In 1997, in recognition of increasing radicalization of religious followers around the globe, and of the decreasing safety for followers of minority faiths in many countries, the Clinton administration created a new diplomatic position — ambassador-at-large for religion freedom.
The mandate of the ambassador is to serve as a conscience and a prod, defending the interests of members of religions whose home countries often are hostile to or indifferent to the standards of religious tolerance that citizens of the United States take for granted.
The Obama administration recently took a step that in concrete and symbolic terms further symbolizes the commitment of this government to religious liberty. It appointed a rabbi, David Saperstein, as the new religious freedom ambassador. The rabbi, who served for four decades as director of Reform Judaism’s Washington-based Religious Action Center, is one of the most respected and effective leaders in American Jewish life. A man of passion and compassion, he has spent his career advocating primarily for progressive causes and building coalitions with many ethnic and religious groups. He now follows four Christians who have held a post that helps shape the administration’s response to worldwide incidents of denial of religious freedom.
The president’s action, in making a rabbi the country’s de facto spokesman for the interests of all religious faiths, sends the message that the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion transcends pious pronouncements. It extends to making a member of one minority religious group a representative of government at a high level.
The ambassador is certain to play a crucial role in international diplomacy as extremist followers of various faiths, particularly in the Islamic community, have been responsible for the growing incidence of terrorist attacks around the world.
His appointment is especially significant because a large part of Rabbi Saperstein’s portfolio will include dealings with Islamic leaders governments at a time when parts of the Muslim community — those commonly labeled adherents of “radical Islam” — are seen as increasingly opposed to Jews, whom some Muslims number among non-Islamic “infidels.”
Rabbi Saperstein, in an interview with The Jewish Week (see page 22), said the fact that he is Jewish has not presented a barrier to civility and respect, either during his earlier work at the RAC, or on a presidential mission he recently joined on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz led by Secretary Jack Lew.
The respect and good will that Rabbi Saperstein built up during 40 years of religious work in Washington will serve him well as he enters the international stage and deals with such a vital and delicate issue.