An Orthodox Jew teaching at a Catholic university, Villanova political science professor Daniel Mark is himself a testament to the religious freedom that exists in the United States.
But as anyone who watches the news can tell you, different religions do not always serenely coexist with one another around the world.
Mark, a 33-year-old who lives in Merion, will have a chance to address some of the atrocities committed in the name of religion, as well as its suppression, as the newest member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Last month, John Boehner (R-Ohio), speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, appointed Mark to the eight-member bipartisan group that includes notable diplomats, academics and former lawmakers.
The commission reviews the facts and circumstances of religious freedom violations and makes policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state and Congress. For example, in 2013 the commission recommended that the U.S. State Department continue its visa ban on Narendra Modi, India’s newly elected prime minister who had been chief minister of a state in which more than 1,000 people, many of them Muslims, were killed in 2002 riots.
Mark replaces Elliott Abrams, a fellow Jew and former deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, who just completed his two-year term on the commission.
“Daniel is a young, inspiring teacher and a meticulous academic,” Boehner said in a statement. He “is an emerging thought-leader who has spoken extensively about religious freedom in the U.S. and abroad.”
Mark earned a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate from Princeton University; is an assistant editor of the political philosophy journal Interpretation; and has taught at the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.
Though his name may not be as well-known as other commission members, he noted this fact: If you search Google images for “observant Jew,” his photo is the first one that pops up.
“With my background in politics and religion, and my interest and work in religious freedom and political theory of religious freedom, the hope is that I’ll be able to make a positive contribution to this important job,” he said.
Mark said he is against abortion and does not support same-sex marriage — two of the hot button issues where religion and politics intersect in the United States. But he said his “views about a variety of American domestic policy issues don’t affect my work on the commission.”
“What we’re talking about is letting people, whether it’s China or Pakistan or Saudi Arabi, letting people worship freely at peace, let them pray to the gods they want to pray to in the way they want to pray,” he said. “We’d have to get really far down the road of progress — God willing, soon — to get to the point where we might have conflicts over the kinds of things that we’re fighting over in America now, like the universal health care mandate that requires contraception” coverage.
His views on abortion and marriage aside, Mark does not dismiss the role Judaism will play in informing his decisions on the commission.
“To the extent that Judaism gives us lessons about the dignity of every human being created in the image and likeness of God, well, surely, one of the best ways for us to live out that teaching is to help secure basic rights for all people and, chief among them, certainly religious freedom,” he said.
Those basic rights, which are so secure in America, are still out of reach in large parts of the world, he said.
Which conflicts are especially on Mark’s mind?
“There are so many,” he said. “China’s record on religious freedom is fairly well known. There are non-government recognized Christian groups that are persecuted there. There’s a Muslim minority that is treated quite badly.”
Likewise, he continued, Muslims have been victims of violence in India.
“And, of course, one of the most famous stories of the moment is the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and the very unfortunate dwindling of Christian communities in the Middle East because of changes in politics there and general persecution.”
With all this trouble in the world, the commission must prioritize and does so in part by producing an annual report that classifies countries by level of concern. The aim is to recommend which countries should face U.S. government sanctions or where American diplomats can do more to engage foreign leaders on issues related to religious liberty, Mark said.
“The rights of some people are not more important than the rights of other people, and so that’s a big task for the commission,” he said. “Like I said, there is, unfortunately, no shortage of cases.”