Category Archives: Sociology in General

Goodbye, Robert Bellah

I originally published this post on July 31, 2013, on the Black, White and Gray blog hosted by Patheos. Click here to read that post.

Robert Bellah

Robert Bellah

Robert Bellah once wrote: “Because good social science is always morally serious, we can transpose Weber’s saying that only a mature man can have the calling for politics into the statement that only a mature person can have the calling for sociology. Moral vacuity creates cognitively trivial work.” (The Robert Bellah Reader, p. 400)

Religion-in-Human-Evolution_coverOne of the greatest American sociologists, Robert Bellah has passed away in these finals days of July. I got the email from my graduate school mentor Robert Wuthnow of Princeton while I sat in a coffee shop at Yale with Phil Gorski preparing for this morning’s philosophy of social science seminar. We were both shocked. The email only said his death was caused by unexpected complications from a relatively minor surgery.

HabitsoftheHeart_coverI wrote about my conversations with Bellah previously on Black, White and Gray, and I’m immensely glad I got to meet a living legend just months before he passed away. At that meeting, Bellah spent as much time talking about how much he loved his recently deceased wife of more than 60 years as he did telling me about his latest book, Religion in Human Evolution, and we chatted about his new interest Catholic social teaching. Aristotle said that often we can’t tell if a person’s life has been flourishing until after they have died. May Bellah’s flourishing intellectual legacy and his example passion for people, ideas and the truth live on long after his death.

Conversations with Robert Bellah

I originally published this blog post on March 13, 2013,  Black, White and Gray, a blog hosted by Patheos.  Click here to read the full post.

Robert Bellah

Robert Bellah

“Sitting in his office perched above the hills in Berkeley, California, yesterday I got to meet one of the legends of sociology: Robert Bellah. Among other accomplishments, Bellah’s co-authored book Habits of the Heart from 1985 has sold half a million copies, his essay Civil Religion in America is widely discussed and cited, and his very recent magnum opus Religion in Human Evolution has caused quite a buzz in the academic world. (See the lively discussion of it on the Immanent Frame)…

Bellah sometimes feels that the popularity of his essay, “Civil Religion in America,” takes attention away from his other important works, even calling that article “that darned piece on civil religion!” However, I explained I assign Bellah’s Civil Religion essay and show students John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Presidential Inaugural Address that Bellah analyzes in “that darned piece!” Although Kennedy does mention “Almighty God” or Bible verses about 5 times in that speech, he refers to the nation as having a sacred mission at least 25 times. As Bellah so aptly describes and Kennedy’s speech perfectly illustrates, our nationality is not just something that gives us rights and responsibilities, our nationality is a moral, sacred belonging. Presidents before and after Kennedy rarely proselytize their particular religion, but they all describe the nation as sacred. Simply showing students that group belonging (like nationality) is not always a matter of personal choice  and that those group belongings have powerful moral narratives opens their eyes to how profoundly social human beings are and how human action has a moral dimension…”

Click here to read the full post.

Civil Religion in America then and Now

Published November 9, 2011, on the Black White and Gray blog.

“Yesterday, I discussed with my class Robert Bellah’s famous 1967 essay entitled ‘Civil Religion in America.’ In a time when news commentators and some scholars express concern that there is too much religion in American politics, Bellah’s essay reminds us that religion has always been part of American politics and national discourse.

Referring to John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Presidential Inaugural speech, Bellah remarked that President Kennedy referred to God three times in that famous speech. Bellah then asks, ‘Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word ‘God’ at all? The answer is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm a religious dimension. Although matters of personal religious belief, worship, and association are considered to be strictly private affairs, there are, at the same time, certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share. These have played a crucial role in the development of American institutions and still provide a religious dimension for the whole fabric of American life, including the political sphere. This public religious dimension is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals that I am calling American civil religion.'”

Click here to read the full post.

My Book Review of Liogier’s "Legitimate’Laicité: France and its State Religions"

The May volume of the American Sociological Association’s journal of book reviews, Contemporary Sociology, published my review of Raphael Lioger’s book ” ‘Legitimate’ Laicite: France and its State Religions” (Paris: Entrelacs, 2006). Liogier heads the World Religion Watch at the French University Sciences Po in Aix-en-Provence, France, which aims to spark dialogue between French and English speaking scholars of religion, such as by translating works from French to English and vice-versa. Click here to read about Liogier’s work, much of which has been published in French. As he writes more in English and presents his work to English-speaking audiences, I hope my book review sparks a wide audience for his work.

A selection of the book review is below. Please click here to see the full review (for subscribers to Contemporary Sociology) or email me for the full review (for non-subscribers).

Raphaël Liogier’s book is a provocative argument about French discourse and practice regarding laïcité, a term generally translated as secularism. Liogier correctly points out that scholars should interrogate how well actual practices reflect the discourse and common understandings of terms such as secularism and laïcité. Liogier makes a powerful and convincing argument that French laïcité is notwhat many inside and outside of France believe it to be, the separation of church and state, but rather an organized and hierarchical system of state intervention in religion.

