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. Craig Duckett

    The difference between a nation with a "meaningful Christian influence" and a nation without it is the difference between the antiquated head-in-the-sand every-man-for-himself policies of the United States and the progressive let's-all-help-one-another policies of the Scandinavian countries.

    Scandinavians are content, caring people who don't worry too much about what happens after they die. And they aren't a tad bit religious. Phil Zuckerman, sociologist and author of Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment, spent 14 months in Scandinavia and witnessed a compassionate way of life and societal well-being. He contrasts Danes and Swedes with the marginally less-contented and less-charitable folks in the United States, who nevertheless show great religious zeal. He asks, "Is a society to be considered moral if its citizens love the Bible a lot (as in the United States), or rather, if its citizens virtually wipe out poverty from their midst (as in Scandinavia)?"...The world's great religions speak of caring for the sick, the poor, and the orphaned, and of practicing mercy and goodwill toward fellow humans, yet these traits are often more evident in the world's least religious nations. [from Christianity Today]

    It seems to me that Larry Alex Taunton is resorting to that old apologist's trick of bait-and-switch–or smoke-and-mirrors–to discombobulate those who cannot see beyond simple Either/Or, Us-or-Them, Black or White, Bedford Falls or Pottersville comparisons. Except he's confused his two towns: the United States is Pottersville and the Scandinavian countries are Bedford Falls. Larry Alex Taunton may be able to pull the wool over the eyes of his flocks, but when it actually comes to comparing "Christian" America with a "secular" Scandinavia, non-religious Scandinavia is acting more "Christian" and charitable to one another than the U.S. has to date: the Scandinavians feed the poor, shelter the homeless, offer a universal college education and universal health care to all, and start everyone off with a minimum four-weeks of vacation every year (which they are required to take). The United States and it's "meaningful Christian influence" could learn a lot from the non-religious, secular Scandinavian countries. Bedford Falls or Pottersville indeed!

    December 24, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • Oh Brother

      Well said!

      December 24, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  2. us1776

    Religion is the worst thing to ever happen to the human race.


    December 24, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  3. Mark M

    I think what a lot of critics of this post are responding to is the gap between talking the talk and walking the walk. Staunch believers tend to think If you aren't a Christian you can't have morals; conversely if you *are* a Christian you automatically have morals. Both of those assertions are faulty.

    As other have pointed out Joel Osteen and many of the megabuck mega churches are preaching smug Potterisms these days, not Baileyisms, and some of the more egregious offenses are coming out of the professed devout. Lay and Schilling were "good church-going men."

    We are seeing a U.S. society with a decline of morals, a decline of empathy and an increase in self-absorption – but that's coupled at the same time with an increase in self-declared Christian religious fervor, so the argument of the op-ed kind of misses the point. It's not the "rejection of Christianity" that got us here.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  4. MNguy

    Mr. Taunton writes this on the assumption that human nature is inherently "evil". This is not the case. Human nature is survival. Environment and general surroundings affect our culture and behaviors and thus our actions, it does not have to be religion or lack there of. I myself, am an atheist, yet I don't go around robbing people blind. If Christianity has anything right, it's the Golden Rule. But that is embedded into human nature, because altruism and treating others as you want to be treated helps us survive. God might need ethics, but ethics do not need God.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      Animals kill, yet are not considered evil. When man kills, it is wrong and heinous. The unfit are abandoned or killed in nature, yet when man tries to cast off that which does not benefit the whole, they are evil.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  5. annoyed

    We don't want Faith of any denomination to be banished – we just don't want it shoved down our throats. Some of us see religion as a more personal issue and choose to worship w/o flair. That's the best part about the country – we have the freedom to worship in the way we choose.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  6. Nick

    Just think of how much good you could have done instead of wasting your time on this thread. Don't you have Axe body spray commercials to ban? Jesus would not approve.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  7. HisNoodlyAppendage


    December 24, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      In the absence of love, respect will do just fine. You don't need to believe in the ridiculous for that maxim to hold sway.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  8. JanetMermaid

    I'll bet if you asked them, almost all of the 1% would say they are Christian. Christianity has been a bane to societies around the world - study your history. "Good Christians" have wiped out more native cultures than any other group. Just ask the Polynesians.

