Sociologist Robert Bellah, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, has been at the center of some of America’s most important public debates in the last three decades.

In 1966 he wrote an essay that injected the phrase “civil religion” into the public discussion of the place of religion in a pluralistic, and supposedly secular, society. (Bellah now regrets the phrase and its association with uncritical patriotism, although he still stands by the central assertions of the essay.)

More recently, Bellah and four other sociologists wrote Habits of the Heart. Now three years old, the book is one of a handful mentioned constantly in arguments about the good and bad effects of American individualism.

Not so widely known is the vigorous Christian faith that now undergirds Bellah’s vision of what a better America would be like. He was raised, as he puts it, “among the fragments of a once coherent, Southern Protestant culture,” rarely missing Sunday school at a Presbyterian church that “was conservative without being fundamentalist.” Later years took him away from a solid faith; but still later years have brought him back. For the last decade, Bellah has been active in a local Episcopal church. He preaches occasionally and is pleased that, after some public lectures, people wander up to him with a copy of Habits of the Heart in hand and ask what church they should attend. (Bellah suggests they seek a church in the tradition in which they were reared.) He believes his “ministry” is “to bring my intellectual training into a relationship with my faith in a way that can speak to other people.”

In the following interview, Bellah applies this ministry to some ongoing evangelical concerns.

Family is a real concern of evangelical Christians. And judging from Habits of the Heart and occasional articles since, it is a concern of yours as well. At a time of so much social change, how do you define family?

You could adopt a kind of sociological definition and say that the family should be identified with a household, so that whatever persons live together and feel like a family constitute a family.

But my perspective would define family more normatively. You can say sociologically, and certainly theologically, that family essentially involves a man and a woman marrying and living together, in principle in a union lasting a lifetime, and usually bringing children into the world. If you want to call that the traditional family, that’s all right with me. Whatever kinds of wider kinship arrangements there may be, this format—a man, a woman, and children—is a widely persistent reality in societies. We haven’t discovered any other way of bringing children into the world and socializing them to become responsible adults. Therefore, I would give a certain priority, sociologically and ethically, to the family defined as husband, wife, and children.

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That doesn’t mean we have to insist that all other sorts of relating are not family. There are many reasons why one or the other parent may not be in the home. I was raised in a one-parent family because my father died when I was three years old. Obviously, it was hard, but I don’t think I didn’t have a family because my father died young. There can be a kind of family where people are committed to one another and care about each other without fitting this central, normative definition of family. But recognizing exceptions, I want to reassert the centrality and special dignity of what we call the traditional, or nuclear, family.

How important is family to the commonweal of the nation?

It is essential, but it’s quite striking that we pay relatively little attention to that fact. We are one of the very few advanced industrial democracies that has no family policy. Most European societies actually have a family ministry, concerned with all kinds of issues, such as taxation, the regulation of working hours, and legally mandated leave time for childbirth. There are many things public policy can do that will either strengthen or weaken family life.

For instance, our enforcement of child support is extraordinarily lax. In most European societies, that obligation is enforced by the state: you can’t just walk away from your kids and not pay for their subsistence. But it is also supplemented by public support; most European societies and Canada have child allowances for everyone. And they are enough to make sure that a child is not going to go hungry. We don’t have any such thing in this society.

Of course, there is a considerable concern that if government becomes too involved in these areas, the family’s status as an intermediate institution will be compromised or destroyed. How do you respond to that worry?

It’s a very legitimate worry. The role of government has to be extremely nuanced and careful. But something like child allowance is a kind of support that doesn’t involve any interference. There are no bureaucrats to administer it; it just comes automatically. Most societies in this world have found that’s a good thing; it would probably be a good thing for us.

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And then, rather than having activist welfare bureaucracies taking over functions of the family, we need to think about institutional arrangements that will help families care for themselves. Tax laws, and other things that make it appealing for people to stay on welfare, need to be changed so that people can be freed from the welfare bureaucracy.

