Obama Nominates First Non-Christian to Lead Religious Freedom Initiative

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced yesterday that President Barack Obama is nominating the first non-Christian, Rabbi David Saperstein, to the post of ambassador for international religious freedom.

Saperstein has served as head of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism for more than 30 years, been a member of the advisory council for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and teaches First Amendment and Jewish law at Georgetown Law school.*

In his remarks on Saperstein’s religious freedom pedigree, Kerry called him “the gold standard,” pointing to his work “across faith lines,” with “women of faith networks,” and with “American Muslim communities.”

Saperstein was a leader of the broad coalition that pushed for passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, but, as RNS noted, Saperstein was critical of the way the Supreme Court majority interpreted RFRA in the Hobby Lobby case. And despite telling the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “We believe deeply in RFRA and robust religious liberties,” some conservative Christians, like the Family Research Council’s Rob Schwarzwalder, remain skeptical:

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.**

The RNS story goes on to point out another potential hitch in the process of confirmation:

Saperstein is an outspoken defender of Israel, and his vocal activism may be unsettling to some given the role of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in shaping global politics, particularly in the Islamic world.

Still, Saperstein’s nomination has been welcomed by progressive advocates and some conservative evangelicals, including Russell Moore, president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who said:

Rabbi Saperstein is a respected thinker and leader who brings gravity to this important task. He has my prayers and my pledge of full cooperation. The downgrade of religious freedom and the persecution of religious minorities around the world must end.

*Saperstein also serves on the boards of People For the American Way (where I am a senior fellow), the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, and he’s the chair of the Public Religion Research Institute’s board.
**The contraceptives in question don’t cause abortion.

 

Peter Montgomery, a Washington, DC-based writer, is an associate editor for Religion Dispatches and a Senior Fellow at People For the American Way. His work focuses on religion, politics, and LGBT issues. Follow him on twitter @petemont.

  • pennyjane

    the frc, lying? no, say it ain’t so!

  • Gregory Peterson

    “I had hoped for a strong defender of both domestic and international
    religious liberty, which is why I recommended Congressman Frank Wolf to
    the president,” [Russell D] Moore said.

    Right…a homophobe who swaps conspiracy theories with anti-Islamic extremists. You can pick ‘em, can’t you, Russell?

    http://www.bpnews.net/43058/obama-nominee-prompts-erlc-concerns

  • Corey

    After a quick read I conclude the man is “pro-Israel” which conservative Christians love, yet they will still hate him for being “pro-abortion” and “gay friendly” if he believes the “Hobby Lobby” decision was wrong, because it allows companies to not pay for contraception (though I understand Hobby Lobby didn’t mind until Obama arrived and they invest in companies that make contraceptives) and the jury is still out if these same companies can discriminate in their hiring and firing polices, which conservative Christians want the right to be able to do, but believe no one else should. So in conclusion; FOX has enough to bash Obama for the rest of his presidency.

  • apotropoxy

    Wake me up when a religion anthropologist is installed.

  • Jim Reed

    Just think of all the screaming as the process of America giving birth to a secular nation. It sounds ugly, but a few more pushes and everyone will love the result.

  • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

    At this time with Israel’s outrageous and egregious conduct, is it really a good message to be appointing a rabbi who “is an outspoken defender of Israel”? I don’t think so. What kind of real professor of law could he be if he sees Israel’s conduct as lawful?

  • Jeffrey G. Johnson

    It’s hard to say what “outspoken defender” means. This Haaretz article suggests his opinions may be more nuanced: http://www.haaretz.com/blogs/focus-u-s-a/obama-s-rabbi-support-for-israel-doesn-t-mean-blanket-approval-1.274840

    Regardless of how shocked one may be at how far Israel will go to continually avoid dealing with the injustice of collective punishment it inflicts upon Palestinians via blockade and occupation, and its plainly illegal settlement program, the violent enemies of Israel deserve no support or sympathy either.

    There must be a way to be “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian”, in other words to be pro-peace without being forced to choose sides in a tribal battle.

    I find it encouraging that the Rabbi had the good sense to oppose the awful Hobby lobby case, which in my view goes beyond religious freedom to religious oppression.

    Also it makes perfect sense to have a non-Christian in this job. Who understands the importance of true religious freedom better than a religious minority? Maybe this should begin a tradition of Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, and other religious minorities in this job. As an atheist, one could hope that even the most misunderstood and vilified religious minority in the country might have that job some day.

  • Christopher

    Timing. LOL He may as well have shouted, “Go Jews. Kick their butts.”

  • George M Melby

    I think this is an excellent idea whose time has come. This has nothing to do with the Israeli-Paestinian conflict and everything to do with inter-religious good will and I couldn’t be prouder as a confirmed, baptized, ordained minister, and a living, working Christian! ‘Sabout time!

  • David Lloyd-Jones

    Hey,

    This could get dangerous. What if the Tea Party find out that Jews aren’t just another kind of Christians?

    -dlj.

  • maryf

    Since when to the Christian right give a crap about the Palestinians?

  • Jim Reed

    Maybe they are kind of like another kind of Christian (progressive Christian of course).

  • JamesMMartin

    God, my own less known liberalism is troubling.