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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. Santa Claus

    There is something terribly wrong with a person who is so bad off that they have to blog hate on Christmas day. My sympathies to those sad lonely people that have no life.

    December 25, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  2. alkan2012

    According to the New Testament, God has tortured and killed his own son. Can someone explain to me how that can be interpreted as a message of love and tolerance?

    December 25, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • pat

      Seriously, are you really that ignorant that is what you interpreted from reading the New Testament? Jesus "offered" to leave His throne and come voluntarily as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of mankind (yes, even you if you so choose to accept his sacrifice). He "willingly" gave His life and the suffering that accompanied it so that ALL would have a CHANCE at eternal life. The ONLY requirement is to possess sufficient humility that recognizes Him and His sacrifice for you and me. When you think about it, it is a small price to pay for the reward offered us. That is, unless you are unwilling to give up your ego that, in its own right, wants that position on its own throne. A small price, yet such a difficult one... isn't it?

      December 25, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  3. Pffft

    The internets a silly place. Claiming Christianity is evil because of the inquisition is just as ignorant as claiming atheism is evil because of the holocaust. I would bet any thing that the world would be far worst without Christianity.

    December 25, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • ReligionIsInsanity

      Hitler was a professed christian, genius.

      December 25, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Pffft

      Seriously?

      5 minutes of research will clearly prove otherwise, genius.

      December 25, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  4. Sykes

    Religion is humanity's cancer.

    December 25, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  5. Sandy

    I don't care if someone wants to believe what he believes - so long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. And that's the rub: Christianity - which is a far cry from what Jesus himself believed - has and does hurt way too many people. It has historically done far more harm than good throughout history. And so, Santayana's observation that failing to know history condemns us to repeat it remains operative with respect to Christianity. For all the good that it may generate, that is far outweighed by it's negative contribution. This writer's opinion is really nothing more than the expression of any other lobbyist trying to put his client in the most favorable light. He is just another used car salesman - which may be an unfair slight to them.

    December 25, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  6. Lisa

    Thank you to all who have commented. You have proven the point of this article.

    December 25, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Someone

      Exactly how did you come to this conclusion? The last point of the article is:

      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 authort supposes, using one scant source of data from a research firm that openly has a Christian centric point of view, is that by adopting Christianity we will become better as a nation, receiving G-d's grace.

      Most of us don't agree with that viewpoint. Many of us feel that morals are independent of a given religion. Most of us also note that the nation has had periods where we have subjected our fellow man and the world to inhumane treatment – be it slavery, exploitation, or what have you.

      The nation is not blessed. We are not the recipent of G-d's grace to the exclusion of all other nations. We got lucky – period. Simply stating that had we can solve all of our ills by adopting one religion is erroneous.

      December 25, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  7. Manley

    Woke up this morning and saw this article posted again and this little bit is still bothering me: "This is precisely what Nietzsche, and Hitler after him, hated about Christianity." Yes, because when I think of Adolph Hitler the first thing that comes to mind is his hatred of Christianity, Does this author dream of the day Christians are slaughtered by the millions so that he can justifiably think of himself as a victim.

    Dear Christians, you are the victors. You can't also be the Martyr. The whole world is at a standstill today celebrating the birth of your savior. You are the majority.

    December 25, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • George

      And yet Christians are victimized every day including in America.

      December 25, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • Manley

      Exactly George. Every time a school is built without a cross on it you are a victim.

      December 25, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  8. Roy

    Lets just separate religion and God from the discussion for a minute and focus on Goodness. If we all would be tolerate of others, how they behave and act, this would be a better place. As long as another person's opinion and actions do not effect me, I don't care what they do, especially in their own homes. Believe in what you want, practice how you may, and live your life as you see fit, but don't interfere with me. This would be a better place again if we'd just mind our own business. If we do everything for the good of man and each other while still being able to live as we please, the world would be a better place. We don't need policies, laws, or governments to tell us how to live – just live for the good of all and treat others as you would want to be treated. Merry Christmas to many and Happy Holidays to everyone else!

