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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. Brian

    A silly, shallow article. The author assumes being Christian is the over riding theme of the film when the people in the story could have been of any faith. Frank Capra was a Roman Catholic, a faith that is often held in disdain by contemporary "christians."

    December 24, 2011 at 7:30 am |
  2. Michael M.

    And here I thought the food blog had the fluffiest pieces...

    December 24, 2011 at 7:30 am |
  3. Tallulah

    The Christians it has been my unhappy privilege to know are some of the worst bigots and most selfish people ever. I resent them trying to turn this country into a theocracy by pushing Christian "Sharia" laws. Under Islamic (Sharia) law there is no separation of church and state.
    That is what most Christians are trying to achieve.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:29 am |
  4. William

    This anaysis is entirely skewed. Mr. Potter represents Big Banks, Wall Street, uncontrolled greed. Bailey represents the middle class that just wants a fair shake. This movie was ALWAYS understood to mean exactly that; every conservative I've ever known absolutley Hates this movie. Bailey and his friends are undisguised FDR New Deal Democrats. Mr. Potter is the GOP, and Potterville is what America "has become": no more mom-and-pop stores, strip malls, raunchy and violent movies, predatory banks, hate radio, a destoyed middle class. "Bedford Falls" s what every liberal democrat dreams about, but sadly, it's never coming back.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:29 am |
    • marc

      Very good analogy of the movie !!!

      December 24, 2011 at 7:34 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      Very good William...

      December 24, 2011 at 8:07 am |
  5. ChasR

    One thing many religions promote is moderation. Anything in excess, even religion is harmful; look at extreme regeimes around the world focused on religion. Some prople need "faith", others do not. As a country, though, we cannot have a "moral compass" unless there's a consensus on "North." Rome lasted for centuries without Christianity, but there was certainly religion.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:29 am |
  6. Jonan

    Want to see what a Christian nation looks like – check out Northern Ireland. But, hey, don't let reality get in the way of believing in the truthfulness of another fantasy - a Hollywood movie. Religion is another man-made fantasy that makes it perfectly acceptable to deny reason, logic and evidence.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:29 am |
  7. GoldenRuleBroken

    I agree. Jews have stolen the Golden Rule.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:28 am |
  8. Connor Freeman

    While I agree on the points about the imperfections of human nature and certainly agree that the nation as a whole seems to be embracing the ideas of Pottersville, I take exception with the premise that Christianity has a monopoly on decent moral values. As a Jew, I know first-hand the horrors that Christianity has historically been all-too-happy to embrace. Decency, kindness to one's fellow human beings, ruth-full-ness over ruth-less-ness and the spirit of charitable generosity don't need the framework of any particular religion to be applicable.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:26 am |
  9. Tuckersdad

    All faiths that teach kindness to our fellow man are a positive influence on the lives of the faithful. And there are many in the pews who are far from faithful, as well as many faithful who are not in the pews.But the thing that struck me about the Capra comparison is that this year, America is so very much Pottersville. The bankers have taken control, and the little guy is indeed dispossessed and without hope or influence. The Occupy people could dowell with this seasonal metaphor.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:26 am |
  10. Dale

    Very well written and very sobering

    December 24, 2011 at 7:25 am |
    • jim

      You must have read a different article!

      December 24, 2011 at 7:57 am |
  11. christians_are_hypocrites

    What a load of CR@P. The author is clearly ignoring the hypocrisy, hate, intolerance, discrimination, bigotry, murder, pain and suffering caused by religions, especially Christianity. Need Examples? OK: the Crusades, the anti-gay Proposition 8, the cover-up of pedophilia & crimes by priests in the Roman Catholic Church. Humanity has had enough of the mental illness called "Religion".

    December 24, 2011 at 7:25 am |
  12. conspiracys4us

    P.S. I was not maligning Mormonism. It is a religion with a long history and had produced some very fine people doing very good work.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:25 am |
  13. John

    Put all religious believers in a sealed crib since the little babies have no control over their "darker impulses"; then the rational can live in peace.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:24 am |
  14. CelticStar7

    Atheists. Your wife must have shut you off for 2-weeks or a month. Just wait, when she allows you to come back, you will thank GOD, unless she looks like Janet Napolitano and weighs over 300 pounds.

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

      You want to go to the garden of eden to have your deserved 7 vestial virgins.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:26 am |
    • Mirosal

      I wouldn't want 7 vestial vir-gins ... I will take Walter's (Jeff Dunham's puppet) advice. I'd rather have 7 slu.t.t.y broads who know what the hell they are doing!! 🙂

      December 24, 2011 at 7:42 am |
    • jim

      @CelticStar7 It doesn't make any difference if our wives cut us off, for a couple of bucks we can use yours.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:00 am |
  15. Me

    Religion provides an excuse for awful actions to take place. I'm just an atheist just waiting for the rapture....

    December 24, 2011 at 7:22 am |
    • conspiracys4us

      Me too......

      December 24, 2011 at 7:26 am |
  16. conspiracys4us

    Ron, many of us aren't listening to the propaganda. Most of know good Christian people. But most of us also know good people that are not Christian, that do not believe in God and are prefectly okay. There is no war on Christianity except the one the politican's are trying to drum up to get the Christian vote by scaring the Christian community that President Obama is Godless – which he is not – and that Romney is in a cult – which he is but its a main stream cult. And at this point in time, Christianity could be called a cult too. Religion is religion even if it is atheism. It is what makes sense to us, what we accept. We all have to live together. I hate that CNN has these mainstream Christian writers pontificating to us, but CNN has jumped on the badwaggon as well. Will it stop be reading it, no, but it has made me start posting because I am so offended.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:21 am |
    • CelticStar7

      Obama believes in Mohammad.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:40 am |
  17. Robert

    But Mr. Potter was a "job creator."

    December 24, 2011 at 7:21 am |
    • Tracy

      aww no like button...

      December 24, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  18. hey hey

    I bet this guy gets paid very well to travel, speak and sell his book 🙂 ahhh-the true meaning of Christmas and organized religion.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:21 am |
  19. mimi

    Religion seems to be about having an "us" and a "them." It brings people together in a common belief "click." It does not alter or improve the moral code. I know many Christians who are closed minded and judgmental. Don't you?

    December 24, 2011 at 7:20 am |
  20. unChristainISHere

    Mr. Potter represents the Jew. "It's a wonderful life" is an ANTI-SEMETIC RANT.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:19 am |
    • GoldenRuleBroken

      I agree. Jews have denied us The Golden Rule. They are THE POTTERS.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:28 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.