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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. Kevin

    I am an agnostic, and am fortunate to have many family members and close friends who are people of faith. We all love and respect each other, and demonstrate compassion toward those less fortunate than us. Mr. Taunton's article only adds to the divisiveness that contributes to the decline in our society that he is concerned about. His understanding of both Nietzsche and the occupy movement are quite limited. He is one of many in our country who speak with confidence and authority, but with apparently little wisdom or experience. However, I am not siding with those who see Christianity as a mental virus – that is equally divisive. I am siding with compassion, courage, and beauty. If your faith gets you there, more power to you.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • a different religion

      Thanks! I agree fully!

      December 24, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  2. FonzFonz

    I don't agree with this author. Religion does teach morals, it also teaches that people who don't believe in the religion are second class or should be pitted or converted or killed if they pose a threat. Good morals come from good people. The author himself uses a character that shows immoral behavior and labels that behavior to people that don't believe like him. Hypocritical of his 'love thy neighbor' beliefs. But hey, I am just going to get bashed for speaking my mind, and that folks, is what bring down the American life and freedoms, 'Believe like us or get out' was the death chant of many a great society. I thank God that are the differences in people and viewpoints that will keep America great!

    December 24, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  3. Jack

    I do not believe in a god. However, for those of you who do, here's a quote I find interesting.

    "Religion is the bureaucracy between man and god." -Bill Maher

    December 24, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  4. Kingofthenet

    WWJD? Apparently to Christians he would allow a mans house to burn?

    http://www.afa.net/Blogs/BlogPost.aspx?id=2147499026

    December 24, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  5. ruemorgue

    Another simplistic solution to the country's problems from another reiigious simpleton. His whole article amounts to so-and-so says it is so. Think. Who opposes science and education? The so-called conservatives oppose *anything* that involves *thinking*. Thinking is what this country needs.

    The general decline in the USA follows the same pattern as *all* great countries or powers in the past. They are over-extended, the population becomes self-indulgent, they are morally and monetarily *broke*. Christianity is central to the West, but so were other religions to other great powers in the past, Egypt, China, Sumer, Mesopotamia, Mayas, Aztecs, blah blah blah.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Leopold

      But the country also needs to become less cynical, more humane. Part of the problem is the no one teaches morality and a moral society is inherently more stable for multiple reasons. I am not part of a formal Church, and have never considered my self a Christian, but I do have Christian ideals, and recognize that vices are inherent to us, especially males, and someone has to teach values. We are no longer allowed to teach morality in schools and Churches have fallen out of vogue, being replaced by secular realism. The result is a dissolute society with rampant corruption. We are looking for solutions here and not a passive acceptance of an American decline.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  6. Bob

    You'd think that spending a lot of time with Hitchens, he'd have realized how tired all these arguments are by now.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  7. Bob Johnson

    When this writer states this:
    "environmentalists blame industrialization; the “Occupy” people blame everybody who isn’t occupying something"
    he reveals himself to be a divisive liar.

    Neither of these claims are true. They provide a straw man caricature of the environmental movement and the occupy movement. When you make fun of people who demand corporate accountability, clean air, clean water, and fair taxation of those who exploit the financial system at the expense of the 99%, then you have lost all credibility on any issues of morality and ethics.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • RecoveringCatholic

      Pre-zactly, Bob.

      Pottersville was not a result of a lack of faith or Christianity per se – it was the result of greed being allowed to grow unchecked (sounds like pure capitalism). Sure, you could argue that faith in Jesus played a part in *why* George was compelled to help the less fortunate, but it was his courage to stand up to (i.e. regulate) Potter that made Bedford Falls the better of the two options.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  8. Jack

    I am a christian with a small "c" and my personal relationship with what I believe to be God & Jesus is my business, not anyone else's. Pat Robertson and the likes, need to get off their high horses and help people and let God touch those people, because we were told to help one another

    That is why so many have turned away from christainty in my opinion!

