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. Brian

    Morality does not stem from the bible or any other religious text or dogma. Humans did not just suddenly acquire morals with the appearance and/or invention of your god (whomever he/she/it may be). There are small clusters of societies across the globe that have never heard of Jesus or Zeus or Mohammad or etc. and yet they live lives with dignity and compassion and love for one another and community. I care not that you or your family worship a particular deity, but I do take issue with imposing the dogma and rules established by your deity and religion of choice. Do I believe in the Golden Rule? Yes, I wouldn't be a well adjusted human if I did not. However, the concept of treating others in a manner in which you'd prefer be treated was not a novel concept in the time of Jesus. It was not an original idea. Ad infinitum.

    Several forms of hominids with varying degrees of mental prowess have been roaming this planet for millions of years. Without successful cohabitation and cooperation and 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours' then we would not be sitting here today have such a lively discussion.

    Yes, I'm atheist, but that does not mean by default that I am without morals or live an aimless life and favor anarchy over civility. Taken as a whole, atheist have a more thorough knowledge and grasp of religion than most religious people. That does make us 'elitists' or better than anyone else, as the author describes (or our collective mindset). Perhaps having a better grasp of the historical and factual aspects of religion (not just Christianity) is was leads us to becoming non-believers. Perhaps not, but that explains my situation.

    I have zero problems with religious people, as I alluded to earlier, but it infuriates me to see religion used to justify certain laws and acts that are not based on sound logic or reason. Too many categories fall into this trap to name. Some are just plain petty (eg, the whole Merry Christmas v. Happy Holidays idiocy) and others can have lasting and serious impacts on the lives of American citizens, whom are (or at least should be) equal in the eyes of the law (gay marriage, abortions, etc.).

    Okay, I'll step down from my soapbox. Please, everyone be kind to your fellow man. I'll part with: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your families. Cheers,


    December 24, 2011 at 7:52 am |
    • Brian

      Please excuse and forgive the handful of typos. I was in a rush.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:58 am |
    • Michael

      Well put...regardless of the typos!

      December 24, 2011 at 8:07 am |
    • Brian

      You mean irregardless, right? Ha.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:19 am |
  2. 30to30

    You see it around the world: bad people do bad things, good people do good things, but to make a good person do bad things, you need politics or religion.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:52 am |
  3. Nelson

    I find it horrifying that anyone thinks Christianity or any other religion is necessary to be a good person. Do we need the Ten Commandments to know that loving each other, not killing, and not coveting are all good? No. That is basic human decency. Am I an atheist? No. But I find most organized religion of every stripe horrifying in the extreme – the purpose of it seems to be to divide everyone into sects, then they all know who to hate because their denomination is the one that's going to "heaven."

    December 24, 2011 at 7:51 am |
    • Michael

      Religions are created to control people. I agree with you!

      December 24, 2011 at 8:10 am |
  4. Reality

    What a nasty screed! Most non religeous folks take no issue with the faith based crowd. What they take issue with is having the belief system of others shoved at them without restraint. The smokers analogy really annoyed me.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:48 am |
    • mark

      Thank you I have always believed in something it just is not in some guy walking around . Most of the angles if I we call them that carry shoveles to smack you in yhe head when you do something against how you feel inside

      December 24, 2011 at 7:52 am |
    • Reality

      Not from the original Reality.

      December 25, 2011 at 8:42 am |
  5. Jim

    I enjoyed the article. Thank you.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:47 am |
  6. Cerebral1

    Sorry, Taunton, but I'm with Dawkins on this one. Evil is not innate. It is learned. Furthermore, some of it's best instructors are supposedly devout Christians.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:46 am |
    • Will

      Have you ever raised children? A child comes out of the womb presuming that it is the center of the universe. It eventually has to learn that other people matter also.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:52 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      """A child comes out of the womb presuming that it is the center of the universe. It eventually has to learn that other people matter also."""

      We are individuals yet also social animals. Morals, rules, laws, etc all have arisen out of necessity to preserve and maintain a healthy social order.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:12 am |
  7. bird

    Who is this jacka$$??? "Evil is innate to all of us" Really?? What a total bunch of Evangelical BS. Great piece for Christmas Keep God to yourself.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:45 am |
    • Joseph A

      You doubt that statement? Have you ever watched the news or picked up a history book?

      December 24, 2011 at 7:55 am |
  8. The Half Baked Lunatic

    'god' is an idiotic idea promoted by immoral people to control and pacify the weak minded. I'm a believer in the realities of the universe, it's the christians who are the non-believers.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:44 am |
    • Michael

      I agree.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:24 am |
    • moonster

      Humans aren't that smart. Why would evolved beings believe in such things??? Maybe there is some truth to an intelligence bigger than mere humans.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  9. Joseph A

    As is usual at Christmastime, we get another whine about Christians being "persecuted" for their beliefs, and the "secular elite" are trying to abolish Christianity.

