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.