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. Oh please

    Your lame argument just handed Richard Dawkins another talking point. Thanks!

    December 24, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • Razgovory

      He needs all he can get. He keeps pushing pseudoscience like "memes" and "Bicameral" mind. He honestly should be ashamed of himself.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • 4sanity

      The meme "meme" is doing just fine. You've just confirmed the central premise: ideas as "replicators" subject to selection with only the fittest persevering.

      December 24, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  2. Razgovory

    Well, I hope our resident Athiests stand up for the their beliefs tomorrow, and go to work. Or at least not take holiday pay for some silly holiday they don't believe in. Leave us poor deluded fools to our absurd rituals while you can sit high and mighty in the smug knowledge of much more rational you are in your office tomorrow.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Oh please

      Like most professionals, I get paid for doing a job. It is no relevance to you when I do it.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • Eric G

      Sorry, your "only members get benefits" argument is invalid. Christmas is no longer a religious holiday. It is a tradition and has become secular in it's observance.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • Kingofthenet

      As an Atheist, ANY reason for a party is fine by me, as far as I know ALL 'St.Patty' cared about was drinking and eating good corn beef, and wearing green, sounds like a fine gent.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      I have the misfortune of working for a multinational corporation HQ'd in the USA that shuts down for a week at this time of the year. Because of your stupid myths, I get to use up my vacation time or take time off with no pay. Your myths cost me money, so please fuck off with your high and mighty bullshit!

      December 24, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • captain america

      screw a canadian? good for them.There's your sign

      December 24, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Fordham Jock

      Hey Hot. Congrats on figuring out the way around the fucking word filter !

      December 24, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Thanks, but I must credit LinCA with revealing the magic.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Dan

      Going to burn any trees tomorrow? The christmas holiday came directly from the winter solstice celebrations of the pagans. The religion hijacked the holiday and is now demanding that all others believe that they invented it? Jews invented the passover holiday, I wonder what christians are doing for that? The petencost comes from shavuot. Better break out the yarmulke.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  3. 4sanity

    What a load of baloney ! Whilst I've been raised as a Roman Catholic and still adhere to some of its tenets, I'm also not so blinkered as to believe this holier-than-thou justification that we need religion, and in particular Christianity, to a) be appropriately moral (aka It's a wonderful life), or b) a better nation.

    Brushing aside the usual historical examples of Church hypocrisy on compassion and morality, I'd offer two more recent examples. Where are the Christian Bedford Falls-values of the Republican (and Democrat) American public when it comes to the least among us – illegal immigrants. The more rabid the religious Christian zeal, the more redneck reactionary and viciousness of their anti-Christian actions. And if the most devote Christians overwhelmingly promote Pro-life agendas and find it objectionable to terminate embryos (not conscious human beings but works in development), then where's the moral outrage at the death penaly or the war. More than 100,000 Iraqis died in each of the last Gulf wars (overwhelmingly civilians). Why aren't Chrisitians manning the barricades and occupying the White House on their behalf ?\

    Sorry, but I'll set my moral compass by my innate human sense of ethics – which includes at its core the morality of contracts: two informed parties can agree on issues. If one party breaks it's vows, it is morally unfair and wrong. I don't need to invoke a Judeo-Christian God or any other all-powerful deity intent on imposing a one-sided deal based on the threat of eternal damnation if I don't accept his terms.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  4. KM1956

    "T.S. Eliot made a similar observation: “If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes.”"

    Yes, I'll bet he did. Eliot had some lovely things to say about the Jewish people, too.
    Merry Christmas to all who celebrate tomorrow!

    December 24, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  5. Dan

    BTW, the reason "It's a Wonderful Life" became "cherished" is because they let the copyright expire on it and the TV stations don't have to pay anything. It was a box office flop and when you compare it to some of the great films of that era it's pretty pathetic. So once again we have christian traditions and christian rituals defined by the business environment of the day. Deja vu all over again, eh? Buy some more cheap imported junk for christmas, it's WJWD.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  6. Steve

    It's not religion. It's money and politics. Religion has NOTHING to do with the economy.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  7. nepawoods

    About the Barna Group: They are evangelicals, and believe only "born again" Christians are true Christians, and that being "born again" permanently and radically changes a person. Therefore:
    1) Are you a Christian? Yes.
    2) Are you charitable? No.
    Analysis: One more non-Christian who isn't charitable. Because if you were "born again", you'd be charitable, so you're not "born again", thus only a "notional Christian" (there word for it). This is how they gather their statistics.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  8. Darwin was right

    JESUS commanded his followers to be humble. Instead they are haughty, egotistical, and insulting to every non-believer by 1) claiming to be the only "true" religion 2) claiming that they are "better" than atheists and members of all other faiths 3) claiming that non-believers are causing "moral decay" and other rubbish 4) claiming that only THEY have all the answers 5) claiming that non-beleivers will go to hell etc. etc. etc. If there actually is a magic invisible Jesus living in the sky and watching, then he must be quite appalled by his followers!

