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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. IronDitka

    Oh shutup Jesus freak. Religion is outdated.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Chris

      May God bless you with a softer and more loving and tolerant heart.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  2. Liz in Maryland

    This is Christian propaganda and has no business being published on a news site. I am very disappointed in CNN.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  3. The Dude

    Mr Potter was a Republican.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  4. olepi

    In America, the Republicans have loudly proclaimed themselves the Christian party. But to be one of them, you have to hate gays, minorities, the poor. Intolerance is the creed they follow.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  5. yourmom

    .youre pretty ignorant if you associate chrsitianity with a political party. educate yourself.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  6. Patrick

    Now why would I take any of this seriously? Christians are gathering around to mark the birth of Christ this weekend. Evidence suggests if he existed at all he was born in fall. The date was decided on some 300 to 400 years after his death. There are many stories of god figures born during the solstice that predate the Christ stories. Mithra is an example. Like most Christian holidays Christmas was simply grafted onto previously existing pagan type traditions. This is what it always has been in the northern half of the world. It's a time to mark the solstice. It's a time to gather, feast and celebrate the darkest days of the year as they give way to longer days finally. If that's not bad enough the celebration is also coupled with retail madness as we run up our credit cards and keep the smog pumping out of Chinese factories and people work for peanuts. I do wish for people all over the world to set their faiths aside and focus on what we have in common instead of arguing and waring over which explanation of the ineffable to believe in. We all see and feel the same thing once we get past the childish pictures of 'gods' we chose to paint. So I send good thoughts and seasons greetings to all and wish you all a happy solstice time. May you find the true magic of the season as we gather to dance and laugh in the dark and cheer the arrival of lighter days. Dance naked if you wish 🙂 Happy holidays, you're celebrating the solstice like it or not.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  7. Whynenot

    "For God so loved the world that he gave his son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life" It is really that simple, no Pottersville required.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • HisNoodlyAppendage

      That assertion makes no sense to many. Why would an all knowing, presumably all loving deity send his son down to Earth so that we humans may 'redeem' ourselves? Especially, considering we were CREATED (I say evolved) in "Gods image"???!!! The whole notion of 'literal salvation' is beyond absurd!

      December 24, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      That's some solid, unbreakable logic there, sonny. /sarcasm

      December 24, 2011 at 9:42 am |
  8. jim

    the problem with this article is that it ignores the morals of non-christians. any one ... ANYONE ... can have high morals and not believe in christ ... or any deity for that matter. and, by the same token, christians can be greedy, heartless, evil creatures who spout "god's message" when they feel the time is right.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:31 am |
  9. Beth

    Christianity has not historically seemed to have benefited non-Christians as much as the author contends. You have both very good acts committed in the name of your religion and evil, terrible acts as well. We have the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, the Bosnian war, slavery and more all done by Christians. There is no need to be Christian to be charitable and being Christian does not mean a person is charitable. But, yes, many Christians do very charitable things and I appreciate those Christians. Doesn't mean the rest of us are any less charitable, though. I highly doubt your 'research'.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:31 am |
  10. iamanordinaryguy

    So much hostility towards atheists this year. It's very mean spirited, but I'll keep doing my best to ignore it. The kinds of Christians who attack people for not sharing their beliefs are not the kinds of Christians that I know, care about, and look forward to celebrating Christmas with.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • jim

      my sentiments exactly.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:32 am |
    • GrandmaKat

      You are right, those folks who claim to have no soul but are simply empty automatons who want to remove all vestiges of Christianity, but allow the expressions of other faiths should never be called on it. There is a war on Christianity out there and apathy will be it's major weapon. I attended a debate between a Christian and an atheist and the atheist was asked (by an audience member) why he was so against Christians and their faith and he simply stated that he wanted to "keep them from wasting their time"...huh? This guy was a college professor (the atheist) and that's all he could come up with? Please...

      December 24, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  11. JMO

    First, the christian believe of a male, humanlike "god", given the vastness of our universe is utterly obsurd. However, given that many people need this believe to find the sense of moral center is fine so long as they can respect those who don't need the moral crutch of the "invisible Father" to behave themselves.

    Nobody would disagree that their are many fine religious people, however, do understand given their history of polgrams, crusades, jihads, inquisitions, stonings and witch burnings that I might question their "moral center".

    December 24, 2011 at 9:30 am |
  12. HisNoodlyAppendage

    There are myriads of agnostics and atheists that are loving, giving people too. Thankfully (for humanity), Christianity does NOT have a monopoly on being human!

    December 24, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • Oh, Please.

      Ramen!

      December 24, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  13. Richard Cheese

    Larry Taunton is a moron if he thinks that Christians are the only moral people in this country. It's too bad that we still have people like this dictating what is right and wrong on this country. Sad, sad, sad.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • HisNoodlyAppendage

      I agree. His assertion is absurd. Ethics and morality is not solely predicated upon, or reliant upon religion. There are plenty of loving and giving atheists and agnostics on this planet.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • richp

      Where do you think your basic morals came from ?

