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. GodIsForImbeciles

    What a hopeless tool of an article. Christianity is for suckers who believe in Cosmic Tinkerbell.

    Grow up, losers.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  2. Stephen

    Epic fail, CNN. Sad, indeed.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  3. Chris

    What?! We're already in Pottersville- due to the actions of the so-called Christians who run the Republican party.

    Additionally, any religion that actively hates a woman's right to choose what happens to her own body, as well as openily hating a minority group like gays and lesbians, is simply disgusting and has no right denouncing others!

    December 24, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  4. LeeCMH

    The author quotes the Barna Group. Please! The Barna Group is a tool of hateful right wing Christians.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • tom tom the tea partier

      you say hateful right wing like it's a bad thing

      December 24, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • Doug R.

      ... agreed ... plus, author goes out of his way to label the atheist professor as 'provacative', why? atheists, myself included, are tired of being labeled as such by those of religious belief. i don't really care what you believe in, as long as you keep the peace and practice within your own property lines ... what I find 'provacative': how do Christians/people of faith balance their religions with their voting behaviors that CONSISTENTLY bring about leaders that pursue WAR to settle our disputes ???!!! my donations to charitable orgs, if you look at the roots of the issues of 'the need' for me to do so, are a result of 'Christian'/religious doctrines being ignored by those that 'believe' ... enough already. Practice what you preach!! Don't wait for 'the holidays' to 'do good'. This atheist actually appreciates a 'true' person of faith, they are harder and harder to find these days ... doing one thing while saying other : hypocrisy is what is driving people away from the religions of the world. Most of the atheists I know fully understand and practice peaceful co-existance, right up until the warring religions of the world bring conflict to our doorsteps/livelihoods ... it is at that point, that I'll become "provacative". Try me.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:15 am |

    I wish everyone a MERRY CHRISTMAS but let's face it, some of the most evil people have done their evil in the name of Christianity. It's someones ETHICS that make them good or evil not the ancient scripture they follow.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  6. Sandy

    Why all the anger in these comments? Because, "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed."

    Jesus is knocking at the door of your heart. There is no ulterior evil motive of control and manipulation. I know it's hard to beleve in this jaded world we live in but He truly just loves you and only wants what is best for you. It's as simple as that.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:00 am |

      If everyone went to church and believed in Jesus there would still be plenty of evil. There would be child molesters (as the church has proven time and again), thieves (see the last parenthetical comment), liars and charlatans (once again..), murderers, you name it.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • Elwood P. Dowd

      "Jesus is knocking at the door of your heart. He truly just loves you and only wants what is best for you."

      Same with my 6'3" invisible rabbit named Harvey...

      December 24, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • FeralUrchin

      Whether fortunately or regrettably, there is no credible evidence for Jesus' divinity, nor is there good reason to choose one allegedly "holy book" over another. I'm and atheist. Jesus is one of my heroes. I respect his example, teaching and memory too much to make up silly stories about him.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  7. Avatar

    Boy, athiests sure have a thin skin. Pretty funny.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • E

      Actually, you likely know many athiests and don't even know it. Know who is constantly and loudly trying to defend themselves and have a thin skin? Christians. The lengths you will go to in order to justify hate, bigotry and narrowminded hypocrisy is astounding. Why not just let people, who are in no way hurting you, live their lives without shoving Bibles into their body parts and their bedrooms?

      December 24, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  8. Richard Thomas

    It is rather telling that the means by which an arguement for the defense of Christianity in this article should rest resides in a fictional movie. The seeming inability of people such as this to be able to distinguish between feel good and reality is basis for its continuing demise. Our world has always faced challenges to which it must rise daily and continue to work on. How sad that people would think that they are evil at their core.However what is tragic is that they think this is actually true. The tyranny of small minds such as this is what has to be extinguished so that real humanity can come together and be civil.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • john walton

      Goodnight richard

      December 24, 2011 at 11:01 am |

      What's true is that people are essentially good. Ask any cop. They will tell you it's a small percentage of people who are rotten (except in Washington and Wall St). If people weren't essentially good and civically minded we would have died out long before Jesus showed up.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  9. Jim

    Lloyd – "Helping others, forgiving others, turning the other cheek, being charitable..." I have NEVER, EVER, EVER, heard a conservative profess any of these as being "good" unless it's to others like them, or to prove the conservative givers' superiority over the "lazy poor."

    December 24, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  10. Josh

    You should probably be on fox news.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  11. AZfatcat

    I have no problem with people who choose to follow Christian beliefs, be it with Christmas displays, personal private prayers, bumper stickers, etc. What I resent is so called Christians attempting to foist their beliefs on others. If I remember my Bible stories correctly, Jesus criticized those who made a public show of praying. He also told people to take care of the poor and ill, not criticize them for looking for handouts. Why is it that so many conservative Christians who are against abortion because they describe it as murder yet are the first to go to war, demand capital punishment, ignore those dying of starvation and are homeless? "By their works ye shall know them." We have many Christians who publicly exhibit a Christian life, but privately do not follow the true meaning of Christianity. Let's not get hung up on whether there is public prayer because everyone can pray as much as he/she chooses privately.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Jim

      I agree AZfatcat – Christians forget that "freedom of religion" also means my freedom FROM their religion.

