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We often used to hear about “character” in times past. This was used, not as in “he’s a crazy character,” but rather as part of the Boy Scout code and other arbiters of moral virtue.
Character is a quality of the human condition, which in those days most of us admired, tried to create in our children, and hoped to possess ourselves. It meant we believed in honesty, loyalty and unselfish concern for the common good.
The support of good character was prevalent in our culture. Film director Frank Capra practically made a career of praising those who displayed it. Jimmy Stewart, who starred in several of Capra’s films, including It’s a Wonderful Life, was famous for his portrayals of such people.
Politicians of the time were held to a standard of behavior which most citizens regarded as morally necessary for anyone.
Sly dogs that they are, some of the politicos were sneaking in mistresses and gambling debts and other frowned-upon activities but, if they were found out, they were soon out of office.
Likewise, school teachers, ministers, bank presidents or anyone in a position of authority was expected to be of good character. Priests and religious were held in high regard as models of it.
The reasons for this belief in the virtue of character were based on a religious view that what is good comes from God and returns us to God. When we display good character, we reveal the God in whose image we are made. It’s as simple as that.
Many of us still believe in the virtue of having a good character, and many of us still try to achieve it. Unfortunately, we live in a time when religious values are often denigrated, and so we have lack of character not only evident, but also considered “cool” by all kinds of people.
Perhaps that is why the movie Hud, which we viewed again recently, is the classic that it is. It represents the opposition between old-fashioned good character and the current dismissal of it.
Hud is the story of a modern man (Paul Newman) in conflict with his aged father (Melvyn Douglas), who represents the virtue of character so admired in the past. It’s also the story of the modern man’s unsuccessful attempt to corrupt the character of his nephew (Brandon de Wilde).
At one point, the old father says something like, “The character of a country depends upon the character of its people.” He berates his son because he “just doesn’t give a damn about anyone or anything except himself.”
In a recent documentary about the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis in WW II, the issue of character came up again. The survivors floating in the shark-infested ocean for four days before rescue consistently tried to help and protect their fellow shipmates, sometimes losing their lives in the process. In those times, it was normal to work together for the good of all.
Now, we live in times when priests have avoided prosecution for abusing children; when a president has committed adultery in the Oval Office; and when soldiers sworn to uphold the noble values of our country have tortured their captives. All these things and more have happened without much public outcry until it was impossible not to notice them, and sometimes even without serious penalty.
It’s time to restore good character in the American value system, and to restore God there while we’re at it.
(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †