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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. ReligionIsInsanity

    I'm sorry, but unlike the author here, I don't personally feel like it would be a disaster if "the whole of our culture" went right onto the trash heap of history. Christianity – nearly every single second of it – is a history of murdering innocent human beings, enslaving millions upon millions of others, justification for the genocide of indigenous peoples (not just in the americas and australia, but in europe itself), and stripping people of their rights. Don't get me wrong – I am happy to admit that Judaism and Islam share an equally disgusting history.

    Where would we be without Christianity, Judaism, or Islam? Perhaps we would still be worshipping deities that reside in the earth and ALL its creatures. Perhaps women would see improved rights around the world by the elimination of a trio of repulsively male-centered patriarchies. Perhaps american chattel slavery would not have happened, since it would not have had the Biblical justification of slavery to back it up – ditto for the genocide of the indigenous populations of the americas.

    Maybe I'm wrong and the imbeciles who believe that "human nature" is to run amok killing every living thing in one's path. Odd that any cultural anthropologist will tell you that hunter-gatherers – who lived on the planet for 98% of human existence (hundreds of thousands of years before christians killed their first witch) – are quite capable of managing their societies without the existence of abusive hierarchical religions. So if you want to know what life would be like without these religions, look to the most successful human societies to ever exist. And it ain't ours.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  2. really?

    Compassion, understanding, flexibility, you either have it or you don't. Christianity didn't give them to me, experienced living gave them to me. In fact, my own mother says she a Christian......and if that is what a Christian is.....I want NO PART OF THAT! ....judgement and fear.....that's what christianity is! Sad for Jesus...he was truly a SUPER STAR....and just wanted cats and dogs to get along. Look out for yourself, then look out for others.....that's is truly human!

    December 24, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  3. BC

    Agree wholeheartedly with this article. Our nation was founded on Christian beliefs and values and a resurgence of those would help us all. The commenters above try to make it 'uncool' without realizing the influence of Christianity on the life they are able to have.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • Bonester

      Ask the Iraqis about our xian resurgence.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  4. J. Palmieri

    It warms my heart to to see so many comments from unbelievers. If Christianity had been as good for mankind as they claim we should all be living in paradise on earth by now, shouldn't we? But along the way we had the Crusades when millions died because of belief. There was also the Inquisition, when for centuries thousands were brutally tortured and killed who dared not follow the church's party line. There was the destruction of whole new world civilizations at the hands of the conquistadores and their padres flashing the cross before the "heathens". And more recently, didn't the church look the other way as Hitler proceeded to exterminate millions in the "final solution", otherwise known as the Holocaust? Thanks but no thanks. Look, the universe is a strange place already. There are billions of galaxies out there all moving away from each other into an ever expanding universe. We don't need to make it even more absurd by bringing in God. The fact is our own little selves do not exist apart from such a universe. In the vastness of time we're like a flash of lightning. If we can't even make sense of the universe, by what authority can we tell others how to live? We can only be responsible for our own thoughts and actions. So let's grow up, stop wishing for paradise, eternal life or even a better world. Give it a rest and peace will follow of its own accord. Right now.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  5. Kingofthenet

    Religion is the ONLY socially accepted form of Magic. Remember the invisible and non-Existent look VERY much alike...

    December 24, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  6. BS

    Seriously? Religion is going to save the country from all the greed. The flaw with your opinion is simply this, humans love money more than god, family, and certainly country. That is why this country will fail.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  7. sid

    I think it we got rid of all religions around the world it would be a better place.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Jim

      Like

      December 24, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  8. tensor

    A truly moral person lives by the courage of their convictions, making the right choices – without the punishment of a hell or the reward of a heaven. It is those who need threats or bribes in order to behave who also need man-made behavior constructs like organized religion.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  9. Jim

    I would be perfectly happy to leave christians alone, if only they would do the same for me.

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

    And what is evidence? Answer me that.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Eric G

      First Jay, you need to hit "reply" when responding to a particular post.

      Evidence is information gathered through observation and testing. For example, I can provide verifiable evidence that the world is round. Please provide any verifiable evidence that your god exists.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • Relictus

      "Evidence in its broadest sense includes everything that is used to determine or demonstrate the truth of an assertion. – Wikipedia.

      Logic is a formal discipline of Philosophy that deals with the study of Reason. Through Logic, you can easily and fairly quickly provide evidence that religion is false.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  11. Rainer Braendlein

    Christ the saviour is born

    The true gospel, which means health for the whole mankind:

    The true gospel of Jesus Christ is not only a gospel of forgiveness, but also a gospel of deliverance or redemption or a gospel of a new life in Jesus..

    It was Jesus, who died for us on the cross and Jesus had a certain lifestyle.

    We should not try to gain forgiveness by faith in Jesus and at the same time ignore the life, which Jesus lived.

    Was Jesus a Philistian?

    Never.

    Jesus central sermon was the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), which is a sermon of love towards God and the neighbour.

    Obviously, Jesus didn't give merely forgiveness, but a whole new life to his disciples. Forgiveness and discipleship were connected and a unit. Forgiveness exists only within a life of discipleship.

    You may have heard that we get saved by faith alone, for free.

    Yes, we get saved by faith alone, for free. Its only that forgiveness and discipleship are a unit. That means, when we start to believe in Jesus and get baptized, we also have to start to follow him, whereby our discipleship is no own performance in order to gain salvation, but belongs to the new life, which God has given us, when we started to believe.

