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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. GeorgeBos95

    Oh, please. Christian beliefs are not a prerequisite to living a good and fruitful life, nor is faith in any "supreme being".

    It seems to be a hallmark of the simple-minded to hang onto a crutch like that, and look externally for definition and meaning.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • Paul H

      Just a column pup, with an opinion.
      Not unlike your comment. An opinion.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  2. Jim

    This idea that only christians can be good people is unmitigated horse pucky, and is a big reason why religion is the greatest source of human misery in the world.

    Just look at the evangelical right wing nuts. They'll cram god down your throat and then tell you they don't want to help the poor.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • Jim

      In my experience they SAY they want to help the poor, by not helping them.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • S. Leonard

      Did Larry notice how 'not' christian the movie is? I'm sick of the smug self-righteousness of many christians. Look to your own house, religious zealots, it's filled with sin and atrocity. The movie is about ethics, not religious beliefs. Interestingly enough, I do think we are on the verge of going from Bedford Falls to Pottersville, but that is a class/economic issue, not a religious one.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • Paul H

      You don't have to be a right winger to be a Christian, and the only thing your right about is you don't have to be a Christian to be a good person. I know plenty of good people that are not Christians. But being a Christian means so much more to the Christian that I will not force upon you in this little comment section.
      Nobody is forcing a Christian lifestyle on you in this day, and age. But there are way more people trying to diss the Christian these days. If things keep going you may get what this column says is coming.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  3. Phil

    Funny how on the same day this article was published, CNN also had this video up: http://www.cnn.com/video/?hpt=hp_t2#/video/world/2011/12/23/ctw-global-happiness-rankings.cnn. Notice that the happiest countries are also the most secular in the entire developed world. For a mountain of similar results, see Phil Zuckerman's excellent article "Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being." THE POINT: it is just plain factually false that losing faith results in social decline; in fact, the statistical evidence shows exactly the opposite is the case. If you want a high quality of life, move to a country with more secularists than religionists.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  4. Brian

    God bless America and soften the hard hearts everywhere. Love God and your neighbor. Merry Christmas.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  5. fastball

    I'm not a religious man – in fact, I'm pretty darn sure there is no God. If I never see the inside of a church again..that's fine. But I consider myself a Christian man...not in a Tim Tebow sense...but I consider the Commandments (or at least several of them) to be pretty good guidelines for life. Don't kill, don't take what's not yours, respect your parents, respect other people and try to raise your kids to be good citizens. If you can see your way clear to doing those, we just might all get along.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  6. David T

    This idea that Christianity provides the singular moral compass that prevents evil decay and dreariness is starting to wear away at even the most patient nerve fibers I have. It is absurd on its face. Christianity, and not to toss it under the bus alone, all religions have amassed an unspeakably large collection of human atrocities that not every athiest, working full time could ever hope to replicate. Thankfully they wouldn't want to anyway. In human nature there is the ability to rise to a moral life, one guided by kindness and compassion. This is not what is taught by religion despite every effort to delude its followers to the contrary. Religion is tribal, it lifts up its members as full of truth and righteousness, it subjugates all other humans and it continues to be the cause of the vast majority of human suffering and pain. I hope to see the day when religious symbols lay in the ditch, and have finally lost their power to terrorize.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • Bob

      Spoken like a true Atheist.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • Jim

      @Bob, because it's spoken like a true Atheist, does that make it untrue?

      December 24, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • UncelM

      Great post. The truth always terrifies the likes of Bob.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • A Christian

      "....that not every athiest, working full time could ever hope to replicate."

      Well, I guess you forgot about the great genocides of our recent age – Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Jong il starving probably millions of his people. Atheist megalo-maniacs every one of them. What a convenient memory lapse.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  7. Chris Wharton

    The opinion piece featured on this morning's CNN.com homepage, "When Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville," was one of the worst, poorly considered, and bigoted pieces I've ever read on CNN.com. The piece suggests, without stating it outright, that those who do not believe in a particular faith are somehow prone to poorer morals and are less good people.

