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. liz

    Observing the christian ethics of late I must say I am proud and happy to be an atheist. Happy Holidays !

    December 24, 2011 at 6:45 am |
  2. Grace Of The Witch

    There is a little Potterville in all of us.
    I dont need the Christians to point that out.
    My morality comes from my parents raising me right.
    Not from your fiction book.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:44 am |
  3. hal9thou

    This article reminds me why I can't stand devout Christians. Theirs is the ONLY way and if you don't believe in Jesus you will FAIL and GO TO HELL. Sigh... religion destroys.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:42 am |
    • Brad Rainier

      The Bible states that Jesus is THE WAY, THE TRUTH AND THE LIFE. Jesus and the Bible do not send unbelievers to hell- they send themselves there for not believing that God's only son died for ALL of their sins. Christians simply believe what the Bible states and the Bible is the word of God.

      December 24, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Stayin' Alive

      Again (for Brad): There are nearly 30 extant belief systems claiming to be the one true path to "God" and/or "salvation." Pick one... if you're a gambling man.

      December 25, 2011 at 5:59 am |
  4. mikes

    One can practice "the golden rule" without believing in mythology. There are religions other than Christianity which teach moral/ethical principles, it's definitely not unique in that regard.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:42 am |
    • hal9thou

      Well, unless you believe that it is only Jesus that defines and teaches ethics/morality, then you are gonna burn in hell for eternity. Amen.

      December 24, 2011 at 6:45 am |
    • Stayin' Alive

      Good points, Mikes. Additionally, last I checked, there were nearly 30 extant belief systems claiming to be the one true path to salvation. Even if we could be "100 percent" certain that at least one of these competing paths was the right one - Remember, there cam only be one (1) [because for any to be completely 'true' some claim of each of the remainder would need to be 'false'] and, aside from cultural conditioning and personal prejudice, none of us has a clue as to WHICH one that might be - we'd have only a 1/30 (3.33... percent chance of finding 'salvation' by choosing any one faith over another. Those are some pretty slim odds at 29 to 1 against being 'saved' by ANY religion. Maybe, in the end, this whole issue is merely another "Why bother...?" problem... and we should stick to questions that have definite, verifiable answers.

      December 25, 2011 at 5:45 am |
    • Stayin' Alive

      And, regarding the other point I was setting forth in my earlier reply: There are doctrinal and scriptural discrepancies in several religions that would indicate that not all of the claims of those religions can be true simultaneously, even within the same 'faith.' My point regarding "cultural conditioning and personal prejudice" applies more specifically to the claim by any religion to be the one true path to salvation.

      December 25, 2011 at 5:50 am |
  5. P. Nigro

    I am perfectly capable of having my "presence is felt for the good that they (I) do" without the influence of any religion whatsoever. I do it because it is the right thin to do, because it lessens the suffering of another human being, not because I am commanded to or because I am seeking any eternal reward.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:41 am |
  6. SpudAZ

    The degree of my faith is NOT directly proportional to the number of people I can convince mine is the right idea. My faith is my own and my business. It's interesting how these tabloidists can ignore all the other religions in the world and lump us all in with their condescending and cynical views of the world. Well, I guess racism and bigotry come in all shapes and sizes!

    December 24, 2011 at 6:40 am |
  7. Penny Nickels

    "When the power of love overcomes the love of power, there will be peace." – Jimi Hendrix

    December 24, 2011 at 6:38 am |
  8. Michael

    "A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death."
    Albert Einstein

    December 24, 2011 at 6:38 am |
  9. Retro

    I have two secrets I'll like to share on this Christmas eve! I hope you appreciate it! Do you know who the greatest actor of all time is? Well, he's my all-time favorite actor and his name is Jimmy Stewart. Second secret... Do you know what movie is the greates movie ever made? Well, take a deep breath! It's called "Flight of the Phoenix" starring Jimmy Stewart. I wanted to keep this secret to myself but this is my Christmas gift to you. PS. another all-time great is also in this movie and his name is Ernest Borgnine. Merry Christmas!

