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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. roslindale

    IS IT ME, OR DOES EVERYONE ON THIS BLOG HAVE IDENTICAL OPINIONS ABOUT THIS ARTICLE???

    WHAT A BUNCH OF POSERS. GROUP THINK PREVAILS.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  2. gdaym8

    The reason there are different religions in this world, is Gods way of speaking to ALL people so that they will understand HIM in THEIR own way. He even speaks to non-believers in THEIR own way, they just don't know it.......yet.

    Merry Christmas.....................EVERYBODY!

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

      The reason there are different religions in this world is because everyone makes up whatever they like that satisfies their needs for rules.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • gdaym8

      If the glove fits oj, if the glove fits................

      Merry Christmas to you.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  3. Stephen Lile

    I'm a Christ-follower and Bible-believing, born-again evangelical. This label may be offensive to many of the respondents on this blog. But, I hope that you'll all keep reading.

    Here's a radical concept: Every man, woman and child has the right to believe what they choose to believe. This basic "fact" is one of the underlying tenets of the Bible. We are endowed by God with free will. We can choose. It's a Biblical fact. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I acknowledge that many people will choose not to accept Him. Their lack of acceptance doesn't diminish non-believers' "goodness" or moral standards or ethical integrity. Many good, ethical people are convinced that God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit don't exist. In their minds, it's a "fact".

    Let's also consider other "facts" that have been evolved throughout history. It was a fact that the Earth was flat until Columbus proved otherwise. It was a fact that that the Earth revolved around the Sun until Galileo proved otherwise. It was a fact that gravity would cause all things hurled in the air to fall back until science discovered that we could escape its pull. And, recently, science has discovered evidence of a so-called "God particle" (the Higgs-Boson particle) which may give all things their mass. We as a society are constantly recording new "facts" which disprove or discount formerly verifiable "facts".

    Please consider two more "facts". Christ-followers are not generically anti-science. Many so-called "Christians' claim to love God but clearly dislike many of His creations.

    I choose to have faith and believe in Jesus Christ. I also choose to believe in the Higgs-Boson particle. Neither is mutually exclusive. We, as Christ-followers, must choose to love people of all faiths, religions and, yes, even non-believers. Therein lies the answer to the ills of the world. Thanks for reading. Merry CHRISTmas.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • gdaym8

      Very well said.

      Merry Christmas to you!

      December 24, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • E

      Europeans believed those things, other cultures knew the world was round. Asians and Vikings knew America was there and chose o leave it alone, but Europeans were too condescending to listen to them. The history of the world is not the history of white people. Can you not see how arrogant it is to say that all knowledge that has any worth is Christian/European?

      December 24, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Kevin

      Good statement. You have this agnostic's respect.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      and I have no beef with good christian followers of jesus. Most of what jesus said was common sense and revolved more around philosophy than it did adherence to a belief system.

      what I don't like are the evangelical tv churches that tell their viewers god needs their money. What I don't like are people that follow the bible without thinking about WHY the bible would be good to follow, simply because they were told to be representatives of god. My parents generation was raised to not question why, but simply have faith in god. That's unacceptable to me and I would imagine it would be for jesus too.

      The most basic, easiest starting point would be the ten commandments. If they are commandments from god, and god is wise and all knowing and all powerful, then surely there's a reason for the commandments, not simply a laundry list of stuff god wants us to do on a whim. Where's the study and discussion about this? Why should we not kill? why should we not steal, why should we honor our father and mother? What consequences occur in these situations?

      ...most of it is common sense, requiring only a little bit of thought. Why is it considered a sin for a man to lay with another man? Are there exceptions to that rule, like overpopulation? Why aren't cars mentioned in the bible, or tv, what is god's view on these things? sitting and watching tv may very well be considered a sin by our ancestors, as it is lazy and indulgent. Sloth is a deadly sin, last i checked. We even have a tv show called american idol. I recall god saying something about us worshiping idols other than god, I'm curious how many people watch american idol compared to how many attended church that week –not that i believe you need to be in church to worship god, but moses had an issue with people worshiping a golden calf statue they made, if that's worship maybe clicking on the tv is too.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Copernicus Son

      Sorry to break it to ya, but it was widely accepted that the earth was round before Columbus. The expedition was really all about Isabella and Ferdinand kicking the Muslims out of Granada, unifying Spain, and funding an expedition which they thought would provide a quicker trade route to India – Columbus underestimated things by quite a bit.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Fordham Jock