    December 25, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  9. Monte Bainter

    Author seems to be overlooking all the goodness resulting from 700 years of culling non-believers from our Christian eutopia through torture and murder (see "Spanish Inquisition"), the making things right effort of the Crusades, a couple centuries of well-meaning, God-fearing, church-going slave-owners in America, and the influence of the KKK in just the last 100 years - just well-meaning old boys who knew they were doing God's work in keeping Bedford Falls the way it was supposed to bet (Come to think of it, they were politically influential in getting "In God We Trust" added to our money in 1957! – 1957........this had nothing to do with founding fathers or being a nation's motto). Name a conflict in history that didn't erupt from one party believing they knew what was right and committing resources to seeing to it that, by God, everyone was going to see it their way or die. This belief that a higher power has everything under control and is working from a master plan for the universe is an unrecoverable cost to society every DAY it delays humans from rolling up our sleeves and solving problems like responsible adults. Pottersville wasn't the way it was because George Bailey had never been born; it was the way it was because everyone else in the town was waiting for someone else to solve their problems.

    December 25, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  10. piollet

    Why is the article about the good Christianity brings to society? Shouldn't the discussion be about faith, the good that comes from giving your life to some power greater than yourself? That "power" could take many shapes and not just religious.

    December 25, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  11. lolwut

    Christianity does not equal morality. Just look at the contents of their holy book.

    December 25, 2011 at 10:03 am |
  12. Reush

    I agree that Christianity has contributed some excellent works of art and architecture.

    But let's take a look at what Christianity has brought, shall we?
    Religious wars over a piece of land
    Discrimination of anyone the Bible says to discriminate against
    Bigotry of anyone who doesn't follow YOUR definition of Christianity
    Arrogance that yours is the best religion there is, and that America is somehow amazing due to it.
    A belief that science is evil and logic leads to damnation

    Thankfully there are Christians out there who recognize these problems and aim to correct it by actually helping the world rather than shove the ancient and illogical stuff up everyone's butt.

    December 25, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • George

      @Reush
      "Discrimination of anyone the Bible says to discriminate against
      Bigotry of anyone who doesn't follow YOUR definition of Christianity
      Arrogance that yours is the best religion there is, and that America is somehow amazing due to it."

      These are equally true of atheists. I have not seen hate and bigotry like the atheists display on these boards. I might also point out that Christians don't think that science is evil. After all, until recently most scientists were Christians. Christians just believe that evolution and the big bang are evil.

      December 25, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  13. JFKman

    This is just stupid. This assortment of ananities is to be mocked and ignored. Believing in a god is like believing in Santa, it feels nice as children, so unnecessary as adults.

    December 25, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  14. badlobbyist

    The Barna Group – I looked it up. They area a marketing group that caters to religious groups. Surprise surprsie they came up with the fact that Christians are better than the rest of us.

    December 25, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • FuzzyFace

      OTOH, a stdy published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, http://www.miller-mccune.com/culture/jewish-americans-win-alms-race-22297 would disagree, finding that "... Jewish families... were, on average, significantly more generous than those of other faiths" and then argues that it is due to the methods used to persuade people to give.

      December 25, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • CosmicC

      Shear arrogance. On a day when his own religion should drive him towards building bridges as a means of realizing Peace on Earth, this religious facist constructs an article that can only offend non-Christians furthering the divide.

      December 25, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  15. pat

    Insightful article.. for those who refject His rightful place and glory, I pray someday you will see the light for He offers what no man or no government can provide.... Merry Christmas to all....

    December 25, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  16. Toni

    It's a Wonderful Life may also be seen metaphorically pitting socialism (George Bailey) against capitalism (Potter). With this interpretation, Pottersville is what results when capitalism runs unchecked. It's a world in which the making of a dollar guides all decisions. Ironically, socialism is seen by many as being an agnostic/atheist system, while capitalists embrace God - at least on the surface. Maybe the disconnect is that we - as a society - are performing acts of faith merely meant for show (think of the politician who praises Jesus at every chance, or Sarah Palin criticizing the president for not being Christian enough) and not really demonstrating the ideals that Christian beliefs were founded on, like treat others as you wish to be treated. Merry Christmas, everyone!

