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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. Chris

    Wow, CNN thanks for posting this!
    I couldn't agree more. As one who works for a small Christian organization that provided over 500,000 meals this year to struggling people (without a dime of government funds) it is good that someone understands this worldview has real value. Many of these people we work with have been able to get back on their feet and become strong members of the community. Not one of them who has made a lasting change has done so without a deep spiritual transformation and getting their hearts right with God. With hope re-instilled things like drug and alcohol treatment actually work.
    God is love, and those who draw near to Him begin to take on his character...even if their starting place is far from it!
    "Long lay the world, in sin and error pining...Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth." Merry Christmas!

    December 24, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • Chrism

      Amen and God bless your work. Merry Christmas to you too.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Eric G

      I think you are selling yourself short. It was you and other people who through the goodness within themselves, helped those in need. The same thing is done by organizations of a secular nature. To give credit to your god diminishes your efforts. You did these things becuase it is the right thing to do, not because of your god.

      Keep up the good work! Merry Christmas to you and yours!

      December 24, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • oj

      "Amen" to Eric G.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  2. Carmine Bello

    So... because intelligent people do not merely accept supernatural myths and magic, who's origins arise from the pre-scientific age, it is THOSE enlightened people who are the problem. Morality comes from basic human nature, not from ancient belief systems. At least atheists are honest... we do good things simply for the benefit it brings to our fellow human beings, NOT for the promise of some personal benefit in the afterlife.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Chris

      You may do good things now, while the resonance of the foundation you were raised in lingers...try thinking a generation or two away.
      And there is no such thing as pre-scientific...get serious. Science will always develop, whether it is stone tools to metal or the splitting of the atom. Man has and will always strive to learn more...it was the task given Adam in the garden of Eden. But those things have not lead to less selfish hearts they just provide clearer context for us to live out our purposes...which are not covered by science.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  3. Adam

    Efforts to identify the source of American decline are "downright evil"?? Good thing not much effort is required. It's the republicans. Christianity adds to the problems because politicians getting their pockets lined by Wall St. use the faith as a way to lure the poor into voting against their own interests (not difficult...they believe in sky people, they'll believe anything.)

    December 24, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Beth

      Yes. The Christian religious right has aided Wall Street in ripping off this country and causing children to be living in poverty and go to bed hungry. Christians do good things and terrible things, like everyone else.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  4. Hannibal

    All you people posting on CNN topics on Christmas Eve really need to get a life.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Bregginkrak

      I for one, appreciate the humor in your statement. Well done.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  5. Mark

    Good article. I would go a step further, however: the reason why modern society leans toward secularism is because we collectively think we are too good for religion. With our advances in technology and "enlightenment," we don't see any need for traditional values such as religion. Basically we have become a bunch of fools on many different levels.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Chrism

      Excellent point, Mark. I notice too that atheists think themselves smarter, yet miss that God would obviously not make Himself known only to scientists. They are verificationists demanding proof, while God reveals Himself to children, the deaf and blind, and those with Down's syndrome. Yet Jesus chose doubting Thomas too. I suspect the atheists will have their proof. Still blessed are those who believe without seeing. Merry Christmas.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • Elwood P. Dowd

      "God reveals Himself to children, the deaf and blind, and those with Down's syndrome."

      So does my 6' 3" invisible rabbit named Harvey. You just have to 'believe' in him.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  6. Catherine

    strange, back when our nation was more Christian, the town I live in had a red light district, about a century ago. Now the street it was on is a tidy row of restaraunts & shops.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Beth

      Yeah, and segregation and before that slavery, too.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  7. mightyfudge

    There are not enough faces and palms in the world to express the dumbfounded stupidity of this article. Unbelievable.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  8. Joe

    "It's a Wonderful Life" isn't about religion. It's about greedy bankers. The movie was made in 1946 after the Great Depression and WW2 were over. It was made to show the terrible effects of centralized power and wealth on the social fabric of a society. As such, it serves as a warning for us today.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  9. Bregginkrak

    "The problems of human society are the problems of human nature, wrote "Lord of the Flies" author William Golding"

    Humans must always make laws and rules that channel their natural impulses in the direction of the greater good. Even then they will seek to by-pass the laws/rules for personal gain or pleasure. Religion has been that channel and in general has advanced the overall human condition. The question is, or we ready to rule ourselves or do we still need the boundries that God has provided. Do you really trust the majority of humans to do the "right thing" just because you say it's the "right thing". Religion privides a majority view of morality. Without that view what do we become...the Occupy Movement?