      There is no such thing as a "biblcal fact". The bible is full of examples of "god's chosen" putting others to death, therefore your made-up business about freedom is falsehood. The bible is full of crap about people going to hell if they don't believe. THAT is not freedom. There is no free will. Neurology has proven that. Google it. The concept of "fact" did not enter human consciousness untill about 400 years ago. It was NOT a "fact" that the earth was flat until they figured out the truth. Some people THOUGHT it was true. In FACT, they were wrong. You need to look up the definition of the word. It is not just a prevailing opinion . They THOUGHT it was true, and it was NOT. Science is a method, and the word "fact" does not appear in any steps of the method. You make up stuff to justify it to yourself, instead of facing the truth. It's called DELUSION. Good luck with that.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  4. Chad

    "It's a Wonderful Life" is a grand movie, but it has nothing to do with Christianity. The same story could take place in a small town in China, India, Saudi Arabia, or the Congo - with the angels in different costumes and Christmas trees swapped for local totems. Nothing about the story is specifically Christian, it's a universal tale about the ability of a single human being to make the lives of others better. It's arguable whether members of the organized cult known as Christianity have made the lives of those around them better or worse over the past 2,000 years. When one weighs the inquisitions and the ignorance against the kindnesses and illusory personal meaning and equanimity in the face of death, then I'd say that it's probably been just barely a net positive (but again, that is true of most religions). Were George Bailey a secular humanist the movie would work just as well, and would perhaps have an even greater following, as it would be truly universal and grounded in reality.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  5. EveryoneIsBiased

    I can't believe the comments that I'm reading, especially from the "tolerant" atheists. Your lack of critical reading comprehension is beyond belief. Maybe that's why our country is falling apart? You "educated" "enlightened" atheists can't even understand what is being written. So much for the "tolerant" athesists who can't/don't/won't even tolerate the Christian beliefs of others. They're so CLOSED MINDED is BIASED themselves that they can't even understand what Mr. Taunton is talking about.

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

      Psychological projection.

      Happy Holidays.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      im not an atheist, but even i can see the veiled threat hidden in the article.
      when christianity collapses, so too will our country. Our civilization is dependent on our belief in christianity, is what the article is implying.

      totally reasonable that an atheist, or ANY OTHER religious group would be offended, as it is a direct attack on their faith and is again, another example of christian, or religious, warfare.

      i don't think YOU get the point of the article.

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

    Wow! It appears most of the comments here come from Pottersville.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  7. Carlin123

    What you fail to mention or observe is that Mr. Potter was a devout christian too. 

    December 24, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • nepawoods

      The author is quoting the Barna Group for statistics. The Barna Group explicitly distinguishes, in their statistics, between true Christians and what the call "notional Christians". By their definition, a true Christian is "born again", and according to scripture, will thenceforth live as a Christian should, with love and charity toward their fellow man. Therefore, Henry Potter would not be a Christian, though perhaps (like most Catholics, who are not "born again" as they interpret the words) a "notional Christian" (on who has the notion that they are a Christian).

      December 24, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  8. Donna

    Very good article, with some undeniable truths. One point is, to quote Mr. Taunton, "...religion will either restrain our darker impulses or exacerbate them, but escape them we cannot." Anyone who has studied the history of civilization and the nature of man, through unbiased eyes, cannot deny that wherever a people have collectively believed in and followed the standards of Christianity (i.e. faith in G-d, love for your neighbor, obey the Ten Commandments, etc.) that nation has been blessed, both socially and economically. And the opposite is true: Whenever a people or nation have rejected Christianity, it has suffered decline, and their collective peace has become illusive. So, if given the choice (which we are), I'd say the wise choice is obvious– let's continue to follow Jesus Christ, as individuals, in our homes and communities, and as a Nation! At the same time, let's live out a genuine, self-less faith that seeks the good of others and "does not return evil for evil". Let's 'win over' unbelievers by our genuine Christ-like love and example, rather than engaging in constant religious self-defense and the endless social war that we have created in America.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      lol, read more history. The roman empire converted to christianity, where is it now?

