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My Take: When Bedford Falls Becomes Pottersville
December 24th, 2011
03:00 AM ET

My Take: When Bedford Falls Becomes Pottersville

Editor's note: Larry Alex Taunton is the founder and executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation. This article is adapted from his book “The Grace Effect: How the Power of One Life Can Reverse the Corruption of Unbelief.”

By Larry Alex Taunton, Special to CNN

(CNN) - My favorite Christmas movie is, unquestionably, Frank Capra’s 1946 feel-good flick "It’s a Wonderful Life." Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed play George and Mary Bailey, a happy couple living a life of genteel poverty in the small American town of Bedford Falls.

George is a kind and generous man. He is active in his community and in the war effort. Most importantly, George is all that stands between the town’s mean old man, Mr. Potter, and the demise of all that is good in Bedford Falls.

As financial pressures crowd in on poor George, he begins to question his value to the community. So much so, that he wishes he had never been born. To demonstrate to George the folly of his wish, an angel is sent to give him a glimpse of what Bedford Falls would look like if that wish were granted. In Dickensian fashion, the angel takes him from one scene in that small town to another. The difference is stark. Indeed, Bedford Falls isn’t even Bedford Falls anymore, but a place called Pottersville. The town’s main street is a red-light district, crime is rampant, and life there is coarsened.

When George, in desperation, turns to the angel, seeking an explanation for these drastic changes, the angel says, “Why, George, it’s because you were never born!”

According to a recent poll conducted by The Hill, 69% of voters think America is in decline, and 83% say they are worried about the country’s future. And that has generated a lot of finger-pointing: Republicans blame President Obama; Obama blames Republicans; environmentalists blame industrialization; the “Occupy” people blame everybody who isn’t occupying something - most of us agree that there is a problem, but efforts to identify the source of it are incomplete, misguided or downright evil.

CNN's Belief Blog – all the faith angles to the day's top stories

The problems of human society are the problems of human nature, wrote "Lord of the Flies" author William Golding. Indeed. This was the discovery of the monastics. Seeking to escape the evil of the world, they found instead a doctrine central to Christianity: that evil is innate to us all. History tells us that a given philosophy, creed or religion will either restrain our darker impulses or exacerbate them, but escape them we cannot. Not in this life, anyway.

So what will save us from ourselves and preserve human dignity and life in the societies we create? Democracy? Socialism? Stitching up the ozone?

These days, there is a lot of talk about religion - Christianity in particular - and its role in public life. Whether it is protesting Nativities, the debate over “In God We Trust” as our country’s motto or the controversy surrounding the public faith of Tim Tebow, a national discussion is taking place on what the present and future role of Christianity in America should be. The consensus among the secular elites seems to be that it is a bit like smoking: It is harmful, but if you must do it, do it in the designated areas only. Richard Dawkins, the Oxford scientist and atheist provocateur, calls Christianity a “mental virus” that should be eradicated.

The professor should be more careful in what he wishes for. Like many others, he grossly underestimates the degree to which his own moral and intellectual sensibilities have been informed by the Judeo-Christian worldview.

"It’s a Wonderful Life" is a fitting metaphor for a nation absent Christian belief. Jesus Christ said that his followers were to be like “salt”; that is, a people whose presence is felt for the good that they do. 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. The data bears this out. According to the research of The Barna Group, Christians are the most charitable segment of the population by a substantial margin. Hence, any society that is liberally sprinkled with them has a greater concern for the poor, sick, orphaned and widowed - “the least of these,” as Jesus called them. (This is precisely what Nietzsche, and Hitler after him, hated about Christianity.)

But Christian influence goes well beyond benevolence: Our laws, art, literature and institutions find meaning in a rich Christian heritage. In his new book "Civilization: The West and the Rest," Harvard historian Niall Ferguson argues that the decline of the West can, in part, be attributed to the decline of a robust Christian presence in Western culture. Ferguson’s point is largely an economic one, but the inference that Christianity has served to strengthen the fabric of life in the West as we have known it is unmistakable. T.S. Eliot made a similar observation: “If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes.”

That is just another way of saying that the difference between a nation with meaningful Christian influence and a nation without it is the difference between Bedford Falls and Pottersville.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Larry Alex Taunton.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Christmas • Church and state

soundoff (3,025 Responses)
  1. The Phist

    For this article to be relevant, angels would need to exist. But..... they don't. It's a shame really. Pottersville sounds fantastic.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:32 am |
    • David

      Yes they do and there are witnesses to them

      December 24, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Fizzylift

      Witnesses to angels wouldn't pass any sort of reality test. There are witnesses to ghosts, ufos, yeti and Elvis at the 7-11 after his death. Next.

