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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.

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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. TheWiz71

    Ahh...the smell of overwhelming hatred wafting from this board is just a bit much, even for what is traditionally a very mean-spirited comments section. Hope everyone has a Merry Christmas and/or Happy Hannukah. May God bless us, everyone, believer or not. As for me, I'm going to go out and play in the snow and do some real life stuff as opposed to keep on trying to convince angry anonymous posters of the dangers of generalizing.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:51 am |
  2. James

    If anything, global Humanism or Athiesm, is the solution; not Christianity or any other religion. The belief that people are inherently evil is dangerous and results in the masses of people letting others easily control and manipulate them with holier than thou false authority. If we want to see a world changed for the better we should not teach religion to children; then when they become adults let them decide for themselves which one if any adds value to their life.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:50 am |
  3. Walker

    To say that Christianity (or any religion) is the dispensary of basic human values such as goodness, fairness, and love, is like saying the guy who charges you a buck to use his air compressor is also the inventor of air...

    December 24, 2011 at 8:50 am |
  4. Whynenot

    I'm an older Christian. There was a time, pre-1960's, when the Christian faith in the US stayed well away from politics. When the "moral majority' movement began, mostly a result of the direction the country was taking and a combined belief that Christians could fix politics, the Christians love of Christ became somehow secondary to the love of country. Hence Christian faith is now fully enmeshed in the bitterness of mans agreuments with themselves, rather than the providing refuge from those arguments. We, as Christians, have done this to ourselves, and Christs message has lost out.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:49 am |
  5. bobby

    People do not want to end religion.They want to end what they perceive is bad religion. What they want is to end greed, lies, manipulation that is running freely in this world. Many will say that it is religion\Christianity but anyone with any knowledge of TRUE Christianity , knows that Chriistianity is none of these. What people do with it is what is causing the problems.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:49 am |
  6. Alison

    When was the last time Religion did anything truly evil? Not a person but the Religion. Why do people openly attack Religion when nobody is attacking your lack of belief. We should all live by acceptance. I just do not understand why were are sporing so much hatred these days. We all need to grow up and respect each other when we post here. Merry Christmas all. And it it truly offends you you may want to look to yourself for the problem.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:49 am |
    • Eric G

      How about when the Catholic Church protected and covered up the actions of pedophile priests?

      December 24, 2011 at 8:56 am |
    • Alison

      The people of one church. I said Christianity not Catholic leadership.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:05 am |
    • Wildeboare

      Ever read about the Rwanda genocide in the early 90's?

      December 24, 2011 at 9:13 am |
  7. Atomic

    Dear CNN,

    Please stop legitimizing fundamentalist whackjobs by giving them a soapbox to spew their divisive ignorance.

    Thank you, and Merry Christmas.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:49 am |
    • Nick

      Thank you! It's so hard to break away from a religious fight with some of these infuriating trolls!

      December 24, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • Texas12345

      +1,000,000

      December 24, 2011 at 8:53 am |
    • Glenn

      Irony

      December 24, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  8. nathan

    Who wants to do away with the faith? Nonsense. The Christian persecution complex at its finest once again.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  9. Why bs?

    Christianity or no Christianity, one thing is certain – Larry Alex Taunton beats off! Now, the question becomes... how often? 🙂

    December 24, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  10. jim1729

    I like it when I read a truly revolting article and find others have also objected. The sheer volume of disagreement disproves the authors position the we are hopelessly doomed.
    The only additional point I want to make is that morality predates religion. The fact is that religion simply hijacked and codified humanity's sense of empathy and ingrained awareness that by doing right by others gives us all the best chance at survival and happiness. We would most likely be better off returning to the simplicity and purity of the original notion of morality – that we are all in this together and only together can we thrive – without fearmongering hateful thugs like the author.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:46 am |
    • Lam Sung

      A very well written reply. Especially this: "morality predates religion. The fact is that religion simply hijacked and codified humanity's sense of empathy and ingrained awareness that by doing right by others gives us all the best chance at survival and happiness." A concise and fantastic response.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  11. E

    The Jewish and subsequent Christian religions are indeed at the core. Truth is truth and data is data. You can get upset, disagree and throw a fit – but it is what it is. Get rid of the Jewish – Christian foundation of this country and more than religion will leave.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:46 am |
  12. Jesus the Fairy Sky Hostess

    xtians are morons

    ALL OF THEM

    December 24, 2011 at 8:46 am |
    • bobby

      Now why would anyone go out of their way to say such a thing? What has caused you to be so malicious? True Christianity teaches against such actions. I do not know what you are angry about but I am here to tell you that it is not Chrisitianity that has done you wrong but it is men.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • Texas12345

      Because all christians are morons, sorry if the truth hurts.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:56 am |
  13. jimi

    Then why are so many Evangelical Christians "Potter" Republicans?

    December 24, 2011 at 8:46 am |
    • bobby

      The bible clearly states that their will be many false "prophets'. It is all in there if people would just read it with an open heart and open mind.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:54 am |
  14. cmw

    Most excellent, Theophilus!

    December 24, 2011 at 8:45 am |
  15. ZCarter

    This is such a joke, the countries with the most successful economies right now are largely secular – Germany, Denmark, the Scandinavian countries not to mention China and India (who are still relatively poor but have GDP growth of over 10% per year) and they are certainly non-Christian countries. It was the separation of Church and State that made this country so successful. Christians like this guy want a theocracy like Iran, just with pastors instead of mullahs.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:44 am |
    • Abinadi

      No, those countries are Christian. Non-christian countries tend to be third world, poor, and non-democratic!

