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A Question of Character


Every Christmas I try to watch two old movies: It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife—the one now a Christmas classic, the other disappearing from cultural consciousness. Both were made about the time I was born and I never saw them until I was an adult but therein lies some of their charm for me—they depict a world I knew and understood as a child.

It’s kind of cozy to go back there to Christmases that were often white and Christmas trees that were not groomed, their branches so gaping that you could (as my grandfather would say) “throw a cat through them,” back to when you put on rubber galoshes to protect your shoes, wore heavy wool coats and home-knit mittens to go outside and when skating was still an outdoors sport.

This year—thanks to a quiet Christmas week spent trying to avoid COVID-19—I added another film to my viewing list. Undefeated, an Academy Award-winning documentary, traces the progress of a Memphis TN football team from rag-tag underdogs to a premier team that reaches the state finals for the first time in its school’s history. Thanks, in part, to the charismatic leadership of their volunteer coach, Bill Courtney, who cared more about his players than winning games, every one of the team’s inner-city students went on to college.

It seems an odd choice to group with two classic Christmas movies but all three have a single emphasis—the need for character and integrity. In each film, the protagonist faces challenges that require him to demonstrate morality, steadiness of principle and a recognition that the greater good is achieved when we work together.

I noticed details in the older movies. In both, for instance, store window displays were filled with creches and other religiously oriented displays. I realized with a jolt that this is no longer seen in modern America where sacred imagery is eschewed in public places. Today’s store windows are all glitter and glitz with the only recognizable figures being associated with Santa Claus.

At best, I could be described as a “Christmas Eve Christian” but I began to wonder if repressing references to the Christmas story in our secular lives has not facilitated the horrific “gimme” commercialization of the holiday. Santa is a nice guy but, really, he is not what the holiday is supposed to be about.

Which leads us to the tricky question of political correctness. Trump heralded that if he were elected we could say Merry Christmas again. I’m okay with Happy Holidays, that all-inclusive phrase that sweeps the spectrum of cultural and religious experience, so it wasn’t enough to get me to vote for him. But, as I watched the old movies with their images of children caroling in the streets, I pondered whether our modern aversion to specific public references to a deity or a religion—any religion--doesn’t help displace their moral relevance in our lives. To believe or not to believe—that is not the question. What is important is the role churches, synagogues, mosques, and all other religious institutions can play in teaching moral rectitude, compassion and the concept of communal work to better lives.

All our public institutions—schools, churches, government, even youth-oriented groups like the Boy Scouts—have fallen prey in recent years to scandals that undermine their standing in the eyes of the public. But, paradoxically, they are the very foundations on which we should be basing our moral education of the young.

It’s easy to be cynical. Parson Weems in his classic story about the young George Washington proclaiming to his father, ‘I cannot tell a lie,’ was himself telling a lie. George Washington never said that, probably never cut down the cherry tree to begin with but Weems’ intention was to teach his young audience the importance of truthfulness. I wonder how he would have treated our current president, who, it has been estimated, lied to the public at least 11 times a day.

Weems’ fabrication promoted moral fiber but the flagrant lack of integrity in our government today encourages an “anything goes” attitude. So what if our politicians lie and use situational ethics? So what if our national leadership is so polarized that legislators will let the public suffer rather than yield an iota of power? So what if major corporations rapaciously cheat or physically harm the public? Situational honesty, leadership and ethics are crippling the nation’s ability to solve big problems and engage in critical conversations—that’s what.

I have read enough history to know that people do not change: there is always greed, chicanery and hatred—just as there are always good-hearted, honest people doing the best they can for family, town and country. But when we allow the guardrails that help keep society on the straight and narrow to be so thoroughly dismantled as they have been in recent decades; when we shrug and say, ‘What does it matter?’ if our governmental and civic leaders are morally bankrupt, we are removing the boundaries that dictate decency.

I am not suggesting a return to some rigid, intolerant Puritan past but America must struggle to again achieve its moral high ground, to once again become the “shining city on the hill.” It’s all a matter of character.