      December 25, 2011 at 3:50 am |
  2. leftaload

    Into every man's life some form of religion should flow...whether it be believing in a supreme being or just a creed to live a good and helpful life to others, this is enough of a "religion" to live by its code...!

    December 24, 2011 at 8:32 am |
  3. Sunflower Pipes

    Last time I watched its a Wonderful Life I was shocked at how low the interest rate was from the evil banker. We are far worse off now than that movie ever imagined. George Baily's don't even exist in our brave new world.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  4. Frank Balta

    Sir: Your plane of thought takes off fine, but you crash since you use a twisted road map! How dare you present Christianity as "good" without any proof? You do recall that Hitler was a Christian? Right?

    If you look at most conflicts in the world you will find the root to be a "religious" one. Remember the Crusades?

    Sorry to see a misguided person publishing books for other misguided ones to read.

    Like Mother Theresa, you too will someday see how misguided you are.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:30 am |
    • TheWiz71

      And Mao and Stalin (who by far eclipse Hitler in the realm of mass murder) were atheists. Besides, Hitler was more of a neo-pagan than a Christian, if you actually know your history.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:32 am |
    • Whatever

      BTW the crusades happened a thousand years ago. Perhaps you should look into the good work done by many Christian organizations before condemning the whole faith. I will give you a place to start: Catholic Relief Services. Religion can be abused just like anything else, but the base beliefs of Christianity are good.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:40 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      """Hitler was more of a neo-pagan than a Christian, if you actually know your history."""

      Sigh. Another misguided reference to Hitler. You are wrong, by the way. He was not a neo pagan. He was a Roman Catholic and made references to his Christian beliefs in some of his early speeches.

      During the war, his Wehrmacht troops wore belt buckles with the inscription "Gott Mit Uns" [God Is With Us] embossed in them. Does that still sound neo-pagan to you?

      Can we dispense with this 'Hitler was either a neo-pagan or atheist' nonsense now?

      December 24, 2011 at 8:41 am |
    • TheWiz71

      @ Jeff WIlliam – Then how do you explain the Nazi propaganda films that depict Hitler as surplanting Jesus in the adoration of the people, and the fact that Nazi Youth and the SS took for granted the foregoing of Christian belief and worship in order to genuinely be a "true believer" in their cause? They were "neo-pagan" in that they believed in the elevation of nordic mythology, the divinity of the "Aryan" race, and so on. Even many contemporary Christians – Bonhoeffer and others, decried the paganism at the heart of Naziism. Hitler used appeals to Christian belief simply as a way to win votes in the last days of the Weimar Republic.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:46 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      """how do you explain the Nazi propaganda films that depict Hitler as surplanting Jesus in the adoration of the people"""

      Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. This concept applies to Christians as well.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:59 am |
    • leftaload

      I do agree with you about attending church based religion IS largely what is WRONG with AMERICA!!!

      December 24, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • Fizzylift

      The Catholic church has done far more hideous crimes than Nazi Germany. It just took them longer to accomplish them. Pope Leo X? The Catholic world was formed by Constantine's sword and was the biggest racket in the world far hundreds of years. Ask the Incas how the church treated them? Ask little boys about what Catholic relief means in the rectory. Ask AIDS stricken Africans how the Church helped them avoid the impersonal feeling of condoms. WOW>

      December 25, 2011 at 3:55 am |
  5. Writerscramp

    The author of this article is assuming that it is impossible to lead good and moral lives without religion being a part of that life. WRONG !!!! Religion, along with the divisive and destructive intolerances it brings with it, is what is wrong with America, not what is right with it.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:30 am |
    • Frank Balta

      Good comment.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:31 am |
    • Chander

      " divisive and destructive intolerances" – religion does not bring these elements. Religion is a direction in life. Religion can be taken as the guide in the journey called life. It's human tendency which brings division and intolerance. Its the greed of an influential mind which brings intolerance. Try following the religion and not the preacher, and you will feel the difference.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:40 am |
    • Writerscramp

      Gee, I would like to be an executive director of a pompous self-created foundation and sit around writing articles based on my belief that the world is going to hell because not everyone shares my belief that my God is better than your God.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:50 am |
    • Writerscramp

      Chander ... WOW, what reality do you live in that you say religion does not bring any divisive or destructive elements ? Open a newspaper or turn on CNN any day of the year are sure to hear of some conflict or war going on somewhere in the world based on differing religious factions.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • leftaload

      I disagree with you. He is only using religion as a vehicle to translate into good with George Bailey. George Bailey was a good man despite any religious characters portrayed in the movie! A lot of good men in this world profess to no religion and if there is a supreme being in the hereafter, I am sure he makes no derogatory provisions for them not having "attending" church on a regular basis during their lifetime spent here on earth. Good is good no matter who it is seen through the eyes of!!!!

