Many who are hostile to religion are eager to portray the "Duck Dynasty" star's comments about homosexuality as the essence of Christianity. Because the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin akin to adultery, the argument goes, the Bible is clearly bigoted, and those who quote the relevant verses are morally objectionable as well.
Some of us who were sorry to see the idea of sin itself go out of fashion worry about the relaxation of standards all around. Still, you can quote the Bible to almost any effect, and it's certainly true that the sins we choose to highlight or overlook change with time. In the 18th century, for example, violating the Sabbath was considered a serious offense. In my judgment, a more consequential sin than homosexuality, from the point of view of our cultural health, is unwed childbearing.
At Christmastime, though, it's important to remember that religion is about encouraging virtue, not just avoiding sin.
As a Jew, I may have weak qualifications to nominate anyone for Christian of the Year, but I step forward because it's so easy in the present climate to lose sight of the fact that the Christian message -- and generally, the message of the great religions -- continues to inspire the very best in people. Young people, who see Christianity and other great faiths as merely institutionalized prejudice, need to grapple with the larger picture.
I'm continually inspired by the acts of generosity, communal support and loving kindness performed by the rabbi and congregants of our synagogue. Visiting the sick, providing jobs for the handicapped, comforting those who mourn, feeding the hungry -- these are tasks undertaken because religious people feel called or commanded to perform them. A benevolent attitude toward one's fellow man is all very well, but in practice, religious people are far more likely to extend themselves in this way than secular people. (For more on this topic, see "Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism" by Arthur Brooks.)
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