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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. yo yo

    Here we go again, the never ending debate: is America a Christian nation or is it not? YAAAWWN, I'm bored, let me find something more interesting.

    December 25, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • frank candor

      Yo Yo, it is an ongoing debate, but a vital one. No Christian ever gave you civil rights (as in the Bill of Rights, penned by Jefferson), but a secularist did and would. Unless you don't appreciate your political freedoms, remain bored.

      December 25, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  2. piouslung

    bannister - But for true ignorance, take the fact that most Christians are completely unaware of the origins of "their" holiday, Christmas. Much of it, the gift-giving, the festivities, were stolen from Roman pagan traditions (and other pagan traditions) like Saturnalia. The early church even CONDEMNED the practice of gift-giving because it was seen as being too pagan. Most biblical scholars agree that Jesus was not even born in the winter, but probably during the summer months.

    For true, unparalleled ignorance, you have to turn to religion.

    Merry Saturnalia, everyone!

    December 25, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • jazzcat

      Historical records puts Jesus' birth closer to late Apr/early May. Constantine 'encouraged' changing the observance of Christ's birthday to coincide with other pagan celebrations in an effort to grow the church.

      While I disagree on your statement of "unparalleled ignorance" (because there's just too much to go around), the vast majority of your comment is on the mark.

      December 25, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Dave Davis

      Almost everything that is commonly used is of pagan origin: the days of the week, month, all gift giving, observation of birthdays, ect. I am not in ignorance of this, and I doubt if all other Christians are in ignorance, either. In the small rural public school where I was schooled here in south Missouri, we were informed of these things at quite an early age. Dear Lung, you pre-suppose waaaayy toooo Muuuuch!!!

      December 25, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  3. mg

    People like Richard Dawkins are every bit as scary as religious fundamentalists. The statement calling "Christianity a “mental virus” that should be eradicated is so absolutely intolerant that even athiests should not defend this man. The last time somebody thought a religion should be eradicated it was that little guy in Germany with the funny mustache. I have no doubt that anywhere people who think in intolerant absolutes like Dawkins does gain real political power (whether they be religious or secular) persecution and atrocities. I've often said that i would not like to live in a theocracy or an atheocracy. In a theocracy the state believes it is imposing gods will. In an atheocracy, the state becomes god. Both are great recipes for atrocity.

    December 25, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  4. chez chicago

    The Angel was reading the book by Mark Twain, "Tom Sawyer."

    Mark Twain was an Atheist. Why did they put that in the movie?

    Read Mark Twain’s “Letters From Earth.”

    I loved the movie and I am an Atheist.

    December 25, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  5. piouslung

    bannister - You're right, he/she was "ignorant and rude."

    December 25, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • jazzcat

      I thought Bob Dole was the only one who referred to himself in the third-person.

      Are you Bob Dole?

      December 25, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  6. Philip colbert

    I believe our pledge is to a nation that provides "liberty and justice for all" (recalling that "under God" was phrasing added much later? So, it seems inconsistent to require either a particular religious belief system or a humanistic-oriented one be the REQUIRED belief system, else the "for all" is meaningless. Basing one's behavior on what is socially constructive, regardless of the personal motivation, serves to keep a society civil. I personally hope we never impose any one belief system, neither religious nor athestic.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  7. Jrock

    Wow, what an ignorant opinion piece. It`s well established that altruism and etc is a product of evolution, not religion. Case in point: the Scandinavian countries. They have some of the highest rates of atheism inthe world, yet some of the lowest crime rates.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Jeremy Choate

      Absolutely uninformed opinion, my friend. First of all, I would love to see the research upon which you are basing your assertion that altruism is the product of evolution rather than religious belief.

      In essence, what you are saying is that altruism is nothing more than the "herd instinct" that has evolved over eons of time. The problem with your belief is that it is logically incoherent. Whenever we are faced with a situation where we could help our fellow man, in addition to the herd instinct we may experience, we are also faced with another, stronger instinct - that of self-preservation.

      Which one do we obey? When you see a man drowning, you experience the herd instinct that says you should help him, but you also experience the instinct of self-preservation. In addition to these two instincts, we also experience a third feeling that encourages us with respect to which instinct we should obey. That feeling, itself, cannot also be another one of our instincts as it tells us which instinct to follow.

      Your post ignores the obvious question - if altruism is the correct path to follow, who says it's the right way? What makes altruism "good"? If we are nothing more than the product of time and chance, then who are you to say that unselfishness and courage are better than self-preservation?

      Evolution cannot answer that question.

      December 25, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  8. Me

    I'm not hypocritical enough to be "Christian".

    December 25, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  9. piouslung

    jazzcat - must be a Christian, the only response he/she can come up with is, "F-A-I-L".

    Merry Saturnalia, jazzcat. Oh, and p*ss on your God, the brutal, fascist, genocidal thug that he is.

    Have a great day!!!

    December 25, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • bannister

      Ignorant and rude.