    I am quite proud of my ethics, compassion, and morality. I am not Christian. The most vocal Christians I know, in fact, are the worst.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • Athiest and Moral


      December 24, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • Granite Sentry

      It is so terribly sad that in this modern age a person can be so ignorant of history as to actually believe this. Of course evil has been done in the name of Christianity, but these are the acts of evil men, not of an evil belief. Besides, they vanish into insignificance compared with all the health, education, prosperity, and condition of life improvements that Western Christians have brought to the world.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • Dood

      I can't believe that. Christians (actually Catholics) are the ones who came up with orphanages and hospitals. There are good Christians and there are bad "Christians". There are good Atheists and there are bad Atheists.

      In general, the writer is correct and Atheists in the "West" have been influenced by Judeo-Christian values and upbringing in the Americas, parts of Africa as well as most of Europe.

      Denial of self in conjunction with love of neighbor in any capacity is always best.... be it Judeo-Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, etc. Faith, Hope and Charity above all.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • Chris Anderson

      Wow, stop the press, what profound insight we have here.....you have sure convinced this Christian.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      """these are the acts of evil men, not of an evil belief."""

      It's not that simple. Religious beliefs are often at the core of how you view the world, how you behave, and how you act.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  9. HisNoodlyAppendage


    December 24, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • Nick


      December 24, 2011 at 9:40 am |
  10. longshot

    America is the most Christian western nation, and we have the highest crime rate, the most prisons...yea, it works great.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • JanetMermaid

      It is because of Christianity that two people who truly love each other are not allowed to marry because other people believe it isn't right. It is because of Christianity that women do not have full choice and control over their own bodies. Christianity is the reason women were so severely subjugated for so long - that whole "be submissive to your male head of household" B S. It is because of Christianity that I as well as other non-Christian friends have been verbally attacked and belittled. I have been accused of everything from murdering babies to worshiping Satan, all because I choose a spiritual path that is nature-oriented and I do not bow down to some "loving" god - so loving in fact that if you don't please him you'll burn and suffer for ALL ETERNITY. My dictionary has a different definition of love.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  11. Abomb

    This is exactly the kind of ignorance someone like Dawkins preaches against. Maybe the author should try using data from another source that wasn't created specifically to legitimize the factless nature of Christianity - The Barna Group is a church disguised as a think tank, intelligence design vs. creationism. How many "moral" Christians are there that burn korans and put crosses in the yards of mosques in smalltown America? How many that used biblical teachings to justify slavery? If only this author could stand up and debate someone like Dawkins (or, sadly, could have debated Hitchens), his arguments would fall flat and he'd no longer try to make this pointless argument.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • Jim

      He was a good friend of Hitchens, they did not agree, but they were still friends. Check out "http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/12/16/my-take-an-evangelical-remembers-his-friend-hitchens/?iref=allsearch".

      December 24, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      """If only this author could stand up and debate someone like Dawkins (or, sadly, could have debated Hitchens)"""

      Speak of the devil,:P – Hitchens and Taunton have debated. Look on youtube.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • John

      Just FYI, Dawkins is what someone like you would probably call an "Islamaphobe." He's against all religion, not just Christianity. I'm an atheist, but compare the way we treat Muslims here to the way they'd treat a Christian or atheist who spoke against Islam in the Middle East. I'm be an American Muslim and put up with airport searches any day.

