It took over a year, but the United States now has an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, was confirmed by the Senate on Friday after a long delay. Saperstein will become the first non-Christian to hold the position, following a long career as an outspoken and well-respected advocate on political and social causes.
He serves on the board of the NAACP and delivered the invocation at a session of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, and he criticized the Supreme Court for overturning the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. But he also enjoys support from many prominent conservatives, especially on issues of religious freedom abroad.
Saperstein served as a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom shortly after its creation in 1999. While some conservatives have expressed trepidation over Saperstein’s social liberalism, others are impressed and heartened by his history of supporting strong religious-freedom policies abroad. As one Republican congressional staffer joked, “He’s not being nominated for Supreme Court justice.”
The ambassador-at-Large is meant to coordinate the State Department’s work in promoting religious freedom abroad. Advocates for the issue, particularly those on the right, have complained in the past that religion has been sidelined in U.S. human rights policy under Republican and Democratic presidents alike.
His confirmation came near the end of a year that saw many egregious abuses of religious freedom worldwide, from the persecution of religious minorities at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, to the demolition of officially licensed churches in China, to aggression between Muslims and Christians in the Central African Republic. (RELATED: These Three Charities Are Helping Christian Victims of ISIS)
Despite these pressing concerns, the position has been empty for over 13 months — ever since the last officeholder, Suzan Johnson Cook, resigned in October 2013. Due to the Obama administration’s delay in appointing Johnson Cook, and the Senate’s slowness to confirm ambassadorial nominees, the job has been vacant for over half of Obama’s time in office.
Obama nominated Saperstein in July, though he hinted as early as February that “I look forward to nominating” a new religious freedom ambassador. While no official reason has been given for delay, sources speaking on condition of anonymity have claimed that Saperstein wanted to ensure he would have enough power within the State Department to do his job effectively.
The Senate’s vote to confirm Saperstein was 62-35. As columnist Mark Silk of Religion News Service pointed out, one of the Republicans voting against Saperstein was Orrin Hatch, who in an October speech at Brigham Young University said he “was proud to support the [International Religious Freedom] Act, which created an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.”
Virginian Republican Rep. Frank Wolf who wrote the 1998 law that created the position, praised the Senate’s confirmation vote. In a statement to The Daily Caller News Foundation, he said, “At this time, it is important we have a strong advocate in support of international religious freedom. Throughout his career, Rabbi David Saperstein has been a strong voice in this area.”
Co-chair of the International Religious Freedom Caucus Rep. Trent Franks was also supportive, telling TheDCNF, “I believe that Rabbi Saperstein is a passionate advocate on behalf of international religious freedom and will prioritize these issues within the State Department hierarchy.” (RELATED: China, Russia and Iran Lecture The US On Human Rights)
Besides support from Capitol Hill, numerous religious leaders have expressed gratitude for the Senate’s vote to confirm Saperstein. Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said in a statement to TheDCNF, “In this hour, we need all the diplomatic and intellectual energy we can muster on these issues of human rights and global security.”
Likewise, Rabbi Steve Fox of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, called Saperstein “Reform Judaism’s gift to those around the world who need him most.”
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