Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, preaches at a Washington, D.C., service in 2002.

Rabbi David Saperstein tapped as first non-Christian to serve as U.S. ambassador for religious freedom

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, preaches at a Washington, D.C., service in 2002.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, preaches at a Washington, D.C., service in 2002.

WASHINGTON (RNS) President Obama on Monday (July 28) said he plans to tap Rabbi David Saperstein as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, the first non-Christian to hold the job, which was created in 1998.

As ambassador, the man named as the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek magazine in 2009, will head the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, and will be tasked with monitoring religious freedom abuses around the world.

"When it comes to the work of protecting religious freedom, it is safe to say that David Saperstein represents the gold standard," said Secretary of State John Kerry, announcing the nomination at the State Department.

A Reform rabbi and lawyer, Saperstein, 66, has led the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for 40 years, and has spent his career in Washington, focusing on social justice and religious freedom issues. He was instrumental in the 1993 passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires the government to show a compelling reason for any action that impinges upon the exercise of religion.

He was the first chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which was created as a watchgdog group in the same act of Congress that created the ambassador-at-large position. In 2009, he was appointed by Obama to the first White House Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Saperstein must be confirmed by the Senate before he can fill the post.

“I am grateful that Rabbi Saperstein has chosen to dedicate his talent to serving the American people at this important time for our country," Obama said in a statement announcing his intent to nominate Saperstein. "I look forward to working with him in the months and years ahead.”

Also on Monday, the State Department is expected to issue its annual report on religious freedom conditions around the world.

The choice of Saperstein will appeal to many who advocate for religious freedom for his staunch work in the area, and for his lifelong commitment to social justice. Saperstein has headed the Coalition to Protect Religious Liberty and served on the board of the NAACP, People For the American Way, National Religious Partnership on the Environment and the World Bank's "World Faiths Development Dialogue."

But his generally liberal views may concern some from the more conservative side of the political spectrum. Though he helped pass RFRA, the law considered by the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case decided last month, Saperstein decried the court's decision, arguing that the justices had overstepped when they ruled that the craft store chain could cite religious objections in not providing contraception coverage in its insurance plan.

“We believe deeply in RFRA and robust religious liberties,” Saperstein told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency after the Supreme Court decision. But he added that the court's conclusion was a misreading of the law he helped craft. "We believe the court was wrong in saying there are religious claims corporations can make. Corporations don’t have souls or consciences the way that people or associations of like-minded people do."

In addition, Saperstein is an outspoken defender of Israel, and his vocal activism may be unsettling to some given the role of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in shaping global politics, particularly in the Islamic world.

Saperstein would be the fourth person to hold the position, and succeeds the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, who resigned in October, saying that she needed to earn more to support her family. Cook, the first woman, African-American and preacher to hold the job, won some fans outside the State Department, including Saperstein. But many within the department questioned her lack of international experience and commitment to learning the diplomatic ropes.

The White House has been under intense pressure to fill the position since Cook left, and many advocates for international religious freedom have questioned Obama's and the State Department's commitment to the position.

“Rabbi Saperstein is a respected thinker and leader who brings gravity to this important task. He has my prayers and my pledge of full cooperation," said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, who has been critical of the absence in the ambassador's post. "The downgrade of religious freedom and the persecution of religious minorities around the world must end.”

Added Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism: "I am confident that, when confirmed, David will represent the United States with the same devotion, intelligence, energy and passion with which he has represented our Movement for the last 40 years."

Saperstein is married with two grown children.



  1. So disgusting.

    The march against decency, humanity and freedom continues
    And of course, all in the name of religion.

    “He (Saperstein) was instrumental in the 1993 passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires the government to show a compelling reason for any action that impinges upon the exercise of religion.”

    The Supreme Court has shown that RFRA is perhaps the dumbest, most foolish, most dangerous law against all freedom ever invented.
    Every kind of horrible act by any corporation will now be allowed thanks to this stupid law.

    And now one of the authors of this ridiculous law is elevated to Ambassador. His job? To police ‘religious freedom’ whatever that could mean.
    The RIGHT WING CHRISTIAN CORPORATE OLIGARCHS will have a special friend on their side to lobby for their ’cause’.

    What a horror show.
    And some people think religion is benign!?

    Religion is a systemic, ongoing, fascistic assault on humanity.

    “If I offend a religion it’s called blasphemy.
    If a religion offends me its called freedom of religion.” – Anonymous

  2. There is no place in any government job for any cleric – NONE AT ALL!

    The entire State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom

    This is what George Orwell meant by double-speak.
    ‘Religious Freedom’ means RELIGION will be free to do whatever it wants to oppress freedom of the rest of us who have the ‘WRONG’ religion (or none at all).

    Disgusting what the stink and fog of religion continues to do
    to pollute and destroy American Freedom.

  3. I dunno. His “lifelong commitment to social justice” just means he is ultra liberal. He’s a lawyer no less. And as a jew he is probably all about everything pro israel, even now as they bomb hospitals.

    I don’t think christians have a friend in this guy.

  4. Please get a life Atheist Max and get over your woe is me persecution complex. You’re a bigot and an embarrassment to the atheist movement.

  5. A bigot is someone with an unreasoning fear and dislike of another. Max is pretty well justified. Religious belief poses a threat when it becomes entangled with government. Always has.

  6. Sapperstein’s beliefs shouldn’t privilege or be held against him. Nor should an atheist’s, who ought to be able to defend freedom of thought, belief, and conscience equally well. But it takes an inordinate amount of talent to avoid the sirens’ calls from all directions. This man seems capable.

  7. This is INCREDIBLE news! All people who value faith, tolerance and freedom should rejoice in Rabbi Saperstein’s appointment. This is truly wonderful news during a month of sadness, loss and chaos. Well done, Mr. President and Secretary Kerry!

  8. There is plain hatred in his comment and no facts. Nobody is going to ‘entangle’ religion with the government.

  9. Don’t bother speaking to idiots like him. Don’t waste your time. I think it’s pretty clear from his comment that he doesn’t represent atheists or anyone except for his own bigoted self.

  10. @Neon Genesus,



    Get over yourself, oh privileged one. The clerics want to run this country and the moneyed class is doing a fine job of turning it over to them!
    All in the name of Jesus and ‘religious freedom’.

    Religion is dangerous nonsense.

  11. @Anna,

    Are you kidding?
    Religion is already threatening our laws across the USA,
    forcing itself into our lives, our schools and our bedrooms! :

    Hobby Lobby has won the right to FORBID IN THE NAME OF JESUS what their insured women employees once had access to even if it is a life-saving medical procedure for endometriosis or other reproductive illnesses.


    The Supreme Court has granted any corporation the right TO HAVE A RELIGION over the rights of the FLESH AND BLOOD AMERICAN CITIZEN EMPLOYEES who work there.


    State Legalized Murder of Doctors – South Dakota

    Mandatory Trans-vaginal probes – Virginia Legislature

    Preaching the Bible in public schools – funded by Hobby Lobby

    Forced prayer at Government meetings – Supreme Court has allowed this.
    Blocking people from family planning – Texas, 5 other states.

    Obstruction of prescriptions – Illinois, Washington

    Discrimination as religious choice -Arizona (SB-1062)

    Anti-Gay laws – Texas
 & elsewhere

    Anti-women’s rights laws – Texas, Louisina, Virginia

    Biased Counseling laws – South Dakota

    Creationism to replace Science Education: 12 States
    “Intelligent Design” to replace Scientific theories


    ENTIRE STATES – TENNESSEE, LOUISIANA AND TEXAS are firing science teachers and replacing them with religionists to teach CREATIONIST NONSENSE IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS.

    Millions of brilliant children, perhaps potential scientists and engineers, are instead being taught that evolution is not real, that DINOSAURS AND HUMANS LIVED TOGETHER, and that the earth is only 6000 years old.

    Profoundly idiotic.

    Complete Evangelical Christian Sharia Law is apparently the objective with all these people.

    And religion is 100% to blame for this return to the stone age.

  12. Anna, you don’t have to agree with atheists to understand that the point is a valid one. Bigotry applies to skin color and sexuality and things one cannot change about oneself, not ideas.
    Otherwise it would be bigoted for a republican to argue with democrats and vice versa. Beliefs are not ‘who’ a person is therefore it cannot bigotry.
    Just saying.

  13. I agree with you, Larry. I would go a bit further (farther?) as in, one can hate the death cult of the ancient Egyptians without hating Egyptians.
    Bigotry does not apply to hatred of religion or hatred of any other belief.

  14. @Neon,

    I am “a bigot” ?

    How so?
    When you preach about Jesus are you then not behaving like a bigot against atheists ?
    When a Christian goes into a nursing home to speak to the elderly to convert them is that bigoted?

    If so, every priest and pastor is a bigot.

    Of course, your accusation of bigotry is ridiculous.
    I am no embarrassment to Atheism, I assure you.

  15. Really? How would you react if I applied it to judaism?

  16. Lles, Um.. what don’t you understand?
    I say religion is a dumb idea and god doesn’t exist so …what do you think I’m trying to say? Do you need a translator? Christianity, judaism, hinduism…islam…are religions. Are you going to keep asking about Israel or do you have another brain cell besides that one?

  17. does anyone know why those christians of jewish descent were told they were no longer defined as members of their lutheran church back in the 1930’s in Germany?

  18. You’re making a lot of baseless assumptions about my religious views before you’ve even bothered to ask what it is I think which goes to show your bigotry. This Rabbi has said he’s against the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby ruling so really the only reason you have for hating him is because he’s a Rabbi which frankly sounds anti-Semitic.

  19. No hatred of Saperstein at all. His accomplishments and social justice are admirable. But his support of RFRA is a mark against him – he was naïve to think that it wouldn’t lead to decisions like the hobby lobby decision! His defense of religion over human rights does disgust me as it is misplaced and even more naïve. But any other clergyman in the world would be just as wrong headed.

    I wouldn’t be impressed even if the wonderful the great Bonhoeffer was in this role! The department of religious freedom it’s a disgrace and it is a danger to freedom. This is not about pluses or minuses of any particular clergyperson. It is about whether or clergyperson belongs in the United States government in any capacity.

    Thi is a position begging to be used for corruption of freedom and it is a ridiculous idea.

  20. The terms “bigot” and “hate” are both abused in civil discourse — mostly (in my experience) by those on the left. They are ugly terms that should be avoided, as should pseudo-phobia terms such as “homophobia,” “Christianophobia,” etc.

  21. @Chris,

    This sums up the problem completely. From the article you linked:

    “RFRA simply makes religious liberty the default position.” – Kim Colby

    It doesn’t surprise me that the ACLU made a mistake on this one.
    Sen. Ted Kennedy was a leader on this legislation. Whenever the default position is to give power to religion, the result is inhuman.

    It apparently takes an Anti-Theist’s WARINESS to see this
    and there are precious few of us out there.

  22. @Theophilus,

    “The terms ‘bigot’ and ‘hate’ are both abused in civil discourse — mostly (in my experience) by THOSE ON THE LEFT.”

    And now you on the right have shot yourself in your own foot.

  23. Yes, we conservatives sometimes pick up bad habits from our brethren on the left.

  24. If I ever call you a Christ-hater or a Christianophobe or a bigot, please rebuke me!

  25. Theophilous

    Calling someone a ‘bigot’ or a racist is not an argument.

    For example – berating the appearance of granny smith apples is irrelevant in a discussion on nutrition. You may not like the appearance of broccoli either, but the nutritional value of broccoli is irrefutable.

    Intelligent arguments should parry onward
    to the next relevant dot and not wallow in skin-deep generalizations around an irrelevant point; i.e.; how you feel about the shape of the facts or the color of the data is never the relevant question.

  26. @Jamie Townsend,

    Sir or Madam,

    You said,
    “Intelligent arguments should parry onward
    to the next relevant dot and not wallow in skin-deep generalizations around an irrelevant point; i.e.; how you feel about the shape of the facts”

    Brilliantly articulated – thanks!

  27. @Jamie

    I _think_ I’ve just been scolded, but for what exactly I don’t know.

  28. I used to work in the organized Jewish community and David Saperstein was always regarded as kind of a fringe guy. I still regard him that way, although more and more Jews seem to be losing touch with their tradition and moving in the direction of “social action” Judaism without much else that’s Jewish about it.

  29. There is nothing “fringe” about the Union for Reform Judaism. It is heir to the oldest stream of Ashkenazi Judaism practiced in the United States. Reform Judaism may not be to your liking – it isn’t to mine either – but calling it “fringe” is just not accurate.

  30. I’m not defending RFRA, and certainly not recent judicial interpretations of it. I’m just pointing out that many well-meaning folks from all sides of the aisle got behind it in 1993–in response to the unacceptable outcome of the Smith decision. It seems too broad a litmus test.

  31. I understand.
    But the establishment clause should be enough. We don’t need these laws for special protections of religion – every one of them is a problem.

    Any time some extra protection for religious expression is enacted it results in tyranny for an out group – because religion is fundamentally inhuman.

    People should practice their religion in their churches, their homes. But they should always expect their claims about god to look absolutely ridiculous in the public square.

    If the religious people can keep their ‘faith’ in god despite the freedom of others – fine. Have a Merry Festivus!

    But if they can’t – so be it.
    that is what makes this a free country.

  32. Rabbi Saperstein is known for promoting gay marriage.
    So how can someone who promotes what God calls an “abomination” be an impartial religious freedom advocate?

  33. There is no such thing as “impartial religious freedom advocate”

    It is a disgraceful office and a disgraceful idea.

    America needs to close the
    State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.

    Freedom and Religion do not mix.

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