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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. A rational mind

    Thiiishh is George Bailey, see. And I , i, I wannna say listen here fella. Why don't you look up the first counshal of Nicea to learn that the bible wuzsh put together by groups of guys, see. They couldnt even agree on when easter was, or when jesus was born, or whut wuzsh the "true doctrine". Why those darned fellas just "picked" what they wanted to be the future wurdzsh of th e bible. Anddd, and Peace, love, giving to the poor, you shay? I guess you forgot about the Albigensian Crusade, and the Spanish Inquisition, Mr. Oh, And all those missionaries in the 19th century surpressing the cultures of native americans and pacific islanders. You should be ashamed, Mr. Why I see right through your little ploy to make dumb people think Christianity is any more real than me and my town. You can preach to a buncha sheep, Mr., but I ain't buyin' your crap. Come on, Mary, letzsh get outta here!

    December 24, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • rizzo

      Lol good one!

      December 24, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  2. Senor Ed

    Good movie but I prefer the killing spree ending. I wish they would show that one more often.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  3. Abinadi

    Sometimes it is really depressing reading the atheists comments. For a refreshing break, try these videos about the life of Christ: http://lds.org/bible-videos?lang=eng. Merry Christmas!

    December 24, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Fnordz

      Yes, sometimes reality is depressing. I'm sure you can enjoy your escape within your fantasy world videos.

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

      Jesus would want you to be accepting of our comments as we accept yours.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  4. Sam

    What a load of crap. Like if people don't believe like he does, the world will fall apart. Another obnoxious
    christian.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  5. Andrewa

    It's not that people, as you so dramatically put it, "want to do away with the faith". It is that the faith has been coopted for empire: political, military and business. If "the faith" were intrinsically what you claim it is, this wouldn't be the case.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Eric G

      I agree. If belief were benign, I would have no problem with it. But, it is far from benign.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  6. Kingofthenet

    IF only all those Italian Mobsters were Christian, they would commit all that crime!

    December 24, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  7. KeithTexas

    This article is written by a "Christian" and because of that he completely misses the point and makes an idiotic conclusion. America wouldn't suffer if all the Evangelicals and Fundamentalist were "Ruptured" in fact most of us hope it happens. What we would miss are people of faith that walk the walk and serve their communities and fellow man.

    I am not a "Christian" and I am not afraid for my eternal soul. If your religion only allows the members of your church in Heaven you are a idiot. No thinking person could come to that conclusion and it doesn’t say that in your book either. The folks that invented your Religion were illiterate hillbillies from the back woods that never read anything except the King James Version of the bible. As crazy as the recent Rapture Preacher seemed everyone even to the “Churched people”, that is how you Fundamentalist are perceived by educated thinking Americans.

    America does miss the qualities of George Bailey but you don't have to practice any religion to live by the principles that George Bailey learned from his father. What America needs are Honorable men and women to serve us in Washington instead of the Scoundrels and Thieves we have now. Corruption begins at the top. As long as we have corrupt leadership we will have a corrupt society. Christianity hasn't saved us from that kind of Corruption so far, and the so called Christians in Congress are the biggest liars and thieves in America.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • roslindale

      It amazes me how many of my generation have turned against religion. I admit I haven't been to church since I was married, but I appreciate the role of Christianity in society. People have abandoned religion because of its shortcomings, but no one seems to be abandoning democracy...which has proved a terribly imperfect system for over two hundred years.

      I'm not a Milleniumist or conspiracy theorist, but I do believe these trends towards radical secularization of society are a symptom of late-stage Capitalism and the cultural decadence that will lead to this country's marginalization in the global scene. Urban hipsters rejoice!

      December 24, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  8. Bree

    The author lost all credibility when he quoted "research" done by The Barna Group as evidence of the positive impact christianity has on society. The Barna Group is an evangelical christian group who, by their own declaration, seek to transform society into something mirroring their own values. Hardly a source of unbiased, trustworthy research.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • procchi

      I'm glad that you pointed out that Barma was a Christian group. I am a Catholic, but I grew up in a predominately Jewish portion of Philadelphia. I found that Jewish philanthropic groups were often exceedingly generous, so I immediately questioned this assertion.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • nepawoods

      In addition, they acknowledge making a distinction between Christians and what they call "notional Christians", people who, as they put it, "have the notion that they are Christian", but, according to them, are not. In their book, true Christians are only those who were "born again", by their interpretation of scripture ... and by scripture, as they read it, anyone so "born again" will be charitable, etc. So they could, in principle, exclude anyone who reports themself as Christian, but not as charitable, from the "Christian" designation, and dismiss them as "notional Christians".