    The locus in space and time, where and when we receive the releasing power of Christ's death and resurrection is the sacramental baptism, which is not allowed to be repeated. This is a age-old doctrine independent from the Roman Catholic doctrine. I am a Protestant. By the power of Christ's death and resurrection we become able to follow Jesus.

    When Jesus lived on earth he called people to become disciples of Him. This powerful call takes place today through the Church by sacramental baptism.

    In a word, faith and baptism is a unit and forgiveness and discipleship is a unit. We should not seperate, what God has united.

    You want forgiveness? God wants to give you forgiveness and a new life (discipleship) as a UNIT, at the same time. Either you take the whole unit or you will get nothing at all.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Jim

      I do not want God's Unit.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      Really?

      December 24, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • Jim

      Went over your head eh. Yes, really.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • John

      Interesting....reads like the beliefs of St. Paul.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  12. Ben the Philosopher

    Dawkins may not underestimate his Judeo-Christian influence–after all, he may be well aware that the values of generosity, altruism, personal integrity, etc. predated Christianity. Rather, he may recognize that Christianity shares some of his influences, and think Christianity added nothing worthwhile to their traditions.
    In particular, many of those pre-Christian traditions emphasized reasoning and honest inquiry in a way that the Christian tradition of faith is, at best, ambivalent about, and, at worst, rabidly opposed to.
    In the spirit of that tradition of careful critical thinking about values, I would like to point out the following fallacy:
    "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"
    This conclusion does not follow, inasmuch as charity might not be the best way to help the poor, sick, orphaned and widowed. If, hypothetically, Christians give 5% of their net income to charity, but also vote against social programs that would tax 10% of their gross income, while (hypothetically) atheists give less to charity, but favor more generous social safety nets, it is at least an open question who is more concerned for those in need.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  13. justjudy

    So much hogwash. I came up going to Protestant church with my grandmother. Her generation even had a much different view of Christian moral etiquete that what I see in my parents and peers. I can not find Christ in churches today. Modern "Churchiantiy" seems all about being white and upper class with common phrases like "name it and claim it" and "God's Blessings". If you are poor in America you are told that it is because you "lack faith". In reality, these people "blab it and grab it" right out of the mouths of the deserving of God's children. You can't hardly find a church here where the parking lot during services isn't crowded with every make of luxury car. Oh, how church folk love to dress in their finest... so much that the needy of the congregation are given, not what they need, but what clothes will make them fit in better on a Sunday morning catwalk (I mean aisle). I am disabled and I once hired one of my peers for over $20/hr who was a Sunday School teacher – she left my employment in shame after the story came out of her default on 4 credit cards and the lies to get balances reduced about her being a stay at home mom (you see she had never reported her $500/week income to the IRS as the Professional Housekeeper she swore to me that she was). There is NOTHING charitable about making donations to impress a pastor but not being honest that those donations are of ill-gotten gain. I could go on but I bore even myself of the evil perpetrated in the name of the modern church. With friends like the modern christians, I don't need enemies.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  14. lizz

    Salt on Earth, what? Dear author, your text is portraying Christians as rather arrogant.. I am not sure I'd like to be surrounded with the likes of you in Tauntonville!

    December 24, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  15. FLADABOSCO

    The bible mentions helping the poor over 3000 times! Jesus himself said that you should give away all your belongings – more than once. Luke 12:22-34, Matthew 19:21, Luke 16:13, Mark 10:21-27 etc. And that's not counting how many times it is said that being poor is more godlike than being rich in the old testament. If you are all really Christians then do as Jesus said – or like the genius Stephan Colbert advises, just admit you don't want to.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  16. Please

    I really would love to see what would happen to religions if children under the age of 16 where not allowed to attend the weekly gatherings.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  17. Jay

    Socially irrelevant? Secularism will replace belief as more of the worlds population becomes more educated? All based on human made concepts. Educated with what? What scientists and professors say? Please. We think know things but we don't it's that simple society defines how intelligent we are but there's a bigger picture.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • Eric G

      Science never claimed to know everything. Believers, like yourself, do. What science claims to know is supported by verifiable evidence. It can be proven to be true. What verifiable evidence do you have to support what you claim to be true?

      December 24, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Truth

      you sound really retarded, jay. i'd stop posting if i were you

      December 24, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  18. Avatar

    Great article! It's nice to see mainstream news not afraid to publish the truth!

    December 24, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • Stayin' Alive

      The truth must be elsewhere. This article amounts to little more than down-home American anti-intellectualism. That anyone would even imply what the author appears to be saying is morally reprehensible.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  19. Stayin' Alive

    Not since the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, Southern chattel slavery, or the NAZI-inspired Holocaust (Many high-ranking NAZIs, including Hitler himself, were Catholic or Lutheran) has any sane, historically informed person asserted that Christianity has been a uniformly loving or tolerant belief system.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  20. MikeT

    Well said, Mr. Taunton. Christmas would not exist if not for the birth of Christ, but now we're all supposed to just ignore that fact while we enjoy the holiday. Sadder still that the respondents here would prefer that your opinion not be heard on the front page of CNN.com...I've seen plenty of stories there that have been distasteful to me, but never have I blogged that they should not be heard. Merry Christmas, one and all!

    December 24, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • t3chsupport

      Christ was not born in December. Christmas was situated in December to try to convert more of the pagan folks by overshadowing their holidays. Y'know, a lie.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • Relictus

      I love his articles! Because that's ENTERTAINMENT not education. That a grown man can hold such beliefs as his is a testament to the power of cognitive dissonance.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:30 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.