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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. Hinduism

    I think importance of religion can not be debated. It definitely teaches believers to live by values. However, the real problem of religion lies when we become insensitive to people of other religions. So if you are preaching that there is only one savior (so please convert to my religion) or you go on Jihad to kill non-believers, you may very well be followers of the devil, because no God will send a good person to hell regardless of his belief if he has been doing good work throughout his life. And definition of good is universal here. Good means helping people who are in need, having a good character, being honest, true, sincere and a social contributor for all good deeds. Remember giving is much more satisfying than receiving.

    December 24, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • M. DaSilva

      Our righteousness is like filthy rags to Him. Try again.

      December 24, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  2. paintpaintpaint

    Re: The OWS movement – "most of us agree that there is a problem, but efforts to identify the source of it are incomplete, misguided or downright evil." I have only me 2 people who believe that. Evil? Seriously? Just like when the so-called t.e.a. party started out, there was a LOT of confusion. At least the OWS want what is best for all Amerians, not just the top 1%.

    December 24, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  3. Matt

    What a ridiculous premise. First, the notion that these qualities of grace are unique to, or even originated with, Christianity is fictional and, in the modern world, increasingly delusional. Second, there is deep irony in the fact that our Dear Leaders in the GOP have been steering the car hardest off the cliff – the same GOP that espouses further "Christianizing" our nation and society. These are supposedly deeply Christian individuals, most of whom enjoy the support of their local Chriistian common – and yet they favor the rich over the poor, despise those in need, and think only of themselves. Jesus would vomit in his own mouth to see us today.

    December 24, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  4. mockingbird2

    Theologically and from the standpoint of economics and sociology - a wonderful article!

    As far as the "Sweden is 80 percent atheist," and has less crime, etc. idea...

    the Scandivanian cross, representing Christianity, makes up most of that country's flag. Sweden remains informed and inspired by the best principles of Christianity. The prevalent peace in Sweden might be attributed to their promotion of responsible gun ownership coupled with reasonable restrictions on the same - an idea that Christians (and everyone else) should endorse in the USA. Unfortunately, many Christinas endorse the idea of unrestricted gun onwership without training and inspection.Thus, we have more crime - and more crime involving deadly weapons.

    Ideas such as universal health care, promoition of social responsibility and support of the well-being of others, and respect and tolerance for the individual moral and religious beliefs of others hark back to the best principles of Christianity. Personally, I believe that God honors the efforts of those who practice such values - who practice what is true and right, no matter whether they believe in Him or not.

    Many of America's current "believers" (especially those on the hard-core Relgiious Right) do not practice or endorse those values, which express a basic concern for the wellbeing of others.. In other words, they practice something they call "Christianity," but is merely a false trademark for selfishness, greed and intolerance. God isn't fooled by that. Neither are most of us. I imagine the Swedes aren't either, for that matter.

    December 24, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  5. The Tooth Fairy

    Leave it to these so-called christians, who claim credit for deviding our country.

    December 24, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • just sayin

      ?

      December 24, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  6. TB

    It's a Wonderful Life is one of my favorite films, too. But, basic honesty and decency is not exclusive to Christianity. Potterville represented a society of greed and vice. A dog eat dog, everyman for himself world. Kind of like Reagan's "Morning in America" which in many ways was the beginning of our country's decline into selfish, amoral behavior. And Reagan wrapped himself in the God and country. Bottom line: just be a good person. Take what only you need, and respect other people's differences, even if they are not Christian.

    December 24, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • GAW

      Finally! A sensible post.

      December 24, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • gurtie1980

      AMEN!

      December 24, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Chrism

      Of course we all have inner morality because God made us.

      December 24, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • HistoryGeek

      The author ignores that these are values that every early culture and civilization set up to govern our lifes and to make living together in communities safer and more fair for everyone. These long pre-date the "Judea-Christain" values.

      I don't NEED a god to tell me it's wrong to go into my neighbor's house and just take what I want. I know it's wrong, it's theirs not mine, and I know there are secular real life consequences.

      December 24, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • theboss59@gmail.com

      I live by one rule BE NICE, I tell my children and family or anyone who I come in contact with IT ALWAYS NICE TO BE NICE, Thats not to say dont point our bad people. If the world would come togather and just decide to be NICE to each other then we would live in a better place. Im a PROUD WHITE STRIGHT CHRISTIAN AMERICAN MALE. I am nice to everyone always, but I do stand up for my self and my people..................MERRY CHIRSTMAS AND LIVE A LIFE THAT JESUS WOULD BE PROUD OF..............................................................

