President Barack Obama got rare commendations from conservatives on Monday when he announced his nominee for a long-vacant State Department post charged with advocating for religious minorities around the world.
If confirmed, Rabbi David Saperstein will be the first non-Christian appointed as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. He has worked for 30 years with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which he currently leads. He teaches law at Georgetown University and serves as one of Obama’s faith-based advisors.
The State Department position has been vacant since Obama’s previous nominee, Suzan Johnson Cook, resigned in October. Conservatives have clamored for a new ambassador as conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia took brutal, religiously based turns for the worse.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention, led the lobbying efforts and praised the nomination Monday. “Rabbi Saperstein is a respected thinker and leader who brings gravity to this important task,” Moore said in a statement. “He has my prayers and my pledge of full cooperation.”
Long-time religious liberty champion Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., also praised the nomination and urged a swift confirmation, even as he continues to speak out against the genocide of Christians in Iraq.
Such praise for Saperstein confused some conservatives because on most domestic social issues, he stands with Obama. He asked the president not to include religious exemptions in this month’s executive order on LGBT employment among federal contractors. He also opposed the Hobby Lobby case, supporting the Obama administration’s demand that businesses cover abortifacient drugs under their insurance policies. And he’s staunchly pro-abortion.
“We’re not in any agreement with the administration … or Rabbi Saperstein there,” said Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy and research. “However, David has for decades proven a very strong advocate for religious freedom understood in the international context, a lot of which we’re looking at today.”
Wolf helped create Saperstein’s position in 1998. His International Religious Freedom Act established the International Religious Freedom Office (IRFO) and its ambassador-at-large. The act also created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a watchdog often critical of Obama’s handling of international human rights. Saperstein endorsed Wolf’s legislation and served as the commission’s first chair.
“I had the business community against me, I had [Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright against me, I had President Clinton against me. But I had Chuck Colson with me, and I had Rabbi Saperstein with me,” Wolf told me Tuesday, referring to Saperstein as “there from the beginning.”
And because Saperstein is from the president’s own circles, Duke told me, he likely could influence policy in a way Cook could not. “I’ve worked with David since I got to Washington in 2003,” Duke said. “We disagree on a lot of issues. … But I’ve always found him agreeable on matters of religious persecution like we’re dealing with in the international context.”
Wolf told me Saperstein was instrumental in the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, working again with conservatives like Colson. On issues like this, he told me, you make coalitions around what you agree on. “Frankly, the nation has to come together,” Wolf said. “And this administration has been a fundamental failure.”