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. pflei

    What a complete crock. The difference between Bedford Falls and Pottersville is morality and ethics, NOT religion – much less christianity. Morality and ethics arise from our common humanity. What arises from religion is hatred, war, and flying airplanes into buildings.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • agathokles

      And what's the source of "our common humanity"? Why did some "common humanities" routinely conduct human sacrifice or throw slightly imperfect babies off cliffs? There's nothing "common" about such humanities. You can't find a society uninfluenced by religion. In other words, you don't have any data on what society would be like without religion because there's never been one that persisted long enough for there to be a track record. Communism has only been in control of a country for less than 70 years or so - a mere blip, insufficient to have wiped away any inherited Judaeo-Christian ethic imbued in it.

      December 25, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  2. Biblicalaaronc

    I thought/hoped that Christmas was the one day where we were spared the smug ignorance that is Christian extemism. However mr Taunton has managed to disprove this myth as well. He shows typical lack of education or honesty or both, attempting to falsely equate Nietzsche and Hitler. Nietzsche was not even German, nor could he have conceivably been a Nazi sympathizer had he lived to see it (which he did not). BTW, if evil is part of human nature then this puts the lie to heaven, because we could not escape it in this world or any other. You will never get to do what you want anyway, even in heaven, because god still runs the joint. It's heaven only for the top dog and hell for everyone else.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Dave Davis

      "Nietzsche was not even German....." Neither was Hitler. Hitler was Austrian.

      December 25, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  3. Jopus

    The idea that if Christianity ruled our society that we would have peace, prosperity and brotherly love is a fantasy believed by those educated in a Hollywood version of the world. But those truly educated, who study the factual history of human society, know that the death and destruction carried out because of Christian beliefs, including mass slaughter between Christian sects, is more than anyone knowingly would pay for such a fantasy. In addition, the evidence indicates that America is overwhelmingly and strongly Christian in the current era – if the result isn't the near perfect society you imagine, the indication then is that becoming more Christian will not help

    December 25, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • QuietPatriot

      Believe what you want, but leave me to believe what I want. And why is it that those who are anti Christian always start by claiming to be intellectually superior to everyone else? Insufferably narssistic yes, intellectually superior, no.

      December 25, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  4. Robert

    Many of the sharper minds have been far too quiet for far too long. We've always seen thru such tripe as Taunton's, but we quietly shook our heads and moved on. The loss of Hitch has woken a few of us up, and we are growing a bit weary of such mindless vomit being forcefully spewed over humanity. 'The grave will supply plenty of time for silence'…

    December 25, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Dave Davis

      The loss of Hitch has "woken" you up? What exactly does the quote mean:" The grave will supply plenty of time for silence." ? Is it a threat? I think the CNN moderators(if any are human and not merely computers) should review some of these ominous-sounding "opinions".

      December 25, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  5. Papi

    Fred, evil is innate in us and so is goodness. Humans have an incredible power to conquer our darkest thoughts as well as fall prey to them. IN HISTORY IT HAS BEEN DONE WITH AND WITHOUT RELIGION so to assume that only religion or in this case christianity can help tame such a drive is illogical. HUmans have walked the earth for a lot longer than christianity has been around.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  6. Flippin chicken

    What a great movie! Love it!

    December 25, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  7. Papi

    He says the Judeo-Christian worldview has helped shaped the modern world and people's ethics, Yes through slavery, the crusades, forcing other cultures into submission and monotheism. The same violence from human nature he is saying that was tamed by christianity was the one used by christians to expand their mythology. This is the most ethnocentric, culturally and historically ignorant idea ever. Just ask my wife's mother who was forced into a native american catholic boarding school. Ask her how "benevolent" christianity was to her..... Yes Mr. Taunton christianity, Europe and western ideology won the battle of the conquest of the America's so you can relax and not be so threatened by a few doubters as the power of your GOD can't be denied. Why are christians so worried about what will happen if the rapture is an inevitable and preordained event by GOD? Why worry if salvation is guaranteed to those who believe truly in their hearts? Why care what happens to us the unbelievers and evolutionists? I wish i could believe and be convinced about GOD and christianity so I could just relax and not worried about the power of humanity and live it all to GOD and his son Jesus who are coming to rescue humans from our demise. Will they rescue all the pother species too or do they only care about humans. You see the drive for religion in the human experience comes from that human nature side, wanting to understand the world from the perspective of being human. Give a monkey a brain and he thinks he is the center of the Universe. Maybe GOD erred when he gave us such a complex brain. Maybe all the other species believe in GOD unconditionally and GOD is now saying man I should of stopped at the dolphins. I can't believe in 2012 we are still having this absurd conversation.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • maniacmudd

      great post!

      December 25, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • DoubleW

      Excellent points– but he left out one detail in his sweeping endorsement of Christianity. There is benevolent Christianity, and there is intolerant Christianity. Benevolent Christians are for the most part thinking, tolerant, empathic individuals. Intolerant Christian sects recruit their members among the ignorant, the ignorant and the fearful, those who seek to separate their exclusive groups from the "Others..." which "others," oddly enough, often include the poor and the unfortunate among us, whose poverty and misfortune can be blamed on "sin," on birth, race or some other convenient criterion which removes them from consideration as "real" people. (Guess which sort of Christianity the right-wing politicians claim?)
      Most of the social activists I know are atheists, freethinkers or belong to very open and tolerant congregations. "Human nature" may indeed be tribal. But that only means, not that we should draw our "tribes" in narrower and narrower circles, but that we should enlarge our tribes to include all of humanity.

