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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. pflei

    agathokies, read a little Socrates. I'd try to explain to you, but I see no need to repeat what was learned and taught so long ago. again, religion breeds hatred, division, and misunderstanding. if you want to live your life guided by myth and mooing with the herd, go ahead; we thinking individuals will continue to watch as you waste your lives. and lest you be incorrect in all your thoughts, the human sacrifice and baby throwing were RELIGIOUS rituals, and precursors of your vaunted judeo-christian god nonsense that leads you nonthinkers to ostracize all who who do not share your mythology.

    December 26, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • tarheel4life

      I think you misunderstood – the author of this article was not defending all religion. He is not advocating human sacrifices or baby throwing. Those are not and never have been tied to the authentic Christian faith.

      December 28, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  2. MP

    I agree with the author of this article. We children of the west benefit from widespread prosperity and a lawful orderly structure making it easy to behave reasonably well in our everyday life. But It feels like this world is under threat now from forces of greed primarily. What will happen if our society really starts to come apart? Will we cooperate with each other, protect those who are suffering, figure out how to live well with less? In short follow Jesus's teachings. Or will we become self protecting, aggressive, criminal, even violent? When we are put to a real test, we will have the opportunity to see more clearly the good and bad within our hearts.

    December 26, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • MissusPowell

      There are others who know the good vs. evil ways of living, not just Jesus, or Christians, tho I will not exclude Jesus or Christians. So don't misunderstand me. I liked what you wrote until you only mentioned Jesus. I am a Christian, but I do not believe Jesus was exclusive of others and I do believe we are ALL God's Children, so while I liked the good you know and want, it is a mistake to think only Christians make a difference in this world. We are IN AMERICA free to worship, or not, as part of a religion we choose. It is not the norm world wide and thus the advantage of being so free has been a great contribution to this country.

      January 2, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  3. Robert Johnston

    Pure rubbish to insinuate that Christianity is the one and only means by which a society can prevent Bedford Falls from becoming Pottersville. The idea can only come from a mind that is tightly secured against learning and understanding the world outside itself and the world within the mind, body and soul. The author's inner work has not yet begun. He is partner to an adolescent society. The history of Christianity is a history of cultural and environmental obliteration, with high resistance and antagonism towards authentic new learning, progressive behaviour and decentralized, involved democracy. Christianity is no solution for the problems of the world. Neither are Judaism or Islam. Tyrannical, centralized, aggressive, intolerant, power-seeking systemic monstrosities of greed, division, cowardice and ignorance will never better this planet.

    December 26, 2011 at 2:23 am |
    • MissusPowell

      Not all of the history is bad. Like anything or anyone, good things can be used for bad! In this country right now, not all Christians are TeaParty folks and not all TeaParty folks are all bad. I think it is a mistake for one religious group to be involved in the way this group is in our government–virtually holding all Americans hostage by not working with others to do what is best for all Americans. And this group, right now, is giving Christianity a bad name. I am a Christian and this group scares me, to be honest. There is good and evil in every religion because it is made up of human beings. This group excludes others and that is not what Jesus was about.

      January 2, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  4. lastofall

    What the people do, the nation becomes. As for salt, salt gives flavor, heals wounds, and melts coldness.

    December 26, 2011 at 1:37 am |
    • tallulah13

      Of course, people aren't salt and this article is a biased fluff-piece intended to make christians feel better about themselves at the expense of others.

      December 26, 2011 at 2:46 am |
  5. Lenny Pincus

    The ability of winger Christians to argue that black is white is incredibly impressive. When this movie came out, it was attacked by the right wing as communist propaganda. Now wingers want to argue the opposite. Go cozy up to Atlas Shrugged and leave us normal people alone.

    December 26, 2011 at 1:27 am |
    • John

      100% agreed. It's very funny how quickly people like this will change their tune when it serves their interest.

      December 26, 2011 at 2:00 am |
  6. Jon

    Interesting point of view. As a Non-Christian, it seems – at least from an outside point of view – that people certainly can use Christian faith in a lot of different ways.

