Can We Protect Religious Freedom Abroad?
President Obama’s nominee to a key State Department position signals a step in the right direction.

Iraqi Christian youths in a Baghdad church (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)


On Monday, the Obama administration seemed to present a united front on one of the many crises that threaten American interests in the world. This particular crisis is little remarked in the press, notwithstanding its connection to the others (Iran, Ukraine and Russia, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, and North Korea).

I refer to the precipitous global decline in religious freedom, characterized in some areas by a descent into vile, inhumane, and destabilizing religious persecution. In the West, the decay is characterized by a collective loss of memory — we can no longer recall why religious freedom is vitally important for individuals and societies, and why it must be protected in law and culture at all costs.

Monday morning began with the nomination of Rabbi David Saperstein to the position of U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, a very senior diplomatic position created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). If confirmed by the Senate, Saperstein will lead the implementation of a policy mandated by IRFA, namely that the U.S. advance religious freedom in its foreign policy.

Later in the day Saperstein joined Secretary of State John Kerry, who presented the State Department’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, also mandated by IRFA. Citing a parade of horribles, Kerry said that the nomination of Saperstein and the issuance of the Annual Report demonstrated “the abiding commitment of the American people and the entire U.S. government to the advancement of religious freedom worldwide.”

Kerry emphasized that the department’s annual designation of the worst persecutors (the “Countries of Particular Concern,” such as China, Burma, Iran, and Iraq) is not just a list designed “to make us feel somehow that we’ve spoken the truth. I want our CPC designations to be grounded in plans, action that help to change the reality on the ground and actually help people” [emphasis added].

Rabbi Saperstein is a good choice for the post. In terms of religious freedom at home, conservatives (including your scribe) do not agree with his strict-separationist tendencies — for example, he criticized the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision (on the other hand, he supported the Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor). But he is a veteran advocate for religious freedom abroad and has assured friends that he will work assiduously to succeed. I believe him.

Moreover, there is something very American, and potentially very effective, in having a Jewish rabbi speaking out on the global persecution of Christians and Muslims, the two groups most in the crosshairs of religious violence. Saperstein will also bring sorely needed attention to the rising persecution of Jews (including in Western Europe), a perennial sign of civilizational crisis.

As for Secretary of State Kerry, his words were good ones, especially his rejection of “lists” as mere rhetorical devices, and his emphasis on planning and “action” in our international religious-freedom policy. The problem is that it is very difficult to believe this administration on the issue of international religious freedom — it has a six-year litany of splendid words, and a record of “plans and action” that has added up to zero, zilch, nada.

When President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton took over in January 2009, it took them only four months to get their ambassador at large for global women’s issues on the job. Yet it took them one and a half years even to nominate the first ambassador at large for religious freedom, and two and a half years to get her in place (the Senate balked and the administration yawned).

That ambassador departed after two years and an undistinguished record. When asked about U.S. actions to address persecution of Christians, she referred the questioner to the White House. (Saperstein will not do that.) Since her departure in October, the position has remained open for nine months as the threats to worldwide religious freedom reached crisis levels. There was, and is, no excuse for lassitude in the face of crisis.

When Obama issued his 2010 National Security Strategy, he detailed the contributions of “American values” to our national security. Those values included access to the Internet and privacy. They did not include religious freedom.


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