Why did 34 GOP senators vote against religious freedom ambassador?

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Rabbi David Saperstein

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Rabbi David Saperstein

Rabbi David Saperstein

Rabbi David Saperstein

Last Friday, the Senate voted 62-35 to confirm David Saperstein as the next Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. His nomination in July was hailed not only by liberals but also by conservatives, who had been criticizing President Obama for waiting months to fill a position they deem essential to advancing the cause of religious liberty around the world. So why did Republican senators vote 34-11 against him?

Head of Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center for over three decades, Saperstein has been on the front lines of religious freedom for many years. In the early 1990s, he was the key figure in assembling the unprecedented (before or since) coalition of religious and civil liberties groups that persuaded Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). After the International Religious Liberty Act was passed in 1998, he served as the first chair of the independent commission it established to monitor religious freedom around the world. He co-chairs the Coalition to Preserve Religious Liberty.

After he was nominated,   of the Family Research Council blogged:

That Rabbi Saperstein is Jewish is a blessing: It is an affirmation that the United States rebukes the anti-Semitism rising in so many countries, and that we believe Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox can partner together in standing for the “unalienable rights” bestowed to us by our Creator, including what our Constitution affirms is our “first freedom,” religious liberty.

But Schwarzwalder went on to express some concern about the indubitable fact that Saperstein is a liberal — a supporter of abortion rights, a critic of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, a sometime member of the board of People for the American Way.

All Americans should pray that the Rabbi will be a lion for religious liberty, and with everyone of good will, I want to give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to defending and advancing religious liberty worldwide. However, given his personal convictions and public associations, I confess to having more than a few apprehensions.

Evidently that was enough for the GOP senators — that and the simple fact that he was an Obama nominee.

Saperstein did pick up the votes of such notorious GOP moderates as Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Susan Collins of Maine, Bob Corker or Tennessee, and Mark Kirk of Illinois. He also got ayes from Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Marco Rubio, all of whom — whatever else one says of them — have sometimes been known to stand on principle. I cannot avoid the suspicion, however, that the principle motivating the three GOP senators with 2016 presidential aspirations was: Thou shalt not alienate well-heeled Jewish donors by voting against a Jewish nominee.

Otherwise the Republicans, led by incoming Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, turned thumbs down. Among them no one has trumpeted his support for religious freedom more fervently than Orrin Hatch, the senior senator from Utah. Two months ago, he showed up at Brigham Young University, his alma mater, to give the keynote address at the BYU law school’s 21st annual International Law and Religion Symposium.

Touting religious freedom as “not simply one of many competing values, but a special and preferred value, Hatch declared, “The day President Clinton signed RFRA into law was one of the proudest days of my life.” He also said, “I was proud to support the [International Religious Freedom] Act, which created an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom within the Department of State and established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.”

Was he also proud to vote against David Saperstein?

  • They do not care for his political views and do not trust him to execute his functions properly. This is surprising and deplorable precisely why?

  • Jack

    Mark Silk, this was a good article until you revealed your own hyper-partisan leanings by attributing the pro-Saperstein votes of GOP senators like Cruz and Rubio to wanting to curry favor with “Jewish donors.”

    Maybe you should educate yourself on these people before shooting from the hip. Rubio, for example, is a big supporter of defending religious liberty around the world….and so he presumably voted for Saperstein because of Saperstein’s excellent record on this. Ditto for Ted Cruz.

    Maybe you don’t realize how, since both Rubio and Cruz have Cuban roots, they care deeply about the issue.

    But regardless of your motive, you’ve put Republicans in a darned-if-they-do-or-if-they-don’t position. If they opposed Saperstein, they were playing politics…..and if they supported Saperstein, they were playing politics.

    That’s not the logic of good journalism. You can do better than that……I think.

  • Ben in oakland

    Let’s just get to the real reasons.

    Saperstein is JEwish. I’m old enough to remember F. Bailey Smith, president of the SBC, announcing in the late ’70’s, “GAWD almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” Such blatant antisemitism does not play well anymore, but I seriously doubt that it has gone away. It’s the same contempt a certain class of so-called Christian demonstrates towards all of those who aren’t saved, in their opinion, who aren’t fundamenalists, who might look to a larger God than they do.

    Saperstein is a liberal. He doesn’t believe that freedom of religion only applies to fundamentalist Christians, or only to Christans at all. He is not one to say, “freedom of religion is for ME. The freedom to follow my religion is for YOU.”

    In short, I suspect that the 34 senators who voted against him have a very limited notion of what freedom of religion actually means. Or, contrary wise, they know exactly what it means, and it scares the hell out of them that someone might actually support it.

  • Jack

    Ben, the real question has to do with the few GOP senators who voted for Saperstein. Why assume the worst and not the best about them? If we’re going to criticize those who voted against them, we should give due credit to supporters.