    December 24, 2011 at 6:37 am |
  10. lance corporal

    this author is starting from a failed premise that christianity is somehow responsible for human decency and that is utter nonsense, just like evey thing else about christianity (incl christmas) is stolen for other traditions. we are very capable of good works without a church telling us to, to think other wise is to ignore history and reality.
    oh and no one is trying to eliminate your faith, get off your cross, we just wish you WOULD STOP TRYING TO SHOVE IT DOWN our THROATS, AS IF IT'S SOME FOREGONE CONCLUSION YOUR RIGHT, GET OVER YOURSELVES

    December 24, 2011 at 6:37 am |
  11. BD70

    I don't think anyone wants christianity to go away. More like the ones who go to church every sunday but never practice what is preached need to go away. Don't confuse religion with christianity. Its a wonderful life is all about being kind and giving. Not preaching in your face BS that on its own does not hold water. Life is complex...one single belief is worthless if not combined with the whole.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:35 am |
  12. JBallNC

    The so-called economic "decline of the West" is purely a demographic issue. Our ratio of young to old has been shifting for decades. The West failed to adapt it's social safety nets to that reality, so that's why we're in decline (translation: decline = too much debt). We will adapt to the new reality, and then our decline will reverse.
    It is not a religious issue at all.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:28 am |
    • lance

      I just want to thank my lord and savior, Jesus Christ for allowing me to access the internet. Oh hell, and thank you Jesus for inventing the INTERNETZ as well!

      December 24, 2011 at 6:43 am |
  13. Will Stephens

    People have such hatred for Christianity. Its rather disgusting to watch so many people take so much pleasure from trashing it.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:27 am |
    • Someone

      I don't "hate" Christianity. I hate that it has become closely aligned with the far right wing of the Republican party......

      December 24, 2011 at 6:41 am |
    • hal9thou

      FEEL the persecution, baby! Ahhhh! Suffer with your Lord and Savior! Blech...

      December 24, 2011 at 6:49 am |
    • Jarod47

      I don't see much 'pleasure'. I see profound critique and justified sceptisism. If you don't agree, please give us your reasons.

      December 24, 2011 at 6:54 am |
  14. McFly

    Why does CNN funnel this tripe? Lack of faith didn't create Pottersville. vindictive bankers did.

    But hey we can white wash a bunch of greedy suits by playing up the propaganda machine here I suppose and blaming the poor godless heathens as a scapegoat instead.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:26 am |
  15. Sid Airfoil

    He has a point. For all the evil that is done in the names religion, the threat of hellfire and damnation does keep a lot of otherwise unethical people in line. If religion were to suddenly disappear from the world, there would be serious consequences as the worst impulses of many would be let of the box.

    However, this says more about people than about religion. I'm an atheist and I'm scrupulously ethical. So are all of the other atheists I know. This proves that religion is NOT necessary for morality...at least not for many of us. And if it IS necessary for many or most, then shame on them.

    Saying, as the author does, that we should support religion because alternative is worse is a cynical calculation roughly equivalent to saying that we should support heroin addiction because the withdrawal symptoms will be worse.


    to say that we should support untrue religions because they have some practical benefit

    December 24, 2011 at 6:25 am |
    • Jim


      December 24, 2011 at 6:39 am |
    • jbmmmm


      December 24, 2011 at 6:41 am |
    • jbmmmm

      Where are your ethics originating from? You still dont mind bashing Christians. Without Christianity you would have NO agenda. Your athiest beliefs depend on Christianity to exist.Your analogy with the heroin thing was horrible.

