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Church retains important role in society, commission told

WASHINGTON (BP)–The local church remains a lasting strength in American society, civic leaders and social scientists told the National Commission on Civic Renewal at its first meeting in Washington.

The new commission, co-chaired by former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, a Democrat, and former Secretary of Education William Bennett, a Republican, will seek to address the growing concerns Americans share in what they believe to be the “weakening of our social fabric,” said NCCR Executive Director William Galston.

In addition to Nunn and Bennett, the commission is made up of 23 members selected from the fields of business, politics, religion, academics and philanthropy. The panelists include Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission.

The commission will meet again in the spring and fall before issuing a final report by the end of the year.

The NCCR’s purpose at its Jan. 25 session was to “understand issues as they are understood by the general population,” said Galston, director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy University of Maryland and a former domestic policy adviser for President Clinton.

“What are the causes of our nation’s trends?” he asked before the commission heard testimony from eight witnesses, all leading authorities in social and political sciences.

“There is a growing pessimism among Americans,” said James Davison Hunter, project director for the Post-modernity Project at the University of Virginia and author of the book, “Culture Wars.” His 1996 survey of American political culture found “Americans believe we are in a state of decline in the areas of family, ethical and moral values, the public schools and crime,” he said.

His findings also indicated a disaffection and cynicism toward the federal government, Hunter said. “Two-thirds of those surveyed believe that their system of government is good, but the people running it are incompetent. And one-half of those surveyed believe that government is hostile to religion,” he said.

There are areas of optimism, however, said Alan Wolfe of Boston University. His study of diverse middle-class suburbs in San Diego, Tulsa, Atlanta and Boston revealed a “tremendous sense of optimism and hope,” he said. “Most Americans have a very strong sense of right and wrong, and are trying to balance morality with living in a complicated world,” he said.

Wolfe also said his findings indicated post-Vietnam division among Americans is fading and a new patriotism is growing.

In response, Land said, “I have a sense from my traveling around the country that there is a seething hostility toward government, that Americans believe their country is better than their government and that they don’t know what to do about it.”

Wolfe agreed: “Yes, it is true that people love their country more than their government.”

Hunter summarized this seeming contradiction: “People feel they are traveling first class on the Titanic”.

In spite of these conflicting emotions, most Americans are still engaged in volunteerism, said Andrew Kohut of the Pew Center for the People and the Press.

“Ninety-two percent of Americans are involved in some civic activity, and 83 percent are involved in two or more activities, often through their local church,” Kohut told the panel. “Gymnasiums and churches are the most-used social sites, for an average of 18 days per month. Activities in these places result in relationships that people can rely on for help.”

William Schrambra, vice president and director of general programs for the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee, reported some of the most effective civic renewal work going on in that city is being done by local churches: “Even after the federal programs have failed, these churches are making a difference in peoples’ lives.”

Schrambra suggested big government was the enemy of civic renewal, recommending the commission encourage government to “move away from micro-regulating” churches and organizations that work with communities on the local level. “Often, government regulations require people involved with social work to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, when in reality the most effective workers are often those who are most recently removed from problems of the community, such as drug abuse,” he said.

Galston said after the testimony, “While the array of new evidence released today moves us forward significantly, areas of debate remain on issues such as the moral state of the nation, the links between civic participation and social trust, and the relationship between government and civil society.”

In assessing the meeting, Land said one of the areas the commission must deal with is “the role of religion in American life, because there cannot be any significant and meaningful civic renewal apart from a reaffirmation of and renewal of religion’s role in the public life of the nation.”

Such a recognition “should not be misinterpreted as talking about government sponsorship of religion but instead government acknowledgment of the role that people’s religious faith must play in a healthy society and government accommodation of people’s right to express their own religious convictions in the public arena,” he said. “Four decades of government hostility to religious expression in society has played a significant role in the rending of the social fabric of the nation.”

Southern Baptists “must be the salt and light,” Land said, when asked how he expects the panel’s work to impact communities. “I hope the commission will give us some ideas and examples of what works.”

Bob Fullinwider, NCCR’s research director, said the commission’s final report should spark conversation on many levels in the public. “Hopefully, people on (Capitol) Hill will then be interested in making some policy initiatives,” he said.

Other commission members include Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee; John Cooke, executive vice president of the Walt Disney Company; Jean Beth Elshtain, social and political ethics professor at the University of Chicago; Henry Louis Gates, chairman of Harvard University’s Afro-American Studies Department; Mary Ann Glendon, law professor at Harvard; Roman Catholic Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston; Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute; Barbara Roberts, former governor of Oregon; and Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

Panelists were chosen by consultation among Nunn, Bennett, Galston, civic leaders and the Pew Charitable Trusts of Philadelphia, which is funding the commission.

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  • Karen Fetty