  • Ben in oakland

    I do assume the best about them. I no more believe all republicans are evil Than I believe all christians are.

    The senate’s role is to advise and consent for presidential nominees, not to let their personal prejudices interfere with the president’s job.

  • Saperstein is JEwish. I’m old enough to remember F. Bailey Smith, president of the SBC, announcing in the late ’70’s, “GAWD almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” Such blatant antisemitism does not play well anymore,

    Evidently you’re not old enough to recall the director of the Anti-Defamation League explaining why his organization had no interest in policing what he called ‘religious conceits’ (and pointing out that orthodox rabbis held to views about prayer in reform and conservative synagogues which were similar to Bailey Smith’s. (This was before Abraham Foxman turned the ADL into a parody of its former self).

    The real problem is bigotry, but it’s yours and Mark Silk’s. There may come a time when soi-disant liberals can conceive of political opposition that does not have base motives. That’ll be in the Keynesian long run, when we’re all dead.

  • Jack

    Ben, I wasn’t referring to you but to the writer. Republicans can’t win with him, no matter which way they vote.

  • What’s disconcerting is that the poster has an academic position, as does Tobin Grant. Arts and sciences faculties are hack heaven these days.

  • Larry

    Still gives no explanation why the confirmation vote went virtually entirely on party lines. Republicans tend to like their Jewish people leaning to the right and usually orthodox. Reform Judaism generally opposes their entire “social conservative” platform (they are pro-choice, pro-marriage equality, deeply secularist, and even pro-female clergy.)

    Conservative Christian support of Israel is almost all backhanded in nature. They don’t respect Jews except as a concept. A group who are just a minor inconvenience to their eschatological mythology. As long as their are fighting Muslims, there is a common enemy. But in all fairness they don’t respect most other Christian sects or any other faiths either.

  • Jack

    Larry, your now-legendary propensity for sweeping generalizations is in full swing again. No matter how we choose to define words like “Christian,” “conservative,” or “conservative Christian,” it is a sweeping generalization to say, as you just did, that nearly every conservative Christian who supports Israel does so for “backhanded” reasons.

    I suppose it would help for you to define “backhanded,” but in a way where you’re not zig-zagging all over the place, and then forced to back up and issue a thousand qualifiers or execute deft shifts in subject.

    Even if you define “conservative Christians” in the most narrow sense possible, and mean “politically conservative, eschatologically sensitive evangelicals,” the reasons for supporting Israel are multiple and often reinforcing. Among evangelicals, there often is (1) a biblical reason — ie evangelicals believe the Bible which calls the Jews the people of God and Israel their land (2) an eschatological reason — Israel is the place where a coming Messiah will one day reign with the Jews over the world and usher in a new world of peace and good will among nations and peoples (3) a political reason — Israel is the lone democracy in the Middle East and an asset to America and other freedom-loving countries (4) a humanitarian reason — Israel is the one place on earth where Jews can at least have the full means to defend themselves against haters who wish them dead (5) a friendship and commonality reason — Israel is populated by hardworking, smart, pioneering people who have made deserts bloom and been a blessing to the world in countless areas, ranging from science and medicine to technology and humanitarian activity.

    I’m sure there are more, and many variations of these reasons, but it is impossible to stereotype such a large designation of people, even when we limit them to evangelicals alone.

    Even among evangelicals, there is enough diversity of belief and doctrine on eschatology alone to preclude there being one uniform reason for support of Israel, even on that front alone.

  • Jack

    He looks more like a comedian from bygone days, but those guys were always political, too.

  • Garson Abuita

    As long as the votes were on the merits, that’s all we should be asking. Just because he’s the first Jew doesn’t mean Republicans can’t oppose his views on Hobby Lobby etc. There’s no sign that anti-Semitism played any role in this. I think you are correct, however, that if Paul Cruz and Rubio weren’t running for president, they would’ve been likelier to vote no.

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  • Milton Zaft

    If I were in congress, I would have voted against him for promoting the false narrative about Bengazi, and giving Hillary and Obama a pathway to promote the lie about the infamous video. Liberal Jews, are to quick to support the Democrats, no matter what they say or do. This Rabbi Saperstein is responsible for giving Hillary and Obama an easy way out, and letting the lies of Bengazi remain buried. Shame on him, Hillary and Obama for not telling the truth. Transparency has NEVER been a part of this sham administration.

  • Ben in oakland

    Oh, you mean all of those lies that were told that there was something about Benghazi that was worth looking at, something that didn’t show up in how many congressional investigations?

  • Milton zaft

    State Dept and White House only released what they wanted. Still thousands of emails and documents under lock and key or destroyed. This makes Nixon look like a Boy Scout. Shameful, that the families of these 4 brave American still do not have the truth.