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February 4, 2002

Bellah defends marriage

By Eric Rangus


Robert Bellah hardly mentioned the “M” word until more than 25 minutes into his speech, “Marriage: Sacred Institution or Obsolete Tyranny?” but when he did, he answered the provocative question posed by his title quite succinctly.

“Marriage,” said Bellah, Elliott Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, “though it can be, as in the case of the Taliban, an obsolete tyranny, can still—properly understood—be affirmed as a sacred institution.”

Bellah delivered the Currie Lecture in Law and Religion to several hundred faculty, staff and students, Jan. 28 in Gambrell Hall’s Tull Auditorium. Bellah’s conclusion about the institution of marriage wrapped up his address, in which he spent much of the early part defining American cultural institutions and the forces that create them.

While pointing out that institutions are based largely on unexamined—and perhaps obsolete—traditions, as well as the fact that they can often be oppressive, Bellah makes a case that they are indispensable.

“Although every imaginable criticism of institutions, including the institutions of marriage and family, has some basis, without institutions we would not be free—we would be dead,” Bellah said.

The core of Bellah’s speech, actually, was a comparison of the way people communicate and understand the world in which they live. Relating his own thoughts and quoting from the work of several sociologists, Bellah compared and contrasted what are known as “condensed codes,” which are institutionally based, and “elaborated codes,” which float free from institutions and are rooted more in the ideas and feelings of individuals.

Condensed codes, Bellah said, are positionally based. The person with a higher position (for instance: a parent) makes the rules for the person in a lower position (a child). Elaborated codes, Bellah said, rely on the manipulation of feelings and full explanation to communicate.

While each has its place in society, Bellah did not mince words describing which he thinks is most important.

“I would argue for the priority of institutions, and the condensed code that expresses them,” Bellah said. “All children begin with positional control and the condensed language code because personal control and the elaborated code require skills that no newborn has.”

Bellah expanded his thoughts on the elaborated code. “If we see that trying to live in the elaborated code alone would mean that we would have to make up our lives as we go along—that we could take nothing for granted, because we would have no institutional context to tell us where we are—we can begin to see that it is not only undesirable but impossible,” he said.

Chief among those institutions was marriage. While Bellah said he believed in marriage as an institution, he added that he was not against reform. The major reform, he said, was that it should be extended to include same-sex couples.

“Why stable, well-institutionalized relations between gay people should threaten marriage more than transient and unstable relations between them is something I’ll never understand,” Bellah said. It was the one instance in which Bellah departed from a self-described conservative speech.

In his response, Don Browning, Woodruff Visiting Professor of Interdisciplinary Religious Studies, agreed with many of Bellah’s assertions but stated that his idea to extend the institution of marriage to homosexuals would be more difficult to accomplish than Bellah believes.

Among those reasons: Browning said that no large religion has ever overtly advocated gay marriage; that child-bearing is seen as a major part of marriage (Bellah had discussed the possibilities of adoption and artificial insemination); that there is little state interest in homosexual marriage; and finally that one viewpoint is that homosexual marriage is “inherently unjust” and unworkable within the confines of the way marriage is currently defined.

Browing added that he did not necessarily share these viewpoints, but said they are some of the main barriers to legalized gay marriage.

A noted sociologist, Bellah is a co-author (along with religion’s Steven Tipton and several others) of the best-selling 1985 book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Bellah, Tipton and the rest of the original authors joined forces again to write 1991’s The Good Society, in which they argued that Americans must take responsibility for their institutions if a more effective and morally conscious society is to be created.

In his introduction, John Witte, director of the Law and Religion Program, called Bellah, “a distinguished and learned commentor on life in America.”