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. Kingofthenet

    Funny Science and Logic state IF we all do an experiment the same way, we should have the same result, but when people do the 'Religion Experiment' everyone gets a different result, hence all the different Christian Denominations and worlds religions, seems like there isn't any logic behind it, for anything to be the TRUE word of God?

    December 24, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  2. Bobbi

    Writing as someone who grew up in the Episcopal Church, and someone who grew up watching Its a Wonderful Life, I can see that the points you make in your story are valid (to Christians) . However, I take issue with your ending "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."

    Are you saying that non christians make the world a pottersville? Because not only do I find that offensive, but totally absurd.

    I grew up being forced to go to church, participate in a communion to save my soul. I never felt in my spirit that this was something that was in jeopardy, something that I was required to have to fight for. We all have the duty of being responsible to our planet, and our fellow occupants of it. To put the blame as you have done is to condemn millions of people because they make different choices than you.

    Our world is becoming more local, we are more accepting of our differences, both culturally and personally. Wars are being fought by leaders who see nothing more than that they are the ones that are "Right". That to me means that they Potters of the world, not my muslim neighbors, not the buddist monks down the road, not the jewish people the next block over. Not the wiccans, the scientologists, not even the atheists.

    Christians time and again have squashed creativity, tolerance and freedom. In my experience, and millions of others, Christians who only value their religion, are the Potters of the world. Grow an honest opinion, not one that has been indoctrinated onto young children who arent given an oppurtunity to open their eyes to ALL other religions, open your heart to tolerance, be accepting of gays, pro choicers, and respect the fact ANYreligion is ultimately ones OWN OPINION!!!

    I am a proud, tolerant, and HOPEFULL american regardless of my religious beliefs!!!Please next time, dont bring my favorite movie into your argument, it is NOT a movie on christianity. It is a movie on HOPE!!!

    December 24, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  3. Frank Candor

    A think religion like Taunton imagines (e.g., Christianity) will never be the solution to the central problem as he envisages it: man's evil nature. First of all, many will disagree with what he calls evil. Second, Christianity, like other forms of monotheism, insists it is right and everything else is wrong. This is why it is indeed a virus working against the evolving nature of human cognition and consciousness. An ancient religion, in other words, will never serve such a consciousness. It aims to fix human understanding, not facilitate it. Taunton's exclusion of Islam from his moral compass (note his Judeo-Christian reference) is a case in point, since Muslims share the same Abrahamic god, a fact Americans want to ignore. We do not need to fear Pottersville; we need to fear the fear-mongerers, such as Taunton.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  4. joe jones

    wow, what a loose web of logic you weave when you practice to deceive. You are so all over the board in assertions and conclusions it's basically impossible to follow let alone refute.

    About the only logical thing you did was use a fictional movie as the foundation of your piece on the fictional necessity of our fictional belief system.

    Thank God (tongue in cheek) for all the strong willed intelligent, educated, scientifically minded Americans who were able to overcome Christianity's influence and bring on scientific, social and cultural revolutions that have not only brought Christianity to it knees (pun intended) but have also changed the world so much for the better so that even a Christian should, with just a little self reflection, be able to see the laugh out loud irony of backdoor proselytizing of his archaic, ignorant and dying belief system on a worldwide web of connected computer systems.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Frank Candor

      Well put, my friend. Well put! Happy Holidays!

      December 24, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Inspector Clouseau

      What ? Ya mean the discovery of the Higgs boson isn't another step down in the Decline of the West ? He really is delusional. Ban those evil antibiotics, angioplasties, and sewage systems. They are the works of Satan. Pardon me, I have to go out a do my daily sacrificial offering to my angry god. I fattened a goose just for today.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  5. dwt

    This article is consumed by thought patterns proper to the three big monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Would the author have us think of the poor Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, bereft of our Christian wisdom? When he say what "we" need, he in fact means only what he and those like him need.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  6. Joke

    It is typical for christians to believe that they made everything: civilization, laws, morality. And none of these things existed before christianity? So what of christianity's violent past? It cannot be denied that christianity did much violence in the name of its faith, just like all other religions. Is this now going to be explained away by christianity's revisionist mindset? Time to end all religions. It's that simple.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Frank Candor

      This is SO true. Certainly Christianity has contributed a great deal to Western Civ, but so did the pagan Greco-Roman civilization–democracy, republican forms of govt., the sheer affirmation of the possibility of happiness in this world. And all this survived despite certain Christians' efforts to destroy the accomplishments of the classical past. Again, it's the exclusive mentality of people like Taunton, not the secularists he condemns, that is so offensive to his theme.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  7. Professor

    Faith in a higher power is innate in mankind. We seem to know instinctively that there is something greater than us out there. We have a soul. We also have a conscience, which is what prompts us to voluntarily help those who are less fortunate, and to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

    But we don't need to jump in a car and drive to a church, or kneel in a glittering cathedral in order to talk to God.

    God is everywhere. Our Father/Mother God is both in us, and all around us.

    Organized religion, on the other hand, is naught but a tool to control the intellectually challenged. It has been used throughout history to unleash unspeakable horrors on individuals who fail to yield to those claiming to be "holier than thou".

    Those who wrap themselves in the flag, and enshrine themselves in smug superiority, those who would deny women's rights, those who insist that some humans are more equal than other humans, those who insist that any religion other than their own is either evil or somehow "un-Christian" are themselves worthy of our collective pity, for they are the ones who failed to pay attention to the Teacher they so claim to revere.

    Folks who insist that December 25th is a "holy day" because it is the "birth date" of the "son of God" have never bothered to do even the most rudimentary of homework. They blindly accept the tenets of Organized Religion, which tells them that this is the case. It's not, of course.

    If Jesus actually existed, from everything we know, he was a good man, a Teacher, who espoused common sense lessons meant to benefit all of humanity. Was he the son of God? From what we read, he taught us that we are ALL children of God. That means ALL of us, REGARDLESS of what man-made religion we choose to follow (or abstain from following).

    Was his birth date the 25th of December? Of course not. Five minutes of research will give you that information. That was simply a date selected by Organized Religion. The date chosen represented a shrewd political move, cleverly appropriating the date of another festival, thus claiming it as their own, and providing yet another means for control of the masses.

    Does that mean we should cease observing the festival? Should we stop celebrating the possible prior existence of one who is believed to have taught us valuable lessons? Why should we? Anything that provides a brief respite from the daily worries, which prompts us to remember that it is more blessed to give than to receive, which causes us to pause for a moment of introspection, certainly can't be bad for humanity.

    It is a fine thing to honor the memory of a wise Teacher.

    May the Force be with you.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  8. Larry C

    I agree with the article and like the analogy of the classic film to the current drive to remove Christian thought and idealogy from our nation. One thing is certain, that left to his own device man will continue on a moral decline until he eventually destroys himself and all around him. Those who think religion is a "Mental Virus" are the Scrooges of the world who would plunge man into eternal darkness to advance their own lies.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Relictus

      There were morals and laws before Christianity. The idea that we became perfectly moral with the advent of Christianity is wrong. There are many cultures from classical history that knew nothing of Christ and yet had high moral standards. Today, look to China and India – one Atheist, the other extremely religious – and know that Christianity does not have a lock on morals or law or even faith.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  9. Julia

    I love how commenters pick the absolute worst of Christianity and make it sound like it's mainstream (sort of like equating all Muslims to terrorists, but I digress). The whole point of being Christian is to be responsible to someone else, whether it's a higher power like God or your own community. It's in STARK contrast to the hedonistic society where "Leave me alone. I'm doing it because it makes ME happy!" rules. True Christians believe that they have a responsibility to help others (with their own time, effors, and money, not by passing it to the goverment where most of it ends up in corrupt hands). Millions of Christians walk the talk every single day, but most choose to focus on the televangalists who, get this, aren't true Christians. No one is saying that atheists can't have morals–many do–but a Christian society means that we are beholden to each other. There's less and less of that every day.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Relictus

      No one is saying that atheists cannot have morals except the author of the article. His message is clear. Did you think that we would forget?

      December 24, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  10. Jbird

    25 years ago, I remember reading a biblical passage related to the apocalypse, out of morbid fun & curiosity. I thought "no collection of events could transpire this much to make it that bad, that rabidly. Impossible!" Now on Christmas Eve, I see stories of mall shootings, civil strife, and the fact that we aren't prepared for flu pandemic. Combine that with the way we DON'T relate to each other anymore, and the end suddenly does seem possible. It won't necessarily take the return of a biblical figure to do the trick!

    December 24, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Relictus

      Those things are due to other factors than religion. The modern divorce rate can be traced to Feminist ideology, for example. They do not like "God the Father", and sticking with a man sticks in their craw.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  11. Tr1Xen

    What a bunch of hate speech. F-you from a proud atheist, sir!

