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Americans' moral fiber in the '80s: a new study

Stand by, America, your moral pulse is about to be taken, your civic commitment examined. In the tradition of 19th-century French author-statesman Alexis de Tocqueville, a group of American scholars will spend the next three years probing significant shifts in personal values and how these shifts reflect national character.

Has the important balance between public and private life in America which so fascinated de Tocqueville when he visited the United States 150 years ago survived national disruption and individual alienation? Is civic virtue -- which the young Frenchman saw as key to the success of democracy here -- still a vigorous influence? Or has what he called "soft despotism" already taken hold?

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Titled "The Moral Basis of Social Commitment in America," the study is being funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford and Rockerfeller Foundations. Its leader is Dr. Robert Bellah, chairman of the Department of Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. Professor Bellah was one of 10 religious and ethical leaders summoned to the Camp David mountaintop last year by President Carter to discuss the country's moral vitality.

De Tocqueville stressed that laws were more important to the maintenance of a democratic republic than physical circumstances and added that mores (what he called "habits of the heart") were more important than laws. By mores, Dr. Bellah explains, de Tocqueville meant not only ethical values, but religion, economic life, and political participation.

The French visitor to America in 1831-32 found a unique combination in this regard. But he also noted that materialism and selfishness could undermine free institutions. Were his concerns prophetic?

"Many of the dangers that de Tocqueville warned us about seem particularly descriptive of the present," observes the lanky, soft-spoken Berkeley professor. "He particularly warned us about the situation in which each individual becomes, as he says, 'shut up in the solitude of his own heart.'"

Dr. Bellah notes the declining confidence in public institutions. "All of this came to a culmination in 1979 when, for the first time, a majority of Americans said they thought their future would be worse than their past.

"If enough people feel that things are very bad and that there's nothing you can do about it, that's the perfect set of presup- positions for some kind of despotism, whether it's de Tocqueville's 'soft despotism' [that is, increasingly centralized decisionmaking] or something worse," he adds.

To find out just how pervasive and deep this apparent alienation and sense of helplessness is in America, Dr. Bellah and his colleagues will examine public and private "habits of the heart" from four standpoints:

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* Sociologist Richard Madsen of the University of California at Santa Barbara will study traditional civic organizations (Rotary, Kiwanis, Jaycees, YMCA, etc.) in a Massachusetts mill town and a suburb of San Diego to see what motivates their members and how they have responded to such modern concerns as racial harmony, social welfare, and human rights abroad.

* William Sullivan, philosophy professor at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Pennsylvania, will concentrate on new forms of civic activism. He will focus on the Institute for the Study of Civic Virtue -- a very active, racially diverse community organization in Philadelphia.

* Stanford University sociologist Ann Swidler will study the role that tradition love plays today in private life. And how, she wants to know, does this effect public participation?

* Emory University theologian Steven Tipton will examine love's more modern counterpart -- what he calls "psychologism." The term includes the personal growth and "human potential" movements that have become pervasive even in business and church organizations.

In all areas, the researchers will observe group activities, then follow up with long individual interviews to form "auto- biographies" of a wide variety of Americans, exploring their moral convictions, their sense of what is a good man or a good society, and what motivates them to be (or choose not to be) participating citizens.

If one accepts de Tocqueville's premise that personal mores and civic virtue are keys to the survival of free institutions, the answers to these questions could be very important.

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