Nov. 17-30, 2000
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Bellah urges search for common good
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Promiscuity could be the key factor in immune system evolution, study suggests

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IN THIS ISSUE

Robert BellahBellah urges search for common good

By Rebecca Arrington

Best-selling author and sociologist Robert Bellah delivered a message on what needs to be done to improve American society to a capacity crowd in Minor Hall Auditorium Nov. 9. Speaking on "The Protestant Structure of American Culture: Multiculture or Monoculture?," Bellah traced the shift in America's social culture from a Puritan, church-centered culture, to a nation-centered one that emerged around the time Lincoln was president, to a self-centered one, introduced by Emerson, and ever-present today.

The U.S. has proven hospitable in recent years to the idea of multiculturalism, noted Bellah, the Elliott Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley and co-author of Habits of the Heart and The Good Society. However, "American culture is Protestant to the bone and [that] has affected every cultural and religious group more than they realize," he said. "This is why the ideology of multiculturalism in America today is so appealing but the reality so problematic," he said.

"Without a deep understanding of the common good and without a conception of the church as something more than just a voluntary association, the dignity of the individual is swept away in a jumble of isolated, fragmented individuals, ruled only by the market, which doesn't understand the dignity of anything but money."

Robert Bellah

"To have true multicultural education in America, we'd need to teach a second language," he said. "Why don't most Americans learn another language? Because we don't have to. Everyone in the world speaks English," he said. Different minority groups can keep their identity, "but cultural content goes under the pressure of the dominant Protestant culture," he said.

To further support his argument, Bellah noted that second- and third-generation Asian- and Hispanic-Americans no longer speak their native language; they speak English. "When language, which is the heart of any culture, disappears, so too does that culture," he said.

"The only institution in our society where multiculturalism survives is in religious-based structures," said Bellah, citing the African-American church as an example. Religion is the "only institute that can sustain strong cultural pluralism over the generations," he said.

"Something is wrong, not on the surface of American life, but deep in the core of our common culture," said Bellah, citing a number of studies that both he and other writers have conducted. The research reveals that Americans have become socially disconnected. Everything from church membership to the number of bowling leagues in this country is down, he said.

"So the real mission of cultural pluralism would be to offer an alternative to the radical Protestant individualism that has dissolved the church into the messianic nation, such that once the messianic mission is lost, there is nothing left but the individual as the pre-eminent being in the universe. Nothing left but 'hat I have is mine, and it is mine because I deserve it, and I have a right to it,'" Bellah said.

"Without a deep understanding of the common good ... and without a conception of the church as something more than just a voluntary association, the dignity of the individual is swept away in a jumble of isolated, fragmented individuals, ruled only by the market, which doesn't understand the dignity of anything but money," he said.

"We need the non-Protestant traditions and the most thoughtful and self-critical sector of Protestant tradition to remind us that we are citizens of the deeply flawed city of man, and that we badly need to recover an idea of the common good toward which we can aspire in the face of the disintegrative tendencies, not of cultural pluralism but of radical individualism.

"Breaking the hold of the monoculture is in my opinion our greatest, most urgent challenge. A fundamental turn of direction would involve a change in our economy, our institutions, our culture, and in the core of our religious faith. There are not many signs at the moment that Americans are prepared to accept that challenge," said Bellah, whose talk was the second annual Lecture in Culture and Social Theory, sponsored by U.Va.'s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and the Department of Sociology.


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