    What "It's A Wonderful Life" was ultimately about, Mr. Taunton, is about a man who sacrifices himself for others, and fails to understand just how important and loved he is for doing it. Sound like someone you know? George only realizes the value of life – his life – when he is on the brink of losing everyone and everything he loves.

    And if either of those two accusations was true, Mr. Taunton, the churches would be empty on December 25th, Salvation Army coffers would be empty as the callous thousands walked by ringers frantically trying to get their attention.

    Instead, we have people – millions of people – of good conscience helping others. Instead we have churches packed with people who make that special effort to get there.

    It seems to me that the Christian spirit of the Savior's birth is alive as ever, even in these hard economic times. I know I've shared my blessings with others as I can. I say this not to toot my own horn, but to let you know I'm not the only person I see dropping a few dollars into the kettle.

    Putting "In God We Trust" on our money or placing plastic figurines on the lawn is not what Christianity is or should be about, because, as Christ told us over and over again, Christianity is really about loving one's fellow man as yourself and helping others.

    And even tens of millions of plastic baby Jesuses in every yard come December will never save one soul.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:44 am |
    • LMK

      Well said! And I have never been 'saved' by a plastic baby Jesus either.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:56 am |
  10. John

    The culture of blame is alive and well...and will never go away. His point is that taking responsibility for our actions, even so small, help build a people who are generous and thankful. Isn't that what we need to see more of?

    December 24, 2011 at 7:43 am |
  11. Robert

    83 percent have it right , 17 percent are politically inclined or on the Corporate pay off , America is approaching the the Abyss, and many will choose the Path to destruction, for narrow is the alternative. Who would doubt the FACT that America no longer believes in " In God We Trust " , let's be real here , it's belief in the "Almighty Dollar" , and " Weapons of War " both of these beliefs is a sure recipe for Self Destruction. Ask Scrooge !

    December 24, 2011 at 7:43 am |
  12. Thinkingisgood

    "Christians are the most charitable segment of the population by a substantial margin." This statement MAY be true. Unfortunately, the statistics include donations to churches (i.e., Sunday collections), which pays for the upkeep of buildings and salaries of clergy and associated administrative support. It would be interesting to find out how much actually goes to the "least of these", after you subtract the ministers' salary and facilities upkeep.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:41 am |
    • Will

      The same could be said of secular charities. How much money goes towards administration and how much to people in need?

      December 24, 2011 at 7:49 am |
    • Whatever

      Quite a lot actually. At least in the Catholic church, the Vatican supports a wide range of charities and other service organizations around the world. Catholic Relief Services is an excellent example of this. Individual priests and nuns often also support smaller organizations to help the poor, abused women, single mothers, addicts etc.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:54 am |
  13. Texasrms

    Does anyone actually think that name-calling and vitriol have ever changed anyone's mind? It is ridiculous to read the hateful statements written by both sides of this argument. Might we agree that we all need a little more civility and kindness in our lives? Might we all agree that it is possible to be friends and fellow citizens with people who believe differently from us? Might we all agree that our nation is in trouble because of our own self-centeredness? It is time for people of all belief systems to rise up and say "Enough!" Let's clean us our language, have some manners, show a little respect to those around us. Let's take care of those among us who are in need and who are most helpless. Let's be a nation that cares.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:40 am |
  14. Tina Thompson

    If Niall Ferguson argues that the decline of the West can partially be attributed to the decline of a Christian presence in Western culture, then how does he explain the Renaissance, which was enabled by a decline in the Christian presence in Western culture?

    It's fair to say that modern western societies - including its technological benefits - owe more to the change in values that occurred in the Renaissance.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:37 am |
    • Will

      Have you ever noticed that a large portion of the renaissance masterpieces beautifully depict biblical scenes and imageries?

