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. Alfred K. Rocci

    The movie is NOT about angels or religion, it is about people of good will struggling against those who lack it. It is about a community caring for each and all, against a man bent on having all. It is kindness against greed, hope against hopelessness; it is a helping hand struggling against a grasping claw. This is a movie which used to be shown every Christmas to remind us of what we can be, instead of what we may become. It is the eternal struggle between the YOYO's (your on your own) and the WAITT's (we're all in this together). Which of these sides would demand health care for all citizens, a solid, confident social security program, quality schools and education to enhance the American Dream and which side would abandon all that for "self". Lastly, Clarence is not necessarilty a Christian angel, although he could be. Clarence is any "angel" of any true religion and believer.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  2. Well Said

    Well said WrongAnswerLarry: ""The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Larry Alex Taunton." – And you would have done well to keep them to yourself Larry Alex, because you are quite mistaken with this argument that we get our morals from religion, even more so to say that we get them from Christianity. And that is a good thing for all of humanity. Can you imagine the horrors of living in a society that espoused the "moral" teachings of the bible? Niceties such as child sacrifice, genocide, slavery, torture, etc? No, we're much better off with the religious fanatics picking and choosing which parts of the bible they hold up to us as evidence of its morality. Unfortunately for your argument, however, this means that anyone and everyone has the ability to decide for themselves what is moral and what is not. Consequently, it is proof that you don't need religion at all to make appropriate moral decisions. Secondly, Richard Dawkins' moral and intellectual sensibilities have most definitely been informed by the Judeo-Christian worldview – that's exactly why he has chosen to reject it. Thirdly, Thomas Stearns Eliot. What is it with you Christians and your fondness of quoting T. S. Eliot? Do you really even know anything about him other than the fact that this quote seems to fit into your article nicely? He wasn't exactly a model of ethical behavior. He cut ties with your beloved America, moved to England as a young man, and married someone he never really loved all under the narcissistic motivation of furthering his literary career. London pals included Ezra Pound who was fond of Benito Mussolini and was arrested for treason, and the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who openly criticized religion. Eliot largely ignored his wife and "sent her away" when she was ill. Although still married, he saw her only once during the final fifteen years of her life. As a 68 year-old, he iced the cake by marrying someone less than half his age – in secrecy. Try again Larry Alex!"

    December 24, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  3. Bob

    Here's a question. The world is about as messed up as it has been in the past 50 years.
    There are more atheists, more people hostile to Christianity, more unbelievers than ever.
    Is the world any better for it? The proof is in the pudding.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • John McClane

      The proof would be ion the pudding if you had actually proved anything, which you have not.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • Clyde M

      On what do you base this? The last 20 years were the LEAST conflict ridden of the 20th century. Crime rates are down form 50 years ago in many areas and categories. Technology, standards of living, life spans, general income, and education are up. EVERY generation thinks the world is going downhill–so much so it is cliche. We are, in fact, not only not that much different than we ever were, we ay actually be a little better off on average. The reason people are so glum is the partisanship our leaders heap on us to keep us divided and at one another's throats.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
  4. uisignorant

    Stealing Glenn Beck's material.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  5. Marty

    Merry Christmas, everyone!

    December 24, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  6. Raven

    Christianity, as most people understand it, was fine for a 3-storied universe that consisted of heaven, earth and hell. If Christians desire any relevance in the universe as we know it today, there are a lot of basic assumptions that need to be rethought – But it can be done. Scrapping the teachings of Paul and returning to those of Jesus would be a good place to start.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  7. zach

    Hyperbole does nothing to strengthen one's point. The history of the west's rise has been a secular one, relegating religion to a private role as reason and the rule of rational law took over. Just like the height of the Caliphates, our power comes from setting aside dogma and focusing on the real world.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  8. A Trained Monkey

    The claim that Hitler hated christianity is bogus. Hitler embraced christianity and was a self proclaimed
    member of the catholic church. In fact if you read up a little on Martin Luther you will find that the reformation
    was based heavily on a deep seated anti semetic ideal. The christian right in America has done all it can to
    try to disassoiate itself from these things but it is their history.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • HisNoodlyAppendage

      Indeed, Hitler was a Catholic!