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

      AZfatcat, Check out Abraham Lincoln's call to prayer...may be enlighting for you.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  12. Sherman in Waiting

    Its a shame and not a shame that so many humans have to receive "right and wrong" through this method of connecting the message with the messenger. – I always thought the message was don't kill yourself its irresponsible to others.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Ken

      I watched the movie last night and I get it, our society has turned into Pottersville. I remember not so many years ago, I lived in Bedford falls. How prophetic was, "It is a wonderful life".

      December 24, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  13. Joe

    I tis not 'god' or any other mysterious deity that makes us behavve the way we do, it is the last 300,000 years of living in groups that makes us sociual animals. Eventually these religious maniacs will realize we don't need to invoke a deity to explain ANYTHING.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Michael Gast

      Who IS this Larry Alex Taunton and why is his depressing brand of uncritical thinking given such prominence on CNN?

      December 24, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  14. Thoughtful

    Actually, while the basic concept of the article, that is that most peoples moral compass is based in their religious upbringing, may be true, it's clearly not the only path since religion itself is a philosophy. If we were as dutiful in teaching our children non-theological philosophy as religious philosophy it would replace the fiction of religion with the less "faith" based and more "thought" based basis for leading a good life.

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

      Maybe you should look at what happened to Socrates. In trying to establish the truth based on a a wide ranging dialog, he was killed by the sophists who believe truth is relative to the times. So threatened were the sophists, the only way to prevail was to kill Socrates. This story has played out thru history and is evident in the discussion about this movie.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • Thouhtful

      Ken, actually, as I'm sure you are aware, Socrates was found guilty but given opportunity to escape his sentence. He decided to kill himself based on his view of the social contract. However, I see nothing countering the argument of fostering a moral base upon non-theologically based philosophy in Socrates fate. Philosophy based on clear thought will never preclude aberration any more than theology has. Surely, the priests who have abused children believed in their god and feared his wrath. It simply will preclude a dependence upon fairy tales. Common to all cultures is a philosophical concept of treating others as you would wish to b treated. No "man in the clouds" required.

      December 25, 2011 at 12:24 am |
  15. Man created God in his image

    Pottersville is the product of unregulated CAPITALISM. Small town America has been wiped out by Wal-Mart, not a lack of faith.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  16. Josh

    America can survive without christianity. Just becuase the country is having hard times you put it solely on the lessening of christianity in our society? Wow, this is why most the rest of the world hates us. Its not so much that your a christian, its that your arrogant and ignorant about it. Not all the founding fathers were christian either.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  17. jesse

    as usual a christian philopspher attributes the sussecces of modernity to christian faith without any evidence to back it. The benevolence of christianity you refer to has never been a part of the American tradition. Jesus does not preach free market but redistribution of weath. Most of our founders may have been christians but very little of our early successes has anything to do with those beliefs. If societies succeed because of a belief in christ how does that explain Rome whose decline started with its conversion to christianity and authoritarianism or the muslim empires that spread from china to europe for hundreds of years or the dark ages where all of christian europe floundered while the east was the center of scientific and cultural advancement.

    we rose to prominance through capitalism, imperialism, scientific advancement and democracy, none of which show up in the new testament. unfortunately many of our recent downfalls are likely from the same things. christianity may have been around for these things, but its role is more as a bystander than the cause of any of it, good or bad.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  18. american

    Keep in mind that Mr. Potter was a Republican and the Baileys were Democrats.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  19. Kingofthenet

    Amazing God could be so 'chatty' to uneducated 'goat herders' 2,000 yrs ago but not even a simple talking snake or burning bush in over 2000 years...

    December 24, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  20. Andy Thomas-Cramer

    The myth has had some good influence - and some bad as well.

    But it is a myth, and the time for myths is passing.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • Mary Graham

      I pity those of you who slight and mock religion from the bottom of my heart. Sure, keep telling yourselves what a "myth" God, good and salvation are – and then try not to be too scared on the eventual death bed we all someday face. As for Richard Dawkins, it is quite easy to see why he would be so bitter and full of anger, and he deserves pity, too.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Eric G

      It has passed. At issue is the fact that throughout history, when a belief system becomes socially irrelevant, there was another belief system there to take it's place. Now, the necessity of myth as the basis of a belief system has ended.

      Secularism will replace "belief" as more of the worlds population becomes more educated.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • Eric G

      @Mary Graham: Ah, the last bastion of a believer with no supporting evidence for their argument. Threats.

      Please provide any verifiable evidence that supports your belief that your god exists. Once you have that established, we can verify the evidence you have that supports your views on afterlife.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:06 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.