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. Just Like You and Me

    It is a shame that a day like today is spent arguing in such capacity. If one has opposing viewpoints of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, then satisfy them with their own views, but not by tearing others practices down. The world is and will forever be a place of opposing viewpoints, and respecting each others viewpoints is the only way to live in harmony.

    December 25, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  2. Senor Ed

    It's been a while since I read the bible but I'm sure I remember Jesus telling his followers to be greedy, selfish and intolerant. I think there was even something in there about letting the sick die if they couldn't afford to be treated. Jesus would be so proud of the Tea Party. Pottersville = Tea Party America.

    December 25, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  3. epipsyche

    China also is in a similar mess. They are a godless capitalist country now with a communist doctrine. The state is their god and money is their Jesus. They're very cruel to their own people. we could become more like them. We are also cruel to each other. Witness the crimes we do against each other every day – the murders, the thieving, the cheating. If you take away our religions, what will you give us in return? Some kind of theology drug? Pain until we see visions? There has to be a God, or we will destroy each other. There has to be spirituality or we will all perish or live a cruel and useless life. Go ahead eggheads. Show me how I'm wrong.

    December 25, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • goddog

      Strange how humans existed for thousands of years without killing themselves before there was this one god who spoke to a minute minority of the human race. How ever did they survive? Also, you equate godlessness to capitalism and communism, which makes no sense. If you want a reality check it's obvious that the more "religious" a nation is, the more evil it is. Ideas like freedom and civil rights go right out the door. Look at Islam... is that the example you really want to see for pushing Christianity in the US?

      December 25, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • SeanFromNJ

      We already are like them. How is China different from the US (except maybe for the fact that right now their economy is doing better than ours)? Money is king in this country too, Jesus or no Jesus, and the people who are greediest and most responsible for our problems are almost exclusively Christian. Tell me, how is our country better off because of John Boehner or Pat Robertson and their Christian faith?

      December 25, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  4. J

    It isn't a matter of the country dissolving without Christ, it is a matter of God punishing us for our wreckless disobedience to His law. 9/11 was a warning, Katrina was another one. There were over 12 natural disasters that went over a billion dollars in damage this year. We need to repent as a country and get back to living according to His moral law. God has richly blessed this nation and to reject Him means this country is in great peril. He is the source of our power and strength, and He can easily take it away and replace the blessings with curses. To all the scoffers out there, you know not what you do; God is not mocked, and you reap what you sow. That is what is happening to this country today and what will happen to you too if you don't repent.

    December 25, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • Temp Name

      9/11 was a warning? so free will does not exist then? God made those terrorists hijack planes and fly them into buildings?

      It is amazing how often Christians contradict themselves.

      And who are you to consider yourself privy to "God's Plan"?

      December 25, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • goddog

      I thought that Jesus fulfilled the laws of Moses and that's why Christians ignore them. Can't you guys get it right so we Atheists will know the rules of engagement?

      December 25, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Dave

      You scare me so much I want to be on your side.....wait, no – that would make me like all the other "believers". Careful you don't fall down wearing your "The End is Nigh!" sandwich board...

      December 25, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • TR6

      “It isn't a matter of the country dissolving without Christ, it is a matter of God punishing us for our wreckless disobedience to His law.”

      Sweden is much more disobedient to its law than the US and they seem to be doing especially well these days. Italy much more obedient and is having the stuffing kicked out of it right now. Your god is either totally random in dispersing his rewards and punishments or it is totally non existent

      December 25, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Someone

      Soooo, what you are saying is that the terrorists, who are Muslim, are G-d's agents???????? Ohhhhhhhh boooooyyyyyy. As far as property damage, there is a reason why it grew so much is that we have pushed so much of our populations to the coasts. You may wantto look at one of Ron Paul's favorite exampls – the Galveston Hurricane, which occured during our G-dly time, which stands as a far worst loss of life than Katrina or 9/11.