      December 24, 2011 at 9:35 am |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      "Where do you think your basic morals came from"

      Hammurabi's code. Same place you got yours.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • Truth

      @ richp evolutionary development of empathy and sympathy in order for humans to bond and survive as a collective group in the harsh ancient wilderness?

      December 24, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • annoyed

      Nowhere did he say nor did he imply that Christians are the "only" moral people in the country, he merely argues that a Christian presence has positive effects on society. Complementing a particular creed is not the same as denigrating all others. To confuse the two betrays a bigotry on the part of the offended.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  14. Ryan

    And yet many of the so-called Christians in politics today would side with Mr. Potter over George Bailey.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • Chris

      If that is what you really and truly believe then you don't know anything about Jesus. "Love one another".

      December 24, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  15. Puzzled in Peoria

    The offensive aspect of Christianity is that it shows us how horrifyingly wicked and evil we all are, Christians and atheists included. Our self-righteous "goodness" is a sham. The difference between Christians and atheists is that Christians admit their need for a Savior. Atheists will not. There is an afterlife and there is a God. The truth is that atheists, like every human being, are capable of being wrong.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • jim

      not true. athiests are fine with being wrong ... they just believe your "proof" is not proof. while we're at it, please explain to us how you know there is an afterlife? and where, exactly, is heaven? and hell?

      December 24, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      You need a savior because you're a heathen slime.

      I don't need a savior. There's nothing wrong with me that time, compassion and logic won't cure.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • Chris

      I could tell you that I've seen a man who was dead, no signs of life for two days come back to life. I'm a PA and can tell you that this man was dead.You will think that I am a liar but I tell you the truth. Do you believe now?

      December 24, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • jim

      @ chris ... no. sorry but your "word" is not enough. give me science's word.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  16. rawreviewer

    Just another Religious pusher, who's bank account probably low and is dropping guilt on those who self steem is low to listen to his mumble jumbo, .... if believing on something make you feel great, please do so, but don't let anyone who walks and do everthing you, tell you what to do, is nothing wrong with believing, no matter who you believe in, but "YOU" are the one who has to do it, which brings me to all of those who watch those shows like Ophrat sorry never watched, how you think this people got rich? because of you out there, listening to all the bs they has to say.

    I'm sure you have something to say, but no one is paying to listen to so what should you.. Be you belive in you.. ..

    December 24, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  17. El Kababa

    Oh Holy Father,

    Curse are the poor, for they payeth not income taxes and sucketh up my hard earned money.

    Curse the young, for they wanteth child health clinics and good schools.

    Curse the old, for they wanteth medical care and addeth to the national debt.

    Curse the Samaritans and other minorities, for they hunger for justice, which is just too damn expensive. Let them get a job if they want justice.

    Curse the unemployed losers, who seek nought but welfare loafery.

    Blessed are the billionaires, whose labors You have smiled upon. They will be with you in Heaven after a long and happy life.

    Blessed are the elected officials who take bribes from billionaires to support Conservatism and the New Testament, which are one and the same. They will be with you in Heaven.

    Help us endure the lamentations of the suckers who vote Republican, for they enable the enforcement of Thy Holy Will. They will not be with you in Heaven of course, for Heaven is a Gated Community that is off-limits to middle-class losers, but they are useful in a democracy where the majority rules instead of Your Holy Upper Class. They are not important except on election day. Let them live long and vote Conservative every November. After that, to hell with them.

    In Thy Holy Name we pray,
    Amen

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

      amen is right.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • Chris

      I feel sad for you.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • JT

      Check your numbers .... Of the top 25 millionaires in congress 14 are Dem and 11 Repub. You have a good poem but it is all elected officials and not just one party. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-5553408-503544.html

      EL Kababa has been EL Bamboozeled....

      December 24, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  18. ron

    ...." Hence, any society that is liberally sprinkled with them has a greater concern for the poor, sick, orphaned and widowed :.....Are these the same Christians that wish to end medicare for the old and poor, social secujrity for the elderly, stop public health care for those who can least afford it? Of course religion plays a part in society, but it does not define that society, it does not make it great or productive. Individuals do that regardless of their religious tendencies. Look at how many countries are ran exclusively by Islamic religious beliefs. Would this author claim they are great societies? I would bet not. Why? Because for religion to make a society "great", it is implied that that religion must be Christianity.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  19. heimdal

    The part not said in this is Christians are this when its for people that share exact same belief when they trying push their belief and when they trying convert people who never asked for it to their belief . It is never truly about doing a act of kindness for someone else it always comes down to being about the person and the belief itself and not about helping others.

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

      true dat. i've known all too many christian pastors and priests who were willing to help those who needed a hand ... but ONLY ... ONLY ... if the needy were a member of their specific church.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  20. yourmom

    youre pretty ignorant if you associate christianity with a political party. Educate yourself.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • El Kababa

      American Christians have married American Conservatives. It is an unholy alliance.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:30 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.