Jim Miller
October 25, 1991 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Good Society

Current Status
In Season
Richard Madsen, Robert N. Bellah, Steven M. Tipton, Ann Swidler, William M. Sullivan
Politics and Current Events, Nonfiction

We gave it a C

Six years ago, in the surprise best-seller Habits of the Heart, Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah and four colleagues assailed the emptiness of American life. Through interviews with ordinary citizens, they demonstrated how most of us were morally adrift, torn between an individualism grown cancerous and older religious and political beliefs that stressed compassion, responsibility, and community. Now Bellah and his colleagues have returned to show us how we can ”change our hearts, enlarge our sympathies, and reform our institutions.”

Though The Good Society has the ambition and sweep of Habits of the Heart, it focuses on a much smaller segment of society, mainly bureaucrats, businessmen, and church officials. To rid us of our self-defeating narcissism, Bellah and his team prescribe a wealth of vague remedies: ”We need a much higher level of consumer intelligence, responsibility and self-discipline”; we need to ”increase our democratic learning capacity.” Worthy goals, no doubt. But after 300 pages of preachy prose, readers may be left gasping for air. C

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