      December 25, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Khw

      Dear J...
      As a Christian i find it disturbing, to hear others who profess themselves to be Christians, making statements that cannot be backed up by the bible. We cannot interpret what happens and make blanket statements that "these are warnings" etc...etc.
      Is there a need for repentance, sure there is, but who are we (professing christians) to make statements like you made.
      Stick with what the bible says for future answers and you wont go wrong. Don't interpret world events as God trying to teach "americans" a lesson.

      December 25, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
  5. Quotomodo

    "I am for liberty of conscience in its noblest, broadest, and highest sense. But I cannot give liberty of conscience to the pope and his followers, the papists, so long as they tell me, through all their councils, theologians, and canon laws that their conscience orders them to burn my wife, strangle my children, and cut my throat when they find their opportunity."
    — Abraham Lincoln

    December 25, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • huh?

      inappropriate to the story and probably invented bull sh it

      December 25, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  6. Quotomodo

    "When an honest but mistaken man learns of his error, he either [forthrightly] ceases to be mistaken, or ceases to be honest."
    — Peter E. Hendrickson

    December 25, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • huh?

      you have ceased to be honest and probably never were

      December 25, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  7. Quotomodo

    Both the Magisterium of the Church. . . . and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action. The deliberate use of the se.xual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.

    -Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994

    December 25, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • huh?

      out of place and useless to the topic offered

      December 25, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  8. Quotomodo

    "I do further promise and declare, that I will, when opportunity presents, make and wage relentless war, secretly or openly, against all heretics, Protestants and Liberals, as I am directed to do and to extirpate and exterminate them from the face of the whole earth, and that I will spare neither se.x, age nor condition and that I will hang, waste, boil, flay, strangle and bury alive these infamous heretics; rip up the stomachs and wombs of their women and crush their infants' heads against the wall, in order to annihilate forever their execrable race."
    — Pope Paul III, 1576

    December 25, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • huh?

      pure bull sh it

      December 25, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  9. Quotomodo

    "Today Christians ... stand at the head of [this country]... I pledge that I never will tie myself to parties who want to destroy Christianity .. We want to fill our culture again with the Christian spirit ... We want to burn out all the recent immoral developments in literature, in the theater, and in the press – in short, we want to burn out the poison of immorality which has entered into our whole life and culture as a result of liberal excess during the past ... (few) years."
    — Adolf Hitler, quoted in: The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, 1922-1939, Vol. 1

    December 25, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • huh?

      has absolutely no relation to this story

      December 25, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  10. Quotomodo

    A man can have se.x with animals such as sheep, cows, camels and so on. However he should kill the animal after he has his org.asm. He should not sell the meat to the people in his own village, however selling the meat to the next door village should be fine.

    -Ayatollah Khomeini, Tahrirolvasyleh, fourth volume, Darol Elm, Gom, Iran, 1990.

    December 25, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • huh?

      this idiot is totally out to lunch and way off topic

      December 25, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • DJL

      @Huh: He's quoting folks who have said or done all sorts of terrible things 'in the name of god,' in order to prove his point that religion is no answer to what ails humanity.

      December 25, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  11. josh

    This column is a classic representation of the misplaced victimhood and false nostalgia American Christians love to revel in. First, Taunton blames America's follies and "decline" on "a nation absent Christian belief," even while at least 75 percent of Americans identify as Christian (according to Pew research). So, who is really to blame here? If you believe Taunton, then somehow Christians are the minority and the "secular elites" (Evangelical code for heathens from the big city, because as we all know education makes for disbelievers and only those with a high school equivalency diploma living in rural communities are real Americans) are running roughshod over Jesus.
    Secondly, Taunton indulges in the trite conclusion that America is somehow objectively in freefall and it all stems from a decline in Christian traditions, despite the fact that there is less poverty, less crime and more opportunity than in generations past. Religious people routinely fall spell to the idea that the past was oh-so glorious. But it wasn't too long ago that racial segregation and slavery flourished in America, during a time when Christian traditions were ostensibly more robust. So, again, who is really to blame here?

    December 25, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • Coug9

      I have a doctorate from a major university in a very liberal state......yet I am a Christian.

      December 25, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • goddog

      Excellent! I've been saying this for years. I suppose that the light from the lord and the words of Jesus block any access point by which to reach the Christian's center of reason.

      December 25, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • JH

      Josh +1

      December 25, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • goddog

      Coug, I have observed that the lesser intelligent faithful invent less intelligent reasons to lie to themselves and the intelligent ones simply have more intelligent reasons to lie to themselves. Religion stimulates the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by drugs. The switch from drug addiction to religion is an easy one. Do you see how so many drug addicts "find god" to heal them? They have just traded one addiction for another, and the one will ultimately let them own just as much as the other.

      December 25, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Doris

      Slavery thrived everywhere until the 19th century. It is still legal in some Muslim countries. Thank Christians like William Wilberforce for seeing to its demise.

      December 25, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Doris

      Thsre is less crime that 50 years ago? Only in your dreams.

      December 25, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • TR6

      @Doris:”Thsre is less crime that 50 years ago? Only in your dreams”

      Pull you head out of your Christian a$$ and Google “declining crime rates “

      December 25, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  12. goddog

    Yea, the injection of religion in government, education and civil law has worked so well in the past. And look at Islam, we're so jealous. How about if Christians practice their faith like the other several hundred other religions who are left in peace? Kind of ironic that the Pope just gave his speech about remembering the essence of Christmas by being humbled... In his finest robe, jeweled walking cane from his mansion. Give me a break.

    December 25, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • Khw

      I couldn't agree more by seeing the Pope. Religion has done much evil on "Gods name" but somehow people need to look beyond religion to see that religion is nothing more then a farce for power, money and glory.
      God is not the author of religion man is.
      Faith in a living person (Christ) is much different.

      December 25, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • goddog

      Khw... I respect your views but you must realize that any faith that you practice that is not part of an organized religion is still simply one that you have invented to support your lifestyle. Religion isn't meant to make you happier on earth, it's to keep you pacified in life in hopes of a better afterlife. All religions have the same fundamental "truths" at their core. Only the dogma is different. Peace to you from an Atheist who does no harm nor do good in the name of another.

      December 25, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • Adam

      America is Pottersville because of greedy bankers and senators and because you hire Hindus and Not Christians. Look at the President of the Univeristy of Houston, Mr. Rick Perry hired a Hindu from India. As ONE example of what she done, look at http://www.cs.uh.edu. In the past 4 years, the school mostly hired professors from India, China, and Greece and Europe. Not a single American born or raised professor. Most graduate students are imported from China and India. All taxpayers money goes support these students. Americans are hurting and student cannot afford college, and yet Chinese and Indian students study for free. They tell you India is poor. India just built a $5 billion dollar fighter plane for the Russians and all of America's debt is owed to China. Why should America also pay to educate their kids. No one cares about America anymore, even Americans!

      December 25, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • goddog

      Adam, what a great god we have that we should have such hate for other humans, all of whom he created. What race are Americans again? When it comes to fair I think you will find that Atheists are better equipped without all that religious hate to hold us down.

      December 25, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  13. Khw

    There will be a day when all will stand before him "and every knee will bow" you are free to choose and free to live but ultimately every human will confess that Christ is real, that he is God who came in flesh, and he truly is the Saviour of the world. That free will is given by God and in the end it will be God who will judge. Most of you can fight behind the keyboards of your computers but I have no problem telling people – Yes I AM A BORN AGAIN CHRISTIAN! http://www.heaven4sure.com

    December 25, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • goddog

      God is perfect.
      God has a plan for every life.
      Every life must fulfill his/her purpose (in a perfect plan)

      Where does free will and evil fit into this plan?
      How can anyone do "wrong"?
      Why are "bad" people punished for fulfilling their purpose?

