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.

CNN's Belief Blog – all the faith angles to the day's top stories

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. TommyTT

    I have no need to attack religion. But I will call out smugness when I see it, and this article is smug. "Christians are more charitable" indeed. This article is pretty uncharitable to people of other religions.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:13 am |
  2. Blanda

    There are even still today.... NO Atheists in Foxholes. Only cowards and fools attack people with morals and ethics, and the reason is the same as ever, and that reason is because moral people act responsibly for the good of community, and that makes some people acutely aware of there own inadequacy and failures.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:06 am |
    • Jimtanker

      Wow, where do you get your "facts"? I was one until I retired and there are still many more atheists in the armed services.

      December 24, 2011 at 6:11 am |
    • Vynn, Milton WA

      You are proof of my claim.... that Christians are delusional. They don't even know that there are atheists in the military. I know....I was one of them, and I have my purple heart to prove my place in that foxhole. Do all Christians lie like you?

      December 24, 2011 at 6:25 am |
  3. Vynn, Milton WA

    In every place where religion is widespread and rampant we find also cruelty, corruption, crime and attrocity. And in every place where the faithless population is expanding and religion is contracting we find less cruelty, corruption, crime and attrocity. Look to the Middle East where religion is even a greater part of the social life, and you will find all manner of cruelty and attrocity. Look at America. Even here we have more problems with crime and corruption than less religious countries in Europe and Asia, do. Even our colonial past gives evidence that religious societies are far more cruel and corrupt than when they have been secularized. The only place where religion is superior to its absence is in the imaginations of the religious. I dare say, we would be far better off without religion, but as an American I can't choose for my neighbors. I can only hope that they too, like myself, wake up from the delusions of religion and open their eyes to the possibilities of reality.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:03 am |
  4. sean burns

    Boy, you can read anything you want into anything if you're a christer. Now I'll do the same as Larry. IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: religion is not mentioned in that movie! George is not shown as a religious man; he is a socially conscious liberal, fighting corporate greed and the rich big bank owner on behalf of the little guy. Sounds like he'd be on the front line of the OCCUPY movement, not listening to a self-important know-it-all like Larry

    December 24, 2011 at 5:59 am |
    • Sunspot

      Right on, Larry! The sentence in the article that gives the game away is "...a man or woman's EVIL NATURE is restrained by god" or some such nonsense – Yep, that's what most religions teach, self-loathing and fear of others. So people who aren't religious are evil, obviously. And then, of course, they say "well we didn't make up the rules, if you don't like it you'll have to talk with god yourself". AAArrrgggg.....

      December 24, 2011 at 6:18 am |
    • Sunspot

      Oops – I did mean "Right on Sean". 🙂 Larry is a diptoid

      December 24, 2011 at 6:20 am |
  5. tr

    "When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."
    – Benjamin Franklin, "Poor Richard's Almanac", 1754

    Ben Franklin pretty much hit the nail on the head. If your religion is good, and god supports it, you don't need to be shoving it down the public's throat.

    The notion of "original sin" that we are all born evil is rather antiquated, and behavioral science more than aptly destroys the notion that we are born to do wrong. Fact is, we learn to do wrong.

    There isn't anything a secular society can't do that a religious one can, with the exception of make hell-fire threats and use a deity as an excuse for ignorance, bigotry, and fear-mongering.

    December 24, 2011 at 5:59 am |
    • Jim

      The question is why? Why do we "learn to do wrong" (and do it all the time all over the world) if our nature is good? All creatures do according to their nature. If it's our nature to be good, then we are acting contrary to our nature by doing wrong. So, what does it benefit us to do wrong if it is against our nature?

      You think the idea of human nature being evil is antiquated – I see it as "wisdom of the ages" – that our forebears were smart.

      December 24, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  6. Karloff

    First, you say, "In Dickensian fashion, the angel takes him from one scene in that small town to another." You also say that "It's a Wonderful Life" is your favorite Christmas movie. I assume you've seen it more than once, but you don't know the movie. The angel doesn't lead George anywhere as the spirits do Scrooge–the angel is along for the ride as George ges throught the town and sees all the changes that might have occurred had he not been born.

    Second, your main thesis is utter nonsense.

