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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. toohip

    More Christian arrogance. Christians don't realize when they criticize radical Islamic faith, their looking in the mirror. Like Islams hate "infidels" or "non-believers" Christians likewise hate atheists more than they hate Christians who are evil.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Taron

      Sorry but you got it all wrong. True Christians don't hate people nor other religions. Go read the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37. Jesus commands believers to love their neighbors, who is everyone. So before you go generalizing and criticizing the Christian faith and everyone who believes it, read a little.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  2. Doug

    If we are to paint with the same broad strokes as this author, then we can conclude that there are no immoral, indecent, evil or self-centered Christians, and there are no moral, decent, virtuous or generous non-Christians. Is it any wonder people are losing faith in Christianity and organized religion?

    December 24, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  3. Joshua Ludd

    Its the same old paternalistic crap. Sure, they behave well enough and get along pretty well... but they don't have our religion so they must be evil heathens, so we must enlighten them. I fear the only thing that keeps violence mostly at bay when it comes to Christianity today is the fact that they have a large role in government and society, which keeps them from being alienated enough from society to violently oppose it and they don't have quite enough power in government to really be a theocracy with all its attendant purges and strict moral legislations over even the most basic and natural of human behaviors.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  4. Kate

    Very fitting moie! Republican Tea Party Scrooges could use this as a good lesson on robbing from the middle class to give to the rich! We end up Bakrupted. The Dow was at 7000 pts when obama took Office now its at 12000 Merry Christmas Tea Party Scrooges.....hope you have a Failed 2012!

    December 24, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Inspector Clouseau

      They certainly will fail. The NY Times reported yesterday they were now the most hated group in the US, (hated more than atheists). "To everything there is a season .....", and there's is gone.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  5. neutralcarbon

    Global Warmism should be the state religion of the U.S. ....just ask the average Obamadroid CNN disciple.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • rizzo

      Man you conservatives are obsessed with Obama. You're like grade schoolers, pulling his braids so he might turn around and kiss you.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  6. Rainer Braendlein

    What is Christmas?

    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.

    Take the whole Christmas present, which God wants to give you for free!

    December 24, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Inspector Clouseau

      Speaking of units, ..... well, I better not. Santa might not stop tonight. 🙂

      December 24, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  7. no other way

    Thanks Larry – how true that liberals and atheists enjoy the blessings bestowed on civilization by those of faith. They are living off the largesse of the churches and synagogues of this nation.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • rizzo

      Yes I'm totally living in this country on the whim of my local churches! Why, if they knew I didn't go to service every day, they'd take my stipend away and kick me out of my house.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • no other way

      @rizzo – there's primary benefits (attending the church/synagogue of your faith) and secondary – where you indirectly enjoy the benefits, which prevent social and moral decay of the culture. So whether or not you attend, you're welcome!

      December 24, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • JustAThought

      Christians are the most generous "according to the Barna Group?" Which is an evangelical Christian polling firm. That isn't data, that's self-serving fiction.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  8. JW

    A man once said something like this, "If men are this wicked with religion, imagine what they would be like without religion."

    December 24, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Do The Right Thing

      Perhaps, then, it is religion that makes them wicked. If people accept responsibility for their own actions, rather than only being good for fear of punishment or want of reward, the world would be a better place. Some of us are good just because its the right thing to do, because we love our families and friends, not because of the specter of some unseen god.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • Gene

      As a Christian, I say 'Nonsense'! The 'Christians' who trumpet their faith and fear of change, are the ones allied with the political party that wraps itself in the flag and stands under stained glass windows, while trying to return us to the poorhouses and child labor of the nineteenth century. It is these allies that will put us in Pottersville by selling out to Big Business and Wall Street. Their religion is money.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  9. springthecat

    What a bizarre ego-centric take on Humanity. The beneficial elements of our varied civilizations in this world existed long before Christ. If nothing else, as necessities for the survival of our species. It would be too easy to find comparisons between the Christian organizations and the endless stream of evil machinations over the millenia, so it is in utter ignorance that this author suggests that our society would decay without the influence of hs particular religion

    December 24, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  10. gutsycall@yahoo.com