    December 26, 2011 at 1:16 am |
    • MissusPowell

      People use all kinds of things in all kinds of ways...all people....all religious...all non-religious....

      January 2, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  7. Oh Bull

    I'm sure Potter would have considered himself a good Christian. He would have fit right in with the "prosperity christians" of today AND the Calvinists of old. If you're poor, its because God wants you to be and you deserve to be. Or, if you were a good Christian, you wouldn't be poor. Religion as it is espoused today had nothing to do with any of it.

    December 26, 2011 at 1:08 am |
    • MissusPowell

      PLEASE realize not all Christians are the same, not all of any group is the same. This bunch in DC is very exclusive, ie: they exclude others, they think they have it right...scarey bunch! As a matter of fact, they go against everything I was ever taught about being a Christian. They are extremist of the worse kind. I do so wish they went by some other name...but then, we can look at who they are and we can speak out against their views! We can help to vote them out, too.

      January 2, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  8. David

    Why do you keep on arguing or searching? The prosperity of the West was created artificially with conquests and imperialism. Now that those two are vanishing, the West is losing its riches. Nothing to remedy here. It is just a natural cause of events. The world has to level itself economically. Just hang tight. There will be no more West or East soon.

    December 26, 2011 at 1:05 am |
    • Jon

      Maybe. Maybe not. It's an open question to me if the world economy is a zero-sum game – if there *must* be losers in order to have winners.

      December 26, 2011 at 1:17 am |
  9. Dunes

    What someone said earlier sums it up, what a stupid article. Wish I hadn't wasted my time. I guess I expected some kind of pop-culture comparison of Bedford Falls to Pottersville, instead I get some religious idiot using a great movie to justify his religio-political ideology. When will we evolve out of this medieval thinking?

    December 26, 2011 at 12:44 am |
    • vertexpoint

      So the article is "stupid", "medieval" and written by an "idiot". When are YOU going to evolve to making rational responses?

      December 26, 2011 at 12:48 am |
    • slayerwulfe

      Evolution may be a personal commitment where only those that are able to can achieve it. For you it's probably been happening from your beginning, because you want to evolve. For someone like vertexpoint and others that each of us is,and should be, responsible for our personal reality is probably too much pressure.

      December 26, 2011 at 1:50 am |
  10. Kris

    the stupidity of comparing such an iconic movie to secularism says it all.

    December 26, 2011 at 12:36 am |
  11. Robert

    Only the weak or evil need religion to keep impulses in check. The atheists I know are all good people.

    December 26, 2011 at 12:12 am |
    • John

      I agree. The only people whom religion benefits are those too stupid or too mean spirited to do what's right without the fear of eternal damnation forcing them to. That's why I don't agree with scholars like Dawkins who believe that religion should be eradicated. While he and others like him are strong and intelligent enough to do good without religion forcing them to, the sad truth is that many people would not do the right thing without a "God" figure to keep them in check. Religion is a sad necessity in today's world.

      December 26, 2011 at 2:04 am |
    • MissusPowell

      You are lucky if you only know good folks because there are not-so-good in all groups of people if you really look...

      January 2, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  12. Reality

    How much money would the following save the US taxpayers thereby making next year's Xmas a bit more affordable ?:

    Saving 1.5 billion lost Muslims:

    There never were and never will be any angels i.e. no Gabriel, no Islam and therefore no more koranic-driven acts of horror and terror like 9/11

    One trillion dollars over the next several years as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will end.

    Eighteen billion dollars/yr to Pakistan will stop.

    Four billion dollars/yr to Egypt will end.

    Saving 2 billion lost Christians including the Mormons:

    There were never any bodily resurrections and there will never be any bodily resurrections i.e. No Easter, no Christianity!!!
    The Mormon empire will now become taxable as will all Christian "religions" and non-profits since there is no longer any claim to being a tax-exempt religion.

    Saving 15.5 million Orthodox followers of Judaism:

    Abraham and Moses never existed.

    Four billion dollars/yr to Israel saved.