    I am offended more than I can say. That an intellectually trite, biased, and hurtful piece like this could be featured on the homepage suggests to me that CNN.com itself has degraded standards for the type of information promoted to its general audience. You have just lost a once-daily reader.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • Bob

      Offended? Why?

      December 24, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • Jim

      I was less offended then amused. Taunton is taking a 65 year old movie and preaching it like a modern gospel. I think most people will see the flaws in his argument and form their own opinions.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Caron

      BOB: Not offended??? Why not???

      December 24, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • Paul H

      Don't read it then, and don't get into a war of words over it. Stop swinging at something you dont' believe in.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  8. Caron

    Mankind has been laboring to escape all of the wars, murders, tortures, psychological slavery, and other evil wrought by Christianity through the years. As soon as Christianity is dead, we can all heave a sigh of relief and the world will know peace and love and kindness at last.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • Bob

      You're already in Pottersville.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • Caron

      Even Bob saw it immediately. All those things wrought by christianity ARE Pottersville! Thank you, Bob. But I don't live there. I am free of christianity and I am in bliss, love, and peace.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • Paul H

      All that you mention has been going on well before Christianity Caron. There are plenty of black marks in the Christian path, but when you tally up what a secular world has done on each other, or what other Religions have done in the world you live in today you would fall short in selling your point.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  9. Matholwych

    Religious warfare is nothing more than an argument over who has the best imaginary friend.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  10. Carroll

    Thank you, Larry, for your insightful article. It's great to see someone writing articulately and intelligently about the influence of Christianity on our society. Sadly, gauging from several responses, it appears we are closer to Pottersville than Bedford Falls these days – at least from among those who have taken time to respond. I love to see objective discussion and debate, but most of what I read in their responses is based on ignorance and emotion. I challenge them to go to the original source and read It with an objective eye for truth.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • Bob

      Exactly

      December 24, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • Butthead

      "it's wonderful to hear an echo of my own superiority complex because I believe in the tooth fairy, and that is the only truth..."

      December 24, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • Mgb

      Well said, Carroll!

      December 24, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • Pax Canning

      There are many ways to connect with God, and it's the insistence of Christianity that their's is the ONLY way that makes them so dangerous, especially when they try to control others with their beliefs.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • Paul H

      Butthead your funny, but that's all. Thanks for the chuckle though.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  11. Thomas

    It's a wonderful life is NOTHING about Christainity which is faith in Jesus Christ, God's promised Messiah. Instead, it is about faith in MAN. Sweet move, but there is nothing Christian about it.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  12. Dondiego Nunziata

    Very interesting article. I'm not a Bible thumper at all, but it can't be a coincidence that people are generally kinder and more gentle around Christmas. For the month of December, practicing or not, believing or not, most people are "more Christian" as the Judeo-Christian ethos would have it defined. I think we need to find a middle ground between the throat stuffing Christianity of Tim TeBow... (you know, the one that encompasses 100% of one's life, and in turn FORCES it on others) and the unbelieving cynics whose snark towards anyone of ANY faith is enough to drive people mad. How about just being nice to each other more often? How about being a little bit more like George Bailey, and think about others as much as we think about ourselves. Or maybe just a little bit more than we already do. Buon Natale.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • HIPunch

      Kinder?! More gentle?! Have you been living under a rock for the holidays? People pepper spraying each other over an Xbox, knocking down mall entrances for SHOES. You're living in a fantasy land.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  13. Lisa

    Yawn. Yet another Christian who claims to OWN kindness and generosity of spirit while making this spiteful little assertion with regards to respect for the beliefs of all –

    "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."

