12/20/2010 10:17 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Rabbi's Thoughts: What Christmas Tells Us About America

I love the Christmas season. Part of the reason for me, of course, is that it follows the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah -- the joyous, low-key, family oriented holiday that has inflated importance because of its proximity to Christmas but which, nonetheless, is embraced with delight by Jews of all religious orientations.

But that is not the only reason. Most Americans act differently as Christmas approaches. As a boy growing up in Worcester, Mass., I remember being aware from a very young age that my neighbors, students in my school and people on the street were -- despite frenetic preparations and gift buying -- simply friendlier, more relaxed, more outgoing and more inclined to smile at holiday time. Yes, yes, I know. We have all read about the commercialization of Christmas and the difficulty of maintaining its religious character in a secular world. I have discussed the matter often with the many ministers I know and with my Christian friends. Still, it seems perfectly clear to me that for America's Christian majority, there is such a thing as the spirit of Christmas, and the goodwill of the season always manages to extend its reach, in a lighting-fast and almost effortless way, to Americans of all faiths and religious traditions. G.K. Chesterton once referred to America as "a nation with the soul of a church," by which he meant a nation with an enduring religious character. He was right about this, and each year the Christmas season proves it anew.

I especially like the Christmas season because I know many "lapsed Christians" -- those who are doubters, who virtually never go to church, or who otherwise are distant from or on the fringes of their faith -- and these friends and acquaintances share with me how, at Christmas time, they are drawn to their church. Based on what they tell me, I don't accept that this is simply a desire for family togetherness. What I hear from them is openness to Christmas' religious message, combined with willingness -- and indeed a desire -- to be at church and to offer words of praise and thanks to God. I don't know, of course, how many will establish a connection that will last beyond the holiday. Nonetheless, I am encouraged by their story. And the reason is that I see America's religious character as one of her great virtues: a source and inspiration for morality, community and democratic values. As a rabbi and a committed religious Jew, I have spent many years working to bring Jews on the margins of Judaism back to their religion, and I believe that America is strengthened when Christians find the way back to theirs.

And finally this: To me, the Christmas season serves as a welcome and emphatic public rebuke to the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. For a variety of reasons too complicated to discuss now, American culture has opened itself up recently to voices of self-righteous atheism. These voices express the view, in TV appearances and best-selling books, that God is dead and that religion by definition is always both fanatic and destructive. Yet each year, when Christmas comes, huge numbers of Christian Americans -- who, like the great majority of Americans, are insistently moderate in all things -- are drawn to the holiday and its religious teachings. Scholars and religious haters take note: This phenomenon is proof that liberal religion (and by that I simply mean religion of the centrist, non-fanatic variety) is alive and well in America.