      December 24, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • Sebastian

      You have trained monkey? Complete and utter awesomeness. I hear they like to throw their pøø around, but still, are you kidding me? It's a trained monkey! Can he drive a car?

      December 24, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  9. Prometheus

    This is quite the inane and insane diatribe without an basis in fact. The author and the delusional minions–such as Chrism– that write in support of this piece of nonsense make blind and irrational allegations that without some god there can be no morality, which is a total load of manure. The only truth that seems to be routinely trampled in streams of religious rhetoric is that there is absolutely no proof that any god or savior exists. And, there is plenty of oppression, censorship and repression coming from religious zealots.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  10. Brahm

    Perhaps one day a religion will come along that preaches unity and tolerance for all members of society, from people of other faiths to those with none. Many of us have fled the church because it taught us the opposite.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Clyde M

      Indeed. I don't believe in a deity any longer (Christian for 30 years), but what started me down the path of questioning it at all was the vitriol, hatred, anger, whining, victimhood, classism, bullying, division, and downright bigotry that I saw within my own church(es).

      December 24, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  11. HisNoodlyAppendage

    Be HONEST and HUMBLE to yourselves. ADMIT that we just DON'T KNOW if a 'superior being' existed, past or present (exists now)!!! One thing is for sure... cosmology, life, and evolution is utterly FASCINATING!!! Nothing wrong to live one's life in AWE of what we DO or DON'T KNOW, without making up a mythical father figure.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  12. Brian

    I like Jon Stewarts analysis better. Its a Wonderful Life is a vision of the great collapse of 2008. An uneducated Banker making loans to people who shouldnt have them and when the system collapsed he gets bailed out by the populace.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • The owl

      I think your leaving out a few parts, the government due to political correctness and worried about everyone "achieving the American Dream", whether or not they could afford it or not, forced the banks to give these people mortgages, so they came up with adjustable rates, yes they made money as banks do, the rates changed people could not afford said changes, banks collapsed, banks failed government bailed them out, banks paid back the money

      December 24, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  13. Dave

    Scandanavian Countries are the most socially developed and have little association with religion, less than 40 percent believe in God. Though society evolves from myths of the past, Rome, Greek ect, old beliefs fall and new ones emerge. http://www.vexen.co.uk/countries/scandinavia.html

    December 24, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • HisNoodlyAppendage

      Great post. We have a LOT to learn from the Scandinavian countries. They actually PRACTICE large scale what the christian fanatics preach here in the USA.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • Clyde M

      Yep! I laughed so hard when I read that last bit ("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") and all I could think of was "great, another isolated American who's never traveled to Sweden" because those guys are about as peaceful, advanced, fair, kind, and generous as it gets–and they've achieved it without much influence from religion at all.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
  14. evensteven

    My concern for America is not whether Christianity will be eradicated, but rather will Christians quit trying to eradicate non-Christians. For America to survive, it must become a nation of tolerance which I believe was part of the vision our forefathers had for this country. Tolerance for Christians, yes, but also tolerance on behalf of Christians for those of differing belief systems.

    The petty concerns of so many regarding the Christians faith or non-faith of our President and current Presidential candidates provides some measure of the intolerance I speak of. IMO, our country should not simply be regarded as a Judea-Christian nation; rather a nation tolerant of all organized belief systems which support respect for fellow human beings.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • Dave

      Well stated.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • GAW

      If all sides can learn tolerance than we are on our way to a better path. Just as long as extremists (religious or not) don't rule the day.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  15. Avgprsn

    In the quest for ego, the riddle so simple yet made so complex and then lost.
    The metaphoric beauty stops to be pondered when the mind believes everything is literal.
    The illusion and the irony.
    One is and one was.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  16. Susan

    Faith, not religion, or The Golden Rule. Take care of each other and what a world we'd have.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  17. Mogan

