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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. Anita Bleaujob

    Jim indlessly pontificated: "Atheism is the arrogant belief that the world was not created just for us."

    Religion is the arrogant belief that what amounts to less than a speck of cosmic dust was all created for them.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:28 am |
    • Truth

      I'm pretty sure Jim was being sarcastic when he said that

      December 24, 2011 at 9:42 am |
  2. heimdal

    hmmm i think the crusades would like have a talk with you , for that matter pretty much the entirety of this countrys history and all the people used enslaved and killed by all these "good christian people" from the golden years of this country you speak of.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:28 am |
  3. Beth

    I have mostly Christian friends and these people are wonderful representations of their religion. You, are not. I am not Christian and I dedicate my life to helping others. I'm not unique as a charitable, caring, giving non-Christian. I think your myopic view of life makes you very short sighted regarding non-Christians to the point you wrote a very offensive article thinking you were doing something good. You are sadly a bigot and you hide it in the name of being holier than.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  4. USMCR

    A new low for CNN reporting. What drivel. Like it's been said before, it is the time of year where we are bombarded with images, music, and fables about the "great leader" and his son the "dear leader." Sounds a bit like North Korea here in the good ole USA.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • Jim

      This is not reporting, it's an opinion piece in a blog.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:28 am |
    • Anita Bleaujob

      Jim, your comic book heroes are not real, it's a delusion opinion.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:38 am |
  5. duh

    The next election is the answer. Just ask the media!!!

    December 24, 2011 at 9:26 am |
  6. mike

    If we are going to reduce religion to social work then we must say that hamas and hezbollah also provide assistance to those in need.
    -Christopher Hitchens (paraphrased)
    I would like to pose a question to Larry Alex Taunton. Like him I was born in a westernized democracy. My government recognizes that I have certain inalienable rights. These include the right to think, speak, print and religion. In many Abrahamic religions you will suffer hellfire and damnation for the simple practice of these when you reached the afterlife. My question is, why should I lose my rights when I die?
    I pose this question because it seems very likely to me that belief systems like this were created in the infancy of our species when authoritarianism was more acceptable.
    Thank you, no thank you.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:26 am |
  7. HisNoodlyAppendage

    Actually, AGNOSTICISM is the only logical conclusion to draw regarding the past or present existence of a 'superior being', or 'God'. We all should be honest and humble enough to admit that WE JUST DON'T KNOW. So, 'God' should not be that important in our lives. As far as RELIGION goes, it is ALL MAN MADE. And oftentimes just RIDICULOUS, when we involve 'messiahs' or 'prophets' like Jesus or Mohammed, and all the ridiculous dogma. Any intelligent and honest person knows that Jesus and Mohammed were human beings, and not endowed with any godlike powers or deific messages! ALL religious books, tomes, and manuscripts were conceived of, and written by, MORTAL MEN. All this is not to say there are no lessons we can glean from all this religious 'literature' that was written down and passed on. There are some. Furthermore, ethics and morality are NOT solely predicated upon, or reliant upon, religion. They can, and do exist independently of religions because we have evolved to use our brains, and we innately know (or are taught) what is good and bad. We learn from our experiences. As soon as religion becomes FANATICAL, it is a danger to all. Atheists, agnostics, and religious people should learn to coexist in peace and not harm each other. This is the bottom line. We are ALL 'searching' for the truth! HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO ALL, AND PEACE AND GOOD WILL TO MANKING EVERYWHERE!

    December 24, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • HisNoodlyAppendage

      "MANKIND", I meant.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:28 am |
  8. CM

    Don't demand or expect others to be better people. You only have the power to make yourself a better person.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:26 am |
  9. Oh Please.

    Do you *really* think that Christianity and Christians have the patent on morality? I hate to tell you, Mr. Taunton...Christianity and "It's a Wonderful LIfe" are STORIES CREATED BY MAN. The majority of Christians that I know are people who are public about their faith because that's how they want to be perceived by other people, not because there's actual belief involved. Like Tim Tebow, it's profitable for them socially and also, in some cases, economically.
    As an agnostic, I truly do not care, one way or the other. I exist, (quite well, I might add) in a country where I am not forced to take the mantle of others' beliefs in a supreme being. I (an plenty other "non-believers") give to charity and help my fellow human, not because some invisible man in the sky is watching and will cast me into hell if I don't, but because I WANT TO.
    If you want to go live in Bedford Falls, or whatever, you go right ahead. I prefer to live in the HERE and the NOW and make the world the best place I can.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • Barry

      Well said. Sick of these Christians claiming to be the only "do-gooders" in society. Their constant self-reaffirming of their value and worth can make me nauseated at times. Also, Taunton shows his disrespect for the OWS movement by sloughing them off as a crowd that "blames everybody". Get your facts straight before you write an article for a national publication.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:37 am |
  10. Mark

    I respectfully disagree with Mr. Taunton. A world histroy without witch burnings and church-endorsed slavery, is something to be wished for. A world without jet plane suicide fanatics and without genital mutilation of infants, is something to be wished for. A list of all of these instances is tragically long. Nonetheless, I wish a Merry Christmas to all!