    December 24, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  10. Tonya

    What a great insight! SOOOOO true!! I can see by the comments that I guess those who don't believe want a Pottersville America !! In which, if we don't change it will turn into that type of society! Then those who want it will realize us Christian's weren't soooo bad after all!

    December 24, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  11. Uruz

    Such a typical, shortsighted, Christian point of view. A classic movie about the difficulties and trials of one man at the holidays, co-opted by a Christian as an example of Christian living that should be thrust upon a nation. That alone is annoying, but to hold up "Christian" values as some ideal to which we all should strive conveniently belittles and discards the atrocities wrought in the name of the Christian God: The Crusades. The Inquisition. Modern day abortion clinic bombings. How arrogant are you, then, not only to redefine the subtext of a classic movie by your own insignificant existence, but then to put that definition forth as a cautionary tale to the rest of us?

    There is no "absence" of Christianity in the U.S. right now. If I think back to my childhood (30 -plus years ago), I can't think of a SINGLE athlete, award winner, politician, or even polite dinner guest who would have flaunted his or her beliefs in a public setting without making himself and everyone else quite uncomfortable. Yet in order for us to be in a "decline" today, the faithful, according to the author, certainly must have been more "present" in those days, yes? No, Mr. Taunton, what you mistake for keeping your mouth shut and your beliefs private is not, actually, a nation absent Christianity. It's a nation trying to reestablish a little lost decorum, a time when we didn't discuss religion and politics in polite company. We are, as we have always been, a nation of people FREE to make choices as long as they don't hurt others. Your force-feeding of Christianity comes much closer to destroying that spirit than any atheist possibly could.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Leslie B

      And yet, you conveniently leave out everything else Christians can and do provide: schools, hospitals, homeless shelters, homes for HIV/AIDS patients, free community health clinics (in which no one finds the need to kill unborn children), domestic abuse counseling and aid, adoption agencies, Catholic Relief Services (very similar to the Red Cross, always one of the first to show up at disasters, and highly rated by Charity Navigator), soup kitchens, distribution of food and clothing to those in need.

      Yes, horrible things have been done in the name of all religions, but that doesn't mean that these people were actually following the tenets of putting their faith into action. People hungry for power can corrupt faith just as much at they corrupt politics and businesses and even school boards. If you find any value to justice at all, it only fair to admit the good things that have been done in the name of God.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Voig Nederlander

      LeslieB: Yes, and the Nazis left us with several medical procedures used to this day. The ends, my friend, do not justify the means.

      December 24, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  12. Daleo

    Mr. Taunton, it sounds like you are saying that Judaism and Christianity are the most morally correct world views that have existed and that secular people, and followers of other religions big and small, are partially or completely less moral. If you believe that then you have found an intolerance that exists at the root of all human suffering.
    I'm proud of my Catholic heritage but I do not fool myself into thinking that my church and my people have God on their side any more than anyone else. If you want to see God, Mr. Taunton, release your chains. Your imprisonment hurts us all.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Leslie B

      I didn't pick that up from what he had to say, but I am totally with you on the idea of various denominations/religions letting go of the "WE have God on our side and you don't" train of thought. Also having been raised a Catholic – not sure if I would call myself one now or not – I have certainly seen a lot of this, but I went to a Catholic college and was involved in the church beyond that, and found many people who were not self-centered enough to believe they were the only "true believers." imho, when you find someone who is the *the* one/part of a group who are the only ones who know THE way to God....turn and run.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  13. Alfred E Neuman

    Could someone direct me to the minority section of Bedford Falls?

