David Saperstein at the World Economic Forum in 2013

David Saperstein at the World Economic Forum in 2013 Creative Commons

President Obama could hardly have made a better a decision than to nominate Rabbi David Saperstein as the country’s new Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. The longtime director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Saperstein is uniquely qualified to make a go of one of the trickiest jobs in the federal government.

Established as part of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), the ambassadorship is a somewhat free-floating position charged with monitoring and promoting the most complex of human rights. As if the field of activity weren’t difficult enough to tread, the ambassador must cooperate with the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which IRFA also empowered to monitor and promote religious liberty around the world. And that’s not to mention reckoning with competing State Department priorities, White House imperatives, congressional preoccupations, and outside agitation from religious and human rights groups with agendas of their own.

Saperstein’s religious liberty bona fides is without peer. Two decades ago, he put together the coalition responsible for gaining all but unanimous passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the law that has recently become the darling of religious conservatives. In 1999, he was unanimously elected by his fellow commissioners to serve as the first chair of the USCIRF. He served on the first advisory council to Obama’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and was a member of the task force to reform the office. No representative of a religious organization in Washington comes close to matching his credibility across the political spectrum.

In other words, there’s no good reason for the Senate not to quickly approve the nomination. But these days, the lack of a good reason does not stop Republicans from throwing monkey wrenches into the nomination process. Just last week, Sen. Ted Cruz put a hold on all ambassadorial appointments to protest the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to suspend U.S. airline flights to Israel.

Since the resignation of Suzan Johnson Cook last year, the international religious freedom lobby has been agitating for the Obama Administration to appoint a new ambassador, with GOP partisans contending that its failure to do so demonstrates a lack of commitment to religious liberty. This appointment has been worth the wait. The question is whether the partisans think the position is as critical to fill as they say it is, or if they’ve just been interested in scoring debaters’ points.

Categories: Politics

Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

16 Comments

  1. Chaplain Martin

    Congratulations to Rabbi David Saperstein for being chosen for this most important position. Nothing like having the nomination held up because of Ted Cruz being against the temporary suspending of flights to war torn Israel.

  2. Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Terrorists in Gaza want nothing more than to isolate Israel in any way possible as a prelude to its destruction. That is why they are only too happy for airline service to Israel be shut down. Meanwhile Senator Cruz comes up with a counter action. And, of course, any counter-action on behalf of Israel angers some people who are itching for another Holocaust.
    How quickly we have forgotten that this whole war started because some butchers put bullets in the brains of 3 innocent teen-age boys. But, hey, they were only Jewish kids. Nothing like a rerun of the 1930’s and prepping the world for trainloads of dead Jews (as some Islamic leaders have promised).

    • Jamie Townsend

      Deacon, This is criminally ignorant:
      “How quickly we have forgotten that this whole war started because some butchers put bullets in the brains of 3 innocent teen-age boys.”

      So if a Mexican criminal kills some kids in Kansas City we should respond by bombing 20 cities in Mexico and killing 500 people there?
      Israel is acting like a criminal. And you are talking like a criminal. (typical of religious people)

      • Chaplain Martin

        This is one and really one of many “Religious Persons” who don’t believe that Israel is some sort of Mecca. Today’s headlines, increased bombing of Palestine. You swipe at “religious persons” is similar to the Judgmental attitude of fundamentalist.

      • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

        After killing these boys Hamas rockets kept raining down on Israel. Finally Israel responded–and found tunnels all over the place set up to funnel more killers into Israel.
        Considering the killing and terrorization of Christians by Moslems in this part of the world (“Convert or die”) Israel can’t play games with people who even more want to kill Jews.
        I know, not all Moslems are terrorists, but they do nothing to cleanse the terrorists from their midst killing in their name and the name of their religion. making them accomplices.
        But then we are told the moderates among them are afraid. Which really means every Christian, Jew, and secularist need be doubly afraid.

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