Manuel Vasquez’s Comments

Manuel Vazquez, Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Florida (Vazquez is on the left of this picture and Terry Rey, Professor of Religion at Temple University, is on the right), called my book a good example of post-functionalist sociology of religion. Functionalism enters into sociology of religion when scholars talks about religion in terms of what religion does for people in terms of “cash value.” Vasquez commended that although I don’t ignore that religion does things for Haitian immigrants, including connecting them to social networks and social services, I also talk extensively about hope, resilience, and generosity—or the substantive and meaning-making side of religion. In other words, he said I talk about what religion does for people while also talking about what religion means for people. Furthermore, he liked how I embed Haitians’ religious faith within specific institutions without falling into functionalism. He called my use of multiple levels of analysis a non-reductive type of materialism. He cautioned me not to over-generalize the three models of church-state cooperation that I describe. In the U.S., he thinks there may be more conflict between immigrants and the state than I acknowledge in my book. In response, I think that as Milton Gordon said about earlier immigrants to the U.S., American society did not become a melting pot without conflict. Gordon said, and I agree, that what is interesting about the U.S. is that despite some conflict, over time most immigrants and their descendants joined the American middle class mainstream. Similarly, when Haitians first began settling in Miami, there was some conflict with the state. But through the advocacy of Father Wenski and others Catholic Church leaders, the state slowly began to cooperate more with Haitian institutions. Using the term “cooperation” to describe the U.S. model of interacting with immigrant organizations, including faith-based ones, does not mean that conflict is totally absent. Rather, over time in the U.S. and when compared to France and Quebec, the U.S. is remarkably adaptable to new immigrants and new religious groups.

Gerardo Marti’s Comments


Gerardo Marti, Associate Professor of Sociology at Davidson College (pictured here with me), said he thinks my book’s greatest contribution is the cross-national comparative research design, which allows me to highlight the importance of the nation-state’s relationships to immigrant communities. Although much work has been done on immigrant religious communities in the U.S., my work highlights how different national contexts contribute to shaping the institutions which immigrants rely on succeed in their new societies. I agree with Gerardo that most scholars in the U.S. find the cross-national comparative research design to be the greatest strength of my book. However, visiting Quebec for the AAR reminded me that the national context also influences what readers think my book’s most important contribution will be. In the last 40 years, Quebec has become one of the most secular societies in the world. Many intellectuals and members of the general public in Quebec tend to look upon religious piety as an escape from worldly probelms and they generally view religious institutions as oppressive. Hence, in Quebec, my book may be most cited for demonstrating how religous faith can give people agency and how religious institutions can empower the poor. In Quebec, it is generally known that the American people are generally pro-religious and the American government works extensively with faith-based and other types of private associations in delivering social services. If Americans sometimes forget that our national context is generally pro-religious, then the parallel is that Quebeckers sometimes forget that religion can be liberating and that their state does not perfectly meet all social needs.

Author-Meets-Critics Panel at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion

In October 2009, Kevin Christiano of Notre Dame convened an author-meets-critics panel on my book, Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora, at the annual meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. The three panelists were Michael Emerson of Rice University, Melissa Wilde of the University of Pennsylvania, and Richard Wood of the University of New Mexico. All three panelists were extremely complementary about the ambitious three-country research design, the large amount of ethnographic work done, and the passionate writing. In blogs below, I address some of the questions raised by each of the panelists. I would like to thank Kevin Christiano for convening the panel and offering his insights on the Quebec case, with which he is very familiar. When we were talking about whether voluntary organizations, including faith-based ones, are necessary to complement state provided social services, Kevin described to the audience how for many Quebecois, the state is ipso facto better than the church at providing social services. Because the Catholic Church dominated social life for nearly 200 years while French Quebecois were under the rule of Anglophone Quebecois and Canadians, since the 1960s Quiet Revolution many Quebecois have held firmly to the opinion that they need to be liberated from traditional control of the church. Although I agree with this statement, in a discussion after the panel, I told Kevin that it seemed to me that Quebec was still strongly culturally Catholic, even nearly 50 years after the Quiet Revolution begun. In my work with Haitian immigrants, I found that Catholic leaders and organizations–both Haitians and Quebecois–were instrumental in assisting the settlement and adaptation of Haitians who arrived in Quebec from the 1960s-1990s. These Catholic leaders and associations had many connections to the Quebecois state that helped them in their work with Haitians. It was only when large numbers of non-Catholic immigrants began arriving in Quebec and their religious leaders sought to engage the public sphere that the people of Quebec began to really question cooperation between religious organizations and the state. Thus, although the Quiet Revolution clearly altered the social position of the Catholic Church in Quebec, this change occurred slowly and many connections still exist.

NY Times article related to my research on older immigrants

The August 30, 2009, edition of the New York Times featured a front-page article on my new research topic, older immigrants. Click here to see it.