      December 24, 2011 at 6:45 am |
  16. Will Stephens

    Rando, you are right. There are hypocrites in the church. However that is no shock. One of the 12 apostles was a hypocrite. Don't look to people to find faith in Christianity. Look to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:23 am |
  17. Rockasaurus

    So that explains why countries with very low levels of religious practice (Norway, Sweden, Denmark) are such cesspools of social injustice, racial inequality and societal decay, while very religious countries (Iran, Columbia,... Texas... ) are such beacons of freedom, fairness and equality. Thanks for clarifying that.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:20 am |
    • gene

      Dead On .Excellent comment

      December 24, 2011 at 6:30 am |
    • ya'akov

      With the demise of Kim Jung Il and Saddam, perhaps you have identified the new axis of Evil.

      December 24, 2011 at 6:36 am |
    • Roc

      Not religion – Christianity – you are in such zeal to make your point that you gave this no deep thought at all – that is exactly what the writer is talking about – quick to judge, feelings of disgust and hate which abound absence of God's grace. You are the example he describes.

      December 24, 2011 at 6:40 am |
    • Angiemonster

      Brilliantly put!

      December 24, 2011 at 6:48 am |
    • hal9thou

      Good one.

      December 24, 2011 at 6:50 am |
    • Jim

      All of which were primarily Christian countries until just recently. Now name me an atheist country that WASN'T a formerly Christian country, with the same level of care for their citizens.


      December 24, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  18. Jarod47

    The usual christian insulting provocation to humanity : Man is a sinner.
    Mr Taunton, please heal this self-inflicted wound. This notion unnecessarily warps your thinking. Your morality does not come from a fantasized deity or a saviour, it comes from yourself in the same way that most people live a moral life.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:15 am |
  19. Jon

    It's good that Judeo-christian culture is the only culture to ever figure out that murder and stealing is bad and hard work is good. Otherwise there would be a MASSIVE hole in the author's argument. The Chinese, I assume, were a lawless and lazy people until the Christians showed up. That whole story about the Chinese Empire being the most powerful and sophisticated country for millenia was probably just the liberal elitist media lying to us all.

    I, for one, am glad that every time I think about murdering an orphan, I can google the 10 commandments and go "OH, god isn't cool with that? Man, close call." Otherwise, how would I know?

    December 24, 2011 at 6:15 am |
    • jbmmmm

      We didnt figure it out. God commanded this. You sound really immature. Your trying to find a cause i see and all you did was paraphrase another post. You have anything original>

      December 24, 2011 at 6:50 am |
    • Jon

      In the order of your comments:

      1. "God commanded this." Which god? Nearly every culture arrived at this conclusion independently of Judeo-Christian culture. I'm sure they would tell us that their gods commanded them. That doesn't speak very well to the author's suggestion that Judeo-Christian culture (or the god behind it) is where our most important values are drawn from.

      2. "You sound immature." Because of my sarcasm, I suppose? Maybe it was a bit unnecessary, but I guess i was offended by an article that was, quite frankly, ignorant and condescending.

      3. "[You're] trying to find a cause." Not really. I don't make a habit of arguing about religion on CNN comments or anywhere else. As I already said, I found this particular article very offensive and felt like saying something about it.

      4. "All you did was paraphrase another post." I did not, unfortunately, read through every post on this article. Maybe I should have, but if I did in fact paraphrase someone, it was without my knowledge.

      5. "You have anything original[?]" I would refer you to (4) and (1) here. I doubt anything I said (or anyone in this comment board said) is truly original at all, though. If I could point one thing out, though: There is no argument in this comment board, and perhaps on this planet, less original or creative than "God commanded it." It is so much easier to say this and call me immature than it is to present a reasonable counterargument. And if that is the only counterargument there is, then this discussion is absolutely pointless.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:24 am |
  20. Rando

    Many people don't practice religion. They use it as a free pass to do what they see fit, good or bad. I know many so called "christians" that are nothing more than judgemental racists that certainly don't practice what they preach. I don't need a group or one person to tell me how to treat others with dignity and respect. That's what parenting is for. People know what good and bad is, and will make their daily choices freely without the aid of others.

    In my opinion, organized religion is nothing more than a place for people to go to feel better about themselves after screwing others all week long.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:13 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.