    December 24, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • Sarah

      Amen. How about the many wars perpetrated on the world by "Christianity"? They have wrecked havoc, economies, caused poverty and allowed some of the worst sins against morality. I say that has more to do with the decay of the our world than any atheist philosophy.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  9. Your Neighbor

    The metaphor connecting Bedford Falls (Pottersville) to belief (non-belief) is flawed. The arguments correlating the supposed demise of western civilization to the decline of christianity are old and tired. Every new conservative generation posits that the world is falling apart and rallies its reactionary power base (in this case religion) to keep us all in line and maintain its grip on social control. What does that have to do with treating your neighbor as you wish to be treated? Rest assured that many humanists do good works every day to insure that Bedford Falls does not become Pottersville. Be well my neighbors.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  10. Mike Steinhardt

    You don't have to be a Christian to see the positive values Christ taught. Be tolerant, love one another, be charitable, and be a good citizen. What can be wrong with that? Too many people confuse religion with churches. Many churches take extreme views as the true and only word of God and this turns people away. In this season of Christmas we should take heart from movies like "Its a Wonderful Life" that reinforce positive values.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • nepawoods

      "You don't have to be a Christian to see the positive values Christ taught" ... Though it's sad the author (and many others) can't acknowledge those positive values existed prior to Christianity, and still exist independent of Christianity. It's not like Christianity is where these positive values originated.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  11. Senor Ed

    Pottersville = GOPville. Anything goes as long as you can make a buck.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  12. Dan

    What movie was this guy watching? The conflict in Bedford Falls is all about capitalism vs humanitarianism. That's what is actually up there on the screen! It's the same theme in A Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It has nothing to do with organized religion. And BTW, can you give it a rest with the "my religion is better than yours" garbage already? Every major faith system in the world espouses the same values of kindness, compassion and forgiveness.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  13. harrison

    As someone else here pointed out both Bailey and Potter considered themselves Christians. Just a label

    December 24, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  14. E

    The author's 'evidence' of Christians being the most charitable is self-serving and fails to take into account to what and to whom they give their money and time. This charity is predominantly in the form of weekly donations to their church and foundations which support their church members in need. Basically, they are charitable with their own, but the rest of the planet, those whose beliefs differ... uh... not so much.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  15. RoadRunner, Albuquerque, NM

    Because I truly cherish this movie, and I am a Christian as well, I read the article with eager anticipation. But in all honesty, I do not agree with the premise of the article, which is that it is the presence of Christians that makes a community of love and hope such as Bedford Falls, rather than a community of corruption and despair such as Potterville. Regretfully, in real life, the opposite is true. Christianity has become so corroded by false religions posing as "angels of light" in the mainstream of American society, that all kinds of Potter thinking is not only accepted, but downright worshipped under the guise of Christianity, thus both exploiting people and their misfortunes, and discrediting the life and teachings of Christ in the eyes of others at the same time. It is horrible and evil what passes for Christianity today. Nevertheless, for those very, very, very few who actually do seek out and assimilate the life and teachings of Christ, throwing off the false teachings that mainstream religion pushes, those few can and do make a difference for the better. Their lives are better, and so are those around them. But...this is not the point of the movie. George Bailey was not a religious figure, but a true man of conscience with an ingrained sense of responsibility. He was able, despite all of his faults and human failings, to be able to put others needs ahead of his own. He would have been kicked out of most mainstream churches operating in the U.S. today, or he would have been drained like a turnip by many of the more money-minded of them. The point of this movie, and what makes it so great, is that ANYONE is a potential hero, not by virtue of his/her ideology, providing that one follows the dictates of human decency, no matter how the belief is formed, and refuse to be drug along with the me-first mentality that is so rampant among the business community today, and among so many of the contemporary religious systems operating today. It is a Wonderful Life, and it is meant to be lived, not in petty isolation and self-centeredness, but fully engaged in the process of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. It calls for us to be real, and to simply be who we are. If you also value the life and teachings of Christ, and practice them in your own life, so much the better.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  16. Christian

    Seriously the world would be a worse off place if it wasn't for the words of Jesus (has anyone read the Sermon on the Mount?). Loving your neighbor, feeding the poor and visiting the sick DO NOT come natural to us. We are selfish in our core; if we are honest we will realize that altruism is not second nature. As the world becomes more materialistic, more relativistic, and as more people move further and further away from the Christ-centered ethics and way of life that we have lived our lives in reference to, the need and evidence of the importance and necessity of Christianity will become that much more clear.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • God is Love

