David Saperstein, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, has to be patient. Progress is slow in his line of work, but it’s worth the wait.
Take Vietnam. For nearly 18 months, Saperstein has been tracking the progress of the country’s first broad religious freedom bill. The vote was scheduled for Nov. 17 and then pushed back a day, postponing the relief and rejoicing that will come if it’s passed.
International religious freedom work is a long game, but every small victory makes a big difference, Saperstein told an audience of scholars and students at Brigham Young University last Thursday night.
“You can’t change a law overnight, but where you can, millions of lives are going to be changed,” he said.
Since he was sworn in on Jan. 6, 2015, Saperstein has lived out his passion for religious freedom on a global scale, traveling the world to meet with state leaders, minority faith communities and fellow freedom advocates. He’s overseen the expansion of his office’s role in foreign policy efforts and continued the work of researching and compiling religious freedom violations in the State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report.
His current assignment is not his first experience monitoring religious freedom around the globe. He was the first chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which was established by Congress, along with the State Department’s ambassador-at-large position, in 1998. He’s also been involved in domestic religious freedom policy, helping pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and serving on the inaugural advisory council of President Obama’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
In addition to his government service, Saperstein is an ordained Jewish rabbi and recognized leader in the Jewish community. He headed up the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for 40 years before accepting his current appointment.
Before his lecture at BYU, Saperstein spoke with the Deseret News about America’s commitment to religious communities around the world and what to expect from the Trump administration. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: How does international religious freedom work differ from ongoing domestic debates over religious liberty?
David Saperstein: We have very serious issues of religious freedom here in our own country, such as the emerging difficult question of how we balance out religious freedom claims and civil rights claims of other protected categories. If you cannot fully accommodate both, how should compromises be made?
This is an issue that has roiled through our courts, that has led to tensions between religious communities and other protected communities in American life, so I take it very, very seriously.
But I’m dealing with problems across the globe that deal with people being put in jail and sentenced to death because of blasphemy laws. Whole groups who are being ethnically cleansed because Daesh or other non-state actors don’t like the way that they worship and don’t want them in the areas that they control.
I’m seeing people being taken captive and forced to convert and forced to marry, being raped and tortured because of their religious beliefs, simply because they want to worship God in their own way or they want to be able to say freely that they don’t believe in God.
Those are problems that require the world community, including the United States, to address them with intense urgency. These are matters of life and death: the survival of whole communities, the plight of prisoners of conscience.
I’m extraordinarily proud that the United States plays such a large and effective role in mobilizing the international community on these issues.
DN: Should international religious freedom issues get more attention within the U.S.?
DS: I think, rightfully, when issues arise in our own country — think of Black Lives Matter and the tensions between police and communities of color in too many cities, think of the other great challenges that we face in this country — we’re right to focus on them.
But we shouldn’t lose sight of the international obligations that we have. We gave to the world a vision of fundamental rights, that in the individual, not given to us by the state, there are rights that come from being a God-created human being.
We gave to the world that notion and in our Constitution we address religion. No religious test for office. Free exercise of religion. No government establishment of religion. In other words, the government has to remain neutral on religion and let religion flourish.
We conveyed to the world a revolutionary idea about the individual and the state in terms of religion. We asserted the belief that your rights as a citizen should not depend upon your religious identity, your religious beliefs, your religious practices.
And like many of our promised rights, it took us a long time to actualize them. But in the mid-20th century we did, and that was exactly the time that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (were written.) Many of the ideas that had begun in America were now being conveyed all across the globe.
We fight for those rights, those human rights, including religious freedom, every day.
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