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Habits of the heart.

Robert Bellah and his colleagues argue that the goal of government is to serve "the public good," as James Madison said, and that government will succeed in this task only if citizens have developed a sense of personal and social responsibility. Madison knew that while checks and balances are important, they alone will not guarantee the survival of freedom: "To suppose that my form of government will secure liberty and happiness without virtue in the people is a chimerical idea."

Habits of the Heart asks whether the virtue necessary for freedom and happiness is now being developed. Here, five authors mine their knowledge of sociology, history, religion, and philosophy to explore the mores of the American middle class. The book takes its title from Alexis de Tocqueville's observation that it is the "habits of the heart," the attitudes and values of our society more than its laws, which maintain democratic institutions.

The authors find that what Americans commonly understand as freedom and happiness has changed over 200 years. Freedom, as Jefferson wrote, was the ability to be a "participator in the government of affairs," while happiness derived from the exercise of that freedom. Like "life" and "liberty," "the pursuit of happiness" was not a right to be enjoyed only occasionally but was an integral part of daily living. Today, in contrast, freedom usually means an individual's ability to pursue a happiness that he will enjoy in private.

This radical individualism disturbs the authors, who find the pursuit of private happiness has not resulted in either a happy people or a vibrant republic. They set out to show the debilitating effect of self-referential individualism and to encourage discussions that will reawaken the ideals of freedom and commitment current 200 years ago.

The authors think a positive view of freedom emerges from what they call the biblical and republican traditions. They praise John Winthrop for envisioning the "city upon the hill." For him, Puritan virtue required that he work within his community, rather than retreat, as did Roger Williams, into private purity. They honor Jefferson for recognizing a law more basic than the statutes allowing slavery: "Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice can not sleep forever." They extol Lincoln for his use of biblical imagery to express his vision of the Union. Each of these leaders understood how to reveal transcendence in political life.

Habits of the Heart laments that the rich language associated with republican and biblical tradition is debased by the language of therapy. Rather than speaking a language that reaches out to others, many of the individuals the authors interviewed tie their conversations to the private individual self. In one interview, for instance, a therapist is asked whether she has any responsibility for anyone other than herself. "No," she replies. "What about children?" "I--I would say I have a legal responsibility for them." In fact, the emergence of this private individual was envisioned by de Tocqueville when he feared that Americans would one day come to have no connections with either their ancestors or their descendants.

A sense of isolation permeates even those institutions such as religion and politics, which are usually associated with creating a sense of the common good. Many of the people interviewed confessed that religion helps them discover their true selves. Church morality offers alleviation of private pain, not the courage to address injustice in the community. Politics becomes a tool to achieve special desires--favorable zoning, higher salaries for teachers, or tax breaks for businesses. Both liberals and conservatives speak as though politics can be measured by a calculus of private freedom, the main difference being that liberals believe that government can best supply the means and conservatives do not.

The purpose of the book, then, is to "transform the inner moral debate, often shared with intimates, into public discourse." The authors hope that demonstrating the emptiness in people's lives will spur them to create a social transformation that will finally fulfill the promise of the civil rights movement and create a just society.

Unfortunately, in drawing a portrait of people inarticulate about their commitment to the public good, the authors fail to show how participation in the public realm can be a source of happiness. The movement they hope for will not emerge from the portraits of unfulfilled lives or the shame that injustice is still pervasive. Instead, it will be created by people who are willing to risk their present private comfort because they are excited by the promise of a greater public future.
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Author:Townsend, Kathleen Kennedy
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1985
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