a society in the light of a transcendent ethical vision (141-142). American society could be renewed by a return to the language and myths of the biblical covenant and civic republicanism while rejecting libertarian self-interest - a re-establishment of American civil religion.
The Broken Covenant is not a historical monograph. Rather, Bellah uses history to understand the problems of late twentieth-century America and explain American society in modern terms. As such his methodology is based primarily on famous figures from American intellectual history such as Jefferson, Lincoln, and Winthrop. Usually his portrayal seems accurate, though he does not always establish the context of some quotations that fit well into his rhetorical organization, as with his use of Melville (38). Overall, Bellah makes a convincing case for the sources of the problems he sees in American society. His suggestions for alternatives, however, are deeply colored by his time and secular assumptions. Bellah's greatest contribution is to draw the attention of Americans to problems in society, show us how their history has shaped national consciousness, and encourage them to search for solutions with humility and vision.