    December 24, 2011 at 5:56 am |
  7. zapatta

    Science teaches men to go to the moon, religion teaches men to fly airplanes into buildings. Need I say more?

    December 24, 2011 at 5:44 am |
    • Timmothy

      For your information, Al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center because they believe that America is a bunch of capitalist pigs. They didn't attack any type of religion, if you had paid attention in school, you would have learned that Muslims and Christians believe in the same god. Science leads you to your own destruction, like black holes and the Sun exploding. Religion leads you to living a better life knowing that you will go somewhere better when you die, unlike science which tells you that you will go nowhere.

      December 24, 2011 at 6:10 am |
    • Vynn, Milton WA

      Timmothy....it has been my experience that when people are given the false hope of a better life after this one, they tend to let this one go to waste. Christians would be far better people if they thought that this was the only life they had. They would take extra care, as do all atheists, to ensure that this one and only life is well lived.

      December 24, 2011 at 6:33 am |
  8. Someone

    From the Barna Group website "The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries."

    It's funny – I am a volunteer for an international, non-religious organization, and I don't see that many fundamental Christians in our ranks.

    In fact, the fundamental Christians have only themselves to blame for their dislike – we have the "war on Christmas", which is largely a Fox News creation, we have the Christian alignment with the extreme right wing of the Republican party, and all of the anger that invokes.

    As far as Tebow is concerned – he is an entertainer – period. He is not the first NFL football player who has ever prayed after a touchdown. Tebow lost my interest with all of the press coverage on him – more than any Heisman candidate I can remember. He also lost my respect when he agreed to appear to on a pro-life commercial sponsored by Focus on the Family – a decidedly right wing group. And the arrogance implied by the commercial (which I did not see, admittedly), with its message that had his mom had a MEDICALLY recommended abortion, then we would not of had Tebow – the entertainer. Please......

    Mr. Taunton also has glossed over our earlier history when, presumably, the country was more Christian. Blacks were discriminated against because of the color of their skin until the sixties – remember? We befouled our water and air.
    Finally, it's interesting that in the middle of the article, Mr.Taunton switches from Judeo Christian to Christian values. I guess this means we all have to deny evolution, global warming, and anyone who doesn't fit a strick Christain value set (Mormons for instance) are automtically members of a "cult".

    December 24, 2011 at 5:38 am |
  9. Pete

    more insults directed toward the "faithless" from the morally superior "faithful"

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

    Like John Stewart said the other day "f the baby Jesus"

    December 24, 2011 at 5:36 am |
    • David

      That's right. When you first start saying things like that, it's uncomfortable. It's important to re-condition yourself in order to attain maximum freedom. Hence, Jesus can lick my anus.

      December 24, 2011 at 5:40 am |
  11. SCAtheist

    "the Corruption of Unbelief"? What a moron. To not believe in something there is no evidence for is corruption?

    December 24, 2011 at 5:35 am |
  12. Charlie

    Jesus saves.

    December 24, 2011 at 5:33 am |
    • David

      Jesus can lick my anus!

      December 24, 2011 at 5:33 am |
    • Jimtanker

      What would Jesus do.....for a Klondike bar?

      December 24, 2011 at 5:49 am |
    • Chris

      Jesus drops back. There is pressure from Judas. JESUS BREAKS THE TACKLE AND FIRES!! ......AND HIS DISCIPLES MAKE THE CATCH!!!

      TOUCHDOWN MODERN RELIGION. (( There are more believable characters in the Twilight Saga than in the whole of the Bible...in each of its rewrites. ))

      December 24, 2011 at 5:53 am |
    • Vynn, Milton WA

      ...at the First Savings and Loan.

      December 24, 2011 at 6:09 am |
  13. Jimtanker

    Wait a minute. Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t the gist of this movie about a guy who is happier with his prostltute friend instead of his wife and kid? What a dumb movie. I’d have a merry Xmas if I had a pro with me too.

    December 24, 2011 at 5:32 am |
    • Pat

      You are wrong.

      December 24, 2011 at 5:45 am |
  14. unowhoitsme

    Don't confuse God with religion. Religion is man's interpretation of God, which had led people astray for centuries. Even the cause of many wars.

