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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. andyst

    Humas inherantly are good people. Without someone or something to keep us on track we will venture down a path that may not be humane. Religion gives people hope for a future and also gives them the moral compass to acheive great things. Some people get labelled religious fanatics, maybe these people have found true comfort in religion. Humanity need to remember that we are not just individuals out here for ourselves and that a home, comunity or world takes a group of people with the same goals. Unfortunately, the predominant group are those without a moral compass. Wether you beleive in God or not you must realize that those who do bring stability to the world and make a community a good place to live.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  2. impulse94

    "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."
    Precisely!!! You go ahead and do it if you want. Just don't force everyone else to be exposed to it if they don't.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  3. I will pray for all the unbelievers

    It is easy to point fingers at man and hipocrisy – try a little internal soul searching before you critise others. Christians are NOT perfect but are forgiven. Yes there is a lot of hipocrisy in the church – becasue the church is made up of man – so whats your point – give me something wrong with "Christ" like behavior – even Christopher Hitchens could NOT disagree with the fact that Christ Like behavior is the answer for humanity

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

      What about Buddha like behavior? Maybe we should form a religion around Mahatma Gandhi?

      December 24, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • LoriG

      okay – you pray for me and I will cast a spell for you -deal?

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

      Take your condescension elsewhere, yes? And Christopher Hitchens would laugh in your face. Hitch believed that religion was akin to having a mental disorder. I grew up Christ-free and lead a very MORAL, fulfilling life, as my parents took the time to teach me the difference between right and wrong without filling my head with fairy tales about a magical cloud kingdom.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • George in VA

      Morality is a human trait. It doesn't derive from a higher power. We just have it, and some don't. At times, any of us can be a monster or a saint. Bronze age parables about how to live one's life are instructive (though now we have a lot more at our disposal to teach those lessons). That's not to say they are literal descriptions of real people or events ("miracles") that actually happened. Religion in America is in fact a mental illnes, and worse a huge industry, generating $B of tax free income. That's who many of you zealots pray to, and you don't even realize you're being taken. In the name of "God." That's evil.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • GAW

      @ HIPunch No! we must not question Hitch.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  4. Joe

    Of the 10,000 years of human civilization, Christianity has been around for roughly the last 20%. The birth of civilization, the brilliance, learning, and philosophy of ancient Greece, the code of Hammurabi , the rise of Rome, the culture of Egypt, almost all of the history and culture of Asia – all came about and developed without Christianity in any form. It seems to me that humanity was perfectly fine before this one particular religion.

    Oh, and the internet meme that you win when you compare your opponent to Hitler is an old, old one. I've been seeing it on boards and forums for more than a decade. This is the first time I've seen it on a major news outlet.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  5. Jim

    A good example of a "Christian Organization" is the Salvation Army. They're happy to help, as long as your not gay or lesbian. If you are and refuse to repent your sin, they'll let you starve and freeze to death on their door step.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  6. Bob

    The fool says in his heart there is no God.
    Even though the can't explain their own existence.
    They can't explain why their heart beats on it's own without any outside assistance.
    They have no idea why they can think and speak, but they do. To them a random sequence
    of events brought them into existence. A person is much more complex then a computer, but
    no one believes a computer comes into existence on it's own. Sadly we are already in Pottersville
    where a good deal of the people have already been deceived.

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

      If god created the universe, who created god? I'll even accept a faith based reason as long as it's not "he's always existed", that's just a cop out.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  7. HisNoodlyAppendage

    Have 'youse guys' checked out Joe Holman's excellent website? Google 'minster turns atheist'. Joe Holman used to be a fervent christian and pastor who became atheist.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  8. Tommy

    "According to the research of The Barna Group, Christians are the most charitable segment of the population by a substantial margin. "

    Correlation does not equal causation. This is the same lack of scientific thought that highlights the absurdity of the Christian faith. Good job, author.

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

      The Barna Group is a Christian research group so any finding that Christians are more charitable than non-Christians would be suspect anyway.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  9. Pam

    Great job to the author. I agree, but obviously many of you do not. We do have the freedom of speech in this country, but internet comments have become a cesspool of bullying, slurs, hatred, and intimidation. We can state opinions without being rude. Even if you don't believe in the diety of Jesus Christ, at least read some of his teaching. Good advice for a better world. Let's be kind to each other, even on the faceless internet.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  10. John

    People who really do strive to live in accordance with Christ's teachings to love their fellow man, and make society better, do us all a service. And, anyone who's even dabbling in religion, as most of us do even if we attend church regularly, benefit personally from the reminders that religion has another viewpoint. I don't think religion is harmful or needs to be done only in designated areas. However I strongly object when people want to use their religious beliefs to restrict activities of others. People should look inward to strengthen their faith, not outward. This idea that it's a person's duty to spread the faith comes out of the historical perversion of religion into a political tool, something Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all have gone through and still do to some extent. Enough with the attempts to convert! Live your life as well as you can in accordance with your faith, and let others see the spirit inside you and some of them will turn to you as the entry into sharing your faith. But leave everyone else alone.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  11. Karen

    Pottersville isn't the nightmare of atheism—it's the nightmare of greed and the "free market." Funny how the most relentlessly pro-rich, pro-big-business voices in American politics are also the ones that claim Christianity as "theirs."

