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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. stevie68a

    "There is not enough love in the world to give it to imaginary beings": Nietzsche
    I believe you can have morality without the delusion of religion. Teach ethics instead. Get rid of the brainwashing of religion.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Larry

      Then, by all means, the next time you're sick, go to an Atheistic hospital! - if you can find one.....

      December 24, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • The Truth Hurts

      Fictional Joe, who happens not to like you very much, has just become and atheist. Please explain to him why it is "bad" or "wrong" to make your life a living nightmare.

      There is no "good" or "bad" without a belief in God. Neitzsche and other intellectual heavy-weights saw it. Why can't you?

      December 24, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • Real Deal

      Larry,

      Next time you're sick, you'd better make sure that every doctor, nurse, lab tech, pharmacist, orderly and cook are Christian, then.

      On second thought, why go to the hospital at all? You are supposed to pray and trust "God" to heal you.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • Jim

      Larry, considering that evangelicals don't believe in science, I'll take a athiesitic science-based hospital over a religious hospital any time.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • John

      Ethics is taught in school. 15 semester hours for a 4 year degree. It is not enough. Try to think of the new testement, and the 4 gospels in particular, as lessons in ethics. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Help the poor. Visit the sick and those imprisoned. While John Lennon spread the right message, there are many among us who have not received the message in their heart. The Catholics make the sign of the cross on their forehead, lips, and heart before the gospels are read. This is done to remind us to keep the message of the gospels in our minds, mouths, and hearts. I will defend christians and any other group that keeps htese values.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  2. Diversity

    Wow. Way to marginalize all the other spiritual beliefs. Didn't realize CNN had become Christian. Guess I'll find my news at a source that believes in diversity instead of espousing one belief, especially by putting it on the "front page."

    December 24, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • The Truth Hurts

      Are you kidding us? The majority of CNN articles are both Democrat and anti-Christian, including all the articles about atheism. Don't read a "belief blog" if you are so easily offended.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  3. Floyd

    Lots of religions out there, all of them claiming to be the One True Faith...

    December 24, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Mogan

      Not all of them – there are religions who hold the position that 'your religion is right for you and mine is right for me.' Or, that all religions have something important to teach; not just one. And there are religions that posit that there is no such thing as absolute truth. It really is only the Middle Eastern Religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) that take the position we are right and everyone else is wrong. Although each of these religions have a different take on that position.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  4. Chris

    Didn't he lend money to deadbeats to buy houses they couldn't afford and end up having to be bailed out by the people.... Hmmmm

    December 24, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Jim

      Quiz: which is the follow more like, conservatives or liberals?

      "you can come and borrow money. What does that get us? A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty, working class. And all because a few starry-eyed dreamers like Peter Bailey stir them up and fill their heads with a lot of impossible ideas."

      December 24, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  5. steve

    best movie ever. just watched it last night.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  6. achepotle

    Wonderful Christmas Movie! Stupid fairy tale religion!

    December 24, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  7. Willy Brown

    Since the Affirmative Action in Chief has been in office the whole USA has become Pottersville.

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

      Spoken like a true Christian; bigot. Merry Christmas.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Mogan

      Not really. Blame it on the Bushes and even Clinton, but the house of cards started falling before he took office.

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

      Willy – which would belong to the Tea Party? Mr. Potter or George Bailey?

      December 24, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  8. GW

    It's funny, it is the right (which is comprised of self-professed christians) that is against health insurance for all, welfare, medicare, etc. If Bedford Falls had been inhabited by those who attend republican debates, mean old Mr. Potter would have been cheered. Jimmy Stewart would have been told to drop dead.

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

      Did you notice that Romney's position on the housing crisis is the same as Potter's? Think about what Romney said in Arizona – let the foreclosures go through and let other people or companies but the houses, etc. So, Bedford Falls would become Romneyville.

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

    "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"

    =>well reasoned and true.

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

      Yes, all those Christians at the republican debates cheering the idea of those w/out health insurance dying. Tax cuts for rich, but not the middle class. We are living in Pottersville!

      December 24, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Chad

      This whole idea that conservatives are heartless monsters has no basis in reality.

      The facts:
      Arthur C. Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University, published "Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism." The surprise is that liberals are markedly less charitable than conservatives.

      If many conservatives are liberals who have been mugged by reality, Brooks, a registered independent, is, as a reviewer of his book said, a social scientist who has been mugged by data. They include these findings:

      - Although liberal families' incomes average 6 percent higher than those of conservative families, conservative-headed households give, on average, 30 percent more to charity than the average liberal-headed household ($1,600 per year vs. $1,227).

      - Conservatives also donate more time and give more blood.

