Leaders & Institutions Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

How Robert Bellah helped Martin Luther King oppose the Vietnam War

Robert Bellah, left, and Martin Luther King Jr. Photos courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. issued his prophetic denunciation of the war in Vietnam from the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City.

As his biographer David Garrow recalls in The New York Times, the speech drew harsh criticism from the media that had earlier celebrated his civil rights campaign, including the Times itself. But King, who had been deeply concerned about the war for some time, saw opposition to it as a necessary extension of his earlier public witness.

John C. Goodwin

Martin Luther King Jr. discusses his opposition to the war in Vietnam at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967.

In saying plainly that the country was wrong to be in Vietnam, King may have been out in front of mainstream opinion but he was not all by himself. Among the leading academics opposed to the war was Robert Bellah, a sociologist of religion then about to depart Harvard for Berkeley.

The  intellectual quarterly Daedalus featured Bellah’s seminal article “Civil Religion in America” in its winter 1967 edition. I believe King read the article — the first one in an issue on “Religion in America” — and that it helped shape his speech at Riverside on April 4, 1967.

Bellah’s main purpose was to make the case for “an elaborate and well-institutionalized” American civil religion existing “alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches.” But his underlying concern was about how that religion would adapt to the “time of trial” represented by the war in Vietnam.

“Gradually but unmistakably,” he wrote, “America is succumbing to that arrogance of power which has afflicted, weakened and in some cases destroyed great nations in the past.”

In similar terms, King talked about how, after World War II, “we fell victim as a nation at that time of the same deadly arrogance that has poisoned the international situation for all of these years.”

Robert Bellah in Berkeley, Calif., on May 16, 2008. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Andreas Guther

Bellah wrote: “Without an awareness that our nation stands under higher judgment, the tradition of the civil religion would be dangerous indeed.”

King echoed that: “God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, ‘You’re too arrogant!'”

Bellah concluded his article with a call for remaking American civil religion into something greater — a world civil religion.

“It is useless to speculate on the form such a civil religion might take,” he wrote, “though it obviously would draw on religious traditions beyond the sphere of biblical religion alone.”

King likewise expressed the need for a more comprehensive spiritual ethos, but he was not afraid to speculate on the form it should take.

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing, unconditional love for all men.

This love was not just Christian nor, in the common language of post-World War II ecumenism, Judeo-Christian. It was, said King, a “Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality.”

In later years, fellow academics often criticized Bellah for promoting a sacralized version of American national identity. A few months before he died in 2013, he sent me an email about an article I’d written that mentioned “Civil Religion in America” in which he complained about being misunderstood.

In spite of the fact that my article is profoundly critical of America and came out of a period of deep opposition to the Vietnam War, it has been widely interpreted as a hymn to religious nationalism, something I above all hate.  I discovered in some of my journeys of the last two years that I am understood in such places as China and Germany as exactly the opposite, that is my use of the civil religion idea is seen as an alternative to religious nationalism, not a form of it, and that, since it is based on civil society and not the state, is seen as democratic and open to ongoing argument and criticism. Some (intelligent) Americans have seen that, but far too many put me together with Pat Robertson, to my horror.

Among the Americans who did not misunderstand Bellah was King.

(Mark Silk writes the Spiritual Politics column for RNS)

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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  • Yes!

    Although Bellah stopped using the term “civil religion” because he was tired of hassles over definition and more interested in substance, my reading of Bellah is he nonetheless believed something like “civil religion” is inescapable as the basis not only of a democracy but of any society.

    But it’s not just the irrelevant problems of definition. Bellah also came to see the city on the hill problem as irredeemable — and this is what King and Bellah articulate with regard to Vietnam, regardless of whether he actually read Bellah’s article or not.

    But, as an Oregonian, I have to add that in August 1964, the late U.S. Senator Wayne Morse was one of only two U.S. Senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Like King and Bellah, Morse argued long and hard that U.S. involvement in Vietnam was both immoral and unconstitutional.

    In the epilogue to Bellah’s 2002 festschrift, Meaning and Modernity, Bellah suggests we need a much more chastened, normal civil religion. And one way to do this would be – as Morse argued on the floor of the U.S. Senate in opposition to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution – to enter into and honor international treaties, organizations and agreements, the polar opposite of our current administration.

    We might also note that in Habits of the Heart, Bellah and his co-authors deal with the civil religion problem in terms of basic values and basic social consensus, without using the term “civil religion.”

    Bellah did not believe the end of civil religion — in its city on the hill form — meant the end of American democracy. But without some notion of the common good, in Bellah’s view, some willingness to will the best for society – even if it is not the best for my family, my country, my firm, my success, my self – democracy is already dead, or so he thought.

    As Tocqueville said, we could have the façade of democracy but the reality of an administered state designed to meet people’s needs without their engagement in the process. Indeed, according to Bellah, this is what is happening. We rise up every four years to elect our masters and then sink back into slavery, as Tocqueville said.

    In any case, I would argue, nothing could be further from what Bellah meant by civil religion in America than the superheated religious and secular nationalism that marks so much of American politics since Vietnam. And we still haven’t made it through what Bellah calls “a third time of trial” on page one of his 1975 book, The Broken Covenant, an elaboration of what he meant by “civil religion in America.”

    Indeed, one of the ongoing tragedies of American society is that the argument over Vietnam was abandoned and not resolved, an argument we carried up to a certain point but then walked away from it without resolving that war’s moral meaning. To me, and I think Bellah and King and Morse would agree, that’s at the heart of our “third time of trial,” the first two being the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.