    All Jewish sects and non-profits will no longer be tax exempt.

    Now all we need to do is convince these 3.5+ billion global and local citizens that they have been conned all these centuries Time for a Twitter and FaceBook campaign!!!!
    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    December 26, 2011 at 12:10 am |
    • slayerwulfe

      The Chinese concept of religion, believe in a God if you want to, just don't turn it into an organization or a platform for political activism. The problems that become so expensive.

      December 26, 2011 at 2:16 am |
    • Jailohouse Fingers Bailey

      – Obama gives up and lets someone who knows what they are doing run the country, returning his campaign contributions to the 1%'ers who gave it to him.

      1 billion dollars....

      December 26, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • MissusPowell

      uh...there is no Christmas without Christians....so it won't exist at all...was that your point? It actually costs nothing to celebrate Christmas, if you so choose.

      January 2, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  13. Robert

    What a hypocrite, first he talks about how bad it is to point fingers and then he goes and blames the secular movement for all the troubles with America.

    December 26, 2011 at 12:08 am |
    • John

      Well you see Robert, it's only bad to point fingers if it's not a good, morally superior Christian that's pointing the fingers. Who needs atheists and their dumb learnin' books?

      December 26, 2011 at 2:06 am |
  14. Tony

    this is the stupidest article i have ever read. it is paper thin and a foolish attempt to make this sad christian feel superior to everyone else. what a dUche.

    December 26, 2011 at 12:06 am |
    • vertexpoint

      Calling an article stupid and then making a personal attack on the author's motives is hardly a rational rebuttal of his argument.

      December 26, 2011 at 12:44 am |
  15. Just-Me

    Leave it to someone from some "foundation" to use Christmas to push the myth that Christianity is the only faith with principles, and believe the myth that this country was founded on only Christian principles. The thing that continues to divide our country are people like this guy who lives in a fantasy world, then gets upset that we who live in reality refuse to share their lies. This is a multi-cultural, multi-faith country. The combined principles from all cultures and faiths is what makes this country great.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
    • MissusPowell

      EXACTLY!! I couldn't agree more. I do think the article was primarily about good vs. evil, but that is how I see things, maybe.
      UNfortunately, RELIGIONS are like CLUBS and all CLUBS do try to be the best club, or advertise to be the best club, and not all clubs are equal, either. It is more a human thing, I think. I see it with all these comments, shadows of it at least. It seems we have the division of Believers vs. Non-Believers and both are equally disrespectful to the other, shouting loudly their own CLUB is the BEST ! None of them are THE BEST because they are made of up human beings. I think it is all very sad.

      January 2, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  16. faithB4all

    There's so much hate coming from the Churches any more, from Pat Robertson, to you name it. Once politics entered their realm, they tossed God and Jesus to the side. Vanity in these men, but the Church will survive. It is our holy foundation.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
    • Eh

      Politics has corrupted your churches. This is one of the reasons for the separation of church and state. Now it's all about money and influence and to hell with anyone who doesn't have enough money! And where's your god? Nowhere to be found.
      Not much of a basis for living when it's all predetermined by each person's expectations and interpretations. Religious anarchy is the internal makeup of almost every religion. You lift up a delusion and find yourself snared. You might as well follow Satan for all the difference it would make at this point.

      December 25, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
  17. faithB4all

    I hope they didn't pay this writer much for a misread story. Have you read ANYTHING of Frank Capra. This is a story about capitalism unbound, corrupt, and corrupting of the cherished past capitalism of mom and pop and the local grocery owner who knew everyone by name. Frank Capra's Potterville is here now. Just look at how many jobs, millions, that the Walmart family OUTSOURCED to communists in China out of personal self-interest rather than faith, country, or neighborly care. Pottersville is Bentonville in 2011.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:21 pm |
  18. Charlie from the North