    One of the greatest American films of all time. As we gain so much from the mom and pop capitalism of the past, replaced by Walmart's sending jobs to communists in China to make a CEO richer, we're going to lose our faith and freedoms.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  11. Senor Ed

    Potter is the ultimate Teabagger.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • neutralcarbon

      Obamadroid

      December 24, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  12. PD

    What fanciful leaps of logic! What inane prattlings! "Wonderful Life" isn't about Christianity, you boob, and Christianity isn't a solution. Kindness is the solution.
    The author says that, according to a company that exists to promote Christianity, "Christians are the most charitable segment of the population by a substantial margin." - um, yeah, which population is that? The US? okaaay... and also the largest segment...
    But to conclude that "...any society that is liberally sprinkled with them has a greater concern for the poor, sick, orphaned and widowed" is pure crap. The logic simply doesn't follow that there are lots of Christians in the US who do good works, therefore if there were more in the world then the world would be better for the poor, sick, orphaned and widowed.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Don Camp

      The remedy for this idiotic opinion is history. Read some.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  13. rizzo

    In fact, thinking about it, violent crime has been trending downwards over the past few decades, as has church attendance. Seems to me like losing religion tends to make us MORE moral, not less.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Taron

      Haha that's funny. You must live in a perfect little town, because all you hear about is violence everyday, even in small town America. Just look at the people getting violent over a little thing like the release of the new air jordans. Don't spit out statistics unless you have proof to back them up.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Inspector Clouseau

      The FBI reported violent crime falling last week. He is absolutely correct.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • JustAThought

      Taron you are a good example of why religiousity is so offensive. You can't acknowledge even the smallest facts that don't jive with your worldview. If you could, you would not be able to logically counter them. When presented with an opposing perspective, you resort to sarcasm and ridicule.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • JustAThought

      BTW, here's your statistics (like you really care).

      December 24, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  14. Phred White

    The article's credibility is severely damaged by the assertion of the recently adopted propaganda point that Hitler against Christianty. Quite simply, Hitler was a Christian and Christianity was a requirement of being a member of Hitler's worker party and essential to being a good German in Hitler's view. Obviously, Hitler didn't operate according to generally accepted Christian precepts, which is true of many self avowed Christians in private and public today. But, pretending that the bad Christians didn't exist really undermines every other point of fact in the article.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  15. MAS

    It's not religion, but the sense of community and mutual responsibility that makes the difference between Bedford Falls and Pottersville. Although these values are part of our Judeo-Christian heritage, we've seen plenty of people of faith who don't follow them. I consider the importance of community an American value. It's one that can be shown by people of any faith or no religion at all. I have additional thoughts on this from a post I wrote last year: http://wp.me/peVq2-7Y

    December 24, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  16. Kingofthenet

    I like my Religion to be clear and make sense, so here is my creed:

    Peace is a lie, there is only passion.
    Through passion, I gain strength.
    Through strength, I gain power.
    Through power, I gain victory.
    Through victory, my chains are broken.
    The Force shall free me.
    I also like to Force Choke people I don't like out!

    December 24, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  17. matt

    Really, CNN? Another article that is so completely ignorant that I'm literally laughing. Where did this idea that all that is good and kind in the world has to be Christian? Another anti-Atheist piece by a biased author with motive to make money. Great journalism, hacks.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  18. p.

    Folks, it's just a movie. Make-believe. Pretend. Just like the article.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  19. Curt Collier

    This article makes absolutely no sense at all. The most secular nations in Europe (mostly the Scandinavian countries and Czech Republic) are also the most stable, with less crime, social unrest, and economic prosperity. Christian South America is the most unstable. This is another pipe dream. Also, check your facts, the most generous religion followers are Ethical Culturists who founded the ACLU, NAAPCP, Visiting Nurse Service of New York, abolished child labor and other important activities, and there are only 3000 of them.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • Taron

      Since you have all the facts, where's your proof?

      December 24, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  20. tony

    People have consciences, regardless of any particular religion.
    Corporations have legal departments.
    People want to love other people.
    Corporations just want profits for themselves only.
    It's not a lack of religion that is this country's problem, it's the worship of business.
    The movies Mr. Potter isn't a person, but business personified.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:26 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.