      December 24, 2011 at 9:11 am |
  6. BAC

    The problem with this argument is that George Bailey isn't necessarily Christian–and if he is, he's not a very enthusiastic one. His decisions, those that most greatly affected his community, were made out of pride. When he does stumble, and seeks the lord through prayer, he says, "Lord, I'm not a praying man." There is only one prayer in the whole movie. There are two marriages, and no scenes take place in Church. I'd say, more so, that this movie argues against corrupt capitalism. It argues against monopolies. It argues against men old men. The Christianity in it is a secular one. The angel Clarence, carries a copy of Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer," giving nod to that books funeral scene, which, undoubtedly, was the inspiration for the "never been born" bit. Twain wasn't much of a Christian. He argued: "We may not doubt that society in heaven consists mainly of undesirable persons." So . . .

    December 24, 2011 at 8:29 am |
  7. Edward Wilkins

    Seriously? What a complete load of drivel. How is CNN even putting this on their site? Sure, there is a "belief" section to it...but does that mean that you should put crap like this on here? This opinion piece is best suited for Benny Hinn's blog section of his website and should never have even been gracing CNN's website in anyone's imagination.

    I would LOVE to see every Christian, every Muslim, every Jew, every religous nut just go *poof* and disappear. The world is easier to deal with when people accept the consequences of their actions as just THAT. THEIR action. Not some divine providence, not some holy war, not some decree by a light and fluffy creator.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:29 am |
    • The Phist

      Benny Hinn? Is there a comment section on his site? I'd love to troll it hard.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:34 am |
    • Okwith it all

      That you'd LOVE to see people of faith go "poof" kinda reinforces the idea that religious faith can help people strive to be more charitable to their fellow man. Are you perhaps more upset with religious people who use their faith to demand that those who disagree with them go "poof"?

      December 24, 2011 at 8:39 am |
    • Walker

      Keep in mind that this is the network that just before Christmas FIRED 50+ of its professional photojournalists and editors because "i-reporters" (ie.e., kids with smartphones) are delivering the news just fine. Anything is possible on CNN if it's sensational enough... If you want entertainment (like this article) here you are. If you want news or anything of substance, go to BBC or English AlJazeera. They're about the only responsible news organization left.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:42 am |
  8. Severinus

    It sounds good on paper, but Christianity also has a dark side – intolerance. Christianity may have inspired great works of art and music, and given rise to humanism and democracy – but it also brought us witch hunts, inquisitions and crusades. The current Christian efforts to deny civil rights to the LGBT community is just the latest manifestation of this.

    We also need to ask the question, if Christianity is good for society, exactly what kind is good? The Pat Robertson kind? How about the George Bush kind? The only kinds that are left now are twisted, mean-spirited and hateful parodies of what Christianity once was.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:28 am |
    • Robin

      That "dark side" of Christianity is not Christianity! It is humanity waging war against humanity – a decidedly un=Christian behavior. To comment about this faith without first understanding it is just blowing smoke, and there is a lot of that going on here and elsewhere while Christian-bashing has become the latest trend. This article is exactly on target because the author knows the religion as it was intended to be lived, not as the most vocal and power-hungry "Christians" are and have been living it. That dark side of humanity would rear it's ugly head whether or not it was attached to any particular doctrine. Just look at Muslims who take Sharia law to it's ugly far reaches and act out, not with abusive controls but with actual beheadings and severe punishments that make "fundamentalist Christians" look tame. And this would be even worse without the majority of those populations having a faith-based morality to temper such outrage. That is the whole point of this article.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:47 am |
    • Fizzylift

      Robin, the only reason fundamental Christians cannot conduct beheadings anymore is because they have lost their cred to science in this educated part of the world we live in. Let's go back 500 years to Europe and see just how horrific the fundamentalist Christians behaved. A simple search on the internet will suffice, I'll wait. Hopefully with the internet the Islamic nightmare will decline just like the Christian one has rapidly done in the past 10 years. Information kills dictatorship and monotheistic religions are based on dictatorship. It's only a matter of time until people wake up from this nightmare.

      December 25, 2011 at 4:03 am |
  9. lolwut

    Be good to your fellow man always, no matter what your holy books tells you.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:28 am |
  10. leftaload

    Thia article is superb!!!

    December 24, 2011 at 8:28 am |
    • leftaload

      Correction to above: This article is superb!!!

      December 24, 2011 at 8:29 am |
    • Yep, what this world needs...

