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. Bob Whitley

    Lets face it. Most of you just hate Christians and mostly for your own made up reasons. Most of you want Christianity and any expression of it out of society. This is not a new thing. America is choosing of it's own free will to become what it is becoming. Which is the Jerry Springer Show. Or is it Pottersville?

    December 24, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • Abinadi


      December 24, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Please

      I bet if you polled guests who where on the Springer show and in his audience and who watched in on TV I guarantee you you'd find it overwhelmingly Baptist Christian. Usually people who don't believe in stories to guide them, don't like watching people tear each down either. So who exactly is creating Springerville? 

      December 24, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Kay

      Please stop trying to pass off your own hateful opinions as fact. To proclaim that "Most of you just hate Christians and mostly for your own made up reasons"...well, that's just plain silly. Why on earth should atheists hate Christians? You want to believe in Jesus...go for it. If it brings you comfort, that's nice. But, jeez louise, our not believing in an imaginary friend doesn't mean we hate the people who do. We just don't want you to try to push your imaginary friend down our throats. BIG difference.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  2. BigRed

    Perhaps a more fitting analogy to America may be found in Dickens; "A Christmas Carol". Dickens draws attention to the fact that at Christmas time humanity are compelled to look upon each other with kindness and charity and at that moment perhaps indulge in displaying a warmth and consideration absent most of the rest of the year. Attributing the decline of America to a lack of Christian virtue is a far too narrow benchmark. Rather the decline is in civility, charity, and selflessness when ignorance and want are allowed to dominate our lives.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  3. Hinduism

    Moral values are not only taught by Christianity, and to claim that Christianity or Jesus is your only savior is no different than Islamic extremists claiming that Koran is everything. I disagree, and am lost for words why this article is on the CNN's homepage.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  4. gene

    so well put about this movie, america has left her first love, no wonder our nation is falling apart

    December 24, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  5. Kingofthenet

    Those poor Good Looking,Intelligent, Fit and Happy Swedes IF they ONLY got back into 'SkyGod' believing, they could be ugly,stupid,overweight and sad like US(A) but with the grace of God!

    December 24, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  6. Ben P.

    I think the folly of this article is that is equating the thought "What would the world be like if people could move past their need for public religious impulses and live a secular but moral life?" to "What would the world be like if the Christian religion never was?"

    I know of no atheist who does not acknowledge some of the art, culture, etc., which has been brought to us by religion ... they do also point out the downsides of the wars and racism and other things also made possible or facilitated by religion, but they do not ignore what religion has brought to the table *IN THE PAST*. They merely wish some of that to remain *IN THE PAST*. Like training wheels on a bicycle, you know?

    December 24, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  7. EddyL

    We are not christian nation. Never have been.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  8. Mark

    God is dead. –Nietzsche

    Nietzsche is dead. –God

    December 24, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  9. jkgrasshopper

    Rubbish. Sweden, Denmark, and Norway are consistently rated as some of the most prosperous countries, have some of the highest indexes for quality of life, have the happiest citizens, and are listed among the top countries in Europe regarding charity and volunteering. However, they are among the top five least religious countries in the world. You don't need religion, especially Christianity for morality and goodness. There is no ethical or moral behavior that a religious person can do that an atheist or agnostic cannot. Again, rubbish, rubbish, rubbish. Happy holidays...

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

      "Slow Clap"

      December 24, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • Abinadi

      They may be unreligious, I wouldn't know, but they are not atheist.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • i'm not a doctor but i play one on tv

      Does ryan have the clap?

      December 24, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Chris

      Actually study after study prove that Christians give more of their time and money to the poor then secularists. Your examples are too general, you need to be more specific.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • Please

      Republican think tank study after Republican think tank study Chris forgot to mention.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  10. Bob Barber

    I pray every day and I am going to a Christmas Mass tonight, but I'm not sure that our being a Christian nation would make much of a difference.

    The people who got us into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have killed at least several hundred thousand people, and bankrupt our economy, profess to be Christian. What about "Thou Shalt Not Kill"? What about not bearing false witness? When you lie about other people, and smear their names, you are bearing false witness. Actions speak louder than words. I am tired of hearing people say that they believe in the correct thing. They need to do the correct thing.

