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WASHINGTON—In July 2014, President Barack Obama announced his nominee to fill a vacant State Department post—one that had sat empty for eight months yet had enormous implications for religious minorities around the world.
The job: ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The nominee: David Saperstein, a Washington activist and Reform Jew whom Newsweek in 2009 named the most influential rabbi in America.
Since Saperstein held liberal views on LGBT issues and abortion, some conservatives objected to the nomination. But a Democrat-controlled Senate confirmed him on Dec. 14, 2014, by a vote of 62-35.
Today, after more than a year and a half on the job, Saperstein is earning praise from across the political spectrum. At a time when violence against religious minorities has proliferated around the globe, Saperstein has shown himself diligent in confronting religious persecution and rebuilding the Office for International Religious Freedom into a potent advocacy force. Religious freedom advocates see his work as essential to human rights and national security, and even some conservatives are calling for him to retain his cabinet position regardless of who wins the presidency in November.
“He’s the best,” said former Republican Rep. Frank Wolf, who left Congress in 2014 to work full time on international religious freedom issues. “If Republicans take over the White House, I would advocate that they keep him.”
Where religious freedom ends, unjust punishments, conflict, and terrorism often follow. Some 75 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with severe limitations on religious practice, but Saperstein took over the State Department’s international religious freedom office following years of atrophy.
John Hanford, the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom from 2002 to 2009, said in 2008 he told incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton he would be willing to stay in the role until the Senate confirmed a replacement. Clinton ultimately decided not to retain any Bush administration appointments. President Obama nominated Suzan Johnson Cook to the religious freedom post 17 months into his presidency, the Senate confirmed her 10 months later, and she spent what critics called 30 ineffective months on the job.
The result: When Saperstein was sworn in on Jan. 6, 2015, he inherited a position that had been vacant for 14 months and an office that had dwindled to about half its former size over the previous six years.
During his 2014 Senate confirmation hearing, Saperstein pledged robust efforts: “I will do everything within my abilities and influence to engage every sector of the State Department and the rest of the U.S. government to integrate religious freedom into our nation’s statecraft and foreign policies.”
It wasn’t idle talk. Saperstein quickly went to work, using his platform to promote full freedom of religion in the public square—not merely “freedom of worship” limited to the home and church. He not only condemned the “abuse” of blasphemy laws but publicly argued foreign governments should tear them out at the roots. He advocated, both in public and in private, on behalf of prisoners of conscience such as Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini, who was released from an Iranian prison in January.
Saperstein proved himself effective at navigating State Department bureaucracy. He is included in senior-level meetings with the secretary, ensuring religious freedom issues are considered at the highest level of decision-making—a key intent of the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Act of 1998 that created the religious freedom office.
He has also secured budget gains, including a sixfold increase—from around $3 million to about $20 million—in program money for promoting religious freedom, a rise he credits to both Congress and Secretary of State John Kerry.
‘I was encouraged by the fact that I had bipartisan support from some very influential Republicans, as well as influential Democrats.’ —Saperstein
“David Saperstein has helped to legitimize religious freedom as a foreign policy issue within the Department of State,” said Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University.
Under Saperstein, the IRF office has now expanded to 23 full-time staff—a record high—plus interns and seasonal contractors. Knox Thames, the first special adviser for religious minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia, is one of those new faces. In combination with the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs, Saperstein says, there are now about 50 people who work on religious issues every day: “My guess would be that’s more than the entire world governments put together.”
It’s also a sea change from two decades ago. The 1998 IRF Act was in part a response to an overwhelmingly secular diplomatic corps that some said often didn’t understand or prioritize religious issues. Since then, Saperstein estimates, the State Department’s annual religious freedom report has created some 2,000 foreign service officers who have a good grasp on the issue: “The very act of putting the report together every year … has a demonstrably positive impact on our efforts.”
But Saperstein’s most notable legacy may be something for which he doesn’t take credit. In March, word spread among the international religious freedom community that the State Department was poised to recognize ISIS genocide in Iraq and Syria against the minority Yazidi population. They were stunned when, on March 17, Kerry declared genocide against not just Yazidis but Christians as well.
Saperstein says he was only part of the team that helped compile the genocide case, but outside advocates believe it wouldn’t have happened without his vocal influence. The week after the declaration, when Saperstein slipped in to the back of a meeting of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable on Capitol Hill, participants thanked him and gave a hearty round of applause.
SAPERSTEIN, 69, GREW UP IN NEW YORK CITY, where his father was a prominent rabbi for five decades. In 1939, a sniper wounded the elder Saperstein during his first trip to the Holy Land, but he was undeterred: He and his wife trekked to some 80 countries, visiting Jewish communities and cultivating a love for travel in their son David.