    December 24, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Donovan

      I can totally respect that. Thank you.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  9. True

    I will pay attention to arguments like this when American Christianity has recovered some measure of credibility: i.e. when (if?) they return to following Jesus' example. Faith today is corrupted, used as a weapon for fraud, abuse, political manipulation and the stripping of individual freedoms.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  10. Mythology101

    Before the 1950's, our national motto was 'E Pluribus Unum'... from the many, one. I wish we would go back to it... it's a good reminder of our origins and our commonality.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  11. Beck

    Excellent article Mr. Taunton. True Christians have always been known for what they do not for what they profess. As is the same of any religion or any belief system.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  12. a different religion

    Seems most of the comments by athiests or non-believers seem to be citing hateful sermons, churches telling people what to do and how to live, etc. I agree that would be terrible. The church I attend (Christian) says that we are a "question church", not an "answer church". No one, especially not the ministers, have any idea what a creator is. Their message is simple-be kind, love others, do good. That's it. No talk about heaven and hell. No talk about sin. It's just a group of people that are going through life together that want to be around other people that share a faith. And no, we don't need to be told to be good to be good or do good, again, it's all about community.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • galaxy101

      Sounds like a nice church you have nevertheless its necessary to point out that you should feel fortunate you live in the here and now of 2011. Had you and your church and its ideas existed a short hundred years ago, you all would've been skewered and bar-b-q over an open pit. The few religious moderates who lived back then stayed completely out of sight, or they didn't live for very long.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  13. Paul

    I don't always agree with Taunton's views, but he's dead-on with this commentary. Let it be a strong warning to all of America.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  14. Donovan

    Lol. The right wingnuts are out in full force with the "Obama worship" ....

    You DO realize, wingnuts, that the Left does NOT worship Obama ... and in fact, are quite miffed at his behavior because he's been so CENTRIST and willing to work with republcians, right? The Left is HARDLY happy with the Obama presidency, though you keep claiming that the Left "worships" him. I would say "stop with the lies", but that seems to be all you know.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Paul

      Um, nice try Donovan. But let's make it even more clear when it comes to left-wing philosophy. They throw anyone under the bus that they feel is no longer of use to them.

      It wasn't the right-wing that called Obama "Messiah" when he was running for President. If was your camp. Now that the entire world can see what the right-wing already knew about him (that he has never been qualified to be President), you're getting rid of him like a bad cold. The hypocrisy doesn't go unnoticed, and, hopefully, by the end of 2012 that truth will be made loud and clear.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  15. Warren

    This author also uses the argument that if you are good without a belief in god or christ, it is only because you have been influenced by people or a culture that does. If you really understand history, and look at it without bias, you will see that the opposite is true. The practices of the christian religion have evolved over the last 2000 years to become more civilized due to the secular pressures of society and people that can recognize the difference between good and evil, without having to rely on ancient texts written by people with bronze-age values.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • Doris

      I would have to ask then, what happened to the secular societies created by Marx, Lenin and Mao? What influence did secularism have on the idea of eugenics (the science supporting Hit ler's A rian race ideas)? I think your premise is false.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Greg

      Yes, and we've seen how well 20th century atheist societies in Russia and China have driven our moral compass. While I agree with Warren that individuals can be constructive members of society without the influence of a faith community, society as a whole seems to do much better when the bulk of the people believe in something greater than themselves.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  16. Josenighthaw

    To all the virulent anti-Christians posting here, in the end you are all WHITE NOISE. Just chaotic bitter rabble full of zonked-out rage, and also totally gutless in that you take your jollies (no pun intended) at bullying Christians but dare not – ever! – condemn the heinous crimes committed by the so many on behalf of Islam. In the end us Christians simply move on beyond you, this white noise, that ever more with time simply fades away, and Christmas will always prevail over your pathetic little noise.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • Kingofthenet

      Fair enough, I hate Islam as much as Christianity, Ok? Feel Better now?

      December 24, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • christians are great

      ok.. christians haven't been raping babies or engaged in genocide over the last 2000 years.. they have just been sitting there and smiling quietly like coy little children as everyone flocked to them because of their aura of greatness.... thanks

      December 24, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Donovan

      Actually, it's Christianity that's fading away. Membership has been dropping at an alarming rate. People just aren't believing in the fairy tales anymore.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • ruemorgue

      You funny. I like you.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Richie

      Jose, Very nice comment/rebuttal I couldnt have said it better !! I wish you & your family a very Merry Christmas !!