    The problem with America is this militarism, which is sapping all of our financial health, and the network of spies that have been set up to spy on Americans who are not doing anything at all, which is sapping our belief in one another. The excesses of the C.I.A., F.B.I., N.S.A., etc. domestically and in the foreign arean are worse than anything I was taught to fear in the 60s and 70s from the Soviet K.G.B. Not only is there no privacy whatsoever in America anymore, but we extradite people to foreign countries and torture them. So if the question is, what do we have to do to support America, the question I have is: What are we trying to support here? My belief in America has been severely challenged.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  11. Grampa

    The pleasant characters in Capra's movie bear little resemblance to the hate-spewing fundamentalist Christians who routinely capture today's headlines. One can live a perfectly good life without believing in ridiculous dogma and hating anyone with another point of view. Bedford Falls in the grip of the fundamentalists would be far worse that Pottersville, it would be Afghanistan under the Taliban. I'll take gentle, educated Atheists any day over fulminating, ignorant fundamentalists.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • Kevin

      Damn straight.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • just sayin

      ok you can have stalin, mao and pol pot

      December 24, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • wakeup333

      @ just sayin Stalin, Mao & Pol Pot didn't kill because they were atheists. They killed because they were Marxists. There were no pictures of Darwin on Mao's Peking Square. But there were pictures of Marx. Marx believed in the dictatorship of the proletariat. Once the proletariat overthrows capital, worker-run states take from each according to his ability, give to each according to his need. In their haste to bring this about, Stalin, Mao & Pol Pot killed anyone trying to stop them. Marxism demonizes non-Marxists like all 3 major religions demonize non-believers. Which makes murder easy.

      Atheism is NOT an ideology. It simply means "no god." Period. Nothing more. Nothing less. It pits no group against another. Hates no one. It simply argues that belief in invisible, imaginary, unprovable beings defies common sense.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  12. amlcpamaine

    This is tiring: CNN lets this guy profess his faith - no problem – -but he does it in such an accusatory way that he typecasts those of us who have different beliefs or levels of belief than his as negative. For that he'll be judged in the hereafter – instead of respective other religions and collaborating with other followers on goodness for mankind, he has to contribute to all the devisiveness that's been hurting us all. I consider this man a loser.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • John

      As the saying goes, if the shoe fits. The author has hit the nail on the head.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  13. James Harris

    I wish Mr. Taunton would not conflate religious belief with "Christian belief." Even accepting the dubious proposition that only relligion can ingender good morals and ethical behavior, it is surely not the case that only a Christian people, among all the religions of the world, can harbor such qualities. Besides, even with the movie's religious underpinnings, it is perfectly clear in the movie that all these hypothetical ill effects stem, not from the absence of Jesus Christ, but from the absence of George Bailey. The message of the movie concerns the inestimable value of a single good person to an entire community. The suggestion that you have to be a Christian before you can be a George Bailey is utterly reprehensible.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • retief1954

      Kudos, could not have said it better.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • Kay

      Excellent point!

      December 24, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  14. Elizabeth

    I am a Christian. I try to follow the teachings of Christ.....but honestly...many of my Christian friends and family, follow an Americanized Christian World View which scares me to death, if they were ever put in charge. Legalism, wanting the government to be Christian, inciting a culture war over the use of Happy Holidays, fighting about manger scenes in the PUBLIC square...and judging everyone and everything. The mess that is the GOP line-up for president is in part due to this weird world view. My Atheist and agnostic friends are respectful, non-judgmental and kind. I am not at all sure that belief is the way to goodness

    December 24, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • retief1954

      Thank you. If only more believers had your humility and self-awareness, instead of the mean-spiritedness they so often display while proclaiming the "superiority" of their belief.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  15. Ty

    I think "Its a wonderful life" is about each person's power to make a difference. It doesn't matter whether your an atheist or a christian you can still do good in the world.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  16. Matt

    " the inference that Christianity has served to strengthen the fabric of life in the West as we have known it is unmistakable"

    Indeed. For instance, when white Christians in the South wanted to justify subjugating, torturing and enslaving Africans Christianity was RIGHT THERE with a convenient explanation involving Noah cursing Ham and his descendants.

    When white Christians wanted to take over land where native tribes lived, Christianity came to the rescue again with rhetoric about "chosen people" that could justify genocide.

    Yep, Christianity certainly has "strengthened the fabric" – in some cases, the rope...

    December 24, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  17. PghMike4

    Nonsense. Check out http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-human-beast/200905/are-religious-people-more-ethical-in-their-conduct-ii .

    Basically, when you look at donations to secular charities, like food banks, and control for age, there's no difference between religious people and non-religious people in their giving behavior. You need to control for age, since young people are both typically poorer and less religious than older people.