      December 25, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • jazzcat

      Actually, I'm sick of seeing people blame (fill-in-the-blank) for man's shortcomings. Religious folks do it. Those who aren't religious do it as well. I'm sick of blatant hypocrisy.

      Oh yeah...your post is a F-A-I-L as well.

      December 25, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  10. XmasGreetings

    Standards for "Morality" and "ethics" are a reflection of the society at large. If that society has been shaped by Judeo-Christian values, as has America's, those values will still transfer to people having no religion, but who live in that society. That's why some atheists have similar, or even stronger, morals compared to some who simply call themselves Christians. The issue here is that, if our moral standards move away from Christian values, that our society as a whole will drift downwards, and weaken our nation. Isn't it possible that Jesus' teachings to help the weak in society may have just made a larger proportion of our population capable of contributing to America's greatness over the 19th and 20th centuries? Think about it.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  11. Kevin C

    In my opinion the main purpose of religion is summed up in this sentence: "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." Nice thought, if it were realistic. Unfortunately, a lot of Christians that I know use their faith as window dressing. Hey, look at me! I'm a Christian. Therefore, I'm good, and pious, and charitable, and giving and a better person than all of you non-religious types. But, in reality all they care about is their SUV and being able to afford a nice house in a nice neighborhood, and sending their kids to a private school, and nice clothes to wear in front of their friends on Sunday, and being able to associate with "their kind". Huge hypocrites, most Christians. Therein lies the problem with organized religion. It has very littel to do with helping mankind and everything to do with connections and a materialistic life.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  12. jazzcat

    It's hilarious to see so many hand-wringers bemoan the destruction caused by religion. Newsflash: Man is responsible for man's actions. Not religion, money, pie, rainbows, or anything else. Stop blaming religion, and everything else, for man's actions.

    Blame man.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • mg

      True. Even if there were no religion the people who want to start war and kill would find another reason to justify it. Plus, many conflicts that are portrayed as religious are really political. For example, the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland is really those who want independence and british loyalists. Shiites and Sunnis same thing.

      December 25, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • bannister

      Excellent post. Do people actually believe that getting rid of religion will stop war and violence? The communists tried getting rid of religion in the early part of last century. The result was TENS OF MILLIONS of innocent people murdered.

      December 25, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  13. Erin-Todd Hansen

    Have you ever considered that these comments are patently offensive to a non-believer? If you swap out Aethist for Muslim or Jew, would CNN actually allow this article to be published? Just because you don't like what Richard Dawson writes, doesn't really give you license to to cast every non-believer as promoting a Pottersville society. Since the odds are good that I know more Aethists than the author (since I am one), I would cast the majority of us as wholesome, lawabiding people, who want to live and contribute to a Beford community. In the spirit of Christmas, I recommend you focus on brotherly love and not divisiveness.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  14. William

    Excellent article and really food for thought no matter what your religious view or having no religious views at all. I enjoyed it!

    December 25, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  15. 21k

    we are thankful for all the death and destruction that belief in you has caused in our history, oh god. and thanks for stopping hitler, seeing as how you created the entire universe and everyone it it from nothing. you know what, thanks for nothing. happy holidays everyone!

    December 25, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • jazzcat

      F-A-I-L-!-!

      December 25, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  16. Really-O?

    "Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!"

    December 25, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  17. Ziggy

    We are a country founded on religious freedom – and that includes non belief.
    President George Washington strongly believed in religious freedom but said "bigotry will get no sanction".
    We see too much bigotry coming from believers and non believers!

    December 25, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  18. eggre

    The invisible, mind-reading zombie Jew in the sky: a real solution to real problems. Like Pottersville.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • jazzcat

      F-A-I-L-!

      December 25, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  19. Tom

    The practical moral of the movie is: "Don't give the bank deposit to your absent-minded Uncle."

    December 25, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  20. Bitter Buffalo

    I am tired of Christian exceptionalists claiming that Judeo-Christian morality is the foundation of all western morality. That is absurd, as morality has been an ever evolving thing since the first two 'humans' decided to cohabitate. Secular humanism is a viable source of morality for those of us that refuse to accept fairy tales as explanations for the most complicated aspects of life. Even Christians could agree that being decent for the sake of being decent is a superior form of conduct to the "I must be good so that I get my reward/avoid punishment" style of morality.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Kevin C

      Well said BB. "Being decent for the sake of being decent" That is how I want to live and the kind of people I want to be around. I'm going to have that put on my headstone. Merry Chrsitmas to you.

      December 25, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Mike A..

      Dear Buffalo,

      I would like to suggest de-coupling the "Judeo" from that remark, and then we're fine.

      Truth is, Jewish morality is perhaps a more fitting foundation for Western Morality. The idea that a slave race, denied the freedom to practice and teach their faith in a way we take for granted, would lay the foundations for a compassionate society where the weak and the poor are as important as any General or King, where children are to be cherished and protected, not exploited or sacrificed, and that freedom from bondage is the inheritance of all mankind...well you don't have to believe to agree that those values ought rightly be the foundations of Western Morality.

      Happy Holiday mediations!

      December 25, 2011 at 11:54 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.