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. Praetorian

    Just another example of someone using a perceived 'lack' of Christianity to explain a situation that has very little if anything to do with it. Make no mistake, there are more and more 'Pottervilles' being created every day. The reason has nothing to do with religious belief. It has everything to do with the concentration of wealth among the very richest of us and their desire to hold on to every last cent of it, no matter the impact on society as a whole.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • Stephen Lile

      I'm a Christ-follower and Bible-believing, born-again evangelical. This label may be offensive to many of the respondents on this blog. But, I hope that you'll all keep reading.

      Here's a radical concept: Every man, woman and child has the right to believe what they choose to believe. This basic "fact" is one of the underlying tenets of the Bible. We are endowed by God with free will. We can choose. It's a Biblical fact. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I acknowledge that many people will choose not to accept Him. Their lack of acceptance doesn't diminish non-believers' "goodness" or moral standards or ethical integrity. Many good, ethical people are convinced that God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit don't exist. In their minds, it's a "fact".

      Let's also consider other "facts" that have been evolved throughout history. It was a fact that the Earth was flat until Columbus proved otherwise. It was a fact that that the Earth revolved around the Sun until Galileo proved otherwise. It was a fact that gravity would cause all things hurled in the air to fall back until science discovered that we could escape its pull. And, recently, science has discovered evidence of a so-called "God particle" (the Higgs-Boson particle) which may give all things their mass. We as a society are constantly recording new "facts" which disprove or discount formerly verifiable "facts".

      Please consider two more "facts". Christ-followers are not generically anti-science. Many so-called "Christians' claim to love God but clearly dislike many of His creations.

      I choose to have faith and believe in Jesus Christ. I also choose to believe in the Higgs-Boson particle. Neither is mutually exclusive. We, as Christ-followers, must choose to love people of all faiths, religions and, yes, even non-believers. Therein lies the answer to the ills of the world. Thanks for reading. Merry CHRISTmas.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  2. John Leicht

    Same, tired old argument. Sorry, but I'm quite happy without believing I'm evil incarnate but for Jimmy Stewart.

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

      Jer 17:9 ¶ The heart [is] deceitful above all [things], and desperately wicked: who can know it?

      December 24, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  3. Courser

    Wow CNN, what a terrible piece to put on the front page of your site. I have run into people who have made this argument to me before. This whole treatise on the nature of Good and Evil is inappropriate and wrong-headed. I'm personally offended by the accusation that Man is inherently Evil without Jesus Christ. Please, I know atheists who have a higher moral code than many Christians.

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

      You can be offended all you want but it's true: Gen 6:5 ¶ And GOD saw that the wickedness of man [was] great in the earth, and [that] every imagination of the thoughts of his heart [was] only evil continually.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      If you can only find one "source" that "proves" something, you have no proof that it's true, Keith.

      December 24, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • onehippypoet

      tom tom the pipers son
      stole a pig and
      we really need confimation
      of this before we can proceed

      December 24, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  4. Rick

    Great article. Thank you CNN for posting. Merry Christmas!

    December 24, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  5. PescaderoFred

    I guess that explains why countries like Sweden and the Czech Republic, where unbelievers are a majority, are mired in poverty, crime and disease.


    The Barna Group is hardly an independent or unbiased player in this debate. Please cite figures from a more independent source. Meanwhile, I'm with Dawkins and Sam Harris: religion (not just Christianity, but certainly including it) is a profound evil whose damage to our lives and societies far outweighs any good that it provides. In addition to the fact that it's just completely silly; why anybody believes any of this stuff is totally beyond me.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Razgovory

      Dawkins is an excellent example here. His "Mind Virus" or meme theory is interesting. It has no scientific basis (it's not falsifiable and even it's defenders admit it can't be called a science at this point in time), and it betrays a rather totalitarian outlook. In reducing other ideas to "viruses", you undermine the right to have them. You don't have the right to spread viruses, you can be quarantined for that. If we classify ideas we don't like as "viruses", then we have a basis for suppressing them.

      I'm not sure you want to use the examples of the Czech Republic or Sweden though. With their fertility rates in drastic decline these states will face economic collapse in the next few decades.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  6. Jon

    My God. The movie HAS NOTHING to do with a society with God and without God. The movie HAS EVERYTHING to do with a society becoming ruled BY THE RICH UNIMPEDED. Only a Republican could twist the movie like that. WHY ARE YOU PUBLISHING THIS ON FRONT PAGE, CNN? HAVE YOU BECOME ANOTHER FOX NEWS TOO?

    December 24, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  7. andersod

    It's completely arrogant to suggest that the "Judeo-Christian worldview" is a necessary element for anybody's "moral or intellectual sensibilities". What a load of crap.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • 4mercy

      No it's not. Jesus is the WAY, the TRUTH, and the LIFE. We are NOTHING without God's hand in our life.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • Keith

      Wait until the Great Tribulation. You ain't seen nothin' yet.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  8. mcp123

    So the authors favorite movie is a fictional movie based on the fantasy of christianity.

    I imagine a world where we were free of religion and two thousands years of murder death and war because we realize that in the end all we have each other and no fictional god is going to save us. We'd have to do it for ourselves.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • 4mercy

      It is sad that you are so lost – that you have no one to rely on for strength in difficult times...that you are so self-centered that you feel you must and can do everything on your own. God is merciful – ask him for his mercy for you and for all.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  9. Paul TKH

    I'm of two minds. Full disclosure: I call myself a secularist. That's like an atheist, but without the annoying sanctimony. 😉

    First off, I agree that it's undeniable that a good deal, if not the majority, of what drives Americans to be good, decent, kind, compassionate people is their faith in Jesus Christ. Historically, this is even more true. The symbols used in "It's A Wonderful Life" illustrate that Capra meant people to make a connection between Christian belief and goodness.

    On the other hand, I feel as if the author is saying that the only way for people to be good, decent, kind, and compassionate is to be Christian, or (as a corollary) that all or at least most Christians fit that bill. That's simply not true. There are some wonderful secularists out there, who have no belief in any sort of supernatural forces or any sort of next-life reward/punishment. There are some truly awful people who profess to be Christian, such as Fred Phelps. Christianity is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for goodness.

    Then again, I do not believe that humans are innately evil. Even most acts that we deem to be "evil" are the result of unresolved hurt and pain; if we were more compassionate to each other, especially the wrong-doers, the frequency of those acts would go down. If being Christian helps some of us to be more compassionate, then so be it; let those believers believe. If being Muslim, or Hindu, or Wiccan, or atheist helps some of us to be more compassionate, than again, so be it. We should be concerned with how we treat each other, not with what specific set of beliefs we hold.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • Courser

      Well said, Paul. Thank you.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  10. Bob

    The country is always viewed as going downhill. Life is good. Thank God for what we have. Others need our help.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  11. Joe NYer

    There are lifetime Christian evangelists, teachers and yes, priests and clergy who are every bit as kind and NON-judgemental to those who don't practice a faith. It's not hate or fundamentalism that worries me-it's JUDGEMENT. We're all accountable. You see the breakdown of the American family encouraged in our media everyday, with disfunction and sinful relationships (I don't care if Jerry Springer is staged-it encourages it). That which we call "no big deal" does manifest itself when we don't notice and becomes epidemic-or worse yet, "normal". This is not the world I grew up in back in the 60s and 70s. All the technology and advances in medicine we've achieved; and yet, temptation always seems to win us over. Look at how these non-talented "rappers" are lauded for criminal behavior as if they contributed to the image of their chosen field. Modern day Stepin Fetchits is all they are-and they don't care! They WANT to upset, disturb and incite us. Any attention is GOOD attention. I beg to differ.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  12. james

    disturbing? what do YOU think the original intent of the movie was? I'm sure it's Godless

    December 24, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  13. Quimby

    "Like many others, he grossly underestimates the degree to which his own moral and intellectual sensibilities have been informed by the Judeo-Christian worldview."

    BS, Morals and values are derived from your early interactions with others (play) and from your role models (parents). Cooperation and morals were neccessary for early people to survive. Just ask yourself this question are religious people (particularly Christians) more moral and sensible than others? I haven't seen it in my life....they are just about the same.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  14. Ben

    Thank you for such a great article. I know if Christianity were never born, I would be at a loss of how to deal with such stress and indecision in this world. I'm surprised about how many non-Christian Americans disconnect Christmas with Christianity-I don't understand why anyone would celebrate a holiday in a religion in which they don't believe.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • Jason C.

      Holidays are fun. Take a day off and enjoy time with friends and family. What does the fictional Christ figure have to do with any of it?

      December 24, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • mcp123

      "I would be at a loss of how to deal with such stress and indecision in this world. I'm surprised about how many non-Christian Americans disconnect Christmas with Christianity-I don't understand why anyone would celebrate a holiday in a religion in which they don't believe"

      Awww.. you've got stress eh? Well deal with it. By the way... "Christmas" like most things in christianity was just stolen from other belief systems. It was and has always been a celebration of the solstice http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_solstice when the sun stays out longer. "Christmas" trees... and Santa Claus are all adaptations of other myths from various non-christian belief systems.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • oj

      "I know if Christianity were never born, I would be at a loss of how to deal with such stress and indecision in this world." This shows how weak minded you are if you need to foist your fears onto an imaginary man to be able to deal with "stress". However do people who don't buy into the whole myth thing survive day to day without an invisible friend to tell them what size latte to get?

      The author of the article insults everyone who does not believe as he does by saying you cannot be a moral person without fear of a bearded guy in your everyday life.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  15. Clayton

    One of many positive belief systems the world would be a Pottersville without them.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  16. Kingofthenet

    Remember Rome fell as 'The HOLY ROMAN Empire', when they were throwing the Christians to the lions, they were doing fine...

    December 24, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Rozaroad

      Please look up the "Holy Roman Empire". It had NOTHING to do with the fall of Rome. Examine the state of Roman culture during the time of the Christian persecutions, and then decide whether that is the kind of society in which you wish to live.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Razgovory

      You are off by a few hundred years. The Roman empire collapsed in the West in the 5th century. In the east in the 15th. The Holy Roman Empire was founded in the 9th and was formally destroyed in the 18th (though it had lost most of it's meaning after 1648).