We don’t want the government running our families, but it certainly is the case that in modern societies the family is simply too weak to sustain itself. It needs neighbors and church, friends and extended family—and it needs public policy. The economy is simply too volatile, making the family too vulnerable unless there is a government commitment to sustain enduring family relationships.

How threatened is what you earlier called the traditional or normative family?

For all the troubles—which will probably get worse before they get better—there is such a deep human pull into this kind of relationship that I am not worried for the long run. I don’t think we’re coming to the end of the family. We are going through a tremendous period of transition and strain, and we haven’t got a clear idea of how to get out of it.

Consider the fact that it is no longer possible for most families in America, in either the middle class or the working class, to make it on one salary. With so many working wives, women who are also mothers, an entire form of life that we took to be “normal” in the immediate postwar world, is gone—statistically speaking. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of families that still have a breadwinner and a homemaker, but they are the minority and their numbers are declining. This places a tremendous strain on everyone in the family. Institutions are not set up to provide a substitute for that woman who is no longer there, the mother who was the moral backbone of our neighborhoods.

The other thing that has happened in the same period is a demand for the equality of women. The old situation was in some ways more stable. You could count on the fact that the man was in charge and the woman was important but secondary. In our current society, that situation is no longer to be taken for granted. Husband and wife together are the heads of the family.

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Absolute equality is a chimera. No relationship can operate that way. But it certainly isn’t necessary for one member of a partnership always to be the dominant member. I think it is possible to work out an understanding of various spheres in which one or the other partner will take leadership. That’s much harder than a simple-minded solution that one is always the boss.

And we haven’t solved all the strains resulting from the new situation. A few wives earn more than their husbands, and tension can occur. The sheer fact that women don’t have to stay in a marriage because they depend on a man makes divorce easier.

Now the last thing I want to say is that feminism is ruining the family. It is not that we should try to return to the old way, but that we need to resolve these new problems in a way that can sustain strong, enduring commitments between equal partners. We have some marriage research showing that marriages that endure over time are stronger if there is a fundamental egalitarianism, shared decision making. Some patriarchal marriages survive a long time; but if you look just below the surface, the relationship is dead and these people have withdrawn into their separate shells. What we want is survival, stability, and long-lasting commitment; and we want it to be a commitment that’s deeply gratifying to both members of the marriage relationship.

Evangelical Christians write and read many criticisms of the forces straining the traditional family. But their accounts usually neglect one factor you discuss: advanced capitalism.

Capitalism is an ambiguous word. Perhaps it’s better to speak of “the market economy.” Everyone has learned, including the Russians and the Chinese, that the market economy plays a crucial function in the modern world. Any effort to replace the market by a state-controlled command economy creates more problems than it solves. An appreciation of what the market can do, of its creativity and the fact that it has provided the highest standard of living in the world—this is perfectly appropriate for evangelical Christians or for anyone else.

At the same time, if you look at the history of the world in the last 200 years—essentially since a relatively unfettered market economy has become a world economy—you see that it has created a degree of unprecedented social destruction. It undercuts every traditional loyalty, destroys local communities, and makes family life vulnerable.

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Some have praised capitalism as a system of creative destruction. Its creativity is seen in the way it tears people from their geographical roots, undermines solidarities, deprives people of what they were trained to do because the job doesn’t exist anymore, and it makes them feel they’ve failed in their lives when they have actually been run over by this inexorable machine. Those human consequences have required social policies to mitigate the destructiveness of the market economy.

Posing the question of communism versus capitalism seems irrelevant. The communist societies are moving towards a greater degree of political openness and market economy. But the noncommunist societies all regulate the market to keep it from becoming even more destructive than it would be naturally. We struggle for a sensible and humane balance.

In what ways does the market economy strain the family?

One way is the sheer pressure of work. Benjamin Spock and T. Barry Brazelton, two of our most famous pediatricians, recently issued a statement in which they said that, for the sake of the children, the combined working hours of husband and wife should be no more than 12 hours a day. That means that if wives are also going to be at work, we need to think about how husbands can take up some of the slack and contribute more in child care, in shopping, in all the things that make a family go.