      December 24, 2011 at 7:57 am |
  15. Karlen Sanberg

    Unfortunately, Taunton has already contracted the mental virus, and therefore cannot see that he's connecting the dots based on the virus rather than the reality of our world. What a tool.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:36 am |
    • AB

      I am not a Christian and not really overly religious person. i believe that religion and the morality that comes with it is very important in the life of a person and also in the life of a country. Lot of people have tried to do away with religion in ancient and recent past. All of them have failed. Most recent example is the fall of Soviet Union. there are lot of people who think religion and morality is a "VIRUS". they are just mistaken. Religion and beliefs have importance in all societies and and all time.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:23 am |
  16. Jen

    It seems to me that the Christians, for the most part, belong to the Republican party. This is the party that does not want health care for all citizens, the party that declares war at the drop of a hat, the party that wants to cut welfare....you get my drift. If these people are Christian, would they not want citizens to have health care, not go to war and kill, and not keep money from the poor!? Maybe it is the Christians who need to rethink what Jesus really wanted them to stand for. I know, I know, they have to be Republican because they don't want abortion. Well, as our county goes to war, many innocent people die everyday. But, I guess that type of killing is ok. Even though the Bible says, "Thoult shall not kill, and turn the other cheek, love thy enemy."

    December 24, 2011 at 7:35 am |
    • Mi Poo

      That's the first thing I thought when I saw the article. Christians of today are very different from the Christians in Bedford Falls. Today's Christians would be living it up with Mr. Potter, looking down their noses at those in need.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:40 am |
    • Steve

      Exactly what I wanted to say, but I'm sure you said it better. The christianity is missing from so many christians when it comes to public life.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:47 am |
    • John

      It is unfortunate that Christians, for the most part, have become associated with the Republicans. You can find a lot more diversity especially in the younger believers.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:48 am |
    • Adele

      Just because you claim that you're a Christian doesn't mean that you are one. Jesus says that we will be known by our fruits and often times those are against many of the doctrines in the political realm (particularly the Tea Party). I am a Christian and I'm for healthcare, I don't believe in war (unless it is necessary i.e. World War II) and I often volunteer and support the poor and needy. Don't judge a selective set of Christians on their false ideology. I think that 100% of the problems with religion isn't the Word of God, but the fact that people use it in an unholy way and twist and manipulate it for their own purposes.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:51 am |
    • Michael

      I agree with you completely! You get it. It is a great contradiction. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and expressing them clearly.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:59 am |
    • Steve

      You can't posit Christianty into a political party based on a set of ideals, and the belief that all Christians uphold those ideals! I understand you said "for the most part," but your argument still becomes a generalization (not very applicable or theoretically strong). Secondly, your abhoration of the Republican party elucidates another flaw in your argument: there is less fact than fiction. You allow emotion to drive your argument. You posit Republicans in the discursive "other" category. You effectively divide yourself from a sect of our community. This is the problem with our culture and society. You are but an example of how we are a divided breed. How do you or any other enpassioned politically affluent soul believe we can forge a positive future with so many divided fault
      lines? And, as for Christianity, if you have not noticed, It is a "faith" based apparatus that ha power to mobilize the masses! It lays, active, in the hearts of many people–not only Americans– and it has withstood the barrage of fire that people like you ha spewed upon it for centuries! You are but an ignorant person, who has no discursive power over a religion or a
      Mass of people!

      December 24, 2011 at 8:04 am |
    • Lynn

      Being a Christian does not equal being for every social program....especially when most social programs are wasteful monstrosities that we don't even know what we're getting or paying for (I'd rather have religion shoved down my throat by an innocuous nativity display that I can refuse to look at than a healthcare law that I CANNOT refuse to participate in). Most of us just don't throw ourselves at the feet at the throne of big government and say YES throw money at this PIT of a program...We don't care how awfully it's run or how much waste is involved or how many things you've tacked onto it ...JUST throw money at it because it feels good and since I'm a Christian so I won't question anything that might help people. Again, Christianity does not equal throwing a big wad of money at a problem. Christianity is going out into your community or wherever you can, visiting someone in need or volunteering whenever you can to help those in need. There is ALWAYS a need in your community no matter where you are, and the government is not the answer, should not be and never will be.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  17. Tallulah

    I will add that if churches want to lobby Government they should have to pay taxes. Step one foot into the political arena and you are non-exempt.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:35 am |
    • Mi Poo

      ABSOLUTELY! We could wipe out any deficit in a heartbeat if we taxed churches. They want to campaign from the pulpit, so take away their tax-exempt status!

      December 24, 2011 at 7:38 am |
    • Michael

      I agree completely.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:05 am |
  18. charleston tomato

    He cites "research" from the Barna Group saying Christians are the most charitable segment of the population. Per the Barna Group's website they "Serv[e] the information needs of the church by offering statistics, resources, seminars and custom research on current cultural and spiritual trends." That's not research.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:34 am |
  19. RealityCheker

    The most recent poll of by the Pew Research Center shows that only 1.6% of Americans consider themselves atheists. That number has stayed flat since polling on the subject began 5 decades ago. Meanwhile, 78.4% of Americans identify themselves as Christians. This number is also statistically similar to where it was 5 decades ago.

