What the Religious Right Doesn't Get About Religious Freedom | Commentary

As Congress gets ready to reconvene, there’s a renewed sense of urgency in the Middle East. The Islamic State is wreaking havoc across Iraq and Syria with a frightening mission to wipe out religious minorities. This sectarian violence highlights why international envoys focused on religious freedom must become a priority in Washington.

Just a few weeks ago, President Barack Obama signed a bill creating a new position at the State Department — special envoy to promote religious freedom of religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia. Also, the Senate has yet to approve the president’s July nomination of Rabbi David Saperstein as the new ambassador-at-large for religious freedom. Filling these posts need to happen immediately.

Saperstein is well known for his strong support of religious minorities and church-state separation. He would demonstrate that our nation’s religious tolerance and secularism are key elements of peaceful co-existence and social stability, sharply contrasting with the Islamic State and other terrorist groups who use religious zealotry to justify violence.

But, a blogger for the Christian conservative Family Research Council is raising concerns over the rabbi’s nomination. A known progressive, Saperstein would represent everyone’s beliefs fairly and equally, including the non-religious and that’s got the religious right shaking in its jackboots.

FRC blogger Rob Schwarzwalder’s litany of complaints against Saperstein includes the rabbi’s criticism of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision. Saperstein objected to the court’s finding that corporations have religious freedom rights to deny employees contraceptive coverage in their health insurance in violation of the Affordable Care Act.

Coming from a minority faith, Saperstein is attuned to the religious oppression to come now that corporations — mostly representing the majority faith — may impose religious dictates on employees. His ambassadorship will undoubtedly urge freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion — something chilling to the FRC and its ilk.

The group I represent, Openly Secular, is calling on the Senate to quickly confirm Saperstein when the body reconvenes a week after Labor Day. Our organization, a coalition made up of more than two dozen secular organizations, supports Saperstein because we share a common mission: to stem intolerance and support diversity of belief, including that of atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers.

Saperstein is a rabbi of global prominence who has led the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for more than three decades. If confirmed, he will also be the first non-Christian to hold the position.

Schwarzwalder claims Saperstein’s Judaism is not a problem, but calls the rabbi’s liberalism “troubling.” He points with derision to Saperstein’s role as a board member for People for the American Way, an organization devoted to defending equality. In Schwarzwalder’s words, the group’s “‘progressivism’ includes the marginalization of faith in public life, unrestricted access to abortion-on-demand, and what People for the American Way calls ‘dumping’ the Defense of Marriage Act.”

Let’s analyze this together, shall we?

Schwarzwalder’s concern over PFAW’s “marginalization of faith in public life” is PFAW’s support for the separation of church and state. Who better than an ambassador for religious freedom to remind the world that religious displays by government dangerously alienate and disenfranchise minority religions and the nonreligious? In many parts of the world, Iraq and Nigeria to name current hotspots, when governments take religious sides, violence ensues.

PFAW’s support for “unrestricted access to abortion-on-demand” is the group’s support for a woman’s unfettered right to choose an abortion within the framework of Roe v. Wade, a position that reflects American law, but infuriates FRC. Conservative evangelical groups like the FRC have worked furiously to interfere with women’s access to abortion services around the globe.

Its efforts to thwart women’s reproductive rights include keeping the United States from ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women — making our nation one of the world’s last holdouts.

PFAW’s support for marriage equality for gays and lesbians and its opposition to the federal Defense of Marriage Act run counter to the FRC international agenda of promoting discrimination against gays and lesbians.

See, the FRC and conservative evangelicals have it all wrong. They view religious freedom as the right of governments to impose religiously grounded (as long as it’s Christian-based) public policy on their populations.

Saperstein rejects that view. Instead, he will stand for American principles that have demonstrably brought peace and stability to a pluralistic society: church-state separation, equality for all people, the protection of religious minorities, and the rights of people who subscribe to no religion at all.

This expansive view of religious freedom is crucial when so many of the world’s problems are an outgrowth of one religion imposing its views on others. With no further delay, Saperstein should be confirmed.

Robyn Blumner is executive director for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and the project director for Openly Secular.

Topics: