WASHINGTON — Around the time that "The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson's controversial film about Jesus' last days, stirred cries of anti-Semitism from some quarters when it opened in 2004, Rabbi David N. Saperstein addressed a Georgetown University class taught by his friend E.J. Dionne.
Instead of charging in with an attack on the movie, Saperstein began by saying that "if you believe the birth of Jesus is the most important event in human history, you can't help but be moved by this movie," Dionne, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor at Georgetown, recalled Monday.
Once that rapport was established with the students, Saperstein was able to "show why someone might see moments in that movie smacked of anti-Semitism," Dionne said.
It was, he added, "one of the most extraordinary teaching moments."
Saperstein may soon have the opportunity to use his diplomatic and communications skills on a global platform. President Barack Obama said he intends to nominate Saperstein, a veteran religious liberty advocate, as the first non-Christian to serve as U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, a post vacant for nine months since the resignation of Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook.
In February, the president pledged he would nominate a replacement.
Saperstein, 66, is director and legal counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the advocacy arm of the Union of Reform Judaism that represents 1.3 million Americans affiliated with that branch of the Jewish faith, and has worked with the Center for 40 years. He holds a bachelor's degree from Cornell University, an M.H.L. from Hebrew Union College, and a doctorate from American University. Along with his years at the Reform Judaism organization, he was a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2010-11.
He was also the first chairman of the U.S. Council on International Religious Freedom, a body created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. It was legislation for which he and John Carr, then director of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, worked together to move through Congress.
Through it all, Saperstein has impressed colleagues on the left and right not only with his dedication, but also his evenhandedness.
"Rabbi Saperstein is a respected thinker and leader who brings gravity to this important task," said Russell Moore, president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. "He has my prayers and my pledge of full cooperation."
Newsweek magazine once termed Saperstein the country's "most influential" rabbi, and The Washington Post once called him the "quintessential religious lobbyist on Capitol Hill."
But the lack of organized opposition to his nomination doesn't necessarily mean the confirmation process will be smooth sailing. At least one detractor, Rev. Jonathan Morris, a Roman Catholic priest and Fox News commentator from New York City, took to Facebook to blast the move.
"No! Obama's nominee for Intnl. Religious Freedom was against partial birth abortion ban and says Hobby Lobby decision is 'deeply troubling,'" the post read.
At the center, Saperstein took many positions that put him on the liberal end of the political spectrum, including vigorous support for abortion rights, and in 1996 he told a House Judiciary subcommittee the Defense of Marriage Act was "ill-advised," "unconstitutional," and "unnecessary." On July 18, Saperstein said he was "elated" by the president's decision to order federal contractors to not discriminate against gay and transgender workers in hiring, but disagreed with retaining the Bush administration order to allow faith-based groups to hire members of their own community.
Such stances did not surprise W. Cole Durham, a university professor of law at BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School, who also directs the university's International Center for Law and Religion Studies.
"He's a Democratic appointee, so I suppose it's not surprising he's following the Democratic line on those issues," Durham said, adding that Saperstein has "been good on international religious liberty issues."
Durham said abortion, same-sex marriage and employment issues would not be central to global religious liberty questions.
"On international religious freedom, I'm not sure those are necessarily the front-burner issues," he said. "I think you want someone who is sensitive to religious liberty issues abroad."
Carr, who now directs the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, had unreserved praise for Saperstein: "I call him 'Moses,' because he's the most senior, most experienced, most trusted religious advocate in Washington," Carr said.
Unlike a biblical prophet, Saperstein does not carry a staff in the halls of power: "What he walks around with is his cellphone, and it's got to be the hottest cellphone in town," Carr added.
The ambassadorial post was created under the 1998 law and it is responsible for the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom that monitors religious persecution and discrimination worldwide and drafts and prepares the department's annual International Religious Freedom report (the report on 2013 data was released Monday, coinciding with the announcement of Saperstein's nomination). The office also develops programs to promote religious freedom.
Despite these noble goals, the office has sometimes languished under neglect from the Secretary of State and other administration officials. Johnson Cook left the post after 30 months on the job in part, Religion News Service wrote at the time, because a different State Department office on faith-based initiatives had "eclipsed" her role.
Being pushed aside isn't as likely to happen to Saperstein, who isn't giving interviews until he is confirmed in the post, given his long track record in Washington, observers said.
"They're not going to be able to do to him what they did to (Johnson Cook)," longtime religious liberty champion Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, told the Deseret News. Wolf said Saperstein "has credibility of his own. He has a record of speaking out on these things."
The nomination has not yet formally arrived at the Senate where it would first go to the Foreign Relations Committee. A spokesman there declined to comment on how quickly it would move through the Senate. Wolf said he hoped it would be either before the August recess or shortly following the Senate's return after Labor Day.
Wolf said he hoped no hold would be placed on the nomination, as then-Sen. Jim DeMint did in 2010 on Johnson Cook's appointment: "Anybody who would put a hold on this had better be willing to tell the good Lord why," he said.
Chris Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement and the son of Robert A. Seiple, the first holder of the religious freedom ambassadorship, said Saperstein "is a man of deep integrity who has long stood for religious freedom, commanding great respect across the political and theological spectrum."
Bridging divergent sides
When it came to getting IRFA passed in 1998, Carr recalled, Saperstein was able to bridge divergent sides.
"There are single-minded purists who think nothing is more important than their priority, and then there are people committed to the cause who are ... principled, but also realistic," Carr said. "David was a bridge between the principled camp and the pragmatic camp, and helped get something done."
Such consensus-finding, Dionne said, "(is) a part of his worldview and character that are central to doing this job" as ambassador.
And while Dionne admitted an ideological kinship with Saperstein, others with different political viewpoint praised the appointment as well.
In a statement, National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson declared, "David Saperstein will be a strong advocate and voice for religious freedom around the world. It’s hard to imagine a time when there would be a greater need for such a champion.”
That need, said Nina Shea, a former U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom member who served with Saperstein, is augmented by current world conditions that will present the nominee with challenges.
"We're seeing an intense wave of religious persecution in many parts of the world, which includes a rise in anti-Semitism in Europe and parts of the Muslim world," Shea said. "He has a difficult road ahead, (but) I think that he is well equipped to do the job."