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The Civil Wars

When Baltimore Oriole Roberto Alomar spit on an umpire during a major-league game last fall, he not only made the next day's sports pages but also the pages of a blue-ribbon panel's report on civility.

Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller professor in the Divinity School, chairs the Council on Civil Society, a joint project of the Divinity School and the New York-based Institute for American Values. Over the past two years, the nonpartisan council-24 prominent scholars, politicians, and activists, including Harvard professor Cornel West and Senators Dan Coats, R-Ind., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.-has been assessing the state of the nation's moral conscience.

In its first report, "A Call to Civil Society: Why Democracy Needs Moral Truths," the council cites Alomar's crudeness as just one public example of what it fears is a growing incivility among Americans. Defining "civil society" as the "relationships and institutions that are neither created nor controlled by the state," such as PTAs and churches, whose purpose is to "foster competence and character in individuals, build social trust, and help children become good people and good citizens," the report reaches a sobering conclusion: "Our democracy is growing weaker because we are using up, but not replenishing, the civic and moral resources that make our democracy possible."

Besides citing broad social trends-like a high national rate of divorce, poor school systems, and pervasive consumerism-as probable causes of a civil-society breakdown, the council makes 41 recommendations for how Americans can get off what it cautions is a self-destructive road. For Elshtain, the most important recommendations concern children, education, and commerce. She supports family-friendly changes in the tax code, strong civics instruction in primary and secondary schools, and flexible workplace arrangements. Elshtain hopes the attention drawn by the report, which has spurred articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other major papers since its release in May, will spark public debate over not just what social policies should be enacted but also over what principles should guide them. She advocates that communities perform "civil-society impact studies" to analyze, for example, the effects of a new sports stadium on families and children-in much the same way that an environmental-impact study might look at the stadium's effects on soil and water quality.

"A river will clean itself for a while but eventually its system will collapse if nothing is done to stop the ill use," she says. "Social environments work in a similar way. You won't see the effects of destructive individual actions for a long time-until the system starts to crash. To forestall those kind of catastrophes, we need to think about how we act as members of a community-we've lost sight of the fact that every right entails responsibilities."

Elshtain says the council plans to revisit the report in six months to determine which recommendations have the best chances for implementation. She isn't looking for one dramatic overnight transformation of society, she says, but rather for changes on a smaller scale, changes that may make "one street safer." And Elshtain is confident change is possible, noting, "I think most folks know the truth of our conclusions deep down."-C.S.

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