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
stillproperly understoodbe 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 Halls
Tull Auditorium. Bellahs 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 unexaminedand
perhaps obsoletetraditions, 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 freewe would be dead, Bellah
The core of Bellahs 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
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
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 alongthat
we could take nothing for granted, because we would have no institutional
context to tell us where we arewe 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 Ill 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 Bellahs 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
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 religions
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 1991s 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.