    December 25, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • badlobbyist

      When I see the mega churches that are now all over this country and think of the old people getting scammed by Benny Hinn and his ilk, it does make me wonder exactly what a Christian is.
      How you can reconcile the teachings of Jesus with unbridled capitalism does not make any sense to me.

      December 25, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  17. Tanya

    I'd like to hear how the author explains the behavior of hundreds of millions of peaceful, loving, benevolent Buddhists in the world who don't believe in God at all. Thank you, CNN, for offering us a myopic worldview.

    December 25, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • JFKman

      This is just stupid. This assortment of ananities is to be mocked and ignored. Believing in a god is like believing in Santa, it feels nice as children, so unnecessary as adults.

      December 25, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • JFKman

      Sorry, not you, Tanya.

      December 25, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  18. crappyname

    Can we really get rid of these bigoted,racist and arrogant Cristians? What are we waiting for? First off Mr. stupid reporter, this is not a Christian holiday so it is very arrogant of you to assume that us none christians really give a f*** what you think or say, this is Yule the winter solstice and you are lost and mistaken. CHristians have destroyed this country with their B.S. every other country in the world hates us because of their bullying and stupidity, their so called moral make the rest of us sick and do not apply to the preachers who get rich promising to save our souls for the bargain price of 10%. What a f***ing joke! And please do not put Christ in Yule, we do not appreciate it and it shows how stupid and pathetic you folks really are, You are liars and thieves on the underbelly of society, and I can assure you that this country would be better off without you and your grifter tool that you call Cristianity.
    P.S. Please enjoy my holiday, but remember it is my holiday not yours, so a little courtesy would be nice. And do not push your false prophets and bogus beliefs on the rest of us. By the way we are the fastest growing religious sect in America. So your preaching and stealing and whoring is not fooling us.

    December 25, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • Tom

      You need help Buddy, I'll pray for you.

      December 25, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • jose

      Mr. crappy, even though you are crappy ,Jesus loves you! Merry Christmas!

      December 25, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • Sterling713

      You see, it is not YOUR holiday. It is a holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Something must have happend to you in the past to make you so hostile towards something you dont even believe is true. From the bottom of my heart, you have my deepest condolences, and I will pray that someday the anger and hostility you harbor in your heart will be washed away with the blood of Christ. Peace be with you, brother, and may this Christmas bring you peace, love and joy. Amen.

      December 25, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  19. anon

    1946's america and world was a lot different than it is now. They had no idea about some of the scientific breakthroughs (like DNA in the 60's) that we now know today. This is why their world was so much smaller and more "wholesome" because of the naive way of life most people had back then. Comparing a fake leave it to beaver land of a movie to the facts of life is not, and can not be permissible when defending religion.

    December 25, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • ReligionIsInsanity

      People also conveniently ignore the heinous treatment of blacks and other minorities in this country during these "ohsowholesome" times in the US (not that most people care one bit about that, really). You had gangs of "christians" lynching blacks as Sunday entertainment with a picnic – publicly advertised – "Bring the family!" And this is the insane "wholesome" time we're supposed to go back to. These is our great history of values we should regret the loss of. Give me a break.

      December 25, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  20. Karen

    How offensive this article is to me is impossible to relay, so I won't bother. But I would challenge the particular person who wrote it and all who believe it to take up the cross and truly follow your savior. I'd like to see you and him shed all material wealth and worldly goods, give everything away to the poor and truly become what you espouse ~ Just as Jesus told the rich man in Matthew 19. Until then, you have nothing to say.

    December 25, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • crappyname

      Well ma'am, I agree this is uncalled for, but shows the arrogance of christians and their stupid beliefs. But keep on keeping on.

      December 25, 2011 at 9:46 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.