    That sentence shows a writer who has distaste for the rights of others.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  14. Bob

    It's a wonderful life is a great movie. For those with true Christian beliefs George Bailey shows what it
    means to be a Christian. This country has chosen the path of the " I am my own God" mentality and it is showing.
    The real problems exist in the positions of high power, ie the banksters, politicians, and lawyers.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • Steve.in.dc

      This is an interesting topic. And the writer cites research that shows that Christians give more to charity. I'm quite confident that the "charity" to which the research refers includes giving to one's own church (building fund, programs, etc...). So that's not necessarily very telling.

      Also, it is clear that Libertarians and many Republicans believe that "you're on your own," the so-called YOYO theory. And most Democrats believe that we are all our brother's keeper. The second seems more in line with what Jesus allegedly taught (I say allegedly because the odds that he actually spoke what people say he did are very, very low, but I'm referencing his "alleged" sayings for the sake of argument).

      So, I'm thinking that "liberal elites" are actually more in line with what Jesus allegedly preached and lived than Republicans, by a mile. And yet many "liberal elites" do not believe in an imaginary being.... How ironic...

      December 24, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  15. John K

    BS

    December 24, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • Bob

      Why?

      December 24, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • Lisa

      The author thinks he lives in a perfect world where all Christians feel the same way as him. Indeed his ideologies are very quaint. It would be very nice if it were all true. But it's not.
      I'm seeing quite a bit of Ayn Rand's philosophies amongst the Christian right these days where it's 'all about me, and I couldn't care less about you'. I am an athiest but I don't talk about that because I know nobody wants to hear about it. Just like nobody wants to hear about your religion.
      It bothers me when I start seeing people waging war on Nativities and Happy Holidays. There is truly nothing wrong with either one. What ever happened to Live and Let Live?
      And to the author, guess what? I'm an athiest and I'm a good person who has morals and values and cares about my fellow man.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  16. steve

    this article is lame it lacks tha fact that half of Christians are no better then anyone else and they are quick to judge others i was always told to love everyone no matter what

    December 24, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • Bob

      Love the sinner hate the sin. Do you hate sin?

      December 24, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • Bob

      Jesus: "Go and sin no more."

      December 24, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • Butthead

      Define sin.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • Paul H

      Yes your right, but the column is also right! There are a lot of Christians that are to judgmental, and over zealous when it comes to expressing their faith. I know that can be over bearing to an unbeliever. Some Christians can be over bearing to their own even. But that's true in every aspect of life.
      Do you not think that people that feel like you do also impose their beliefs, on others. I mean I can be in a room saying nothing about my faith at all when out of the clear blue someone takes a shot at me over it.
      It's a game of patty cake buddy.
      Your turn.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  17. Caron

    By all outward appearances this man is reasonably intelligent. Then he opened his mouth and out came such ignorant drivel that appearances were shattered. It is utter nonsense to believe that you need to be Christian to be good,. In fact, history says otherwise. Christians have condemned to death, murdered, and tortured more people than any other group in human history. Christians have started more wars. Christians are still busy condemning and murdering and war mongering. Indeed, this man's whole article is a condemnation of nonbelievers. The Iraq War was supported by Christians everywhere. This man doesn't need belief - he needs a brrain.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • UncelM

      The best of Christian morality comes from the Greeks. The worst comes from religion and the bible. Over the centuries it is humanist, secular morality that has curbed the worst excesses of religion. Hopefully that process will continue and religious ignorance and bigotry will become a thing of the past.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • Carroll

      Caron – it is true that you do not need to be Christian to be good. We are ALL created in God's image, and so at some level, goodness is a desire we all share. Because God is good, we desire goodness. However, we are also warped and twisted by sin – and many have done hateful, evil things (even in the name of Christianity). Nevertheless, look most of the movies out there, and most will agree with who is the "good" guy and who isn't. It's built into us as bearers of God's image.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Man (the REAL one)

      "We are ALL created in God's image"

      Bull sheet. We are created in the image of our parents.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • HM8432

      Caron: Christians have condemned to death, murdered, and tortured more people than any other group in human history. Christians have started more wars. Christians are still busy condemning and murdering and war mongering.