      Correction to above: This article is garbage.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:42 am |
  11. Arthur

    I've always love It's A Wonderful Life. It's a movie I've seen almost every year since I was a kid, and sure, it taught me some good lessons. However, I learned those lessons just fine without having to toss in all the religious flim-flam. Why should it be necessary to have religion to teach a kid that stealing a candy bar is wrong? Or that you don't torture the family cat? It doesn't take religion to teach somebody right from wrong, but I guess it's just more convenient when god becomes involved....

    December 24, 2011 at 8:28 am |
  12. john

    10 bucks says the woman who pepper-sprayed her fellow shoppers for an Xbox is a self-avowed Christian. Bedford Falls my ...

    December 24, 2011 at 8:27 am |
    • ReasonIncarnate

      So hateful.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:29 am |
    • ReasonIncarnate

      And ignorant...

      December 24, 2011 at 8:29 am |
    • Truth

      The power of Wal-Mart compels you!

      December 24, 2011 at 8:33 am |
    • been a christain

      ...but also true. Just drive around the bible belt and see all the hypocrisy, ignorance, and ... hair spray!

      December 24, 2011 at 8:43 am |
  13. Reason & Logic

    To me, It's a Wonderful Life has nothing to do with Christianity but everything to do with man's inhumanity toward the rest of society and how everything we do has an impact on everything else. Christianity has been one of the biggest abusers of human society. To inject Christianity into this film is to reject the fundamental precepts of who we are and what we're doing here.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:26 am |
  14. ReasonIncarnate

    I just wanted to thank all of you Christian haters for coming to this article to demonstrate your overhwelming hate. Especially you 'E" (interesting "Name"). You are all great examples of what this world would be like without us. God help us all!!!!

    December 24, 2011 at 8:25 am |
    • Arthur

      Not hating on Christians, just hating on the ones that believe their way is the only way, and the ones who believe all Atheists must somehow be anarchists just waiting to destroy religion, society, and the world. If you want to be Christian and lead a good life and help the world, great! But stop getting on your soapbox to tell me that because I don't have religion that I can't lead a good, moral life where I can decide for myself what's right and what's wrong.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:32 am |
    • Fizzylift

      Non Christians are not hating you, we're just annoyed you're still around after nearly all the drivel in your "holy book" has been discredited. Especially the slavery, misogyny, oxen-coveting nursery and rhyme stories. Hello? It's almost 2012. Logic? Reason? Anyone? Buehler?

      December 25, 2011 at 4:06 am |
  15. Mark

    Well said "E", well said.....

    December 24, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  16. ken baldwin

    To read the majority of these comments is unnerving. Christ is God's gift to man for salvation during our short life on this earth. We can choose to accept or turn away and choose being lost to the grave. I know that I'm flawed... but saved and that is the greatest gift of all.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:25 am |
    • leftygoleft

      the writer of this article has the audacity, like so many other christians, to insinuate that christians and christianity based beliefs and entertainment, have some sort of monopoly on morality and that anyone who doesn't subscribe to theses beliefs, LIKE ANYONE IN AMERICA WHO DOESN'T WANT TO GO ALONG WITH CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY, is somehow shortchanging our collective society in a negative way. THIS IS SUCH TOTAL GARBAGE THAT IT MAKES ME WANT TO VOMIT. and anyone who believes this is just a brain washed drone or an easily manipulated fool that is preyed on by the christian cultists who perpetuate these beliefs for their own purposes.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:32 am |
  17. bscasc

    I'd bet my life savings that old man Potter was a conservative republican

    December 24, 2011 at 8:25 am |
    • Samantha Thomas

      And I bet he went to church on Sundays as well!

      December 24, 2011 at 8:26 am |
    • Yep, what this world needs...

      ...and was a god-fearing christian who hated gays, atheists, working women, poor people, non-Europeans, non-christians, communists,
      etc. etc. etc.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:41 am |
  18. Atheist

    why the F would CNN publish this garbage article? It makes no sense and proves how low of IQ religious people are....

    December 24, 2011 at 8:24 am |
    • Whatever

      I see someone is feeling hateful this morning

      December 24, 2011 at 8:35 am |
  19. Dave

    Larry Alex Taunton, you do not have my permission to co-opt my favorite movie for your evil right wing "Christian" agenda. I see you and yours as the Potters, not the Baileys.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  20. CarGuy350z

    "Corruption of Unbelief" is a Christian fallacy and is at the heart of the problem. Christians believe that people can't be "good" without God, and that just is not true.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:24 am |
    • Samantha Thomas

      Precisely, CarGuy. That's what makes it a circular argument and logical fallacy. Good call.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:28 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.