      - Residents of the states that voted for John Kerry in 2004 gave smaller percentages of their incomes to charity than did residents of states that voted for George Bush.

      - Bush carried 24 of the 25 states where charitable giving was above average.

      - In the 10 reddest states, in which Bush got more than 60 percent majorities, the average percentage of personal income donated to charity was 3.5. Residents of the bluest states, which gave Bush less than 40 percent, donated just 1.9 percent.

      - People who reject the idea that "government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality" give an average of four times more than people who accept that proposition.

      Brooks demonstrates a correlation between charitable behavior and "the values that lie beneath" liberal and conservative labels. Two influences on charitable behavior are religion and att itudes about the proper role of government.

      The single biggest predictor of someone's altruism, Willett says, is religion. It increasingly correlates with conservative political affiliations because, as Brooks' book says, "the percentage of self-described Democrats who say they have 'no religion' has more than quadrupled since the early 1970s." America is largely divided between religious givers and secular nongivers, and the former are disproportionately conservative. One demonstration that religion is a strong determinant of charitable behavior is that the least charitable cohort is a relatively small one - secular conservatives. [George Will]

      December 24, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • James Viser

      Over time, when they live more in accord with the Law of Love, we won't have people shouting that others should die if they didn't buy health insurance. The sentiments that were expressed were very much related to the materialistic and atheistic objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, where only selfish interests are valid. The positive part of her work has been much overshadowed by the materialistic, or "Potter-istic" elements of her outlook.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Jim

      Chad – if conservatives are NOT heartless monsters, they have a real public relations problem, because they sure sound like heartless monsters.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • tom tom the tea partier

      you say heartless monster like it's a bad thing

      December 24, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  10. BDC101

    Sure is a lot of Grinches posting...sour and dissatisfied people all grumbling about a movie and the Christmas spirit. How very sad that there is so much hatred and darkness in the souls of men.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  11. Brian

    I don't agree. I know Athiests and Christians, and one is no more prone to good deeds than the other in my experience. The real problem is our expectations of each other, the "Win at all costs" mentality that rules this country. We have become a corporate theocracy – soulless corporations that put the company first and people last. There are exceptions but this is the trend, and its increasing. I have to agree with other posters that some of the most egregious offenders of common decency I have encountered claim to be "born again Christians"...I myself am a christian, but I am troubled by how our lord's faith has
    been corrupted into a slick corporate message.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  12. The Rugged Gent

    Great article at theruggedgent dot com about the myth of the founding fathers being christian called The Fouding Fathers

    December 24, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  13. Chris

    The opinion piece featured on this morning's CNN.com homepage, "When Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville," was one of the most 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 10:16 am |
    • The Truth Hurts

      Without belief in God, there is no good or bad. Neitzsche and other intellectual heavy-weights saw it. Why can't you?

      December 24, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Chrism

      If it was offensive to suggest Christianity leads to better morals, it is more offensive for you only a few posts down to suggest that censoring it in public, in clear violation of the first amendment, is better morally. By the way are you offended by the declaration of independence that states it is a self-evident truth that rights are endowed by a creator?

      December 24, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • Mogan

      And who is the creator? This is the creator of the 18th century deists who held to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For the Deists there is a god who created this world, but not the god of any known religion. That is why those in Europe viewed the American Revolution as the Deist Revolution and the Declaration of Independence as a Deist proclamation.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • The Truth Hurts

      Yet, although Deists, they still proclaimed the Christian faith in their own lives, did they not? Without belief in a God, there is no "good" or "bad". Read George Washington's farewell address.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • Chrism

      @Mogan, then at least be a deist, non-theist. An atheist believes no god exists hence is also an adeist. A deist would be like the founding fathers and not suppressing Christianity like atheists do.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  14. Alfred E Neuman

    I'll be celebrating Christmas with people of color in Bedford Falls. Where are they?

    December 24, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • Dilbert

      Isn't white a color? Are you saying you don't associate with white people? How racist.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • Mogan

      Actually, white is not a color, but the combination of all colors.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • Dilbert

      If something is made up of all colors, it must still be a color. I'll hand you a white crayon the next time I see you. 🙂

      By your definition, this guy's really a racist then if he's rejecting all colors! Who's he gonna party with?

      December 24, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  15. Mike, Cleveland OH

    One does not need an invisible man in the sky to believe in being the benefactor of your neighbor. Indeed, more people have been killed and cities demolished in the "name of God" than any other cause. Religions in general serve as a guiding force for those of insufficient intellect to recognize that some degree of collective conscience pushes society forward.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • just sayin

      Not quite , but it makes a whale of a good story

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

      Good point. North Olmsted represent!