      December 25, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • Khw

      Good questions "goddog"
      God's overall desire is that "he wants all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth" 1 Tim 2:4
      I allows every one of us to choose... We will not be "saved" by being good (the bible doesn't teach... do good to go to heaven) but he allows us to choose with what we will do with Christ.
      His perfect plan has been accomplished in providing a way of Salvation. We are responsible for what we do with it (free will)

      Evil exists because of what is inside of us not because of what is around us. Yes we are responsible for what we do in life but we are not condemned because of what we have done but "who" we really are. Sinners from God. That is why there is a need for Salvation. Its not that an "Evil person" who kills can say "im just fulfilling Gods perfect plan" the every individual is responsible for what they do, its not God behind the scenes pulling the strings.
      Man's free will – with God's perfect plan (Salvation) can work together easily.
      God has voted (He wants salvation) The devil has voted (He wants your soul) now you must choose.

      December 25, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  14. John

    To say that the absence of religion is leading to a decline in the quality of life in the U.S. overlooks the fact that many of their followers use their religious beliefs to justify their own intolerance. Many "Tea Party" member identify themselves as "Christians" but only seem to be interested in their own economic welfare and seem to resent aid to other citizens. Their cry "Give us back our country" is primarily directed at their fear of people of other religions and ethnic backgrounds.

    December 25, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • Khw

      It is more the fact that a true Christian will be a changed person. Yes religion is EVIL and has done many evil things in the name of God but a true born again Christian will live a life that is radically changed from before. Religion is false and will not really have any power to change of persons life but faith in Christ will.

      December 25, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Khw: I don't need a new life. I am a good person without god. You really don't need any sort of supernatural influence to be good. All you need is human compassion, something that existed long before Christ and exists where the name of Christ has never been heard.

      December 25, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  15. Mikeq

    What arrogance! So Taunton thinks that our nation is in decline because of the loss of Christian influence. Seems to me that it has been Christian influence that has resulted in "social conservatism" and the devastation wreaked upon the poor and disadvantaged. Christian influence has been nothing but a negative in US politics. Oh, and last I checked, this is a nation for all religions and religious tolerance, so let's not proselytize about becoming a more "Christian" nation. I'm all for his First Amendment rights to put this opinion on CNN, but shame on the network for making this Belief section a platform for strictly Christian evangelizing. If that's all they can do, then this section should be shut down.

    December 25, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • DJL


      December 25, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • Khw

      You condemn him for arrogance for stating that Christians are morally good living and america would be better with them. Don't you think it's the same arrogance to say "the world would be better with just atheists... or "free thinking" people.

      December 25, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  16. Khw

    For there is one God, and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.

    December 25, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • tallulah13

      There is no proof that any god has ever existed. But that's okay. You can still be a good person. Just treat other people as you would be treated. It's a concept older than your god, and it still works.

      Of course, you don't get to believe that you're going to heaven if you don't have a god, but if you live your life to the best of your abilities, why would you need a heaven?

      December 25, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Khw

      It's all fine and dandy to think everything is just great while your living life here but one day you might be wishing the doors of heaven would be open for you.
      Simple belief in God is not the grounds for going to heaven even living a good life is not the answer to heaven. I don't live a "good life" to get me up into heaven. I try and live a God honouring life because "he loved me, and sent his Son for me"

      December 25, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  17. Khw

    For God so loved the world, that he gave His only Begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him, will not perish but have everlasting life – John 3:16

    December 25, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • JH

      When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer. With a little old driver, so lively and quick, I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.

      December 25, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • goddog

      "You wascally wabbit"... Elmer Fud.

      December 25, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  18. Clint

    "A nation absent christian belief", my one and only wish for this holiday season....

    One can only hope.

    December 25, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  19. The Duke

    Thanks Larry for that excellent bit of religious proselytizing, it just wouldn't be Christmas without it.

    December 25, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  20. Truthship

    I often hear Adam Smith quoted when it comes to the gospel of Capitalism. The Mr. and Mrs Potters are quick to refer to him but fail to mention that Smith firmly states that these economic principles are all in question if the powers that be are greedy and immoral. The anger from the 99% and Tea Party activists are being generated by the understanding that our economic/governmental system is rigged for and by the Mr. Potters and it is decaying our society.
    Every time a bell rings a Democrat gets his wings. ( just kidding )

    December 25, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
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