Robert Bellah receives National Humanities award

By Diane Ainsworth and Pat McBroom, Public Affairs


Robert Bellah and President Clinton

Robert Bellah receives a handshake from President Clinton. White House photo.

10 Jan 2001 | Highly acclaimed sociologist and educator Robert Bellah, Berkeley's Elliott Professor of Sociology Emeritus, received the National Humanities Medal for "his efforts to illuminate the importance of community in American society."

So reads the citation awarded Bellah, one of 12 recipients of President Clinton's humanities award at an awards ceremony and dinner held in Constitution Hall on Dec. 20, 2000.

Twenty-four scholars and leaders in the humanities and arts were given the prestigious annual award at an "extraordinarily moving ceremony," Bellah said. The recipients met and chatted informally with the President and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton prior to the ceremony.

"Bill and Hillary knew my work and commented on how important they thought my books had been," said Bellah, who is currently at work on a book about religion in Japan. "Hillary's chief of staff even called me because she wanted to quote from 'The Good Society' in a talk she was giving in Japan."

Approximately 450 dinner guests, mostly relatives and friends of the 24 awardees and a number of outgoing White House dignitaries and their families, were treated to a performance by the National Symphony Orchestra over dinner. Bellah said Clinton got up and conducted the finale, "Stars and Stripes Forever."

Signed by the president, Bellah's citation reads in its entirety:

"The President of the United States of America awards this National Humanities Medal to Robert N. Bellah 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."

Bellah is widely known as senior author of the best-seller "Habits of the Heart," which looks at questions of individualism and commitment in American life, and its sequel "The Good Society," which identifies tensions between individualism, a sense of community and social institutions as dominant characteristics of contemporary American life.

"Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life" became one of the most widely discussed interpretations of recent American society and brought Bellah into the spotlight of discussions on the sociology of religion in America. Frequently in demand as a commentator on the social and spiritual health of the American mind, Bellah has seen a million copies of his book sold since it was first published. The updated edition is considered even more relevant today than when it was first written.

The authors wrote then that a social movement was needed to, among other things, "restore the dignity and legitimacy of democratic politics. We have suspicious Americans are of politics as an area in which arbitrary differences of opinion and interest can be resolved only by power and manipulation."

Unhappily, said Bellah, "those statements are even more true at the present moment than when we wrote them."

Since retiring three years ago from Berkeley, where he taught sociology courses in the College of Letters & Science, Bellah has continued writing and lecturing. He has three or four books in progress; the nearest to completion is a book on Japan, reflecting a return to his earlier academic interests in Japanese religion.

Educated at Harvard University in sociology, anthropology and Eastern religions, Bellah began teaching at Harvard in 1957 and moved to Berkeley in 1967. Some of his other books include "The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in time of Trial," "Beyond Belief," "The New Religious Consciousness," and the co-edited book, "Uncivil Religion: Interreligious Hostility in America."


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