    December 24, 2011 at 5:29 am |
  15. RedTeam

    The problem is not faith or lack thereof, morality still exists, social justice still exists. If religion is the only reason people will act for the betterment of mankind then you have a problem. If you have people who claim to be Christian but tell their employees they must work on the great hallowed days that America holds true like Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter despite those hallowed times calling for rest and the gathering of families you have a problem there too. Don't try to sell Jesus to me as a Capitalist do gooder or socialist reformer, that did not exist in his time. Instead act on charity, kindness and justice all year round and not just because the holidays come around the corner. A better world comes from the efforts of all not the silent prayers and best wishes of a mindful few.

    December 24, 2011 at 5:26 am |
    • Ogg Oggleby

      Very well said, my friend. I agree, and anyone that knows how to think would also agree. There is no god, angels, friend in the sky, and none of the believers, including the priests, etc., know what happens after you die any more than I do.

      December 24, 2011 at 5:33 am |
  16. Jeff Orlando

    Respectively, HOGWASH. The research you present by "BARNA"? That is a Christian research firm. This country was founded by a collective of theists, rationalists and of course other elements such as puritans. The founding fathers debated long and hard about religion and its role in America, as they had witnessed first hand its abuse in Europe. The guiding light for this country has been the Bill of Rights, which also has elements borrowed from Native American culture (pre-Christian). The desire to live in a fair, tolerant and just culture is not unique to Christians. Anytime a religion has dominant political force in a culture be it Christian, Muslim, whatever.... dark ages follow.

    December 24, 2011 at 5:25 am |
  17. Dharmavoid

    I grew up in 1980s in a small southern town in florida. I grew up agnostic. My father decided to raise me agnostic, so that I would not be brainwashed into a religion .. He wanted me to come to my own view of religion when I was old enough to make an informed decision. My father never taught me to dislike Christians. Honestly, Christians taught me more about hate than any other group. I learned about how it felt to be excluded and shunned. I learned how christian love often meant contempt for me because I didnt believe in god. I was angry at christians much of my youth.

    I let go of that anger over the years. I find that the stories of Jesus of Nazareth to be amazing tales of a man who we all could learn from. Later in life I became a Buddhist, and I feel that jesus was a Bodhisattva. Most religion does not bother me. I find most sermons to be powerful and inspirational. I find it nice that tim tebow thanks god after every great play, good for him for having his own values. I do find it hard for those who govern over me use a set of guidlelines I do not believe in to make rules for me to live by. I do find it hard when the GOP and Democrats openly court the Christian Fundamentalist, while dismissing the rest of us as if we do not matter.

    The fight for the freedom of religion is not one that needs to enforce, nor depose God on its people. It means that you the government does not openly favor one religion over another. You want to be devout christian, go for it, you want to be an atheist, fine, you want to worship wolf blitzer as a God that reigns down upon all creation, you get the same rights as anybody else buddy.
    I love my Christian brothers, just as I love my muslim brothers, just as I love my atheist brother, and even my wolf blitzer worshiping brothers. At this time of year, it doesnt matter what you celebrate, just that celebrate the beauty that is life, and the family that you have. That's something we all can appreciate.

    December 24, 2011 at 5:24 am |
    • Ray Mann

      Very well spoken. I couldnt agree with you more.

      December 24, 2011 at 6:06 am |
    • Beadles

      Dharmavoid – well said.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  18. phnxrth

    "...The corruption of unbelief" suggests people might be better off if persuaded to believe. Yet another effort to twist the truth.

    "Why George, it's because you were never born," applies in this context more than people may care to acknowledge.

    To be Christian means to be like Christ, who was willing to die for what's right. All of the so-called christians have been liars. They've been dying for what's wrong, both by choice and by default. So in a very real sense it's as if Christ was never even born.

    Google Alpha Publishing

    December 24, 2011 at 5:20 am |
  19. FedUpwithLA

    The Nazis didn't like Christianity and had their agenda, too. It has been said that the greatest mistakes of the nineteenth and then the twentieth century were that humankind forgot who God was, thus creating situations as WWI, WWII, Communism, Stalinism, etc. Can the world take a day or two out of their busy, secular lives to celebrate the birth of a child, reputedly to be the Saviour of the World? Or are we just too entrenched in our own opinions to hear some plain, simple truths, and to have a little light shine in our otherwise dismal, wanton lives?

