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,
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?