By Jeff Brumley
Baptist and other American religious leaders are praising President Barack Obama’s selection of a rabbi and law professor to lead the U.S. State Department’s anti-religious-discrimination efforts around the world.
Obama today announced his nomination of Rabbi David Nathan Saperstein as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
“I am grateful that Rabbi Saperstein has chosen to dedicate his talent to serving the American people at this important time for our country,” Obama said in a prepared statement.
The selection, which requires Senate confirmation, comes during an era that the White House and State Department described as one of the most tumultuous and repressive for people of faith around the globe.
If confirmed, Saperstein would be the fourth person — and the first non-Christian — to hold the position responsible for monitoring and countering religious discrimination and persecution.
Statements from various religious leaders quickly followed the president’s announcement.
“Rabbi Saperstein brings theological training and legal expertise, valuable experience serving on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and a passion for religious liberty both in the United States and around the world,” said Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
“The United States’ commitment to the cause of international religious liberty will be in good hands under Rabbi Saperstein’s tutelage,” Walker said in a statement released by the BJC.
Saperstein is director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He teaches First Amendment church-state law and Jewish law as an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. Among his numerous board appointments are the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission praised Obama’s selection and promised to cooperate with Saperstein.
“I applaud President Obama for making a nomination to … a position that plays a key role in our nation’s responsibility to act on behalf of the persecuted around the world,” ERLC President Russell Moore said in a prepared statement.
Moore lauded Saperstein as “a respected thinker and leader who brings gravity to this important task.”
Moore had written Obama earlier this month recommending the president to consider appointing U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf to the position. He described the Republican from Virginia as “a tireless and unparalleled advocate for persecuted religious minorities.”
But in his statement today, Moore promised Saperstein his full support and prayers. “The downgrade of religious freedom and persecution of religious minorities around the world must end.”
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Suzii Paynter also praised the nomination.
“Rabbi Saperstein has been a colleague and leader for many causes and cases that have shaped the face of religious expression, religious liberty and constitutional direction,” said Paynter, the CBF’s executive coordinator. “I look forward to his leadership in this new position.”
In conjunction with the announcement about Saperstein, the State Department released its International Religious Freedom Report for 2013. The document demonstrates that Saperstein will have his work cut out for him.
“In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs,” the document states. It goes on to detail instances of violence and persecution by religious groups and governments against other faiths from North Korea to Eritrea to Syria.
Saperstein is the ideal pick to counter those disturbing trends, said Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners.
“As a friend and fellow advocate for justice, I know he brings the courage, dedication, and passion for protecting religious freedom that is necessary for success in this role,” Wallis said in a news release.
Wallis also urged the Senate to act quickly to confirm Saperstein “so that he can begin the work that is vital to our nation’s foreign policy and the good of the global community.”
If confirmed, Saperstein will follow Suzan Johnson Cook, a Baptist minister, who stepped down in October.