      December 24, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  17. cruel devil

    Excellent article. As the nation becomes more secular we also become less prosperous.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  18. Bob Johnson

    Sorry, but the premise that religion promotes a better quality of life and a more moral and ethical society does not match the available data. Their is an inverse correlation between religiosity and quality of life when you compare the nations of the world.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/daily-dish/archive/2007/10/wealth-and-religiosity/224231/

    The most atheistic countries, e.g. Norway, Denmark, Sweden have a strong sense of social consciousness; they have universal health care, excellent education systems, and a strong safety net for the poor and the elderly. These are all things that are despised by the right-wing Christians of America. Conversely, the most religious countries of the world tend to be third-world hell holes where the individual struggles to survive without any help from the government.

    Literally millions of people have killed each other over the centuries in disputes over which god is the "right" god and which way to worship is the "right" way. Christianity has blood on it's hands for some of the most horrific crimes against humanity in all of history.

    Within the U.S., the same pattern can be seen. The most religious states (e.g. the Deep South) have poor education systems, high crime, and are a burden on the federal government, while the least religious states (e.g. New England) are the most prosperous, have the lowest crime rates, and pay more in to the federal government than they get back.

    http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2004/09/red_states_feed.html

    December 24, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • cruel devil

      Hi Bob you make the same mistake as the majority of people. Dont mix religion with Christianity, they are totally different.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • J

      While I agree with some of what you're saying, I am really starting to get annoyed with people comparing America to countries like Norway. Does Norway have the massive population and the diversity that America has, amongst other factors? No. Those policies may work for countries like Norway and Sweden, but not in the US.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • BaileyBros.

      Maybe you should take some time to read and reflect how the three countries which you named vastly affected the religious development of this country. Every nation has "atheistic" or "agnostic" influences. None can really profess that any more than we can say that the U.S. is a "totally Christian nation". China professes only to follow Mao, but the government invests great resources in trying to put down various belief systems including Christianity. Have a blessed (insert faith or non-faith here) holyday.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • bubba bob

      just wondering. except for 'great' leaders like barney frank, bernie sanders, chris dodd, susan collins, patrick leahy, chuck schumer, john corzine, humer and the kennedy's – what has the northeast provided to the rest of the country? no food, no textiles, no energy and a complete lack of morals – just mob controlled unions, high taxes, oppressive regulation and progressives who want to redistrubute wealth from the south to the north.

      December 24, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  19. Bill

    I am a non believer and love this movie. I believe it reflects more the effects of capitalistic greed than the absence of christian beliefs. I completely abide by the moral and ethical lessons provided by this timeless masterpiece. This movie also, I believe, has the greatest love scene when George professes his love to Mary.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  20. neutralcarbon

    They should re-make "It's a Wonderful Life" and have the non-George Bailey world be the Occupier's version.....people lving in tents, the pungent smell of dope mixed with B.O. , every one with some sort of social disease. George could sit in an "empathy circle" and have the bong passed to him.....I've got a good start on the script.

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

      Yikes. See, it's responses like this that have me scratching my head and saying "what?". A couple of take-aways from my 12 years of Catholic school are "love thy brother" and "judge not". I find it to be incredibly hypocritical for anyone classifying themselves as a Christian to say something like this about their fellow man.

      From my point of view that's the crux of what is wrong these days: people believe that anyone who does not agree 100% with their world view is evil, stupid, and wrong. The end.

      I've got harsh news for you – no one person/religion/political view is "right". We all need to recognize this if we have any hope for actual salvation.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • ron mcloughlin

      A remake wud be deadly. It's like making a remake of OZ. The brilliance of Frank Capra's movie can never be repeated or the performance of Jimmy Stewart. The timing in this movie is almost breath-taking especially that happiest of all endings. But it's like the comedian George Carlin sed "The American dream is only real until you wake up from sleeping."

      December 24, 2011 at 12:12 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.