After a hiatus of nine months, President Obama has nominated Rabbi David Saperstein to be the next U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, an office within our State Department.
That Rabbi Saperstein is Jewish is a blessing: It is an affirmation that the United States rebukes the anti-Semitism rising in so many countries, and that we believe Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox can partner together in standing for the "unalienable rights" bestowed to us by our Creator, including what our Constitution affirms is our "first freedom," religious liberty.
As he speaks and works on behalf of our country, Rabbi Saperstein will, I hope, prove to be an effective and assertive advocate for those persecuted for their faith. However, I fear he is entering his new role with his hands tied: Barack Obama has sought to cabin and diminish lived-out faith in our country. What our President and his administration fail to sustain and advance at home they cannot defend and encourage abroad.
The Rabbi's predecessor, the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, left an at-best mixed legacy during her 30 months in the position, at least some of it not her fault. Dr. Tom Farr of Georgetown University, one of the nation's most respected advocates for international religious liberty, notes that Dr. Johnson Cook was given "very few resources (by the Obama Administration) she could employ to develop strategies to advance international religious freedom."
Additionally, Rabbi Saperstein's well-known liberalism is troubling. For example, he criticized the Supreme Court's decision last month in the Hobby Lobby case, endorsing the idea that the federal government has the right to tell business owners they must provide coverage of contraceptives that can cause abortion. "We believe the court was wrong in saying there are religious claims corporations can make," he said. "Corporations don’t have souls or consciences the way that people or associations of like-minded people do." This is nonsense: Corporations are associations of people; that they are constituted for profit makes them no less so. Thus, our legal systems recognizes their embodiment as "corpora" (bodies) – and those people who constitute corporations through direct or shareholding ownership have a right not to be coerced into providing services that conscientiously they find wrong.
Additionally, the Rabbi has been a board member of People for the American Way, whose mission statement affirms its staunch commitment to "progressive" policies. Such PAW "progressivism" includes the marginalization of faith in public life, unrestricted access to abortion-on-demand, and what it calls "dumping" the Defense of Marriage Act. Rabbi Saperstein even went out of his way to oppose the ban on "partial-birth" abortion, saying he was "dismayed" by passage of the measure in the House of Representatives.
Over the past five and one-half years, an Administration much more preoccupied with the advancement of homosexuality in law and society than concerned with protecting religious liberty, either in the United States or through American foreign policy, has failed to inspire confidence in its commitment to what Hamilton called "the sacred rights of conscience" as they are played-out in public life.
We have a deep interest in fighting for international religious liberty, as to do so advances our national security and vital interests. By standing with, and battling for, those persecuted or repressed because of their faith, we build good will toward our country in areas where such is urgently needed. That, in this case, our security and interests are coincident with our deeply cherished values makes religious liberty all the more of a priority for our diplomatic agenda.
Rabbi Saperstein once chaired the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, where I briefly worked years ago. All Americans should pray that the Rabbi will be a lion for religious liberty, and with everyone of good will, I want to give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to defending and advancing religious liberty worldwide. However, given his personal convictions and public associations, I confess to having more than a few apprehensions.