    December 24, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Jbird

      You could express your atheism in a little more humanity. Sounds like your just angry and lost.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Relictus

      What? You mock the magic sky fairy? Have an internets.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  12. Brian

    The author takes the stance that Chirstianity is obviously the religion all Americans must turn to for guidance in thier lives. America is no longer a monolith of one single religion. Even aetheists and Agnostics I know are very moral and follow the principles of the Ten Commandments. I am Agnostic and do not want any religion pushed down my throat. The author forgets some of the reasons America was founded.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  13. FeralUrchin

    Why is it that god always seems to need some dingbat human to speak for him? Why doesn't god speak unambiguously (publicly, repeatably) for himself? It seems to me that much of theology is excuse-making for god's non-presence. Any god for whom humans have to make excuses is a pretty lame conception of god.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Relictus

      Can you imagine if any home altar let you talk directly to God? No questions about law or morality ... just burn an index card on the altar and poof! Instant direction. =)

      The all powerful, all-knowing God is strangely mute. How odd.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  14. neutralcarbon

    Most liberals want Obama Worship and/or Global Warmism as the state-sponsored religions of the U.S.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Joshua Ludd

      Actually, I would say on the whole Liberals don't want ANY state sponsored religion.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Thomas

      There are many "state sponsored" efforts that I don't want either. So apparently we can get everything we want, right?

      December 24, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  15. Albert

    Christian Values. Please note that many societies & cultures around the world share many of the basic ideas- be nice, don't kill people. don't steal things, do your part. These are the glues of successful societies- the other ones are gone in a Darwinian moment because they didn't work.
    Note that basing a society on "Christian Values" does not require the existence of god- just a world view that considers life in generations, not just weeks.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Relictus

      Christian values restrict medical science in ways that will hamper generations.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  16. curley

    Pottersville is not a depiction of the world without Christian beliefs but a world beset by unregulated Capitalism. Mr. Potter is the ultimate capitalist: alone, mean, angry, vindictive, miserable although he has acquired everything his greedy, materialist heart has desired, just like the main character in There Will Be Blood. Pottersville is a view of the world if the Rush Limbaughs of the world achieve their economic and political goals.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • neutralcarbon

      Find you Obama idol and worship it quickly!!

      December 24, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • gutsycall@yahoo.com

      Perfectly said. I know many atheists and Catholics, and Christians who understand this movie. Unfettered capitalism is what can kill Christ-mas. Nothing else.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  17. Jim

    Since a person's religion is a matter of random chance of where they are born, how is anyone supposed to know which religion is "right?"

    The only reason christians think they're right is because it's what some pedophile told them.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • Thomas

      Without question, the most ignorant thing I have read in 53 years of walking this earth.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Relictus

      Jim nails it for the win! =)

      December 24, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  18. Joshua Ludd

    In other words.. better watch out if Christians lose their faith, as its the only thing keeping them from being terrible people? You don't need faith to be a good, generous person who cares deeply about other people... and given the fact that the majority in this nation are Christian AND that Christianity is the most populous religion among our highly recidivist prison population as well, it doesn't really help the argument that things would be worse without Christianity, as things are already pretty bad with it.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  19. Harold Hotchkiss

    This article is a tremendous insult to hundreds of millions of Buddhists and Hindus around the world, not to mention atheists and Muslims. There is absolutely no concrete evidence that Christians (or religious people in general) are more generous, kind, or virtuous than atheists or agnostics. For every example of Christian virtue that the author can cite, I can provide two counter examples where Christianity has been used for evil. Believing in fairy tales is not a good character trait.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • Joshua Ludd

      Keep in mind, just as in the non-incarcerated populace, Christians make up the majority of the prison populations.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Thomas

      And how many trillions of acts of kindness and love have been over the millenia have been done in the name of Christianity?

      December 24, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  20. Cassandra

    Christmas wouldn't exist if you hadn't stole it from the Pagans like Christians stole all other aspects of their faith from older ones. Our morality is based on decency that goes far beyond your faith. Mr Taunton, a religion that created the Inquisition and Crusades has no right pretending it's a moral and just faith. Get over yourself.

    December 24, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • Wraith

      Exactly. This, "author," is, in a way, coming out and trying to say that all good things are because of Christianity, and it's just flat out false. Christianity is the newest incarnation of many older faiths compiled together. I'm sure 5000 years from now, people will be yelling at evangelists/nutjobs from the new faith about how it plagarized Christianity. 😉

      December 24, 2011 at 11:39 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.