In Its a Wonderful Life George Bailey, wearied by outrageous fortune and the corruption of others crashes his car in a Christmas eve snowstorm and decides to commit suicide. Before he can follow through an Angel appears and shows George what his town would be were it not for him: “main street is a red-light district, crime is rampant, and life there is coarsened.” It seems that the tireless efforts by George to do the right thing over the years have saved the soul of Bedford Falls while taking a considerable toll on his own. Without George, darkness reigns.
Larry Alex Taunton recently argued that Its a Wonderful Life is an apt metaphor for modern society without Christian belief. As the town hangs in the balance between good and evil so do we, as humans, find ourselves pulled between the good and the evil inherent in human nature. Taunton argues that Americans depend on our political and social institutions to restrain the darkness and encourage us to embrace the good. The thought of our modern world without Christianity presents a vision to Taunton like that of Bedford Falls without George Bailey. The crux of his argument is that Christianity is a critical element for a good society: “as a man or woman’s evil nature is gentled and restrained by the grace of God, there is a corresponding outward transformation of society.” Taunton points to data which shows that Christians are the most charitable element of the population by a wide margin.
However, Taunton’s argument that people are charitable because they are Christian seems to confuse correlation with causation. He assumes because so many people are both charitable and Christian that they are charitable because they are Christian. However, Taunton doesn’t provide any support for this leap. It seems that he just assumes it. One might just as well assume that individuals become or stay Christian because they are charitable.
It seems that lots of people are charitable and the message of Christianity appeals to them because it is consistent with their charitable inclinations. Some people who are charitably inclined express this inclination through their church. They might also participate in non-profit organizations. Those non-profits would not claim to produce charitable inclination but rather that they harness and encourage this good in people. In fact the striking increase of non-profit organizations around the world in recent years supports the idea that the church has no special claim to charitable inclinations in people.
Taunton seems to say, or assume, that charity is a special property of the church, to give the church a kind of power and ownership over charity, an appropriation that is exactly what many skeptics would expect from organized religions. A church might aspire to such a claim, as if the good part of man is prized real estate which can be fenced and mined. In fact, Taunton’s piece is exactly the kind of work we would expect from a church trying to do just that. This kind of tactic, an appropriation of the good in the hearts of individuals, seems more akin to political and business operations than to the selfless service of mankind. It seems like a kind of turf warfare over what is best in people. It seems like the colors of a self interested, power seeking organization vying for influence and control.
Churches have much reason to worry over possibly waning influence in a modern liberal society. They have cause to fight for an enduring relevance and influence lest thousands of years of human spiritual tradition be lost. But, planting a flag in what is very best about man is not the right way to do it. Goodness arises within people. Though it may be encouraged, it is not put there by God or church. To say that it is is to strip individuals of their capacity for good. It is to say that man is only what the church makes him.
If people are corrupt then the church is also corrupt because the church is made of people. The church, like people, is hanging in the balance between light and dark. And if the church, which would make people better, itself depends on the goodness of people for its right function then we remain ultimately dependent on the goodness of individuals, not the church, to “restrain our evil nature” and transform society. The church has no special claim to the best in people as it has no special claim to the spiritual paths open to individuals. As frightening as it may be to have light and dark hanging in the balance of individual hearts it is a far better thing than surrendering our human agency, both good and bad, to an earthly human organization.
See Taunton’s article: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/12/24/my-take-when-bedford-falls-becomes-pottersville/