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. Jay R.

    It saddends me, but many of us (Christians) have infact given the faith and bad name and put a bad taste in some folks mouths. However, Christiany, in the Holy Scriptures, claims to be more that a "relision," we claim to knwo Jesus, to have a relationship with the living God, through the power of His Holy Spirit.
    Unfortunatley even many who wear the label don't understand or practice this kind of faith.
    My dad used to say basically the same thing this author suggests, Christianity makes the world, especially the United States, a better, more civiized, morally centered place. He was right. This author is right!
    Ever hear of the 80/20 rule? It suggests 20% of the people drink 80% of the beer. Or 20% of the people do 80% of the work. In Christianty, at least where I practice, only about 20% of those who claim Christianity know Jesus (as opposed to knowing about him). The other 80% are somewhere along the way and hopefully seeking all God offers in Christ.
    Some of us are vocal, some are not. Some have little to say and take too long in saying it. Some don't need to say anything until they "grow up" in their faith. Others find little need to say anything, their actions take care of the message concerning the Good News of Jesus Christ!
    As of me, the beauty of faith in Christ begins and ends with conversations with Him, through His book, His people, and through prayer. I encourage the scoffers to forget what other people say or do in the Name of Christ, and seek to discover the Mystery of His birth, death, and resurrection. And His imminant return to make this the Paradise it was intended to be!

    December 24, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • Kevin

      Man, you need help bro. I think you need to see a psychologist. You seem to be suffering from delusion and hallucinations.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • Jason C.

      Jesus was a man who was likely executed. He is a historical figure who was not the Son of God and was not God incarnate. Your belief in this Jesus, a lunatic traveling preacher, is mind boggling. Please pray for me! I love that line.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • tmorr

      Stay strong in your faith. God bless, and Merry Christmas.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • Twinelms

      Yes, stay strong, brother. "The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ." 2 Co 4:4

      December 24, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  2. Audrey

    You have absolutely got to be kidding me with the "research" from The Barna Group. That's like saying, "Research by the Vacuum Salesman's Association shows that vacuum salesman are the nicest people on earth." Yeah, right. I do not believe for one single solitary second that Christians are more charitable than other demographic. In fact, I often find Christian organizations to be uncharitable to an extent that baffles me. This idea that Christians are morally better than other groups is not only untrue, but also offensive.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • tmorr

      You completely miss it. The author is not saying that Christians are morally better than anyone else. This seems to be a double standard, because you really seem to think you are better than a christian.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  3. MICKY D

    "Oxford scientist and atheist provocateur, calls Christianity a “mental virus” that should be eradicated." I think the conservative Christians take it a little too far and it is a virus! What you don't hear on these posts are the REAL Christians who don't spout the crap their far right buddies want to enforce their views on everyone. Have you ever heard one middle of the road christian speak up? NOPE! Guess that means they agree with what these religious nuts believe! In that case it has become a virus!

    December 24, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  4. Twinelms

    Don't miss the author's point. Sin is an infection that affects all of us. It is only through God's grace to and through his people that society holds together. And don't suppose that everything done in the name of Christianity is Christian. Be thankful in remembering this season that God sent his son to save us from such sin. His son has been resurrected, lives, and will come again.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • Audrey

      Except that all the "truths" you just espoused are Christian beliefs, and I do not believe them. I have no problem with your beliefs. I'm glad they make you happy. However, they are not fundamental truths. They are your beliefs.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • Jason C.

      There is no "God." What are you missing? Your belief is simply fiction. But at least it makes you feel better, so keep on believing. Have fun with Santa tonight, btw.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  5. PraiseTheLard

    Mr. Taunton doesn't seem to realize that religion is just as much fiction as are those movies to which he keeps referring...

    December 24, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  6. TheDudeAbides

    I believe Frank Capra, a Republican, would have liked President Obama for the most part. Both share a compassion for the poor and underprivileged, and the potential of the common man to succeed. Capra did not like New Deal politics, and would not have liked certain aspects of the Recovery Plan. But ironically, if Capra were alive today, he would be firmly classified as a Democrat.

    Rupert Murdoch would have us living in Pottersville. Al Franken would have us living in China.

    The answer is, and always has been, a balance between the two.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • MICKY D

      Well stated!!!!

      December 24, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  7. Matt

    Apparently Mr. Taunton missed the memo – we aren't allowed to say mean things about Mr. Potter, 'cause he's one of them "jaaahb createrrs". Clearly what was needed wasn't George, but MOAR TAX CUTS!

    December 24, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  8. mr awesome

    awesome article and so very true
    without Judeo-Christian influence this country would never have grown to greatness
    and as it is forced out of our culture our greatness will leave with it
    God Bless America and pray we will not abandon Him

    December 24, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • MICKY D

      BS! There are many religions not just yours!

      December 24, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • Kevin

      Without Judeo-Christian influence, there were be less wars, less suffering, and more sanity! There were not have been a 9/11, and "God" would not have told George Bush to invade Iraq!

      December 24, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • Audrey

      Well, Judeo-Christian "greatness" – in terms of civilization – started with Rome... only Rome became great as a pagan empire and then fell when it became Christian. What does this mean? Nothing, because it wasn't religion that made the civilization great. It's civilization that made the religion great. It's up to the powerful to decide what becomes part of a religion, therefore, it's circular to point back at the religion and say it created power and greatness.

      I'm not saying that some religions don't contain characteristics that can work for or against the quality of a civilization... just that I don't believe America is great because the Judeo-Christian God is smiling down on us.

