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.)
Pope Francis may need a primer on free market economics (while I'm recommending books, I suggest "The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism" by the great Catholic philosopher Michael Novak), but there is no doubt he is imbued with a love of God that translates seamlessly into a love of his fellow men. Like Robertson, he accepts the Christian teaching that homosexuality is a sin, but he also lives the Christian teaching about loving the sinner and embracing all people -- the ill, destitute and in one moving moment from the past year, the disfigured -- as God's children who are owed dignity and inclusion.
When he announced his impending retirement from the House of Representatives, Frank Wolf issued a simple statement: "As a follower of Jesus, I am called to work for justice and reconciliation and to be an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves ... "
Would he have described himself as a humble "follower of Jesus" if he were making an announcement for reelection instead of retirement? Would any politician in a purple state like Virginia dare to do so? Doubtful.
What is not in doubt is that Wolf did speak for the voiceless and did defend the persecuted throughout his 34 years in Congress. Wherever men were persecuted, they could be sure of an advocate in Wolf. He traveled to the Soviet Union, Romania and Bosnia to investigate and report on human rights abuses. In 1997, he traveled to Tibet on an ordinary passport and visa -- not as part of an official delegation -- to meet with persecuted Buddhists. When he returned, he held a press conference denouncing the "unspeakably brutal conditions" that prevailed in the mountain region "in the dim shadow of international awareness." He has continued to press the State Department and various administrations to raise human rights questions with the Chinese government.
Wolf was among the first members of Congress to travel to Darfur, Sudan, and those suffering in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, the Republic of the Congo, Syria, Iraq and Egypt have also benefited from Wolf's tireless devotion to human rights. He fought human trafficking in the U.S. and worldwide, and attempted to persuade his fellow members to resist the seduction of legalized gambling.
Wolf and Francis, you might say, are attempting to impose their religious values on other people. God bless them.