      December 24, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      china's doing horribly right now

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

      Are there any continuous governments that have existed since about 70BC? I don't think so. So the Roman empire converting to Christianity is not really a good example. Lets take another one. France. France shifted over to secular humanism and in that time it has had 5 republics, 2 empires, a restored monarchy and a fascist "state". In that time the US has had one Republic.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  9. M. DaSilva

    Interesting. As the prophet Joel said when talking about Armageddon and God's judgement....let the heathen rage. We are certainly seeing that now.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  10. Thankful

    I remember well when I was uninformed and thought the sins of mankind happened before my enlightened generation arrived. How funny that now seems. The heart of every person ever born in the past, present and future contains the seed of selfish evil waiting to sprout, and sprout it does. I found running from the truth only prolonged the day I found thae one person that can save us from this merry-go-round, yes, Jesus indeed Is Lord. Come Let Us Adore Him...

    December 24, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  11. nepawoods

    The question is, is the author so deluded as to believe that tripe, or is it a deliberate attempt at deception?

    December 24, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  12. Jim A

    I agree with many of the comments about this article. The writer is attempting, badly, to position Christianity as the meaningfulness in A Wonderful Life. The movie is about the values of people caring for one another and their communit, regardless of background or religio (the Italian immigrant , the Black househelper, the policeman, the working poor are all represented in the movie). I dont remember a christian clergyman being the focal point of the movie. The movie also decries the greed of Potter who represets all the greed that the average American hasbecome victim to Potter represents Wall St.

    If there is any correlary to todays society, the Wall St crowd and the Tea partiers and te Republicans are represented by Potter and George is best represented by the Occupy folks who have gone to college, invested in the American dream and have no hope of jobs or a future available to them. If anything President Obama has at least taken up the cause of attempting to put some sense of equal balance in the economy by letting the average American have some opportunity, instead of everything going to the ultra rich and corporate America.

    The article was off target and a poor attempt to coop the positive influences in the movie for Christianity.
    Where are the Christians in helping the average American and the poor today. Why are Christians so focused on taking away any sense of equality for Gay Americans, why are they so opposed to people of other faiths lik Jews and, Mormons and Muslims. Hogwash I say.
    I love the movie too, but not for the reasons the writer expouses..

    December 24, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  13. Derek

    I thought the "Christianity is prerequisite for morality" argument was dispelled of long ago. As many others have stated, this article not only premises itself on such an anachronistic and laughable theme, but clearly misconstrues the central message of the film itself. The author may want to view his "favorite film" a bit more objectively. The "angel" is merely a device, not a crucial Christian element trumpeting the virtues of religion. The film is indeed humanistic. In its simplest representation, it is the story of a good man reaping what he sows. Using the film to promote a Christian agenda, coupled with the use of biased statistics, shows that America is truly inundated with "religion on speed."

    December 24, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  14. Meganicus

    What business does CNN has to preach us that Christians are better than others?

    December 24, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  15. JimM

    "It’s a Wonderful Life is a fitting metaphor for a nation absent Christian belief." I am a devout Christian and find the premise of this whole piece as insulting and absurd. We know animals are inherintly and instinctually kind (except with their prey).They respond to kindness.So too are we born to love and be loved.The values we learn as we grow up either reinforce or deny those instincts.To imply that Christians are kinder than any other religion or society that reinforces good values is bigotry; the same bigotry that kept blacks as slaves, women out of schools, and encouraged a whole country to exterminate the Jews.Christian values are fine, but so too are any set of religious or ethical values that reinforce our instincts to treat one another with the respect they deserve.Why is CNN giving this bigotry a platform?

    December 24, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Razgovory

      How do we know that animals are instinctively "Kind"? I think you misunderstand Christian doctrine. It's not that people innately lack goodness, it's that people have some innate evil in them. I think almost all Christian denominations believe this.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  16. Oodoodanoo

    It's not often that the biggest troll is the article, and not one of the comments. Where to begin...

    1) "It's a Wonderful Life" is about the value of a good man, whether or not he's Christian. The meaning would have been no different if the main character had been a Hare Krishna. The article's author jumps to conclusions on insisting that a particular faith is central here.

    2) Christians are not the most charitable. Muslims are. It's one of the five pillars of Islam.

    3) Religion has been used to justify some of the most bigoted, backward ideas in this country's history: That slavery is justifiable, that interracial marriage is unlawful, and that consenting adults of the same gender should be stripped of rights allowed to other law-abiding, taxpaying citizens. If religion has ever been used to fight injustice, it just shows that religion is a tool, like a hammer. It can be used or misused by anybody.

