The United States has a new State Department advocate for religious liberty overseas.
The U.S. Senate confirmed David Saperstein as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in a 62-35 roll-call vote Dec. 12. Saperstein, a long-time proponent of global religious liberty, has been director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for more than three decades.
Saperstein’s confirmation ended a 14-month long vacancy during which religious freedom advocates urged first President Obama, then the Senate, to fill the post at a time when people of faith and America’s reputation as a defender of religious liberty were suffering increasingly around the world.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s lead religious freedom advocate thanked the Senate for its action.
“In this hour, we need all the diplomatic and intellectual energy we can muster on these issues of human rights and global security,” Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), said. He said Saperstein will have his “full cooperation and support in the cause of protecting religious freedom around the world.”
Obama’s selection of Saperstein evoked misgivings from the ERLC, as well as other pro-life and religious freedom organizations, because of the nominee’s liberal stances on domestic issues such as abortion and gay rights.
Saperstein’s assurances since his nomination have helped satisfy concerns, said a leading advocate for overseas religious liberty.
Saperstein won conservatives’ support “by assuring them that he will advocate for religious freedom for all religious groups, including those that might oppose him on issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage (no easy undertaking in an administration that has mounted assaults on domestic religious groups over those very issues),” wrote Thomas Farr in a mid-November blog post. Farr is director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.
He has gained respect as well “by convincing [conservatives] he will work very hard to elevate the status of his office, policy, and position within the State Department,” wrote Farr, a former U.S. diplomat. “He clearly wants to make a difference in the growing crisis of religious freedom, especially in the Middle East.
“In short, many conservatives trust Saperstein even though they disagree with him,” Farr said. “This is rare in Washington, D.C.”
In a September hearing, Saperstein committed to a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to use his post “fervently (and fiercely) to advocate for the rights of individuals to choose, change, and practice their faith safely, to end blasphemy and apostasy laws, and without government interference or the threat of violence or marginalization, to ensure that people are free and safe to assemble, worship, teach, learn, and share their faith with others.”
According to his written testimony, he also promised to attempt to “engage every segment” of the State Department and the rest of the federal government “to integrate religious freedom into our nation’s statecraft: counter-terrorism, conflict stability efforts, economic development, human rights.” Such foreign policy goals, he said, “need the stability, the security, the contributions of members of religious majorities and religious minorities, in every country, to further our nation’s values, interests and agenda.”
More than one-third of the Senate still voted against Saperstein’s confirmation, with one Democrat – Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia – joining 34 Republicans in opposition. Among Republicans who voted in favor of his confirmation were conservative Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Tim Scott of South Carolina.
The ERLC’s Moore was among religious freedom proponents who urged the president during the last year to fill the position after Suzan Johnson Cook resigned in October 2013. The post has been vacant for more than three of the six years Obama has been in the White House. The president announced in late July his intention to nominate Saperstein, but it took more than four months for the Senate to hold a confirmation vote.
In September, Moore urged Majority Leader Harry Reid to schedule a vote on Saperstein before senators entered what was basically a recess to campaign for the November election. At the time, Moore told Reid in a letter, “The whole world is on fire on the issues of religious liberty and religious conflict.” A confirmation vote on Saperstein “should be more important than politics,” he said.
The delay for a confirmation vote on Saperstein came as Christians and other religious minorities continued to undergo persecution, perhaps most notably in Iraq and Nigeria. The terrorist movement known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has committed atrocities against Christians, Yazidis and other minorities, especially in northern Iraq. Meanwhile, Boko Haram, also a militant Islamic group, has continued its reign of terror in Nigeria. In the last five years, Boko Haram has killed about 15,000 Christians and destroyed or bombed more than 200 churches, a government official has reported.
Research has shown 5.3 billion people, or 76 percent of the world’s population, live in countries with high restrictions on religious freedom from the government or groups in society.
With his confirmation, Saperstein becomes the fourth ambassador-at-large – and the first who is not a Christian – since the post was created in 1998 by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).
Saperstein, an original member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), strongly advocated for IRFA’s passage and served as the first chairman of USCIRF, the bipartisan advisory panel established by the law. He was on the commission from 1999 to 2001.
Saperstein’s differences with the ERLC and other pro-life or religious freedom organizations include his criticism of the Supreme Court’s June opinion in the Hobby Lobby case that supported the religious freedom of for-profit employers regarding the abortion/contraception mandate in the 2010 health-car law. He also stood at Obama’s side as the president signed an executive order in July to extend workplace protections among federal contractors to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender status. Other religious liberty advocates said the religious exemption in the order would prove inadequate.
Among the concerns religious freedom proponents continue to have about the post Saperstein now fills is the State Department’s refusal to elevate it so the ambassador-at-large reports directly to the secretary of State – something other ambassadors at large are authorized to do.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)