      Incorrect, brush-up on your history and statistics. Stalinist Communists (hard-core Athiests) in places like the USSR, SE Asia, and Africa have killed, murdered, and tortured more people than any other group in human history (tens of millions), and it was all in the last 100 years; crack open an objectively-written history book if you think I'm wrong. True, Christians were involved with things like the Crusades, the Inquisition, and and the Witch Hunt's, but aside from those facts, that all happened hundreds of years ago. If you look at the total casualty rate of all of those hostilities combined, it still equals out to less than one million; Why? The casualty numbers were often exaggerated (for bragging rights or bad record-keeping), and firearms weren't in common use yet back then. You can only kill so many people with bows and swords. Any individual incident caused by Athiests such as pogroms, famines, and mass-executions by themselves by-far exceed the total death toll at the hands of supposed Christians.

      Iraq? Yes, Christians (incorrectly assuming 100% of the U.S. military and government is Christian) have killed quite a few people over there, but the bulk of deaths were by Muslims (Insurgents/terrorists) killing their own, just like in Afghanistan. Take a look at how many Christian Iraqis are left in Iraq. Answer: Almost none. Because the Muslim extremists killed them all, or caused them to leave the country.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • Caron

      Carroll - your view of the relationship between God and Man is childish. Existence is soooo much bigger than that. Nevertheless, your religious delusions seem to make you happy so ... so long as you don't justify condemning or killing non-believers because "god demands it" - I guess your delusions are harmless enough. Cling to them if you need to, Out of nowhere and for no reason, bliss, peace, and love arise in me because they flower from within every choice I make - not because they are dictated to and demanded of me by a god.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • Caron

      To HM8432: You have made my point very well. When you start arguing that christians kill fewer people than atheists, you/ve made the point that christians also create Pottersville. Its people, not religions, that create good or bad. The fact that you are christian does not make you a good person. The Inquisition lasted for 400-600 years. The killing fields of communism lasted for less than 50 years. Adolf Hitler, after all, was a christian.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  18. olepi

    Do you need a Religion to make you act morally? Do you need a Holy Book to tell you to be generous and kind? Do you need a Preacher to tell you how to see the Sacred in the world?

    Why?

    December 24, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      They lack imagination and reason.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • onehippypoet

      tom tom the pipers son
      stole a pig and
      same old sh it different day
      come on tom
      try something original

      December 24, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  19. Sebastian

    ˙pɐǝɥ sʇı uo ʎʇıuɐıʇsıɹɥɔ uɹnʇ sıɥʇ ǝʞıן sǝןɔıʇɹɐ

    ˙sn ǝpıʌıp oʇ sı ןɐo6 ʎןuo ǝsoɥʍ ǝןdoǝd oʇ ɯɹoɟʇɐןd ɐ buıʌı6 ɟo pɐǝʇsuı 'ʎʇıuɐıʇsıɹɥɔ ɯoɹɟ sǝsıɹɐ ʇɐɥʇ poo6 ǝɥʇ ǝɹɐɥs ʇɐɥʇ sǝןɔıʇɹɐ pǝʇuǝsǝɹd noʎ ɹǝɟǝɹd pןnoʍ ı 'uuɔ

    December 24, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • Butthead

      How did you do that, Beavis?

      December 24, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • Sebastian

      ˙sɹɐǝddɐ ʎןןɐɔıbɐɯ ʇı uǝɥʇ 'pɹɐɥ ʎןןɐǝɹ ɥsıʍ 'ɹnoɥ uɐ ɹoɟ sqɯnɥʇ ʎɯ uo ʍoןq

      6ɹo ʇop ʇxǝʇdıןɟ ǝןboo6 uɐɔ noʎ 'ʎןǝʌıʇɐuɹǝʇןɐ

      December 24, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • Butthead

      ¡ǝʇɐɯ 'sʞuɐɥʇ

      December 24, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  20. Lisa

    Exactly! Well said.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:53 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.