    4) There's plenty of art that will stand the test of time that has no reference to religion at all. The "Ode to Joy" section of Beethoven's 9th, which is a big hit at Christmastime, is not about Jesus or the biblical God at all. Read it. It's a deist, Enlightenment-age humanist poem about brotherhood. Another example: Mark Twain was a vocal cynic about religion.

    5) Niall Ferguson is an apologist for the British Empire. His "civilizing influence" is also known as the White Man's Burden.

    6) The least religious people in America are the most educated, and more recently, returning soldiers. The former don't need God, because they're not poor and living in Pottersville. The latter have given up on God because they've seen how the real world operates.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Inspector Clouseau

      Oooooh, great points. I thought the best reply was on page 12, but your's is as good. Love the 9th symphony. Fidelio ain't so bad either. 😉

      December 24, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • maria

      Very thoughtful and well-written comment.

      Thanks and best wishes to you.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • Fordham Jock

      http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/401676/november-07-2011/niall-ferguson

      December 24, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  17. Derek

    I thought the "Christianity is prerequisite for morality" argument was dispelled of long ago. As many others have stated, this article not only premises itself on such an anachronistic and laughable theme, but clearly misconstrues the central message of the film itself. The author may want to view his "favorite film" a bit more objectively. The "angel" is merely a device, not a crucial Christian element trumpeting the virtues of religion. The film is indeed humanistic. In its simplest representation, it is the story of a good man reaping what he sows. Usin the film to promote a Christian agenda, coupled with the use of biased statistics, shows that America is truly inundated with "religion on speed."

    December 24, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  18. Relictus

    Happy Holidays one and all – I just want to shout out my support and pride in a lot of the posts from the secular crowd.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  19. Bob G

    This article is pure, solipsistic nonsense. It's so insistent on seeing any good as due to Christian influence, and any bad as the absence of Christian influence, that it says several patently ridiculous things. It makes the claim, without substantiation, that Christian influence "gentles" a society. Yet many "Christian" states have higher crime rates, higher rates of poverty, higher rates of teen pregnancy, and worse standards of living than more "liberal" states. The author's message is obviously contradicted by any "non-Christian" culture that is able to rule itself effectively. I guess Israel must be a cruel, heartless and godless place, eh?

    The truth is that Christianity, as a creed, contains many wonderful and noble sentiments. However: modern Christianity as vocalized today is a stark, judgemental, and politically twisted version of Jesus' original message. My own problem is not with Christianity, per se, but with the Christians that inhabit it. It is no accident that the voices most loudly clamoring to cut off support for the poor and force those on the low end of society to fend for themselves are the same voices that claim to represent he who spoke of the Good Samaritan, was willing to heal a cripple on the Sabbath, and challenged the religious establishment to the point of his own persecution and death. The voice of the Christian establishment has been wrapped around a Conservative tradition of you're-on-your-own that is as far from Jesus' own message as Henry Potter's vision was from George Bailey's.

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

      amen to your comment.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  20. Kevin

    One of the main reasons world conditions are worsening...................

    1 John 5:19 We know we originate with God, but the whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one. Satan is ruler of this world. Evidence is given to this when Satan tempted Jesus with the kingdoms of the earth at Matthew 4. Revelation 12:7-12 warns the earth of the times when Satan will be cast down to it with little time left for him and with great anger.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • Eric G

      Or...... it could be this.....
      " It began with the forging of the Great Rings. Three were given to the Elves, immortal, wisest, and fairest of all beings. Seven to the Dwarf lords, great miners and craftsmen of the mountain halls. And nine, nine Rings were gifted to the race of Men, who above all else, desire power. For within these Rings was bound the strength and will to govern each race. But they were all of them deceived, for another Ring was made. In the land of Mordor, in the fires of Mount Doom, The Dark Lord Sauron forged in secret a Master Ring, to control all others. And into this Ring, he poured his cruelty, his malice and his will to dominate all life. One Ring to rule them all."

      Mine is supported by just as much evidence as yours.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Relictus

      So, where can I sign up with Satan? Is there a recruitment office? Because, if Satan is the ruler of this world – this is where *I* live. This world. Or ... or does that throw a wrench into things? Because Satan is as imaginary as God.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Inspector Clouseau

      If your debil is ruler of this world, then ya gots a might weak god there bucko.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      the devil is a myth. It's all us. We do the bad and the good. We choose to do bad or good.
      the devil is as real as santa claus.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:08 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.