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SUBJ: Restoring Nation's 'Moral Order' Starts With Families, Group Says

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By Deborah L. Cohen

WASHIHGTON--A group of social theorists from divergent political backgrounds declared last week that it was uniting behind a common agenda: restoring the nation's "moral order" by strengthening communities and families.

In a broad-ranging platform released here, the group of some 30 scholars advances a "communitarian" vision of society in which parents put children first, schools do not shirk teaching values, politicians do not cave in to special interests, citizens honor their civic duties, and communities take appropriate steps to curb disease and crime.

"The best place to start" in building such a community, the group argues, is the family, "where each new generation acquires its moral anchoring."

"Moral education is not a task that can be delegated to babysitters, or even professional child-care centers. It requires close bonding of the kind that typically is formed only with parents, if it is formed at all," states the document, entitled "The Responsive Communitarian Platform: Rights and Responsibilities."

Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is among the statement's signers. Others include Robert N. Bellah, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley; Richard John Nenhaus, the president of the Religion and Public Life Institute; Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute; and the public- opinion analyst Daniel Yankelovich.

The platform was unveiled at a "teach-in" hosted by its principal drafters and led by Amitai Etzioni, a professor of sociology at George Washington University and the editor of the journal The Responsive Community.

The program also featured Democratic Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and Al Gore of Tennessee, Republican Senator Dave Durenberger of Minnesota, and a number of White House aides.

Concern for Common Good

The communitarian philosophy, supporters of the platform say, is based on the premise that American society has been "cannibalized" by policies that do not balance individual rights with a sense of responsibility to the common good.

Debate at last week's session centered on how to balance rights and responsibilities in the realms of family, school, politics, and public health.

While they do not necessarily agree on root causes or cures, the platform's signers agree that parents--whether by economic necessity or to sustain their standard of consumerism or personal advancement--too often "come home too late and too tired to attend to the needs of their children."

To address that concern, the platform calls for a "change in orientation" in economic, social, and workplace policies so that they support families through mechanisms ranging from tax credits to family leave to flexible work schedules.

At the same time, the group decries programs that penalize traditional families or assume too many of their functions. It seeks to advance policies "that facilitate the discharge by the families themselves of those social tasks they are best suited to."

Rather than promoting "a return to a nostalgic past" or pressuring mothers to stay home, Mr. Etzioni said, communitarianism "endorses a new familism in which both parents are actively engaged in the education of their children."

The group notes that some single parents "bravely struggle and succeed" in transmitting moral values to children and that some married couples "shamefully neglect" them. But it argues that, in general, two-parent families are better able to discharge their child-raising duties, if only because there are more hands--and voices--available for the task."

'Second Line of Defense'

On that basis, it calls for the modification of divorce laws, "to signal society's concern" with the ease and proliferation of divorce, and for child-support policies that put children's interests first. Calling schools "the second line of defense" after families, the platform urges schools at all levels to address their "grave responsibility to provide moral education."

The "specter of religious indoctrination" can be avoided, it argues, by stressing "values Americans share," such as human dignity, tolerance, peaceful resolution of conflicts, and the merits of democratic government, truth, work, and self-reliance.

While recognizing the need to protect individual rights and bar discrimination, the platform accents citizens' responsibility to stay informed, vote, and pay taxes. It also favors both voluntary and mandatory steps to curb the spread of AIDS, to test those in "high-risk jobs" for drug use, and to enhance public safety.

Communitarians do not represent a political party, but rather urge candidates for public office to "broaden their agenda" to address the nation's "moral deficit," Mr. Etzioni said.

What has been interpreted as apathy, contended Mary Ann Glendon, a professor of law at Harvard University who helped lead the teach-in, stems from families' sense of"futility" and from having their choices limited to "stinginess on the far right and oversimplification on the far left."

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