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Walking the civic talk after Sept. 11

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Nevertheless, our attitudes are outrunning our actions. Americans did not report joining more community organizations or attending more organizational meetings. We found no uptick in religiosity or church attendance, and much smaller increases in donating blood or money than some anecdotal reports indicate. If the upsurges in religiosity and total philanthropy reported immediately after Sept. 11 were true, our survey exposed an ebb tide only one to two months later. (An article in The American Prospect, "Bowling Together," also by Mr. Putnam, from which this article was adapted, contains a fuller accounting of our findings.)

In sum, September's tragedy opened a historic window of opportunity for civic renewal. Americans are more united, readier for shared sacrifice, and more public-spirited than in recent memory. Indeed, most American adults are experiencing their broadest-ever sense of "we." The World Trade Center disaster generated compelling cross-class images and cross-ethnic solidarity, linking the fates of Latino dishwashers, Irish firemen, and Jewish financiers.

Civic leaders have reinforced our civic attitudes through images (of the attacks themselves, or the Advertising Council's "I am an American" campaign that effectively celebrates multiculturalism) and symbols (like President Bush's visit to a mosque). These images matter: Consider the potential consequences had FDR visited a Shinto shrine in 1942.

But images, without institutional change, can't create civic watersheds. Civic impulses regularly appear after national crises, and just as regularly, except for World War II, dissipate if the moving images aren't translated into civic action. World War II, however, enduringly molded the "Greatest Generation" who all their lives voted more, joined more, and gave more. These habits were forged through great national policies and institutions (such as the GI Bill) and community-minded personal practices (such as scrap drives).

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