      Also, just for the record: some people in the early church believed that the Judeo-Christian God doesn't exist: That they were two different Gods, because they act nothing alike in the texts. Why did that interpretation become part of the Bible while others did not? The same reason that so many things got left out while other questionable things got put in: some Roman dudes decided. Again, the powerful decide, and they create the religion as it gets handed down to us.

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

    The author states, "... the discovery of the monastics... 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."
    So, religion can make us either make us better or worse. Well, that's useful.
    It would seem that the problem isn't a person's religion, but rather the person's nature.
    It's been said that good people will do good, and bad people will do bad, but for good people to do bad, they need religion!
    Case in point, the very problems we face in our dysfunctional political system.
    Lack of religious expression is not the problem, especially when Congress recently passed a resolution to "reaffirm" the useless phrase, "In god we trust" as the national motto, or when the GOP candidates fall all over themselves to prove which will carry the Christian banner best.
    I think we can do with a lot less religious expression, and a little more common decency.
    And for that, no religion is required.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • MICKY D

      Thank you! Well stated!

      December 24, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  10. kd

    What complete and utterly hateful hogwash. If people like the author would spend as much time living their lives and showing by example, rather than rattling on judgmentally about others, then the world would TRULY be a better place.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  11. BillS

    Fantastic article, Mr. Taunton. One of the best I've read on cnn.com. I can't believe it made it past the editors, though...

    December 24, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  12. Divyesh Mehta

    My family and I have always enjoyed X'mas and I am a hindu .I celebrated it when I was in India and I get a tree and get in the spirit every year 40 years since my arrival in USA.
    My Christian friends joined in the celebration of Diwali in India then and now.
    Bets of what Christianity gave mankind is on a march come Dec 25 th and sanitising it will only diminish society.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  13. Kai T

    Regarding religions that spread niceness, as an atheist I'd say that objectively Buddhism trumps the "Abrahamic" religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). If one feels compelled to be religious, that's OK, but please do some serious reflection and some reading on what belief can lead to. If one can pinky-swear not to be the kind of believer that created the Inquisition, the 30 Years War and much more, then that's fine.

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

      Nicely put....thanks and Gleðileg Jól from Iceland.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  14. Garth

    This article is complete garbage it makes as much sense as me saying our problems exist because most Americans no longer believe in Santa Clause or the Ester Bunny. Or maybe its because the Spaghetti Monster has corrupted our views and lowered our morality. I would agree that our society has lost its way but not because of a lack of religion, on the contrary it’s because we have to much!
    I challenge you if you are a true believer in Humanity then help your fellow Human Being. Religion is not the answer, it never has been it’s about Me and You doing what we no is right. I don’t need a book written by some anonymous person to tell me that.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  15. Mike Rotchitches

    How's it hangin' Anita bleaujob.

    Just a heads up, never do it without a fez on.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • Barnacle Bill

      Your fez looks familiar...

      December 24, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  16. Al

    What Mr. Tauntan doesn't seem to realize is that you can be spiritual without being Christian. I agree that a society that doesn't have a spiritual foundation is one prone to decay. You don't have to believe in a God, or in Jesus to be a good human being. You do have to believe in compassion, offering a helping hand whenever it is needed, and not placing a dollar value of every waking moment. Unfortunately, many in our country, especially in the political arena, believe in placing the dollar before everything else....and unfortunately, many of those same people profess to be Christian.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  17. Junius Gallio

    Christianity certainly has much to recommend it for morality and stability to Western culture–but also has much to be ashamed of. The Crusades (actually economic wars, but excused with religion); pogroms against Jews, Muslims, heretics, dissenting Christians; the centuries of strife and warfare leading to, and resulting from, the Great Schism between Eastern and Western Christianity; enslavement of of the natives of Africa, the Americas, and Oceana; and the list goes on.

    The distinction seems to be thus: when Christianity is an issue of personal faith, it can do much good. When Christianity is an issue of political power, far more harm results.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  18. Richard Prosapio

    Thank you "Happy in Canada", not much point in adding to those sentiments......in fact, more would only be less. Merry Christmas to you too, and anyone can change the "Christmas" part of that into whatever warms their hearts, what matters after all is the transmission of love from one to another.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  19. JackStraw

    What a narrow, limited, view. People that believe without logic or reason are not the only "good" people.... Open your mind to a "god" that does not know you exist.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • hansbronson

      Thank you for that reply Mr. Potter.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • Deanne

      Heaven yes, Hell no. Jesus said in Matthew 7:13-14, “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it." Yes, it is narrow, but Christ himself said so. I hope you find Him soon so you too can spend eternity in Heaven, not Hell. What we each may believe doesn't change the fact that Heaven and Hell are very real places.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  20. anonymous

    "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."
    I find this statement very true. There does seem to be a consensus in many academic circles that "Sure you can do your Christianity thing, just keep it out of scholarship and the arts." To be sure things like research should be done as objectively as possible, but to say that a strong personal faith should play no serious, living role in art, academic study and thought, and discussion about political and social problems, is to exclude an important point-of-view, and miss out on so much that could otherwise be contributed. To be sure we don't want the hollow scholasticism of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, but something much more genuine, a personal faith that strongly influences and motivates the thought of the artist, or thinker, or politician, or social worker, or teacher. Their work is an outpouring of their faith, and as a result their work will no doubt be colored by it. The author of this article, and I would say that society would benefit from more of this kind of person and faith.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:20 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.