      December 24, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Chrism, your statement is not fact-it's just your belief. And it doesn't hold up. Some people aren't moral. If god made everyone, then why do those people exist?

      And I was right. I spent 2 hours donating blood to help people I'll never meet while you're still here blathering away about how "good" you are and how "bad" everyone else is unless they adhere to your views.

      December 24, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  7. Ah C'mon already

    "It’s a Wonderful Life" is a fitting metaphor for a nation absent Christian belief.

    Yes, yes, because compassion and love and hope and integrity are properties solely related to Christianity and not Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, or any other religion.

    Thanks for reinforcing why I despise so called "christians".

    December 24, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • M. DaSilva

      Thanks for fulfilling prophecy about the heathens raging and Merry Christmas to you, brother.

      December 24, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • Chrism

      Only your ignorant view of what you think Christianity means. Christians believe God revealed Himself to all people. The fact that all cultures have experienced something spiritual supports God's existence. Maybe if "atheists" were less busy trying to come up with arguments against Christianity they'd experience more too.

      December 24, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • SDCinNS

      Does Saudi Arabia or China tend to have a spirit of love and generosity? Hardly. And the reason is primarily religious.

      December 24, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • theboss59@gmail.com

      YOU ARE A FOOL. HOW CAN YOU MAKE SUCH A STUPID COMMENT LIKE THAT HAVE YOU MET ALL OF THE
      1 BILLION PLUS CHRISTIANS. THATS LIKE SAYING I HATE ALL BLACKS, SINCE I HAVE NOT MET THE MILLIONS OF BLACKS I LOVE AND RESPECT EVERYONE. GROW UP YOU FOOL.................................................

      December 24, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I don't argue against Christianity. I simply abhor people like you, Chrism, who claim to know something to be true and to be the only altruistic, moral, kind, or selfless beings on earth because of a god. Your arrogance is off-putting, to say the least.

      I am sick of Christians of your sort blasting anyone whose life doesn't run according to your beliefs as being something less worthy.

      Ever hear of humility?

      December 24, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • liz

      SD- Do you think those are the only two countries that are not Christian? Do you actually know anythign about the people in those countries outside of what Glenn Beck tells you? Saudia Arabia is a very generous country when it comes to giving money to other countries in need, it is well known to people who bother to look. Just because you only pay attention to the few bad apples does not mean everyone who lives there is a terrorist, that is like saying all Americans are terrorists because of the KKK. Have you ever met Chinese people? They are incredibly generous to guests and that is a part of their culture, as is most of Asia, many of the problems they have are historically caused by the interference of Europeans.

      December 24, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  8. Doug

    If anything, George Bailey was a free-thinking, self-actualized humanist.

    December 24, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Chrism

      A "deluded" one though for believing in God and angels, no? That Christmas tree was a little odd too, huh?

      December 24, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • GAW

      Now you're reading into the movie just as much as the author of this article has. Not Winning!!

      December 24, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  9. Paul Knueven

    Just after the fundamental Christians Tea Party Republicans tried to raise everyone taxes and cut off unemployment some misguided individual says we need more of this?!!!!?!

    December 24, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  10. Razgovory

    The arguments on this thread seem kind of absurd. "How dare he talk about religion in my Christmas movie about angels and miracles!"

    December 24, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  11. Brad Rainier

    I agree with the author. Without the 'good' moral code of conduct that Christianity espouses (among other good things), our society and the world would be a disaster//living hell.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • JiminTX

      He'll Lready exists on Earth because of Christians from wars against Muslims in the 11th century to Bush's wars against Muslims one thousand years later. The belief in an Invisible Sky Friend who grants wishes is a bane to civilization.

      December 24, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Eric G

      I agree with "without a good moral code our society would be worse off". You can leave the christian part out, because they get their moral code from society, so it is kind of redundant.

      December 24, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • just sayin

      eric do you read before you post?
      Do you know what redundant means?

      December 24, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • Eric G

      @just: Redundant: Able to be omitted without loss of meaning or function.

      In this post, Christianity is redundant because it is implied that only Christianity has a moral code.

      Why, is this not what your understanding of redundant is? Maybe I should use another word? I will look one up in that book.....you know the one I mean............ What is another word for thesaurus?

      December 24, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • just sayin

      you're the moron you figure it out

      December 24, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • Eric G

      Moron?

      "Bitter, table for one."

      Why the bad mood? I did figure it out...... I was right and you are wrong.

      I have always considered myself to be a cunning linguist.

      December 24, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • liz

      Apparently "just sayin " has trouble understanding English.