      December 24, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  9. Elodie St. Clair

    Is this writer out of his mind? This film isn't a "metaphor" about Christianity. It isn't a metaphor about anything.

    It is a DIRECT, LITERAL message about how extreme Conservative greed exploits regular, working Americans. And the director, Frank Capra, was open in saying so.

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

      How about "greed" instead of "Conservative greed"... unless you're somehow implying that "Liberal greed" is less destructive?

      December 24, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  10. Chris Honry

    America has millions of gods- each selfish non-believer is their own god to themself. They get the bad results that that brings then are sad, angry and blame others and the gubmint- it's called liberalism.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • JE in SJ

      There are three billy goats with your name on them.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  11. Richard Williams

    One of my favorite Capra movies as well, but the story is the about the influence of a good man on the world around him and while it might not be Christmas favorite, you could retell the same story using a time-machine instead of a wish granted by an angel. In this world, Potter's character probably attended church every Sunday, but that still l didn't keep him from stealing George's money, or building an empire based on greed. That strength comes from within an individual and no amount of religious training will change that.

    If you get a chance, read some Unamuno if you can find a translation. He asks the question who is the better man. The one who attends church regularly but treats people poorly, or the one who is not religious who treats everyone with kindness and respect.

    One last comment, Larry, please beware of your half-truths, because they are often indistinguishable from lies. Place all of the nativity scenes you want on church owned property. It is when you want to place your religious symbols on public property that belongs to all members of society, that you most resemble Mr Potter, taking something that doesn't belong to you.

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

      Richard, I have an excellent translation: Mathew 23: 1-36

      December 24, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  12. Warren

    Those of us who are not possessed by the "christian faith" know that you can be good without belief in a supernatural being. Those who believe this article are admitting that THEY could not be good on their own.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  13. Davester

    Excellent article Alex! I agree that Christianity is an essential element in producing a moral society. Now surely societies have gotten along without a moral Christian code at their foundation, but how have those societies fared? Not nearly as well as the good old USA which was founded on a Judaeo-Christian ethic.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Eric G

      Why do you believe that morality comes from Christianity? Do you have any evidence to support your belief?

      December 24, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Fnordz

      1) The US wasn't founded on so-called "Christian ethics" (which, like Muslim Algebra, don't exist).
      2) The US isn't even 300 years old yet. China is THOUSANDS OF YEARS old, and it's doing just fine. In fact, many people think it's poised to take over the world as the next major superpower.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  14. Kingofthenet

    I have NO problem with Jesus...it's his groupies I can't stand!

    December 24, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Razgovory

      You've also demonstrated you can't stand history.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  15. Kam

    The belief that you can make a difference, that humans can better their lot without the help of a divine being, is Humanism. This movie is more about Humanism than Christian belief.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Fnordz

      But of course Christians will try to claim that, like they try to claim practically every other positive development in human history.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  16. Bill

    The article is fine but it misconstrues the true meaning of the movie. The movie is not about the need for Christianity. It is about the contrast between a society based upon greed(Pottersville) versus one based on community, charity, and sympathy(Bedford Falls). Christianity is relevant to this idea only in as far as it promotes these values, but it is by no means the originator of them.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  17. EuphoriCrest

    The author makes broad assumptions without backing up his claims. For example, atheists are less charitable than religious types. There are many studies that refute this (too many to list here, just google it.) Also, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Atheists make up less than 0.21% of the U.S. prison population compared to 80% of christians. This is way out of proportion to the general population. So, after 2000 years of christianity, how's that working for you?

    December 24, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  18. john

    Im so sick of this argument, you can have morality without religion, and in fact most immoral things are done in the name of religion.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  19. PlagueDoc

    You don't need to believe in a supreme being and/or savior to respect human life, give aid to the less fortunate, or otherwise be a good person. You do, however, need these beliefs in order to join Al Qaeda, the Aryan Brotherhood or the Westboro Baptist Church.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  20. Kate

    Good Christains don't support people who take oaths & vows to radical Right wing groups that support criminal corporate greed now do they? They support the needy, widows & the poor. Christains wouldn't vote for candidates that are aganist child labor laws that want to replace school janitors with children working overtime after school. 24/7

    December 24, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • K

      Stealing from the industrious to redistribute to the slothful is not a Christian value. "7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 9 We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” 2 Thessalonians 3

      December 24, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • John

      @K: 2 Thessalonians 3:6 refers to the teachings of Jesus, where work refers to living a holy life and eating refers to eternal salvation. I'll also refer you to Matthew 23:1-36.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
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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.