To me, one of the great things in family life is meals together. It’s very hard for many families even to have a meal together because of work schedules and children’s activities. But the shared meal is really what you might call a family sacrament. If you’re going to have that sacrament, it means somebody’s got to help mother—kids, husband—somebody has to help cook and clean up, and that should enrich meals as sacraments because everybody, not just one person, contributes. More reasonable work schedules would help make time for things like family meals. Capitalist industry makes its work schedule solely on the basis of its own efficiency needs, but it is ruthless toward the family.

Consumerism is another effect of the market economy that hinders family life. If you’re geared to the notion that the real meaning of life is acquiring various consumer goods, that undercuts the meaning of family life. Some of that consumption is at least ostensibly “for the sake of the family.” You want to provide everything you can for your spouse and your children. But if you’re communicating to your kids that what really matters is the VCR and the Mercedes-Benz, the children get a strange view of the meaning of life. They’re propelled to think of themselves as simply competition machines, set to get the highest grades, get into the best schools, and make the most money.

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We need to communicate to our children that the most important things are what we share: family meals, going to church, worshiping God together, family vacations—those are what really count and have intrinsic meaning.

Habits of the Heart was largely concerned to show the limitations of American individualism, and that may also relate to the family. Would you say that our individualism has become so extreme that it strains family ties?

We Americans find ourselves in a poignant double bind. When sociologists ask, “Would you like to spend your life married to one other person?” we find absolutely, consistently in surveys conducted over the last 30 years that something like 90 percent of the respondents say yes. But then we ask, “Do you expect to spend your life with one other person?” and the affirmative answer drops to about half.

This is painful. People want what they think they can’t have. This suggests that, though they might not put it into words, they have a problem with individualism. Individualism emphasizes “what’s in it for me” and “you don’t meet my needs; so, baby. I’m splitting”—attitudes that make it very hard to sustain a lifetime relationship with another person.

So Americans want the freedom of radical individualism, but they don’t like the consequences. Perhaps the way to reach those people, whether you’re a teacher or a preacher, is to suggest to them that you can’t have it both ways. If you really do want a coherent marriage and a coherent community, you can’t build your life on the notion that whatever momentarily happens to gratify your needs is what you’re going to do. The teacher and preacher can suggest that you can be a strong, self-respecting individual exactly because you accept commitments and obligations. And that the I and the we are not inconflict—that when you have a strong sense of we, in this marriage, or in this church, or even in this nation, that enhances rather than weakens you as a person.

Habits has sometimes been interpreted as arguing that individualism and group loyalty or solidarity are kind of zero-sum situations—the more of one, the less of the other. That was never our intention. We believe that a radically atomized individual is a weak individual, not a strong individual.

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Habits emphasizes the need for a moral language that encompasses social commitments as well as individual concerns. Let’s draw that out: What difference does it make that people lack a language to talk about their commitment to things and persons beyond themselves?

We are essentially arguing that many of the people we interviewed for Habits are living lives that involve much concern for other people. But each of them in one way or another has problems with how to express that in any way other than language such as “it meets my needs” or “it happens to be my current priority” or “I’m into that.”

Now, I sense that even if the moral practices are better than the language, the practices will be endangered if we don’t know how to explain them. When we have to express everything that’s loving and caring and socially responsible in terms of “what it does for me,” that begins to undercut the very nature of those practices.

Therefore, it’s important to recover a way of speaking that doesn’t just immediately, any time any value question is raised, say, “That’s just up to individuals and whatever they feel.” Of course, many Americans talk that way because they possess the virtue of tolerance. They don’t want to reject everybody who isn’t exactly like them. But the ability to have a broad, sympathetic understanding of diversity does not require us to give up all objective moral judgment. And we tend, in America, to make that equation: If you accept other people, then you can’t come to any conclusions at all about how they’re behaving. Our moral practices are being stunted by a constricted moral language.

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