WASHINGTON (BP) — Southern Baptist public policy leader Russell D. Moore has called for a U.S. Senate vote on a nominee for ambassador at large for international religious freedom at a time when people of faith are suffering greatly in many countries.
Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, urged Majority Leader Harry Reid Thursday (Sept. 18) to permit a Senate vote on the nomination of David Saperstein to the post, which has been vacant since October 2013. Saperstein is director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
The White House announced President Obama’s intention to nominate Saperstein on July 28. The Senate must confirm the nomination before Saperstein can begin serving as the country’s leading advocate for global religious liberty.
“The whole world is on fire on the issues of religious liberty and religious conflict,” Moore said. “This nomination is too important to leave hanging simply because senators want to get back on the campaign trail.
“Leader Reid controls the Senate calendar, and I strongly urge him to allow a vote, up or down” on Saperstein, Moore said in a written statement. “We need all the diplomatic and intellectual power we can muster in addressing these critical matters of human rights and global security. That should be more important than politics.”
The Democrats are seeking to maintain their majority in the Senate, but polls indicate they will have a difficult time doing so in the Nov. 4 election. In the meantime, senators are running out of time to act on Saperstein’s nomination before voters go to the polls.
The wait for a confirmation vote on Saperstein comes as Christians and other religious minorities are undergoing persecution internationally, perhaps most notably at this time in Iraq and Nigeria. Research shows 5.3 billion people, or 76 percent of the world’s population, live in countries with high restrictions on religious freedom from the government or groups in society.
The terrorist movement known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has committed atrocities against Christians, Yazidis and other minorities, especially in northern Iraq. Meanwhile, Boko Haram, also a militant Islamic group, has continued its reign of terror in Nigeria. In the last five years, Boko Haram has killed an some 15,000 Christians and destroyed or bombed more than 200 churches, a government official has reported.
Saperstein’s testimony in a Sept. 11 confirmation hearing included some promises that likely were well received by religious freedom advocates.
According to his written testimony, Saperstein committed to a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to use his post, if confirmed, “fervently (and fiercely) to advocate for the rights of individuals to choose, change, and practice their faith safely, to end blasphemy and apostasy laws, and without government interference or the threat of violence or marginalization, to ensure that people are free and safe to assemble, worship, teach, learn, and share their faith with others.”
He also promised to attempt to “engage every segment” of the State Department and the rest of the federal government “to integrate religious freedom into our nation’s statecraft: counter-terrorism, conflict stability efforts, economic development, human rights.” Such foreign policy goals, he said, “need the stability, the security, the contributions of members of religious majorities and religious minorities, in every country, to further our nation’s values, interests and agenda.”
Saperstein strongly advocated for passage of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998 and served as the first chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the bipartisan advisory panel established by the law. He was on the commission from 1999 to 2001.
He has advocated positions opposite those of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and other pro-life and religious liberty organizations, however. Saperstein, who was a member of Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2010-11, backs abortion rights. He criticized the Supreme Court’s June opinion in the Hobby Lobby case that supported the religious freedom of for-profit employers. He stood at Obama’s side as the president signed an executive order July 21 to extend workplace protections among federal contractors to homosexual, bisexual and transgender status. Other religious liberty advocates said the religious exemption in the order would prove inadequate.
Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy and research, said after the announcement of the nomination he disagrees with Saperstein on social and theological issues but believes he “would be a tireless, eloquent, fair-minded, effective champion” as ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
In a July 15 letter, Moore urged Obama to name an ambassador quickly and suggested Rep. Frank Wolf, a retiring Republican representative from Virginia, for the post. Suzan Johnson Cook resigned as the ambassador in October. Wolf has been a champion for global religious liberty during his 34-year House career.