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

      From Wikipedia: "Religious belief appears to be the strongest predictor of charitable giving.[184][185][186][187][188] One study found that average charitable giving in 2000 by religious individuals ($2,210) was over three times that of secular individuals ($642). Giving to non-religious charities by religious individuals was $88 higher. Religious individuals are also more likely to volunteer time, donate blood, and give back money when accidentally given too much change.[186] A 2007 study by The Barna Group found that "active-faith" individuals (those who had attended a church service in the past week) reported that they had given on average $1,500 in 2006, while "no-faith" individuals reported that they had given on average $200. "Active-faith" adults claimed to give twice as much to non-church-related charities as "no-faith" individuals claimed to give. They were also more likely to report that they were registered to vote, that they volunteered, that they personally helped someone who was homeless, and to describe themselves as "active in the community."[189]"

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

      Chad please stop quoting from bias articles this nonsense to try and validate this lie. If you're really Christian, isn't lying a sin?

      December 24, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Kay

      Yeah. This guy cites The Barna Group as "proof". Yet they're an evangelical polling group that says, "The ultimate aim of the firm is to partner with Christian ministries and individuals to be a catalyst in moral and spiritual transformation in the United States." For some bizarre reason, I wonder if they might skew their questions and interpretations a wee bit. Hmmm.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • Kay

      Chad...since when is the choice only between people who went to church in the last week and people of no faith? Read your Wiki post again.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Ceren

      OMG I didnt even realise this was in Dubbo I have been plnnaing for 12 months to visit Dubbo with my son before he starts school and now with just 3 weeks til we are due to leave the whole of Dubbo is flooded .I hope the flooding goes down and life out there can get back to normal for all the residents and for ppl like me who have spent so much time plnnaing and saving for a holiday out there

      June 28, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Psssfff. Are you REALLY giving Chad any credit or credence here? REALLY? ARE YOU STUPID?

      June 28, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
  18. Karen

    Why do Christians always think they are the only ones with morals? There's nothing wrong with what Jesus taught and following it but he is not the "son" of God. Of course, there are many others philosophers who have helped humanity too.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • rawr

      Because Fundamentalist Christians like Larry Alex 'Taunt'-on are jerks and fear monger-ers at heart who would love nothing more than to siphon money from you for his foundation which pads his pockets.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • chefdugan

      You got it wrong – christians are the only ones with SELECTIVE morals. That is the truth that sustains hypocrites. Jimmy Swaggert? That other guy with the ugly wife? Jakes? and a host of others.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  19. Dustybear

    Those who don't have Jesus in their heart, will never GET IT. The liberals in Hollywood has corrupted this country's morals.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Karen


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

      I don't have "Jesus in my heart" and I get it, in spite of what your pollutted mind would like to believe. As for the article, of course christians are the biggest givers – they give to themselves and their churches. I live in a town of around 30,000 people and their are over 50 chruches polluting the place. The fact that their are that many in a population of that size tells you all you need to know about christianity and christians. They can't even decide what to do among themselves. They can spend their entire lives believing a lot of BS, just don't get in my face about it.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • Paul

      Thank you for speaking the truth Dustybear, and thank you Mr. Taunton for bring to light what I have personally believed and seen for decades. The Lord bless you both.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • Please

      I always love when Christians captialse words. Like typing, "GET IT" means it has to be true. As well as typing Him, He, etc

      December 24, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Mr Lucid

      hmmm.....speaking from a guy that "got it".. woke up and "Lost it", I know where you are coming from. I guess these Hollywood people had a bigger influence on me than I understood and I should be thanking them everyday.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  20. John robbit

    I am amazed to see another rehashing of the old Christian chestnut that the only thing that can cause people and society to act in a moral and ethical fashion is some belief in a benevolent, celestial Grand Poobah. By belief, of course, they mean their belief.

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

      But, it's true!
      Christians are more charitable than any other religion
      Christians are more charitable than atheists
      Nations with a majority of Christians have far better human rights records than non-Christian nations

      December 24, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • steve

      I agree with John. @Chad I think you're operating with selective data.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • trix

      silly robbit Christianity is for everyone !

      December 24, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • John robbit


      Yeah, because charitable giving is the only indicator of moral and ethical behavior. Even if this claim regarding charity were true, might I suggest you take a look at statistics like religious affiliation in U.S. prison populations and rates of crime, abortion, teen pregnancy, and child abuse in religious societies versus secular societies.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:48 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.