      December 24, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • The Truth Hurts

      Those of sufficient intellect realize that without belief in a God, there is no "good" or "bad". Neitzsche and other intellectual heavy-weights saw it. Why can't you?

      December 24, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  16. Chris

    "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."

    Gotta love generalizations for a group that are not supported by figures. I will assume this is "your" opinion as this is an opinion piece but please do not make assumptions for a group that you can not back up with evidence.

    In my opinion as a "secular elite", your analogy of comparing it to smoking is quite valid but interpreted differently. Religion should be a private not public experience. Our nation shoud embrace and support and make room for believers and non-believers, and avoid the use of religious agendas to drive "public" policy. I have no issue with smokers purchasing cigarettes and choosing to consume them in their home, or to join public smoking clubs or bars where they can share and exchange their smoking habits with one another. However, I do push back when I am forced to be in a public place and having my wellbeing negatively impacted by smokers who wish to impose their culture, habits, and beliefs on me. We do not condone smoking anymore on an airplane becuase we agree that the smokers do not have the right to impose their habits on others. I personally have no issuse with ones "private" beleives or religion, but when it imposes itself by only permitting the "Bells of Saint Mary's" to be played at the Bijou theater...then I have a problem. Good people doing good things and respecting others makes Bedford Falls the palce to be.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • The Truth Hurts

      Beliefs that go to the heart of who a person is, how they should behave, and who they desire to see "saved' cannot be fully private.

      The author's generalization is a valid one. Just look at all the relatively recent books from people like Dawkins, Harris, Dennet, and the now deceased Hitchens.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  17. Jay

    *lack, sorry for the spelling.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  18. Jim

    I'm sure Osama Bin Laden thought he was doing "god's" work as well. Evangelicals/Taliban – same dangerous wackos only in different flavors.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  19. Sanity Clause

    If "faith" is the only reason you have for opening doors, smiling at strangers, volunteering, or for doing what you can to help the less fortunate, then yours is a pretty sad existence. "Every man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind" is a noble goal for all us, despite our belief or non-belief in one or more supreme beings. By equating "faith" with "goodness", a disservice is being done to millions of good people.

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

      The disservice is done by you to attempt to dissimilate them. We are moral because God made us.

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

      Thank you! I came here to say something along those lines, but you said it better than I could have. This article is an insult to those of us who are not religious but are kind and caring people. Equating the non-religious with "Potterville" is ignorant, vile, and insulting.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • John McClane

      "We are moral because God made us."

      What infallible logic! /sarcasm

      December 24, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Jason C.

      There is no God/god. Morality is therefore not derived from such a non-existant deity. The universe is its own creator, and God/god had no part in it just like this human invented concept is nothing more than an object of our human condition.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • Chrism

      @John, without God morality is relative. 90% of the population can agree what is moral. Those 90% could be nazis. /sincerity

      December 24, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Chrism

      @Jason, does the universe have a consciousness? If it began 13.7 bya when did its consciousness begin? If it has none, what are we other than accident? Then where is the foundation for morality? It is what evolved, what was fittest for survival. Hitler claimed to be of a superior more highly evolved race. Isn't his morality superior to yours then?

      December 24, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • The Truth Hurts

      Jason C. should provide the proof of his assertion that "There is no God". Is he privy to some information the rest of us lack?

      Without belief in a God, there is no "good" or "bad". Atheists who think they are moral are really just borrowing and miming the values of the mostly religious society around them. They certainly can't point to an atheistic Bible or any valid reasons for aiding people who will never be able to return the favor. This is why there are so many studies that show people of religion to be more generous. This is one of the reasons that most intellectuals of the past have despised atheism. The intellectuals who didn't are the ones, like Neitzsche, who were revered by Nazis and communists.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  20. Jay

    It's amusing to see everyones opinions and facts to back up their claim that God doesn't exist. The way I see it If he does exist some choose not to acknowledge him because theirs no evidence to support his existance, but ultimately it boils down to if he does exist you'll be dealt with in the next life for your lake of faith. If he doesn't exist then we religious folk, we be the one's dealt the raw end of the deck either, your so called facts and logic, while appealing to most highly intellectual people, doesn't mean anything because most of it is based off what another human said. Facts are facts until proven otherwise, which means some could all ready be false its just no one has discovered why they're false. Human logic such as whats been posted is not as significant as it leads on.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • John McClane

      Yet another christian pontificating his own self righteousness. Good job.

      I've heard about you and your honeyed words.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Jim

      Jay – the point of you post got a little garbled towards the end, but here's what I heard.

      Science can't prove that god doesn't exist, so Christian's "believe" because it's safer than not believing. Seems like believing in Santa Claus because you're afraid you won't get presents if you don't believe.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:19 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.