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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. ron

    Best Belief Blog post in a long time. Well researched and well written. Now only if our nation would listen.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:18 am |
  2. Pokydoke

    Religion isn't the solution it is the problem. Organized religion is a pox on this nation and the world. Basing a society on a big sky daddy and outrageous fantasy is ludicrous.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:16 am |
    • ron

      Poky:

      Either you are extremely over educated of extremely ignorant to Christian belief. You may want to revisit your logic as religion isn't the source of the problems, political agenda's hidden behind religion are.

      Attempt to have a blessed Day,
      Ron from New Jersey

      December 24, 2011 at 7:22 am |
    • Jim in Georgia

      The problem isn't so much religion, it's people who profess to be Christons yet don't live like it. Mr Potter is a republican.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:22 am |
  3. John

    Religious belief = human retardation

    December 24, 2011 at 7:14 am |
    • unChristainISHere

      It's a wonderful life is an ANTI-SEMETIC RANT.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:19 am |
  4. brandon

    So many lies and bs and red herrings in this article.

    "Christians are the most charitable people...."

    No they're not; the POOR are the most charitable people. How ironic!

    I won't even begin to debunk the rest of this vitriole.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:13 am |
  5. Him

    So many in this time know the phrase "Hate the game, not the player", yet they fail to apply that to Religion. Religion is merely adherence to a belief, Christian, Muslim, Jew or whatever, and the believers are people; as fallible and full of defects in religion as they are in any other "group". Yet most people of today, in their eagerness to lay to rest this fallacy of 'mental viruses" (and not be embarressed by it) think one bad Christian makes it okay to think Christianity is all a crock. Sorry, it just ain't so-despite all of the problems CAUSED by Christianity down through the centuries,it has been a better glue to bind together humanity than say, Naziism or Communism ever has. "It's a Wonderful Life" is a good movie and also an excellent yardstick of those watching it: if you feel nothing while you watch it, if you don't feel the sense of loss George Bailey does at his losses, or feel the sense of fulfillment when his brother Harry toasts him as "The richest man in town", you very likely will never be at peace, happy or content in your life. And God bless us, one and all...

    December 24, 2011 at 7:12 am |
  6. DanTheMan

    God builds his church and he demolishes his church. Religion for the glorification of God and to understand the mystery of the origin of life and the universe is comforting and essential. Hijacking religion for political gain, to impose tyranny through war and to deny human rights is not the religion that I grew up with, nor is it something to which I would pledge allegiance, EVER!

    December 24, 2011 at 7:12 am |
  7. orlop

    Bedford Falls didn't have Fanny Mae, Freddy Mac or Wallstreet to finance their mortgages. They understood that they were screwing over their neighbor if they defalted on their debts or caused a run on the bank. Now it is all about screwing the system but that system however large is still us. Bad people making immoral financial descisions have put us in this mess and until we get some ethics back into our lives things will not improve.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:10 am |
  8. Hidden In Plane Sight

    **** 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.

    Keep it in your heart, keep it in your church,
    keep it OUT of our government.
    Keep it OUT of my face.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:05 am |
    • Him

      That's P-L-A-I-N, genius! Thew other kind flies through the air, like God!

      December 24, 2011 at 7:19 am |
  9. Ron

    When I read many of these posts the only thing I see is hate and ignorance. My family and myself have been Christians most of our lives. My family has been more involved in helping the community in so many ways. My mother has run a food bank from the church for over 40 years and has never turned anyone away. I think most people who hate Christians don't even know what Christianity is. You just believe the propaganda and talk about things you know nothing about. Christianity is not about hate or intolerance but about forgiveness, plain and simple.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:04 am |
    • Him

      I believe you've hit the nail on the head!

      December 24, 2011 at 7:15 am |
    • RealityCheker

      Atheism is hate personified.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:22 am |
    • Fred

      Let me get this right, you want me to forgive Lloyd Blankfein for committing fraud and helping to lead our nation into an epic recession. Perhaps after he is convicted and serves time in prison. He epitomizes Mr. Henry F. Potter. Healing and forgiveness can only begin when positive steps are taken to flush the evil out of our midst. Even King David on his death bed told his son Solomon to execute politicians to save the kingdom and secure his position as King. Imagine that. Today we have a nation that has embraced the mantra of "Greed is Good". The shame of it is that many of them are so called Christians or claim to have Judeo-Christian values.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:31 am |
    • Ron

      I see a lot of people talking about "good". What does that mean? This year I went into the HR department and requested a pay cut so the employee's under me would get a raise. Most of you reading would say I did it for the attention but no one but HR knows. When I try to help others I don't feel "good" I just wish I could do more.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:46 am |
  10. Tim

    If the unstated major premises of the author's article were accurate, then he'd have actual evidence to cite. Instead, he relies upon anecdotes-of-intuition - or a method of arguing that is so devoid of reason as to be not even valid enough to be considered wrong!

    What reality demonstrates is that you have the highest levels of corruption and the worst demonstrations of the acceptance and support for social welfare systems and similarly aligned programs in the most religious countries. It is, in fact, in America, the glaring fact that it is the religious conservative side which would most be a bedfellow of the Potters.

