International Religious Freedom Ambassador

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Now into its second decade, the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) has from the outset been seen by some as what might be called CEPA–the Christian Evangelization Protection Act. It originated in an effort to embarrass the Clinton administration, and its strongest advocates have always been folks in the conservative Christian world for whom the freedom of Christian missionaries to do their thing has always been a top priority.

To be sure, there’s another side to this story. The mandated State Department watch list of countries that violate religious freedom has does some good, notwithstanding criticism that the U.S. shouldn’t be interfering in the religious affairs of others. The position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom established by the act has had capable occupants in Robert Seiple and John Hanford. The independent U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom may be something of a loose cannon, but loose cannons have their uses in the world of Foggy Bottom.

With the Obama administration one year in, those who care are agitated about the fact that it has not yet appointed its ambassador-at-large, and the agita has been picked up by WaPo’s Michelle Boorstein. There’s at least some indication that an appointment is forthcoming–no doubt David Saperstein, the Commission’s first head and a key player in all things religious for the administration, has been playing a hand here as well.

At this juncture, it might be a good idea to redefine the position a bit, as the Obamaites have done with the White House faith-based office. As things stand, the ambassador-at-large operates under the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Why not extend the brief to include situations like Uganda, where religiously motivated politicians and clergy are engaged in an effort to violate the human rights of gays and lesbians? What better way to make it clear that, in the new world of Obama foreign policy, IRFA isn’t reducible to CEPA?