264. "What Should Congress Focus on During Its Second 100 Days," American Enterprise Institute, (May-June 1995), pp. 21-22.


Three out of four Americans (76 percent) believe that our society is morally decaying. A study of voters by the Wirthlin Group shows that 60 percent of voters feel that the problems facing the country are "primarily moral and social in nature," as opposed to "primarily economic in nature." The growing appeal of the Religious Right reflects the yearning of Americans to address values issues (for which "family values" and "culture" have become code words). While so far cultural conservatives have largely supported the economic (laissez-faire) conservative agenda (cut government, taxes, deficits, regulations) there are signs that cultural conservatives feel that "their" issues are being neglected.

One may say that this matter concerns only Republicans, but Democrats too face a growing rift between liberals who focus on jobs, minimum wages, workers rights, and entitlements and the demand from New Democrats to also attend to values issues. Beyond politics, the future of America as a civil and ethical society is at stake. The all-too-familiar litany of social problems--violent crime, drug abuse, illegitimacy--reflect a fraying of the social fabric and of core values.

None of this suggests that the agenda for the next hundred days and beyond should be one of government-imposed values. The moral reconstruction of America is a matter of changing habits of heart, mind sets, values, and social institution--and, to a limited extent, public policies. Congress, the president, and presidential candidates can rough out an agenda, frame issues, and focus the public dialogue on what the proper direction of the American society ought to be.

The tenor of the dialogue will deeply affect the direction in which the society will evolve. If one turns first to the most divisive issues, pointing fingers if not waving fists, bashing and demonizing, one escalates the cultural war and aggravates the polarization of America. One also preaches to the choir rather than bringing new people into the fold. We need to remind one another, to draw on a religious language, that nobody is beyond redemption; and that we are offended by sin but seek to reach out to the sinners.

Above all we should have faith in faith, win people over to a responsible way of life rather than try to beat them into it. We should not try to set back the clocks to the fifties; we need to recognize the duties of both parents to their families rather than demand that women stay home to take care of children. We should find a replacement for affirmative action without returning to an age when women and minorities were discriminated against. Nor can we allow the young, or for that matter anybody else, to become the next silent generation; we should respect rights as we demand that everyone live up to their responsibilities.

We need a grand dialogue about what our new moral direction ought to be. Such dialogues do lead to a change in direction as we have recently witnessed in other areas, from the way we treat the environment to our growing consensus about the need to scale back government.

There are several legislative items that can nourish such dialogues, send a message, and advance the needed cultural changes. To help shore up the family we could:

* Establish "children first" divorce policies. Congress should draft a new model divorce law requiring that divorce settlements set aside assets needed to ensure the economic well-being of the children (to be controlled by the custodial parent until the children come of age). Any remaining assets may be divided between the two parents. This would also discourage many from rushing into divorce.

* Establish a small tax credit for pre-marital counseling. Many churches require couples to undergo pre-marital counseling. Congress may recognize the value of this trend by granting a $250 tax credit to couples who participate in such counseling, signaling the merit of stronger marriages by encouraging people to enter into them more responsibly.

* Require parental involvement in child care. Child-care centers that receive public assistance should be required to demand parental involvement as a condition of accepting children, in the form of a set amount of hours of volunteer service each month. Among other benefits, this will serve as a quality control, exposing parents first-hand to any problems in the care their children are receiving.

* Protect communities' jurisdiction. Among the new measures we should support is a federal law that no community will be denied its right to enclose itself, through such measures as check points and gates at the entrances to communities. Because communities are the sociological basis for our moral fabric and because they occur in public spaces rather than in private homes and cars, we must ensure that these are safe and not taken over by any one group.

* Encourage transitional bilingual education. It might make sense for instruction in one's native language to be available to new immigrant students, but time limits should be placed on such programs to prevent young people from completing 12 school years without ever commingling with students from other backgrounds and being introduced to mainstream teachings.

* Make English and civics lessons widely available. Many legal immigrants would like to learn English and pursue citizenship to gain inclusion in mainstream society, but find no help when they try. Congressional hearings could flag the need. Voluntary associations are particularly suited to take it from here.

Many more social reforms need to be adopted, to which we can turn once we realize that as important as the economy is, we do not live by bread alone. Those who implicitly hold that economic forces drive social and moral ones should revisit former communist countries to see both the fate of societies built on such theories and the devastating effects of a moral vacuum left in their wake.

Amitai Etzioni is the author of The Spirit of Community, and University Professor at George Washington University.

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