    December 24, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • George in VA

      Thanks Karen for your remarks. You nailed it.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • GAW

      Yes indeed. One must wonder what the Heath and Wealth Gospel is all about. In my own area a pastor of a local megachurch lives in a 5 million dollar mansion while the church gives 1 million to charity. It could have been the other way around.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  12. jerrycc

    I love the part when George was a kid and the drunk pharmacist he worked for slapped the blood out of his ears. Now that's Christian!

    December 24, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  13. Molly

    This is a good article and the author is correct. Look at the predominately non-Christian countries and how much war and poverty consume those countries.

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

      Some of history's bloodiest wars were fought in the name of Christ.

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

      War and poverty consume non-Christian countries? Please. Sweden is an atheist country and they have been at war for 300 years! Look at all the wars the United States has been in and is currently in. George Bush claimed that GOD told him to invade Iraq! What kind of God would condone such an act?

      December 24, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • DarthWoo

      Oh, you mean like those increasingly secular European countries whose violent crime rates are significantly lower and who claim many more of the safest cities than the US? Yeah, there sure seems to be a lot of war there.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Kevin

      Sorry, this a response to my response. I meant to say that Sweden, an atheist country, has NOT been to war in over 300 years! Plus, look at all the wars that have been fought in the past because of religious beliefs: The Crusades, The Thirty Years War, and 9/11 was carried out by 14 people who were very religious and believed would that flying planes into buildings and killing 2,000 people would be seen as good in His eyes!

      December 24, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • David

      Really? Have you forgotten the Crusades, or the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan? What about the 1700's when Russians when invaded Poland on behalf of the people of the "Orthodox faith" or our own civil war? You shouldn't say such narrow minded things while trying to affirm your own superiority over another religion – it makes you look rather dumb.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  14. thegadfly

    This editorial has been brought to you by Citizens United for a Nationalistic Theocracy.

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

      C.U.N.T. for short??!! LMAO!!!

      December 24, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  15. HisNoodlyAppendage

    The 'ultimate truth' is ELUSIVE. Deal with it. It's quite OK my fellow humans....

    December 24, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  16. Travis

    From a historical aspect he is absolutely correct. The wealth and might of this nation is in direct correlation to rise and fall Christian values openly and outwardly projected. One can ignore it or dispute it as much as one wishes, but it is a fact.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • Man (the REAL one)

      As a giant once said to a man named Vizzini, "Perhaps that word doesn't mean what you think it does.".

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

      like the bible is a fact?

      December 24, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  17. Howie Swaim

    Do unto others... I haven't lived a completely Christian life, but this movie, and my life have embodied the Christian belief/truth that you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This article is correct in pointing out that we could all do better in following this credo. Merry Christmas.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  18. Craig

    "Where knowledge ends, religion begins"

    December 24, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • Man (the REAL one)

      You got that backwards. Where religion begins, knowledge ends.

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

      Awesome quote!!!

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

      Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 1 Corinthians 1:20

      December 24, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  19. WrongAnswerLarry

    "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Larry Alex Taunton." - And you would have done well to keep them to yourself Larry Alex, because you are quite mistaken with this argument that we get our morals from religion, even more so to say that we get them from Christianity. And that is a good thing for all of humanity. Can you imagine the horrors of living in a society that espoused the "moral" teachings of the bible? Niceties such as child sacrifice, genocide, slavery, torture, etc? No, we're much better off with the religious fanatics picking and choosing which parts of the bible they hold up to us as evidence of its morality. Unfortunately for your argument, however, this means that anyone and everyone has the ability to decide for themselves what is moral and what is not. Consequently, it is proof that you don't need religion at all to make appropriate moral decisions. Secondly, Richard Dawkins' moral and intellectual sensibilities have most definitely been informed by the Judeo-Christian worldview - that's exactly why he has chosen to reject it. Thirdly, Thomas Stearns Eliot. What is it with you Christians and your fondness of quoting T. S. Eliot? Do you really even know anything about him other than the fact that this quote seems to fit into your article nicely? He wasn't exactly a model of ethical behavior. He cut ties with your beloved America, moved to England as a young man, and married someone he never really loved all under the narcissistic motivation of furthering his literary career. London pals included Ezra Pound who was fond of Benito Mussolini and was arrested for treason, and the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who openly criticized religion. Eliot largely ignored his wife and "sent her away" when she was ill. Although still married, he saw her only once during the final fifteen years of her life. As a 68 year-old, he iced the cake by marrying someone less than half his age – in secrecy. Try again Larry Alex!

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

      It wasnt about who he was it was about what he said

      December 24, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  20. olepi

    Is it implicit in the author's article that Muslims cannot be the "salt of the Earth"? Hindus, Buddhists?

    Regardless of the details of one's thoughts, be they Muslim, Christian, or XYZ, everyone can be the "salt" that helps others. Remove a good person and things get worse.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • Man (the REAL one)

      You can only be self righteous if you are christian. I think that's the gist of it.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:05 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.