    December 24, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  14. Dumpicles

    Why do so many Christians insist on proselytizing? He may as well just go ahead and say it: If everyone converted to christianity, all the world's problems would be solved. What rubbish.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Leslie B

      Really? It might be rubbish if you're suggesting that "everyone converting to Christianity" meant believing that Westboro Baptist church was Christian, that would be worse than rubbish. If you took every mis-led soul who has been taught that Christians are somehow better than others, that would also be rubbish. But - if you have read the Gospels - I fail to see how "love one another, feed the hungry, take care of the sick, visit those in jail" and other such tenets would ruin the world.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  15. Yvette

    Going to miss TJ Holmes he makes my weekends, love his style, it's so engaging. Where is he going so we can follow him? CNN he was a keeper. So sad!

    December 24, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  16. Gregory A. Boyer

    Facts are facts.
    Fact: What we believe affects how we act, and so, what we get.
    Fact: This is rational
    Fact: People are irrational
    Fact: We originated somewhere, somehow
    What I believe affects me, and I believe God is good, loves us in spite of our flaws and invites us, by believing, to rejoin Him via His own sacrifice for our fatal flaws.
    I believe this is a good deal.
    We hope you also believe He loves you.
    Enough to come to Earth.
    Merry Christmas.

    GBeliever

    December 24, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  17. Shipping.Shipping

    Excellent article. That any U.S. citizen would condemn or advocate against Christianity is exploitation of the very rights which Christianity has brought to the world and is a desperate attempt to deny our own history and rule of law. Atheists and Christians do share one common belief, however, both rely upon their own sense of faith (in the loosest sense for an atheist) in that the existence of God cannot be proven in a court room or science lab. Atheists fundamental flaw is that they completely ignore Jesus.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  18. Erin Madsen

    What unbridled arrogance! To say that a 2,000 year-old cult which has been responsible for innumerable wars, inquisitions and persecutions – not to mention an entire era of Western History in which it dominated, ever after known as the Dark Ages – has a benevolent effect is madness! And then to insinuate that laws, art and literature somehow benefit from Christian belief??? Let us not dwell too long Hammurabi, the Althing or modes of law prior to laws of the Inquisitor. And let's not dwell too long on the Muslims' tessellations, the Chinese ink and brushwork, nor the statuary of those pagan ancient Egyptians. As for literature, well, let's just not comment on the smell of burning pages – a favorite fragrance of pious people, Christian or otherwise, throughout our civilization's history.

    In short, sir, you are full of it. Absolutely full to the brim with it. I wonder what's becoming of CNN when someone decides that your nonsense is worthy of the front page. God help us.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • John Rutherford

      I couldn't have said it better myself. Good work!

      December 24, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • CT

      Erin – After reading your post, I feel sorry for you. The authors intent was to show what good things Christianity has done over the millenia – he never refrred to the dark things Man has done in the name of Christianity, because this article is about Christmas, and what good things people can learn from it and carry with them in their daily lives. I find it telling that your post ends with the simple sentence "God help us". Maybe it is time to ask him to help you in being less coldly analytical and more tolerant. Merry Christmas to you and yours

      December 24, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • 95B20

      Imagine after all your ranting you coclude with GOD HELP US there are no atheist in a foxhole but if we keep turning our backs then we will get just what we ask for.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • Leslie B

      I will reply the same way to you that I did to someone else with a similar point of view:

      You conveniently leave out everything else Christians can and do provide: schools, hospitals, homeless shelters, homes for HIV/AIDS patients, free community health clinics (in which no one finds the need to kill unborn children), domestic abuse counseling and aid, adoption agencies, Catholic Relief Services (very similar to the Red Cross, always one of the first to show up at disasters, and highly rated by Charity Navigator), soup kitchens, distribution of food and clothing to those in need.

      Yes, horrible things have been done in the name of all religions, but that doesn't mean that these people were actually following the tenets of putting their faith into action. People hungry for power can corrupt faith just as much at they corrupt politics and businesses and even school boards. If you find any value to justice at all, it only fair to admit the good things that have been done in the name of God. But it seems those of you who are anti-Christian aren't interested in presenting both sides, only hatred.

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

    Poor choice of placement. This is front page news on CNN? Really? Disappointed.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  20. Lucy

    This correlation is really disturbing and upsetting to the original intent of the movie.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:39 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.