U.S. Government’s 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.


For those in the U.S. who question President Obama’s appointment of a Jewish Rabbi to become the first non-Christian Ambassador for International Religious Freedom; it would seem that there are those in other Faith communities who welcome this initiative. Among them, is this commendation from an influential member of the Southern Baptist Convention, who says:

“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.”

The current climate of sectarian religious fundamentalism is becoming aggressively pro-active in the suppression of the rights of other religious communities – especially in place like Mosul and Baghdad, where both Christians and Shi-ite Muslims are being persecuted by insurgent ISIS Sunni Muslims linked to Al Qaeda – as well as in other countries where Christians are the minority who are being persecuted. And then there is the conflict raging between Jews in Israel and the Hamas extremists on the West Bank – where Palestinian Christians and the more moderate Arab population have become casualties of the religious/political territory war.

Fundamentalist Religion has become the root problem in present-day aspirations for Peace and Justice which cries out for spiritual and political solutions. The loss of human rights and dignity involved in ‘religious’ wars has become more of a problem in a world now seemingly obsessed with sectarian claims for the supposed unique ‘orthodoxy’ of competing views for theological supremacy.

What Almighty God might think about such wrestling with the principalities and powers of human dogmatic pronouncements of religious purity seems utterly beyond our very limited powers of investigation. However, that the government of the United States of America is now recognising that there are other (than Christian) Faith Communities in our world that need to be respected and given the right to exist, might encourage others – in the landscape of monotheistic religion at least – to make their own contribution towards the lessening of tensions and religious persecution that threaten the lives and livelihoods of do many of our world’s inhabitants.

There have been other initiatives from both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches to encourage a meeting together with other Faith Communities, so that this new outlook from the United States of America that admits of other than Christian Faith groups as being potentially influential for the better understanding of universal rights in the field of spiritual belief, cannot but help to foster mutual cooperation, rather than tribal or ethnic conflict among religious communities, and should be welcomed by all..

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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