      There are plenty of Christian nations in this world. All of the best aspects of Western Civilization come from the Enlightenment rather than religion. We should teach children about ethical thinking and philosophy rather than a man getting nails pounded through his limbs.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  12. Geez

    So much for balanced reporting CNN, hence all the counter responses to this article. Enough has already been posted as to the absurdness of this thinking and such continued reporting just keeps throwing fuel for delusional thinking. CNN, why even post nonsense like this? For anyone taking issue against there warm and fuzzy feeling provided by an imaginary supernatural being ....the following one liner is always true. Do not argue with an idiot or a delusional person. He or she will drag you down to his or her level and beat you with experience.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • Jim

      This is an opinion piece, "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Larry Alex Taunton." This is not reporting.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  13. Oh Brother

    God simply has to intervene. His Free Will plan has been a failure since it's inception. He allows the belief in other God's in this world by simple lack of exposure. I agree that fear and congregation has been a great motivator keeping us inline but things will keep getting worse until God (if truly loving) gives us a gentle reminder of who he is and what he expects. Christians will point out the Bible for that but most Christians only read the "nice" parts. Most Christians that are constantly spreading the good news ignore verses where God intends for us to fear him, shoves poop in our faces, kills children, asks for adoration(why does an all poweful God need worship?), is jealous, I could go on and on. There are also many anomolies in the Bible. At first God is a physical being (we should bury our poop in Deuteronomy so he doesn't step in it!) but later on we can't even look at his face (there are lots of examples of God being Physical but then the nature of God changes and he sends Angel's and messengers). Jesus has many false prophetic statements in the Bible. He tells us if we pray we can move mountains, doesn't happen (just one example). You may say my prayers are not worthy of fufillment but I will gaurentee there are many Christians reading this that have asked the world to be saved through Christ or even a simple prayer to save a dying child by someone very "Christian pure of heart". They go unfufilled. Lastly no matter what anyone says the Bible makes it clear Jesus intended to return before the genration of people he was preaching to died. The Bible I believe is wraught with the errors of man.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:37 am |
  14. Dystopiax

    Going My Way held the same goopy sentiment for Catholics – whose League of Decency in Hollywood attacked the screen play for Miracle on 34th Street. Their reason was that that Doris Walker [Maureen O'Hara] is a divorced woman who remarries. They demanded that, unless the play was rewritten to make Doris either an unmarried aunt, or a war widow, Catholics would not be allowed to attend the movie. Producer Daryl F. Zanuck told the League to stuff it. Therefore – Francis Spellman forbade Catholics to view Miracle on 34th Street. This case has been almost lost to American history.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:37 am |
  15. Joe from Ohio

    Lack of Christianity is not whats bringing this country down. There is a simple explanation to what is.
    Unchecked Greed.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • J


      December 24, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  16. Lets get real

    It's really pretty simple – a list on one hand of those in congress who are most vocal about their religious beliefs, and a list on the other of the policies they support – then you tell me who is tearing apart and destroying the United States – and for what purpose. This is not about your father's religion – its about the use of religion for decidedly not-religious purposes today. So as alluring as 1940's nostalgia might be at Christmas – the entire country had better wake up to what is happening now – before it is too late. AND – BTW this kind of article has no place as the lead at CNN.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • M.F. Luder

      There was one person who ordered C-SPAN cut off two nights ago during Steny Hoyer's call for a vote. If one thinks that the Const.itution is still relevant, and that this is still a republic, s/he is deluded.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  17. patsy

    All those bright intelletuals that hav figured out that a world with out Christ or His Father is the world you would prefer, just hold on. I believe you folks will have your paradise waiting for you. ......might do investigtive research.....buy Bible and study.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • M.F. Luder

      Perhaps a dictionary would help, rather than a book of fairy tales, patsy.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  18. Lloyd Botway

    You (the author) and the mystical god-creature you rode in on, in whose name many of the worst atrocities in history have been committed, can go jump in the lake. Being benevolent does not require one to be Christian.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  19. dick

    Larry's whole premise goes astray when he assumes that old fallacy that men are innately evil.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  20. JimsBelieves

    Being a good person is not a Christian exclusive, and Jesus wasn't the only person in history to preach doing good things to help others. One can simply look at the simple "Golden Rule" to be inspired. My charity is given because I want to help those who need it, not because I want a tax deduction or because I'm pressured by any church to do so.

    December 24, 2011 at 9:34 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.