      December 24, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  12. BR

    George Bailey's story has precious little to do with religion. Just another BS article with false equivocations. Really, Pottersville is much closer to the conservative ideal than Bedford Falls.

    Let's talk about how that selfish c&nt Mary patiently listened to George's dreams about seeing the world...then promptly wished for NONE of that to come true in favor of her own designs. Nice. That's the real message.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • patricia

      You're a dreamboat! Can I be your girl friend?

      December 24, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • SoCal70

      This article has certainly stirred up a hornets nest. Judging by the comments, however, religious bigotry is alive, well and becoming an uncontrollable giant in America.

      Attention atheists... God loves you too. Even if you don't acknowledge his presence. Merry Christmas! 🙂

      December 24, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  13. just helping out

    i think he said the right was right but the right was wrong

    December 24, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  14. BeverlyNC

    I have been thinking myself how Republicans are turning America into Pottersville. Even Mitt Romney said to let all the houses foreclose and then people could just rent. That is what Pottersville was – no one could afford to own a home and rented sub-standard shacks from Potter. He was also a banker who abused the people of Bedford Falls and took advantage of them. If we do not get rid of every single Republican runnng for every single local, state, and national office – America wil become the Republican Pottersville!

    December 24, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  15. joe jones

    a fictional view of Christianity based on an analogy to a fictional movie. I love it.

    Now, let's all pray or at least take a moment of silence for all the educated, intelligent, scientifically and logically minded people who were brave enough to stand up and defeat Christianity.

    Amen.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • GAW

      I like your pompous tone. Shows you atheists can do the Holier that Thou talk too.

      December 24, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  16. Kevin

    It is gratifying to see so many Christians opposing Mr. Taunton's agenda. If these Christians could wrest the helm of their religion away from the teapublican types (and it seems from recent events that they might be succeeding in doing so), it will be a far better country because the values of charity, brother/sisterhood, and compassion would manifest on a much grander scale. Several of the presidential candidates seem to be relying heavily on the hope that Christians are not familiar enough with Jesus' actual teachings to detect their (the candidates') hypocrisy.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  17. brutus

    The majority of all great modern societies have Christian backgrounds which stabilized and gave them the background to succeed...

    December 24, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • nepawoods

      Correlation does not imply causation. And the correlation isn't even statistically demonstrated.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Fordham Jock

      They also had a majority of brunettes. Therefore, THAT was the major factor in the rise of the West.

      December 24, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • Donovan

      And global warming is caused by a reduction in piracy since the 1400's.

      December 24, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • liz

      And the majority of great societies that existed before were deliberately destroyed by European Christians who murdered millions because they thought they were superior. Your sense of superiority was created through patronizing, condescending mass murder. Think Jesus wanted that?

      December 24, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  18. steven craig

    These comments should all be qualified to "as we know christianity today in certain places." Christianity was not so great and just when it was burning people at the stake and other crimes that were immoral actions of the church and as a result of Christianity. Christianity has evolved into doing some good and much of that good is reflected in our moral values and actions today. But it is not all good and we are still the judges of what is good and bad. We, people, judge the actions of whether today's christianity is good or bad, and no one else. In some places I see Christianiy at its worst in many places today – bombing and killing innocent people, invading nations – all in the name of Christianity. But to make blanket statements that all good is because of Christianity is just as ignorant and stupid as to make statements that all of any one thing is the cause of all that's good or bad in the world. As though non-christians would be bad or the world would be worse off without Christianity. That's like saying we would all be living in the dark today if it wasn't for Edison inventing the light bulb.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  19. veracupitor

    We are very much already Pottersvile and not because we lack Christianity but because we are mired in it. There is in fact an overabundance of it it everywhere you look. And the prevailing doctrine of capitalism that is exemplified by Old Man Potter is the prevailing doctrine of most so called Christians. While it is never talked much about in the film I am betting that Potter was a deacon in his local church and probably spoke very openly and vocally about his Christian values while most certainly condemning poor old George Bailey as a socialist. You say that Christians are so charitable but here we are living in a "Christian" nation and we are one of the greediest nations on the entire planet. Just look at the most vocal and popular "Christian" leaders out there right now, they are all millionaires. Not one of them lives a life anything like that of Jesus and they are no where near as generous as the poorest people who live on this earth without the benefit of so called "Christian" values.

    Bedford Falls was a city that thrived despite the so called Christianity of Old Man Potter. It was the godless socialist George Bailey that held that town together.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Steven McGill

      Here, here. Well done.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  20. Floyd

    I believe more in the people that try to do the right thing. Right wingers aren't trustworthy.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • just sayin

      so is the right right or is the right wrong?

      December 24, 2011 at 12:54 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.