    What made Bedford Falls Bedford Falls was George Baily's stubborn insistence on looking out for the little guy. It is something right wings Christians call "Socialism" when my president does it. Ironically, that stubborn tradition is handed down from Jesus Christ himself. Ask yourself "what made the Almighty mad?" Being betrayed? Nope, Being denied? nope. It was the money changers at the temple. So ask yourself who would he be mad at today? Not the George Bailys like our President but the Mr Potters like Newt Gingrich.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:21 pm |
    • LA Pelican

      I'm afraid you have it mixed up. Go back and watch the movie again, and notice that it's the small business owner who takes care of the poor in Bedford Falls, not the big-government bureaucrats who rob from the rich against their will. The biggest difference is that generosity breeds generosity, such that if you ask the wealthy to start a foundation you begin a cycle of generosity; while being robbed breeds protectionist selfishness, such that if you take money from the wealthy to start a govt program, they feel violated and start looking to the govt to do everything for the poor.

      December 26, 2011 at 12:04 am |
  19. gutsycall

    This is a Frank Capra movie. He often directs stories about those having unbridled capitalism, unchecked by government or a steady hand of oversight. Potter is our Walmart family of today. The only matter for a Potter or Walton is money, not faith, charity, or looking out for the neighbor and his welfare. Selfish greed – little more in Pottersville, Bentonville Arkansas.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:18 pm |
  20. Mack

    Old man Potter a liberal? Please, he is clearly a conservative! Just as George Bailey is clearly a liberal. After all he did receive a bailout from the public after making mistakes of his own volition (Namely, continuing to employ and subsidize that no account, incompetent Uncle Billy). And that whole Bailey Building and Loan concept where the folks of the community pooled their resources for the greater betterment of the community. Absolutely Socialist, gasp! So then the godless liberals are the ones who are preventing us from turning into Pottersville? How do you reconcile that notion Mr Taunton?

    December 25, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
    • hobitual

      can you be any further from the truth of the situation ? the people of bedford falls put their money in the bailey building and load VOLUNTARILY they did it to benefit themselves first and their neighbors secondly
      No one took money from the people in bedford falls who earned it (in the form of taxes) and gave it to the poor unfortunate people who are more deserving then the people who went to jobs everyday and earned it
      and your supposed point about a public bailout for george ?? is that the way you really see people giving money from their own pockets and here's that word again VOLUNTARILY !!! on one is TAKING the money from people (again in the form of taxes) AND GIVING it to George Bailey ,, George Bailey was clearly a conservative as the owner of a building and loan He had to manage and budget not only his money but also his depositors money ,He had to be very careful with the money of the depositors And he only made loans to people who proved that they had the work and savings and credit history's that are required to qualify for a loan of the members money And thats what they were "Members" they joined the building and loan again VOLUNTARILY ! no one forced them to join
      a conservative doesn't loan on "feelings" thats a liberal tendency
      its not what you know
      its what you know that aint so

      December 26, 2011 at 12:06 am |
    • LA Pelican

      There's nothing socialist about a building and loan. Socialism is when the GOVERNMENT gets involved, such as in owning a majority of General Motors. The Bailey B&L was simple, independent capitalism, where people are able to organize and take care of themselves without government interference. And incidentally, it wasn't a public bailout that saved the B&L, it was a private donation from George himself. The govt was nowhere to be found, as it should be.

      December 26, 2011 at 12:08 am |
    • Mack

      You happen to be both wrong LA Pelican and hobitual, but thanks for playing. That flaming capitalist FDR ensured home ownership to two thirds of American households by way of New Deal policies that backed and regulated building and loans in the 30's. Prior to this home ownership was mostly for the wealthy. And the notion that b&d's were run by independent righteous businessman simply embracing capitalism is outrageous. Folks like Potter and the commercial banks wanted to run them out of business. But the government had their backs by offering FSLIC (govt corp) to insure depositors. And how was the government able to help the little people own houses and stave off communities like Pottersville? Good ol' Keynesian economics whereby tax wealth is basically spent and redistributed to help the greater economy, (the little peeps of Bedford Falls). You folks might want to do some research (or not) before you try to bend a situation to conform to your preconceived notions.

      January 4, 2012 at 10:56 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.