    The Nordic model (Scandanavian economic and social systems) shows that stronger cultural moralities seem either unrelated to religiosity or that religion has a retarding effect on such morality.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:00 am |
  11. Latest ideas

    Wow! we have gone from manufacturing steel, automotive components, and maintaining high quality pharmaceutical manufacturing to self-manufacturing. Kinda like space exploration and manufacturing. America has been Pottersville for a long time. It's to bad too because God allows humans to turn the other way, for as long as we choose, knowing all along that fun (my way) isn't the right way. God sits and waits, and when we've grown weary enough then he makes us come all the way back to start over again. The unfortunate part is if twenty-six years has gone by, well, we just have to pay the price (roaming the earth / wilderness) for as long as the higher power says and not until he says, okay, start again. "God mad the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth; he doesn't live in man-made temples, and human hands can't serve his needs-for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need there is. From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand which should reise and fall, and he determined their boundaries." Unfortunately, humans recognized their boundaries, and young and old alike continue to make new boundaries. Will the clock stop? no, but will God keep saying, start again? yes, hopefully ").

    December 24, 2011 at 7:00 am |
    • Mirosal

      So ... should someone build a NEW ark soon? Your little diatribe is exactly what people are talking about. Shoving your little views down our throats about a magical sky-fairy who is no different that Zeus, Apollo, Odin, Thor or Isis. And just where are THEY now?? Your paragraph smacks of pre-determination. If that IS the case, the matter is already settled isn't it? So why pray, why change? According to you, this 'god' already knows if, when, or why we'll change our ways, so why stick it in our faces? You'd be VERY suprised at how many Atheists actually have a religious education. We KNOW what your moldy-oldie book says, and we aren't scared of your deity.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:10 am |
    • slayerwulfe

      The number of Christian comments that contradict other Christian comments should be enough for you to understand how confused and confusing Christianity is. Even the person known as Jesus was confused and if you quote all of what he said then maybe you will understand. One instance is his hair being anointed with some expensive dirt because to God everything is dirt, and he say's something like, you will always have the poor and this is for my death. Do any of you believe the son of God was killed. The destruction of all lies is the closest thing to God as truth. Y/N your call.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:47 am |
  12. Paul Grant

    The biggest hole in this author's comment is that Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, aye even Wicca, all have charitable acts as tenets of their respective faiths as well. It is not just a "Christian faith" monopoly. The other fallacy is that Christ himself preached that his followers should be known by their acts and deeds, Today, too many "christians" are known only for their words and their own intolerance. Marking every challenge to their religion as persecution is NOT charity.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:58 am |
  13. Gumboz1953

    Regardless of what you call yourself, if you try to follow the teachings of Jesus, you will probably improve your life (at least your serenity) and that of those around you. The problem is, even "Christians" today don't follow the teachings of Jesus. We wouldn't have a credit crisis, people drowning under usurious practices, and folks dying without health insurance - or nuclear weapons and the largest army in the world - if this country had anything to do with Jesus Christ.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:57 am |
  14. sharon

    christians are the blame for the fall of Christianity. Their charitability is selective at best. Mostly it mough service instead of community service. The Evangelical christian is by far the most uncharitable people I have experienced. When I see that fish on a business, I run the other way!

    December 24, 2011 at 6:56 am |
  15. Fred

    This article started off well but quickly fell into an empty abyss. It even casts dispersions at the poor, while trying to exemplify its points. The author fails to understand that the people participating in the Occupy Movement are in fact the people of Bedford Falls. It also fails to define the national values (regardless of religion) that need to be restored in order to prevent our nation from becoming a Pottersville. He selfishly dismisses everyone else in pushing Christianity. It just shows that this author is shallow in his understanding of the story line that was used in the movie 'Its a Wonderful Life". As a result, I question his motives as using Christianity to serve his own selfish interests – a tactic that is often used by the Republican Party.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:55 am |
  16. Marcs

    Religion had its place as a kind of warm gauze used to ease the pain of war and famine. But science is quickly taking over that role with anesthesia and Zoloft. But more than that, science is giving us insight into the biological reasons why we have religious feelings, and the very fabric of life and the universe. To say we don't have a moral compass without a religious book to follow insults the intelligence of the book's human authors.

    "Id rather have a mind opened by wonder and awe than one closed by belief"

    December 24, 2011 at 6:54 am |
  17. Dizzy Dezzy

    At worst, more people have died in the name of religion than not...at best, it's equal. So what's so great about religion?

    December 24, 2011 at 6:50 am |
    • RealityCheker

      Your post is a living example that when the truth refutes you, lies will have to do.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:21 am |
  18. V Mohan

    I think the trouble begins when someone assign a set of human values to a particular religion. May be the question is – what would America look like without the faith in almighty. The answer is simple – NOT GOOD.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:50 am |
    • Cindy

      Amen!

      December 24, 2011 at 7:24 am |
  19. KJ

    In today's world, most evangelical Christians are more like Mr. Potter than George Bailey. George Bailey's character believed that people were more important than profits, and that community was important. That's a far cry from today's "it's all about me" mentality of most of the right wing Christian establishment in this country, blaming their problems on the poor, immigrants or whoever else they feel doesn't deserve the same quality of life that they do.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:48 am |
  20. Seven

    No matter how much lipstick is put on that pig, religion is still blatant deception and ignorance that permits a few to wield power over many. If humanity can't survive without religion, then we don't deserve to. It is interesting that the texts of the Bible always promise wisdom, but never religion. It is important to remember that none of the ancient sages and prophets were priests or members of any religion. They "spoke to God directly" and which means they didn't need religion.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:46 am |
    • rangersleadtheway

      "Well that's, like, your opinion, man." – The Dude.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:16 am |
    • 4th wright

      I am a Christian. The only person who "wields power" over me is Christ. Nor do I feel deceived in the least. On the contrary, my faith gives meaning and direction to my life. You choose to live otherwise, and that's fine with me. I wish you Peace.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:19 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.