Is It Still a Wonderful Life?

For a very long time, I have believed that many of the old values that a new politics would seek to advance can be found in Frank Capra’s sturdy old Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life. Indeed I would make a large claim for this dear, schmaltzy movie: It tells politicians and religious leaders almost everything they need to know about how Americans think and feel about “moral values.” Watching it is a lot cheaper than paying for focus groups.

As I suspect many readers will know, It’s a Wonderful Life is the story of George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart. Bailey is a small-town guy desperate to leave and see the world. He never makes it. He stays in Bedford Falls and runs the family’s savings and loan while his brother wins glory in World War II. George marries his sweetheart and has a bunch of kids. Managing the S&L entails lending money to the town’s working people so they get to own their own tidy homes. In so doing, George faces down the town’s evil “big” banker, Mr. Potter, who doesn’t care a whit about working stiffs. At the end of the movie, George is close to killing himself when his bank is threatened with bankruptcy because his absent-minded uncle loses a deposit. His bank’s failure would give Mr. Potter a local monopoly.

Enter George’s guardian angel, Clarence. He shows George how much poorer the world would have been without him. George is convinced his life is wonderful. Call me a sap: I always get a tear in my eye at the closing scene, when George bursts into the Christmas celebration at his home, where all his neighbors have gathered to help him out of his jam.

NOW, WHY IS this 1946 film still so popular? It is easy to dismiss It’s a Wonderful Life as a nostalgic celebration of small-town life—as a flight from complexity, from racial, ethnic, and religious diversity, from changing gender roles and sexual mores, from the achievements of 21st-century capitalism and the new technologies it has created. Perhaps there is something to such a critique, but I believe it misses what endows this film with its power into our own time. It remains popular, finally, because Capra understood commitments that still run deep in the American character. So consider the following as a focus group report based on an unusually perceptive movie:

First, Americans are deeply egalitarian but also believe in upward mobility and the value of owning property. Mr. Potter is a cad because he doesn’t believe in the town’s “ordinary” people, who are worthy of respect. George respects them enough to help them become property owners.

Second, capitalists can be good, but only if they recognize moral limits—the “social mortgage” on their wealth. Americans believe in capitalism, but of a certain kind. As Chuck Collins and Mary Wright argue in their 2007 book The Moral Measure of the Economy, there is good reason to oppose “the stifling of individual initiative and enterprise,” but also to mistrust “market capitalism” unless it is “balanced with the common good and concerns for justice.” George Bailey is a capitalist who understands both halves of this commitment. He makes a good living and is a leader of his community. He’s a smart capitalist, too, saving his bank during the Great Depression, a fact grudgingly admired by Mr. Potter. But George is loved because he has put his bank’s money to work for others, letting them share capitalism’s bounty. Mr. Potter, the parody of the selfish miser so popular in Christmas stories, is loathed because all he cares about is cash. He has no friends, no concern for Bedford Falls.

Third, these commitments—to egalitarianism, upward mobility, property ownership, capitalism within moral limits—are important because they underwrite a set of values. When Clarence shows George what life would have been without him, he shows him a Bedford Falls (renamed Pottersville) that has been turned into a honky-tonk gambling town. Rackets, drunkenness, prostitution, and meanness have replaced the quiet warmth of a real community. The proud working people George knew have become sullen, angry, and resentful, robbed of the chance to rise and to own their own stake. By showing life with and without George Bailey, Capra shows us two alternative social systems and makes clear which one works.

Fourth, Americans love “family values” but dislike harsh condemnations of those who may fail in their efforts to live up to them. George is the classic model of the loving “family man.” But he risks scandal by lending money to an old friend who has become, in the parlance of the time, a “bad girl.” The movie celebrates George’s behavior and paints blue-nosed scandalmongers as cheap and tawdry.

At its heart, this movie points to a past that lives on. It puts forward a balanced set of commitments that still inspire most Americans. It is a classic attempt to describe what a society that seeks both liberty and community looks like—and it also shows what happens when this balance is lost. Those who would move forward from the religious wars of the last quarter-century would do well to understand and embrace George Bailey politics.

THE WORK OF justice in a free society is, as Pope Benedict says, the work of politics. In our country, that means democratic politics, which, in turn, means broad coalitions of believers and nonbelievers who would work together for justice. Here is where we must abandon the sectarian and ideological divisions of recent decades and pursue something very different. Jeffrey Stout, a religion professor at Princeton, points us in a promising direction by reminding us of what happened in Pope John Paul’s native land. “Justice would be better served,” Stout argues, “by something like the coalition of religious groups and secular intellectuals that came together in Poland in the 1980s under the name of Solidarity. If that coalition was able to weaken the grip of Soviet oppression, simply by refusing to kneel in its presence, there is no telling what could happen if we wiped the crust of complacency from our eyes and demanded justice from our governmental and corporate elites.”

“Our situation,” Stout insists, “calls for a new democratic solidarity, appropriate to our time and place.” Such solidarity could transform the nation, and there are many signs that it is busy being born.

The “Christian Right” is, finally, an abstraction. Millions of committed Christians who may well have responded to the appeals of a political movement at a particular moment are rethinking not so much their politics as the public implications of their faith. They are growing impatient with narrow agendas as they reach out to the poor in Africa and in their own communities, as they worry about the obligation to stewardship of the earth, as they grapple with practical ways to reduce the number of abortions, and as they struggle to approach gay friends and relatives in a spirit that is consistent with being Christian.

Liberals are changing, too. They are remembering things they had forgotten about the spiritual sources of their own dreams. They are recalling that one of the great successes of the last half century was a civil rights movement led by a Christian preacher who was inspired by scripture. They are realizing that bigotry against people of faith is still bigotry. They are accepting that if religion can sometimes promote prejudice, it often promotes justice. They are coming to understand that their central goals—to lift up the poor, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, and challenge injustice—have biblical roots and religious sanction.

To end the religious and cultural wars and to allow religion to flower in public life, we need passion and we need humility. These two virtues do not always come together, but they must. We need a passion for moving our nation out of a period in which public problems went unsolved and the possibilities of broad alliances were lost because narrow political imperatives triumphed over the idea of a common good. And we need humility to understand how prejudices—of believers against unbelievers, and unbelievers against believers—have obstructed our path and blurred our vision.

“The final enigma of history,” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “is therefore not how the righteous will gain victory over the unrighteous, but how the evil in every good and the unrighteous in the righteous is to be overcome.”

We must realize that self-righteousness is the enemy of righteousness, and that hope is the virtue on which faith and love depend.

Excerpted from Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith & Politics After the Religious Right, by E.J. Dionne Jr. Copyright 2008. Re­printed by permission of Princeton University Press.

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