    December 24, 2011 at 5:18 am |
    • Jeff Orlando

      Please speak for yourself when you state dismal life..... The wars of the last century were economic wars, get a history book. No one has kicked God out of America. Its just fundamentalist Christian's paranoid delusion. God remains ever present for those that believe, he just seeks willing believers. He can do good for himself without seeking indoctrination by the government in the public school system.......
      One thing I agree with you.... Merry Christmas! There, I said it and no government agency has censored this public forum....

      December 24, 2011 at 5:34 am |
    • SCAtheist

      The Christian Persecution Complex is alive and well.

      December 24, 2011 at 5:40 am |
    • Jon

      It's such an absurd fantasy that every christian in Germany suddenly lost their faith in the 1930s, and that it was just pure coincidence that the Nazis targeted Christianity's very favorite scapegoat in the Jews. Even ignoring the fact that many churches supported Hitler's rise to power, or that the Vatican and the supposedly Christian, moral nations around Germany allowed the Holocaust to happen, the fact still remains that the majority of concentration camp guards probably went home and read their bible after a day's worth of genocide.

      Did Hitler like Christianity? No, not really. But he didn't have too much trouble exploiting it.

      December 24, 2011 at 6:51 am |
    • FedUpwithLA

      Well, I stand corrected. I do not think that Nazi concentration camp guards went home and read their Bible anymore than those who work at Whattaburger go home an read their Bible after serving a day's worth of french fries. As for the "Christian Persecution Complex," well, someone has to be taught guilt. Otherwise, one just gets a generation who gets to do whatever they d*mned well please. As for "indoctrination by the government in the public school system," it's difficult enough to teach today's kids academic subjects, let alone religious ones. But, the bottom line, as you state, is for the time being a "Merry Christmas!" "Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men." (If that is realistically possible or even achievable.)

      December 24, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  20. TheTruth

    The biggest fallacy among the believers is that all non-believers are without morals. Many countries in Europe have very high percentage of atheists in their populace. If non-believers really had no morals, these country would be filled with soaring crime rates. The opposite is true. these atheists enjoy some of the highest standard of living in the world. If religions really bring out the good in man, then why are people suffering in Islamic countries? Oh right, that is because Islam is an evil religion because historically Islam and Christianity are at war with each other. Therefore for Christianity to be good, then Islam has to be bad. If that is true, then why were the Christians themselves killing each other over the same faith in old Europe? How many Protestants and Catholics have died gruesome deaths because they themselves cannot even agree on what God and Jesus really meant to say in certain scriptures? So based on the Islam vs Christianity argument put forth earlier, then it means either the Protestants are evil or the Catholics are evil. Please choose one.

    If the Church cannot be wrong because it gets its doctrines from God Himself, then what do they have to say about the persecution of Galileo for his objective scientific conclusion based on demonstrative evidence that the Earth is not at the center of the Universe? So the Church was wrong. It was wrong because what it believed was not based on any scriptures but its interpretation of scriptures using its subjective political beliefs at that time. Therefore morality is not based on the belief in God and His laws. Morality is based on some personal political underpinning.

    I believe that there is a God. However, this God is so fantastic that He transcends all the different interpretations of his wishes. We cannot know His true intention until we have left our physical bodies. Morality therefore should come from whatever limited objective reality we know. Not allowing murder is a moral code based on the pragmatic idea that if we all kill each other for everything, then we would not have a stable society. Ironically, without a stable society, there is no religion.

    December 24, 2011 at 5:17 am |
    • Charlie

      You are so smart.

      December 24, 2011 at 5:35 am |
    • Ogg Oggleby

      You were doing quite well until you got to the part where you talk about god and began to express knowledge of "him" ,etc. Look, if you want to believe in a friend in the sky that doesn't exist that is fine with me. It is irrational as hell, but since so many people ... well, let's put ilt this way: all the birds can be flying in the wrong direction. Happy Holidays.

      December 24, 2011 at 5:39 am |
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About this blog

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.