I have been representing Southern Baptists in Washington, DC since April 2003. That’s when I became Vice President for Public Policy and Research for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. When I came to this city, one of the first members of the religious left that I met was Rabbi David Saperstein. I found him to be an intelligent, compassionate, deeply committed and effective advocate for his religious tradition, Reform Judaism. As such, David and I found ourselves on the opposite sides of the table on many issues. But one issue on which we seldom disagreed was the issue of religious freedom.
In fact, David has been advocating forcefully and effectively for religious freedom around the world longer than I have by decades. By the time I got to DC, the International Religious Freedom Act had been law for about 5 years. David worked closely with my former boss at the ERLC, Richard Land, to secure passage of that bill. It was not an easy task. The State Department under President Clinton was not immediately open to the idea of establishing an office for religious freedom at the State Department. Neither President Clinton nor the State Department were sure they wanted to deal with the often-complicated matters of religious conviction as they attempted to bring the world around to American values. David is a recognized champion of the successful effort to pass this bill. In doing so, he helped create the office he has been nominated to fill and the commission that advises the State Department and the president on international religious freedom, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). He and Richard Land both served on USCIRF. David was even the first chairman of the Commission, a seat now filled by the renowned Robert George.
Through all the years that I have been advocating biblical values in Washington, I have always known David to be a man of passion for religious freedom. Shortly after I arrived in Washington, I called together a group of long-time religious liberty advocates to consider the possible formation of a religious freedom advocacy group on the Hill. I, and others, believed that there were many issues that the right, center, and left could agree on and work together on to advance religious freedom around the world. What came out of that meeting was called the National Coalition for Religious Freedom and Human Rights. David opened up his building for the weekly meetings of our coalition, which at its height gathered more than 20 different groups together to talk about and strategize on matters of religious liberty and human rights. David often attended these meetings and was always available for counsel and help as we worked through various issues. That coalition is no longer in existence. The pressures of many other matters crowded in. It has since been replaced by a much larger group that continues to operate as an ideologically diverse group dedicated to religious freedom. The ERLC participates in that group along with David’s organization, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Religious persecution knows no neutral ground. Whether you are liberal or conservative, there is someone around the world who wants to do you harm. Consequently, the faith community broadly understood we had better hang together, or as the saying of our Founders goes, we will all hang separately. David Saperstein understands this. How could he not. He is Jewish, after all.
David is a friend. We disagree on many issues, social and theological. At times, he is bewildered by my positions. At times, I am bewildered by his positions, including some with significant implications for people of strong religious conviction. But for the task at hand, defending and advocating for people of faith whose places of worship are being obliterated and are themselves being driven from their homes, imprisoned, executed, and more, I believe David would be a tireless, eloquent, fair-minded, effective champion.
I’m not surprised the president chose someone from his own ideological community to fill this position. The law put it in the hands of the president to fill the post of Ambassador for Religious Freedom. If conservative Americans wanted to make sure this post would always be filled with someone who shared some of their key social and theological values, then more of them should have showed up at the polls and voted for a conservative to sit in the oval office. They didn’t.
I, for one, am interested to see how this actually works out if David is confirmed for this post. His predecessor, an avowed pro-life person, and also a good person was largely ineffective. This was not all her fault. The State Department is still not that open to the idea of the position and the way it interferes with their efforts to advance American values while largely ignoring one of the major drivers of values in this country and around the world—religious faith. It will be interesting to see if someone more aligned with the president’s values, and much more known and connected in this city can do any more with this position.
No one can deny more is needed. This position has already been vacant for more than eight months. Much of the world is on fire and religious hatred is fueling much of that fire. If David is confirmed, I will be praying for his success and will offer my assistance to help him succeed. If God will not coerce faith, then no one should. I will work with anyone I can to protect the God-given right of religious conscience, even the right to be wrong.
David must still get through a long and grueling process before he is confirmed. If it should become clear that his liberal social and theological views will render him incapable of advocating equally for all people of faith, then I will declare him unfit for the position. As I do so, I will also be one of the most surprised men in Washington, DC. The president had a lot of people to consider for this post. I had some in mind that I would have loved to see nominated. It wasn’t my choice to make. It was the president’s by law. I will be praying for Rabbi Saperstein and the Senate as they determine if David is the right man for a job that cannot go vacant a day longer than necessary. I wish him well. I have seen David champion the cause of the persecuted abroad tirelessly, and I hope he would do so again.