      Thank you. There is good and bad in every society, the author is not dealing with absolutes. There is a lot of hypocrites in the church as well. However, the Bible admits that the gate is very narrow to Paradise. Those that love the Lord with all our mind, soul, body and strength, than the world will be a much better place. Going to church does not save someone, baptism does not save one, deeds does not save someone. However, belief in the Lord, having a personal relationship with Him, being humble, selfless towards others and believing He died on the cross to save us from our sins. Then eternal life is the ultimate prize, and is free for anyone. Eternity is forever, this life is but a vapor.. We are all evil, and full of sin, we are not good, and our only hope is in the Lord. By His grace we are set free. He is not forcing you to believe, as a matter of fact He never controls our free will. Read the Bible, to know the truth, it is God inspired. Hundreds of prophecies have been fulfilled, and many more are within it which will come true. None have not come true!! The accuracy of the Bible has been proven over and over, and has been preserved throughout the ages.

      December 24, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  17. Ric

    Human kindness, art and generosity were around long before Christianity.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • E

      Absolutely correct! Religion is NOT required for people to be kind, compassionate, giving, nurturing beings. Every single religion on the planet has the same BASIC rules (be respectful and don't lie, cheat, steal, kill)... they are guidelines for living in a community. The other tidbits and details are just cultural and regional flavorings.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • Oh please

      Truer words were never spoken.

      December 24, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  18. James PDX

    All of these type of arguments have a point where the ideas hinges on a very weak and unproven claim, such as this;

    "History tells us that a given philosophy, creed or religion will either restrain our darker impulses or exacerbate them, but escape them we cannot."

    While the general point may be true, it assumes that religion, specifically Christianity, is the best philosophy, creed or religion to restrain our darker impulses. Most Christians I know aren't all that familiar with their own holy scriptures, and none follow any but the most convenient of the rules written therein. Which is why we have so few stonings in Christiandom and yet so much adultery. It's why Jesus us told us not to judge others, yet it's those who claim to be most devoutly religious who are the least tolerant and most judgmental of others.

    If the aurthor wants to argue that people will only be good to each other if they feel there's some great reward (or great punishment for not), then he's saying that man's nature is inherently bad. If that's so, why are fairytales the best way to control our evil? Why not create a society that rewards good right here on Earth and punishes bad appropriately? True good only comes in a selfless act. The author feels we aren't capable of such acts, and thus we need a reward system that doesn't actually cost society anything because the alleged reward comes after death from an unseen benefactor. But if we create a better culture, I think a large part of the human race will want to be a part of it. The key to creating a better culture is creating a better government. Our current government has been broken by the corrupt people we keep electing. Until we find a way to rid ourselves of these leeches, we can't affect change in any positive manner. So real change comes with your votes. Stop spending them on Democrats and Republicans. They've had their chances and fleeced us real good. Look for alternatives and stop believing their campaign lies. It's in their best interest to say what you wnt to hear. Which is why they say it and, when they get elected, they never actually do it. Corruption of our society begins with our leadership. They should be the standard that we should be all strive to live up to, not a circus of greed, corruption, and lies. Religion is a tool to control the masses, as the author quietly alluded to. Therefore, religion is power. And, as we all know, power corrupts. It's time to find a system that doesn't provide any person or group so much power and remove as much corruption from our leasership as possible. Again, use your votes, not your prayers. Only one of the two can actually affect any change.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  19. jason

    Morals are independant of religion. You do not have to believe in a god to believe it is good to help others. It is a social fabric. Empathy is demonstrated by lots of animals that are not Christian or Muslim. This is not attack on Christianity and raising up another religion, it is the observation that religions promote both love and hate. The idea that you will burn if you don't do what I say is pretty controlling and bad and common to may religions. The idea that helping others is godlike and will make you a better person is good and common to many religions. You don't have to believe to be a good person, but if that's what it takes, try to avoid the judgement of others.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  20. Kingofthenet

    Ever notice that Judaism, has these BIG events that are pretty easy to pin down as totally false(Noah, the Exodus, King David and Solomon), while Christianity is MUCH smaller in scope (A few extra fish,some water into wine etc.) Why? for TWO reasons, Judaism was trying to get Godless Heathens to believe,while Christianity was trying to convert people who were already 'Sheeple', people already 'accepting' of religious notion, also it came later, and like EVERYTHING there is a certain refinement that modernity provides, also you know the weakness of your arguments, far easier to fly under the radar, then to explain why no REAL Empire ever noticed your 'Fake' one.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
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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.