    No amount of whining, crying, b1tching, and hate will overcome the basic fact that atheists are irrelevant and have been constantly rejected by the American people. Atheists lack the intellgect to recognize that their hatred for Christians is a the primary reason that the American people reject them and their warped ideas.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:33 am |
    • charleston tomato

      Are you saying that whatever most people believe must be true? Or simply that any minority belief is "irrelevant" and "warped"?

      December 24, 2011 at 7:36 am |
    • Sandor Johnson

      Athiests have warped ideas??? That's a pretty BIG judgement for a Christian!!!! Choosing not to believe in fairytales, talking snakes, virgin births, devils and nonsense! Religion is a brain disease. And faith isn't a virtue. Believing something without questioning it – is a wish to be a slave.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:40 am |
    • Tina Thompson

      “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
      –Mahatma Ghandi.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:42 am |
    • Barnum

      Then why are we tearing down nativity scenes?

      December 24, 2011 at 7:44 am |
    • Les

      Atheists don't hate christians. We just don't like that fact that some of you keep trying to force your beliefs on others. It's a good thing we live in a country with laws that prevent it.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:46 am |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      I do not lack any intellgect, as far as I know. Not sure what it is.

      Additionally, and I already know you either won't or can't do this, explain what a Christian is and then as a follow-up question, how are those statistics obtained and calculated, and who are they intended to please? That always has a lot to do with these so called statistics. If all Christians believe the same, I am a fork.

      I would put forward the following, most people are Agnostic. I say this not because of any polls. No one wants to be discriminated against so they naturally will lie on a poll.. No I say this because I am an optimist, and I refuse to believe that so many people can possibly be so ignorant. Confused? sure. Ignorant? no.

      Christians are the oppressors.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:47 am |
    • Journeystu

      Warped ideas? Lack of intelligence? You really need to get your facts straight. Christians have the most ridiculous "beliefs" in the world. A talking snake telling a woman to eat from a tree when a flying man in the sky tells her not to; she then eats the apple from the tree and the big man finds out and casts her out of the garden. If you want to find out why us Atheists hate Christianity, here are the three main reasons: Genesis, Leviticus, Deuteronomy. Research them, and if you are still a Christian after that, then I really pity you and hope you realize how wrong you are before you waste this one and only life.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:51 am |
    • jim

      Christians reject us because most of them are too stupid to understand that we simply don't believe that their "fairy king" in the sky exists. Their flawed christian logic leads them to believe that we must, therefore, hate him. By the way, with notable exceptions (you being one of them) I don't hate christians, I feel sorry for them.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:51 am |
    • Respect

      1.6%? Where did you get that fake figure? Christianity is bleeding membership for the last 20 years and there have been countless church leaders that have written articles about the fact. The two largest growing groups are atheists/agnostics and Muslims. My wife is a Christian and she will tell you first hand that church membership has been on a down slope the last 10 years at local masses. Empty seats are the new norm.

      People are realizing that most poor legislation was the direct result of "faith-based voting" and also, when the chips are down, God and his flock are not coming to save you. You have to do it yourself.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:55 am |
    • Repiuk

      Let's continue citing figures....while 78% of the nation considers themselves Christian, the amount of Christians in the world only make up roughly 28% of all religions. Atheists are the furthest from unintelligent since they are basing their beliefs on science. And as mentioned before, data gathered by surveys administered by a company "serving the needs" of a church is not data that ANY scientific organization would ever look at.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:01 am |
    • Cerebral1

      I refute your interpretationnof the Pew research center poll.... Can you provide a link? I went to their website and discovered that in a 2010 survey, theists and agnostics actually demonstrated more knowledge about religion than the religious! Also, according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, 12% of Americans identify as atheist and another 12% as deists who believe in a higher power but not a personal God. The number of atheists and agnostics is on the rise... and apparently they tend to be educated. I was raised Catholic but am now an atheist. I have read the bible unlike so many of my Christian peers. It is part of the reason I've become atheist. I am a friendly compassionate person who simply doesn't need religion to tell me how to behave. Religion doesn't dictate morality.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:11 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      """Atheists lack the intellgect to recognize that their hatred for Christians is a the primary reason that the American people reject them and their warped ideas."""

      Good thing we have the intellect to get past your atrocious spelling and grammar.

      Christians believe in some of the silliest ideas ever conceived in the mind of man, yet you sit there at your computer and say atheists lack intellect. That's classic.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:19 am |
  20. Majestic_Lizard

    People who base their perception of reality off of movies are dangerous.

    December 24, 2011 at 7:30 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.