    December 24, 2011 at 9:26 am |
  11. bigdoggie

    I don't need faith in some mythical flying spaghetti monster to know how to treat my fellow humans! Nor do I proselytize my atheism to others.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • GoBack

      Go back to the subreddit that spawned you.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • Anita Bleaujob

      "Go back to the subreddit that spawned you."

      More tolerant christian commentary.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  12. Steve

    There a metaphor in the movie alright – Potterville = Republicanville.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:25 am |
    • Runner

      Wow.....that's original.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  13. CarolStrick

    We can make other arguments as well: That America was "better off" (how so?) during eras of slavery, women placed firmly in a low position, a pre-nuclear world, a world in which the Cold War raged, etc etc etc. Dredging up Christianity as a cure-all seems quite disingenuous. This person has an agenda to fill.

    I say that we're in a sharp learning curve these days, which requires harsh lessons that hopefully we will learn quickly from. We are all not inherently evil (what an awful Christian concept), but rather, inherently human. Humans can learn. Humans want to be kind. Humans want to help each other. We merely have to learn how to express our humanity. Once we figure that out, as individuals and a world community, we will live in the brightest of worlds. It may take a lot of terrible experiments to find our way there, but I do believe that we will.

    "Man [humankind] is doomed to perfection."

    December 24, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  14. Renee Brown

    Christianity as it is practiced in this country today is the opposite of everything that Jesus taught. If Christianity goes, it will be because of its own mean-spiritedness and the corruption of Jesus' teachings. In its place, we will have Judaisim, Islam, Hinduism and all the other religions which populate the earth and who practice the same teachings of Jesus. There will also be humanitarian agnostics and atheists who don't need a narrow, self-rightous, intolerant religion to motivate them to help their fellow man. I am appalled at how awful Christianity has become in this country in my lifetime. How dare the writer hold his religion up as the only one which is responsible for charity, compassion and good works.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  15. Tony

    The haters in the comments have read this article with their colored glasses on. It acknowledges that religion can be used to to further good or evil, but on a historical scale, societies with a large Christian population treat the downtrodden better. Just look in our world today for examples, such as the Middle East with little Christian population and how they treat their women and downtrodden. Look at the haters posting here, obviously lacking a positive Christian faith. Are they making logical arguements, are throwing hate at others? They make me sad for my childrens' future.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Walker

      This is simply not true. Denmark – happiest place on the planet – and her sister nations, all of whom have benevolent, responsible, and inclusive policies – ALL self-identified SECULAR nations. The USA – self identified as the greatest nation on earth, Christian, etc. – may no longer engage in witch hunts, but DO still put their prisoners to death, still allows 1 in 2 to live in or near poverty, and still spends a criminal amount of $$ every year on the biggest, most destructive war machine man has ever created. Come on now . Really??

      December 24, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  16. Andy Howat

    AMEN In the 1920s Russian gov said the US will never be defeated as lomg as God is the fabric of our country

    December 24, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  17. Abinadi

    <a href="http://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=18617717&s_cid=rss-148&quot;

    December 24, 2011 at 9:23 am |
  18. tillzen

    A man speaking for god IS the problem. Faith is silent. Good deeds are private. God is in actions and not words. Do the right thing and shut up as god is found within the good we do NOT within the ownership.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • Diogenes333

      Well said.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  19. Mike

    Non-Christians are easily explained. By denying God, they falsely hope they are exempting themselves from having to account for themselves on the day of Judgment ... no God, no judgment. Denying God is also another way of self-patronizing their own poor egos. If there is no God, there is nothing greater than themselves. NOT!! Such people are to be pitied and prayed for ... but they are also dangerous to the public good, and cannot be trusted in positions of influence.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • Abinadi

      They also love their sins and are afraid they will have to give them up!

      December 24, 2011 at 9:25 am |
    • tillzen

      Mike they are less dangerous than you who finds such ease in speaking for god. What a presumptuousness prig you must be to god.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • heimdal

      Seeing that they pretty much all only do things for others cus they think they getting a reward at the end automatically means they going to hell by their own belief?

      December 24, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, bullsh!t. People who don't believe there's a god aren't in love with sin. And they aren't 'denying' anything. They simply don't believe there's some huge puppet-master behind the curtain.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • Steve

      If you're right and I'm wrong, then my reason and intellect (God given) have reasoned him right out of existence. If he's a good god and there really is a judgement day, I would hope he'd pat me on the back and say, "Good job."

      December 24, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  20. Colin in Florida

    Where in the script (the film's bible as it were) does it say that Mr. Potter is not a Christian? He's greedy, but so are the televangelists.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      Hey, I know you. This is fun, eh?

      December 24, 2011 at 9:42 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.