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

      China? Are you kidding me? CHina? Really? Have you forgotten the tank incident a few years back? Ever heard of slave labor? Your naive mentality is what is wrong with this world. There is no easter bunny either. Shocking isn't it?

      December 24, 2011 at 8:56 am |
    • don

      ZCarter, is it the case that money is the definitive measure of the success or failure of a society? Isn't it more important the impact that we have on others' lives, and particularly how we care for the down trodden?

      December 24, 2011 at 8:56 am |
    • Thomas

      You are very correct in saying that the countries that experiencing success are not Christian societies. I believe that the author is saying that the US was built on Christian ethics and a decline of a of our moral, political and economical status can be related to a steady decline of an active Christian presence. Of course our country has never been perfect we have seen our fair share of tragedy but it was consistent Christian influence that impacted the outcome of those tragedies. I say all this to say that I am sure that the author was make reference specifically to the United States and you are a christian or not you have to agree that Christianity has had a great and positive impact on our society.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  16. Dab

    Christianity has no monolopy on morals. No religion is perfect nor are the followers of any religion perfect. Humans developed morals because any successful society must learn to help and not harrn others in the society or no one will survive. Many successful civilizations were formed prior to the advent of Christianity. And I suspect many more will come and go after Christianity loses it's prominence. That is, of course if humanity itself survives.

    It never ceases to amaze me that Christians think they are the only moral people in the world and yet they seem to need the threat of eternal hell in order to do the right thing. And it seems to me that even then many times they disregard the teachings of their own religion.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:43 am |
    • Alison

      I have never heard a Christian, Jew or any other religion claim they are the only one with morals. Your argument has no truth in it.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • Jim

      It never ceases to amaze me when those who fancy themselves as enlightened critics set up straw men to knock down. Taunton never said that Xianity is the only religion that has a moral code. He said you can see the evidence of of the decline of western ("christian") societies as the influence of Christianity declines – and this is incontrovertible.

      This doesn't make Christians perfect or anywhere close to it (as the author makes a direct note on the nature of man being softened and not brand new) nor does the author make this claim.

      Your criticism is way off base and demonstrates your prejudice and how you cannot look at things in life objectively (or even try to do so).

      December 24, 2011 at 8:54 am |
    • Steve

      From the column:

      " the difference between a nation with meaningful Christian influence and a nation without it is the difference between Bedford Falls and Pottersville."

      December 24, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  17. Jacs

    Perhaps the author should address American Christians themselves. After all they are their worst PR representatives. Instead of saying "This is what I believe and part of that is respect for what you believe" they demand we place them above our own beliefs and cry victim when we don't stay silent about our right to not be bullied. Perhaps the author should address those who cry "War on Christmas" by pointing out Christians themselves have diminished not just Christmas but their own belief system as a whole. Not true you say? Let's see...remember walking into a store in the end of October and hearing Christmas Carols? Really? Remember earlier this month a state Governor blasted for inviting EVERYONE to a "Tree Lighting"? Wow! imagine an elected official welcoming all people to a state sponsored event. And how could we ever forget Mariah Carey in a Santa outfit shaking her booty for Justin Bieber? Now doesn't that just scream celebrating the birth of a Savior!! Perhaps Christian's should stop telling us how they are salvation for all things and clean up their own house.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:43 am |
  18. Greg

    What is most strange about this article is that it is very easy to test the author's claim. Simply find towns in countries where Christianity is not dominant and see what they are like. One can find some towns in a sorry state, but there are also many that are nothing like Pottersville. There are charming towns across Europe and Asia where Christianity has very little influence. There are also horrible places in North and South American where Christianity is dominant. I would not claim Christianity causes the differences, it simply has very little to do with those problems at all. Christianity is a very minor check on bad behavior, and it activity encourages some bad behavior

    December 24, 2011 at 8:43 am |
  19. Rev. John Gill

    What is "meaningful Christian influence?" Who decides how much and what kind of Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish or Buddhist) influence is meaningful? Based on my experience, Mr. Potter probably attended church, gave more money than anyone else to his congregation, and believed he was a good "Christian" making the world a better place. The fact is, many of the leaders who are turning our nation into Pottersville today are people who attend churches and who are quite sure their influence is both meaningful and Christian. Meanwhile, Jesus would be found down at Occupy Wall Street.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:43 am |
    • Shari

      Thank you for the eloquent response. The church that claims to follow Christ does not seem to be concerned with most of His teachings.

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

      Bravo! This is precisely the point, and the crux of the matter. So-called 'Christians' in America quite often use the Bible to justify the opposite of Christ's teachings ... an example being the new mega churches praising wealth in the name of Jesus! And the Catholic Church sitting on its billions in real estate and art and treasure while the poor of the world still starve to death. If the Son of God ever returns, woe unto the 1%, the mega-rich, the brokers and bankers on Wall St., the wolves in sheep's clothing. And woe unto the money changers in the Temple, no matter their political party ...

      December 24, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • Jacs

      Thank you Rev. Gill. As a non-Christian American I mentally and physically go into danger mode whenever I hear the words Christ or Christian. I was raised a Christian and still respect those that do believe. Unfortunately, most Christians I meet feel it is not just there right but duty to bully me. Heaven forbid that I make the same points you have and I've learned the hard way never to inject the fact the Pilgrims outlawed Christmas and fined anyone who said Merry Christmas. It's not about what label you wear but what you do.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  20. gary

    God is pretend, bible is twisted ancient folklore. Xtianity is just an American custom / tradition ... an excuse to be tribal.
    Peace to all.

    December 24, 2011 at 8:42 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.