    This article was a bit lame. I find nothing particular Christian when it comes to our laws. To be sure, it has influenced some laws and was behind the whole Prohibition era, but we are not a Christian nation. If we were, would be cutting back on helping the poor, education and healthcare? I think not. As for the Christian truth that we are inherently evil, that is true for only some forms of Christianity – the Calvinist tradition. For other forms we are either flawed or born sinners (but not 'Jeffrey Dahmers' at heart) but also the ability to perfect ourselves – to reach out to God. Also, think how psychologically damaging it can be to be taught from childhood that you are an evil person? It can be as trivial as thanking God for winning the football game to never thanking the medical staff for your successful surgery or thanking God for people's charity. Why not thank those who actually help you? That is why B. Franklin wrote that "God helps those who help themselves." After all, who else is going to help form the outset – but yourself.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • MK

      I think what the author is implying is that religious people and faith based organizations (FBO's) fill in the gaps when the government doesn't have the funds (allocated) to do so. Think the Salvation Army, Catholic Relief Services and the Mentoring the Children of Prisioners. Churches in my area hand out free hot lunches, support Malaria prevention in El Salvador and tutor low income high school kids. FBOs are so effective when the government can't be, many of them receive grants. You probably know that the United States was founded on religious freedom, something I uphold as one of the most important pillars of our State. Thankfully, it is morals along with intelligent community organization that keeps strip clubs away from my kid's school (an extreme example, I know.)

      December 24, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • Clyde M

      That's because there really isn't anything particularly Christian about our laws. People run around screaming about posting the 10 Commandments in courthouses, but only about 3.5 of them even apply–don't murder, don't steal, don't commit perjury, and don't cheat on your spouse (as a civil law, but rarely a criminal one). And NONE of those originated with or are exclusive to the Abrahamic faiths. All the rest are totally legal. Moreover, many are expressly FORBIDDEN by our laws, at least in so far as basing our laws on them goes. Heck, our own First Amendment DIRECTLY CONTRADICTS the first two Commandments–guaranteeing us freedom of religion over having no other gods before god and forbidding false idols. I can walk down to Walgreen's right now and buy a Buddha with a Santa hat on it.

      Fact is we are in no way a "Christian" nation other than to the degree that some aspects of Christianity just so happen to line up with common sense, civil rights, and personal freedom. But so do some aspects of any religion, so it's not exactly an impressive argument.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
  18. Eric

    The premise of the article is a bit off base if you ask me. Christianity isn't a tool to fix society's ills like some social policy, but a belief in Jesus as the Messiah. All the other benefits (and disadvantages) that have followed aren't Christianity in and of itself, but byproducts. A flagging belief in Jesus seems to be an inevitable consequence of progress; and we'll have to find other ways to supplement our morality. It seems we can find better alternatives than the Bible.

    I'd be interested in the author taking on a similar mental experiment during the Dark Ages. Was the world better or worse off with Christianity during that lost eon? In my opinion we were much worse off as a species. A collusion of kings and priests replaced any vestige of representative government, and that is a period of time I'll always be happy to have missed.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  19. torqueflite

    Why does CNN continue to print these diatribes from conservative Christian organizations as if they are the only word on the subject? Why not give us something from either a secular or liberal Christian POV as a counterpoint? Sadly, Jimmy Stewart was no George Bailey in real life. He not only supported the GOP but the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His WWII experiences turned him into a dark and brooding anti-Communist who envisioned "Reds" at every turn.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  20. Happy in Canada

    Merry Christmas to all of you who celebrate. May whatever you believe brings you peace and happiness over the holiday. Don't let the negative things in life overtake your natural instinct to see the good and positive in the world. Evil prevails when good people do nothing. Be thankful you have the freedom to express your beliefs...whatever they may or not be. Glass half full, people.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • Anita Bleaujob

      Cheers, my Northern neighbor!

      December 24, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Mike Rotchitches

      How's it hangin' Anita bleaujob.

      Just wanted to give you a heads up, never do it without a fez on.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • GAW

      I might want to move to Canada now! Merry Christmas.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:33 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.