      December 24, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • painterman

      ummm, Rome fell after it adopted Christianity as the official state religion in 313. No body was throwing Christians to the lions after that and although the empire fell in the west in the 400's, it continued via the Byzantine empire for another thousand years.

      Just saying.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  17. sonny chapman

    Just started reading Tolstoy's,"The Kingdom is Here". Jesus, as found in the Four Gospels, w/out Organized Religion's spin, is the WAY for as good of a life as one can hope to live in this world ! Tough to live though.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  18. Bob

    Thank-you CNN for posting this! It dosen't take a movie show the effects of secularism on society. One just needs to be a student of world history to see the devastating results

    December 24, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  19. Lloyd

    It makes me sad to read most of these posts. The author is simply making the point that even for you atheists, your morality is based on Christian beliefs and having had an upbringing in a Christian based society. For future generations of Americans, our society could be very different if the liberals succeed in removing Christianity from all aspects of our lives. I for one do not have a strong belief in God, although I wish I did. But I certainly do not want to live in a world where Americans in large part do not believe in God. If you do not believe that leading a life like Jesus led is a good thing, then I truly feel sorry for you because things have happened in your life that have made you calus. But like the author said, be careful what you wish for. Helping others, forgiving others, turning the other cheek, being charitable... how are these bad things? My parents tought me these things, just as their parents tought them, just as their parents tought them, etc. But what happens when parents stop teaching these things and our kid's great-grandkids grow up knowing nothing of them. I wish the liberals of today could be around then to see what the world had become that they so ignorantly desired to create.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Real Deal

      Lloyd: "Helping others, forgiving others, turning the other cheek, being charitable..."

      Do you think that these ideas are Christian only?
      Do you think that these ideas originated with Jesus?

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

      Lloyd – my general observation is that "liberals" have more compassion and empathy for others than do "conservatives."

      Conservatives are always whining
      "mine, mine, mine,"
      "keep you hand out of my pocket,"
      "why should I have to pay for someone else's health insurance,"
      "the bottom 47% are parasites."

      No, explain to me how conservative Christianity has helped anyone, or at least explain how liberal caring for others is bad.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • nepawoods

      "The author is simply making the point that even for you atheists, your morality is based on Christian beliefs and having had an upbringing in a Christian based society" ... And there's zero truth to that, and that's what others are pointing out. It's pure ignorance to think that without Christianity, people would have lesser morals, and would be mean spirited or lack compassion toward their fellow man (like Henry Potter in the movie).

      December 24, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Kathy

      Lloyd, you have a good heart and are wise.

      Everyday ask the Lord to let you feel His presence more deeply and I promise you that prayer will be answered. I will also pray for you.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • oj

      "Helping others, forgiving others, turning the other cheek, being charitable... how are these bad things?"

      Parents are certainly able to teach children how to behave in society without instilling in them fear of a great bearded guy in the clouds.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Derek

      Yeah Llyod, it's all the evil liberals that want to do away with with Christianity, are you that ignornat? How did you come to that conculsion? As far as I can see it, whose the party that wants to do away with social programs that help thos ein need, addiction programs etc etc. Do away with those and those who are desperate enough will pilfer and just take what they need. What I see is a lot of stupid people pro-creating, who have no skills to teach moral fabric. This my friend is the dumbing down of America, and everyone in every segment in the population is contributing to that fact alone. Parenting has most to do with how their children see and treat the world, and if you want to attribute it to democrats, then let your ignornance be passed along, hopefully not to your children if you have them.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • 4mercy

      It's too bad that liberals don't have the moral values of most conservatives – we'd have a lot less to argue about if people lived the TRUTH.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • Courser

      I get very personally offended when Christians co-opt all that is good in the world for their God and Jesus Christ. Good existed in the world before Christ and will continue to do so. The concept of helping others did NOT begin with Christ. The old pagan religions believed in goodness and charity too.

      Get off your high horse and celebrate the holiday as you wish and let me celebrate in my way. There is room for both in this world

      December 24, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • painterman

      Lloyd, I don't think anyone is making the argument that charity and compassion are bad things. I mean really. I think what those of us who are secularists object to is being told that we aren't and can't be charitable and compassionate with out believing someone else's faith. There are charities that are not faith based and people of compassion who are either secular or of a another faith. I was raised Christian and left it mainly because of this kind of our way or the highway (the highway to hell!) crap. I live in a lovely Mayberry RFD kind of town and I'd estimate that a good portion of the community are secular. There are also plenty of churches and synagogues and you know what . . . if someone doesn't tell me they are of a faith – I won't know because they're all, for the most part, decent civilly minded people, those of faith as well as those who are not. The country is going through a hard time and it has over its history. I think that has a lot more to do with our economic system than it does any faith system or lack there of. We went through numerous depressions and recoveries throughout the 19th century and by any measure the country was more "Christian" then.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  20. ObjectiveOpinion

    It's a wonderful life was an 'Inception' movie from earlier times. This was all a dream George had. And by the way, there is no god, no jesus, no holy ghost. There is only chance.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:46 am |
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