The younger Saperstein earned bachelor’s, master’s, and law degrees en route to a career as a rabbi and social justice activist. In 1974 he became director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, a post he held for the next 40 years.
As the leading Washington representative for Reform Judaism, Saperstein developed extensive relationships, experience, and legislative know-how that would benefit him later. Among other things, Saperstein helped write the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and supported efforts to craft the 1998 IRF Act, a law that also created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
Saperstein became the first USCIRF chair (1999-2000) and later served on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
When Obama tapped Saperstein for the international religious freedom post, Saperstein, still in love with his job after four decades, pondered whether it was the right fit. A comment from his wife, Ellen Weiss, proved pivotal: “If you’re ever going to do something else, this is the time and this is the cause,” Saperstein recalls her saying. “A light went off that she was right.”
Despite his strong record on international religious freedom issues, Saperstein’s nomination sparked some controversy. Social conservatives on and off Capitol Hill cited his criticism of the recent Supreme Court decision in favor of Hobby Lobby, a Christian-owned company that fought successfully not to provide abortifacient drugs to its employees.
“They’ve opened up a Pandora’s box,” Saperstein told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at the time. “Corporations don’t have souls or consciences the way that people or associations of like-minded people do.”
Other concerns included Saperstein’s presence on the board of numerous liberal groups—such as the NAACP and People for the American Way—and his vocal pro-abortion, pro-same-sex marriage views. Saperstein believes LGBT rights should sometimes outweigh religious rights when the two are in conflict.
But individuals and groups most engaged on international religious freedom came to Saperstein’s defense during the nomination process, noting his long track record and the post’s lack of a domestic mandate. More than 70 signatories of the IRF Roundtable—a diverse coalition ranging from Open Doors USA to the American Humanist Association—sent a letter to Senate leaders urging them to support Saperstein.
Thirty-four Republicans still voted against Saperstein’s confirmation, but three freshmen who would soon run for president were notable exceptions: Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Marco Rubio of Florida all voted for the rabbi.
“I was encouraged by the fact that I had bipartisan support from some very influential Republicans, as well as influential Democrats,” Saperstein says.
COLLABORATION IS ONE OF SAPERSTEIN’S STRENGTHS. Colleagues and advocates say he works tirelessly and is both aggressive and personable: Handshakes and hugs accompany his ready smiles and easy conversation. In addition to working with the IRF Roundtable, he’s forged a closer partnership with USCIRF—a relationship that has frayed at times in the past.
“There is now daily constructive interaction between the commission and the staff at the office here,” Saperstein told me. “The commission plays a very constructive role in its public reports that can often be critical of areas in which the government’s policies and activities are simply not helping people in their quest for religious freedom in the way we had hoped.”
On the international scene, Saperstein has helped launch a contact group that now includes 27 countries that collaborate on IRF issues.
Even those who originally opposed Saperstein’s confirmation, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have recognized his effectiveness. “Ambassador Saperstein seems to be the right guy at the right time,” Graham said at an appropriations hearing last year. Graham argued for boosting the IRF office’s $3.5 million annual budget: “Staying on top of this problem makes us safer.”
Other religious freedom advocates praise Saperstein for working with all religious groups in a nonpartisan way—and being a man of integrity.
At a recent event on Capitol Hill, Saperstein preached the importance of integrated education between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria’s north—where the terror group Boko Haram has killed tens of thousands of residents since 2009.
When it came time for questions, Katharine Gorka, president of the Council on Global Security—an organization seeking to combat totalitarian ideologies such as Islamic extremism— asked why the U.S. Agency for International Development has spent tens of millions of dollars funding Muslim-only schools in northern Nigeria. Saperstein didn’t make up an answer: He told Gorka he needed more information and pledged to look into it.
At 7:23 the next morning, Gorka received a follow-up email from Saperstein’s assistant asking for additional details.
“I was really impressed,” said Gorka, a foreign policy adviser for Ted Cruz during his presidential run. “He promised the day before he would follow up and he stuck to his promise.”
Saperstein’s differences with conservatives remain, but his success underscores the difference in religious liberty at home and abroad: It’s one thing to be forced into assisting in a gay wedding event; it’s quite another to have your head chopped off for identifying with the wrong religion. On the latter issue, both Democrats and Republicans can agree—and it makes Saperstein want to continue his work.
“I would consider serving in a Republican administration,” he said. “The strength of this cause and one of the great satisfactions of serving in this position is the strong bipartisan support that it has.”