      December 25, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  8. mg

    Well it's the holiday season so to my Christian friends I say Merry Christmas. To my Jewish friends I say Happy Hannukah. And to my atheists friends, I say get back to work you godless pigs.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • maniacmudd

      how christian of you.

      December 25, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • mg

      Calm down there maniac. It's called a joke.

      December 25, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • tony

      Fair enough. And stop your religious colleges giving out "degrees" in divinity when you go back on Monday.

      December 25, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • mg

      Hey Tony, if it bothers you , you stop it. I have enough sht to do.

      December 25, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • DoubleW


      December 25, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  9. Larry W Hill

    Well said. Being a Christian has changed me from being self centered to having a concern for others. This is what Jesus was all about. Serving others before yourself. It's not weakness...it's difficult to do and requires discipline to put away your own selfish desires. It's about doing that everyday. Merry Christmas

    December 25, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  10. tony

    atheism is being sane enough to be able to distinguish between god and good and know they are separate.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • maniacmudd

      excellent post!

      December 25, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • mg

      I disagree. In a universe without absolutes, we are all free to define "good" and right and wrong for ourselves and your definition is no more or less valid than mine. If my definition of good says that is good (for me) to kill all of my enemies, then who are you to say that is wrong? Now, we can form societies that define good and evil, but they are just the majority imposing its will on everybody. And you can imprison me if I kill people, without the concept of a god, which defines absolute right and wrong, then right and wrong have no meaning. Only whatever the majority believes. And in reality, that's basically how it works now.

      December 25, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  11. David T

    Mr. Taunton views the current situation through typical American blinders. His thesis that Bailey represents what's good about the Christian faith is fine, but the battle between Bailey and Potter is a battle within the faith, as both would undoubtedly describe themselves as Christians. Potter is the corrupted Christian whose love of power (and money) has overcome the power of love. And the parallels between Potter and today's plutocracy are too strong to ignore.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • fieldrep1

      Absolutely right; 1946 portrayal of a financial hustler still relevant.

      December 25, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  12. Bob Bubbles

    It's Christmas morning in my non-religious household and I'm up to listen to the Muppet Christmas CD see what's under the tree. Mom, the kids, and myself will follow the Christmas morning traditions that we always have, sans Jesus, which don't include the bars or burlesque shows of Pottersville. When the holidays are over we'll all go back to our very productive lives and reflect on another happy Christmas season spent together, all sans religion, and by some Christmas miracle, despite the lack of Jesus in our lives there isn't a violent offender among us! Happy Holidays!

    December 25, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  13. Fred

    I guess you missed the part where he wrote, "...that evil is innate to us all."
    Reading for comprehension is tech!
    You can always count on the anti-religion cranks to be out in full force on this page.
    Dawkins is an educated idiot. Atheism is the "mental virus" that needs eradication.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • tony

      Love me or I'll kill you.

      December 25, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Bob

      I expect Potter and just about everyone else in the movie was Christian. It wasn't a lack of faith that made Pottersville. it was the greed and power of the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.

      December 25, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  14. Obfus8r

    He's mistaken. Potterville is what happens when you don't have a property owning middle class. What Bailey did in the movie was help people move out of their slum housing into affordable homes that they owned. It's no secret that people take better care of property and communities where thy hold an ownership interest, regardless of religious belief.

    December 25, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  15. Greg

    Christians may be the most giving group, but what are they giving to? When I was attending church, we were primarily asked to give to the church to sustain it or to give to the missionary groups that went to guide the non-Christians to Jesus Christ. Giving to Haiti relief and other tragic events was also encouraged, but they weren't what was asked for every Sunday.

    December 25, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • agathokles

      When done properly, what true Christians "give" is themselves. We are called to be "like Christ," so that those we encounter will encounter a little bit of Christ - in us. It's not about showy kneeling after scoring a touchdown. It's about being an example, causing people to ask, "What is it that make him/her behave that way?"

      The problem? As my pastor used to say: "Christianity is a wonderful faith; too bad it's never been practiced widely."

      December 25, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  16. XmasGreetings

    It's true that humans have misused the message of Jesus for centuries. But just because some faulty humans have erred while using Jesus' name, it doesn't mean that legitimate Christian values are not good for society. The problem is when some claim to have a special "interpretation" of Christian values. Just go directly to the Bible for the real message. Read the following passages and ask yourself if America would be a better place if people actually behaved this way:
    In Matthew chapter 22, Jesus said that the two greatest commandments were "Love thy God with all your heart", and "Love thy neighbor as yourself". In Luke 14:12-14 He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

    December 25, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • agathokles

      Exactly! And avoid showy pretensions of faith. Actions are what matter.

      December 25, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  17. ho hum

    Somebody please shave off this author's creepy goatee! He looks like a child molester

    December 25, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • agathokles

      I'm glad you derived so much from this thoughtful reflection.

      December 25, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  18. ho hum

    What blindsighted article

    December 25, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  19. Jim

    Morality is innate in our species or we wouldn't have arrived from evolution. Equating religion as a prerequisite for morality is moronic thinking and a totally flawed concept. Taunton is patronizing and full of nonsensical rubbish.

    December 25, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  20. cork6142

    "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."

    I thought this might be followed by "but no one looks inside themselves". Instead he declares that christianity is blameless as well. With insight like that, we really are cooked.

    December 25, 2011 at 10:32 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.