Villanova Professor Promoting Religious Freedom Hits the Mark Via Commission

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Daniel Mark, assistant professor in political science at Villanova University, was just appointed vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Anti-Semitism wasn’t all that common in Englewood, N.J., where Daniel (pronounced Don-i-el) Mark grew up.
With a large Jewish community, it was rare to see the kind of blatant discrimination that’s become such a large part of our culture today — not only toward Jews, but toward blacks, toward gays and lesbians, toward virtually anyone who’s “different” from the majority.
So exactly what compelled the kid who publicly wears a yarmulke to display his faith into becoming a national proponent for religious freedom, particularly outside these borders? He’s not quite sure: All he knows is he’s playing a key role trying to make sure men and women of all faiths have the right to practice as they see fit.
That’s heady stuff for a 35-year-old assistant professor in political science at Villanova University, who was just appointed vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“I’m the youngest ever on the commission by a whole generation,” said Mark, who was initially appointed in 2014. “I can’t say I ever expected it.
“I’m a professor at Villanova. It was an opportunity to contribute. I was eager to take it, and I’m very grateful. I think I hold my own. I think my age is an adjustment at first for some people. Hopefully, my hard work and strong engagement with issues shows them I belong.”
He doesn’t need to convince Rabbi David Saperstein, U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Free-dom, which is an official government agency, unlike the independent commission.
“Daniel is very smart and very dedicated to the cause of religious freedom,” said Saperstein, who also serves as an ex-officio member of the commission. “Everyone likes him and respects him.
“It’s a commission that from time to time over the last year has been driven by partisan strife. But he’s been a very healing presence. The fact that he’s younger and could be appointed vice chair speaks very highly of his intellectual ability. He’s very thoughtful and really takes it seriously.”
This past weekend, Mark was in Provo, Utah, speaking at the Brigham Young University International Center for Law and Religion Studies. But that’s atypical from his usual travel agenda, which in the past two years has included Azerbaijan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
“The Commission’s primary mandate is to advise the U.S. government — which is to say the White House, State Department and Congress — on ways to promote religious freedom abroad through U.S. foreign policy,” he explained. “Some of it does involve travel, though there’s no specific schedule, since a lot goes into making a trip happen.
“I’ve spent a good amount of time on the road. We meet with U.S. government officials overseas, foreign officials in those countries, religious leaders, established leaders and those outside the establishment. We meet with groups that are persecuted. Part of it is trying to gather information about what’s really going on, and part is trying and engage directly with foreign governments and present our case to them.
“We give strength and encouragement to groups who appreciate knowing the U.S. is on their side and trying to help.”
For Mark, who studied politics at Princeton University, where he graduated magna cum laude in 2003, then followed it up with a master’s degree and a Ph.D., it’s been quite rewarding. And a bit unexpected.
Prior to attending graduate school, he taught high school history for four years in New York.
During his summers — and occasionally during the school year — he’s been involved with such organizations as the Tikvah Fund in New York and the Hertog Foundation in Washington, D.C., while also teaching a semester at the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.
He came to Villanova in 2013, was appointed to the commission a year later, then took a sabbatical this past year as a visiting fellow in Princeton’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. He spent that year researching and writing about religious freedom in Canada.
Now he’s looking forward to getting back to the classroom in late August.
“I love Villanova and hope to stay there for a while,” said Mark, who’s engaged to be married by year’s end to Seattle native Madeleine Brown, whom he met at Princeton. “I’m happy teaching. I have two more years on the commission. Who knows after that? You do this, and sometimes things like the commission come along. You don’t go looking for it, but take advantage of the opportunity.
“But there’s no shortage of work to be done in the world in defense of religious freedom.”
The main emphasis there is getting these countries to understand religious freedom shouldn’t be considered a privilege, but a right.
“Within the U.S, religious freedom is bipartisan,” said Mark, who expressed concern about movements like BDS and other anti-Semitic and anti-Israel factions.
“Internationally, it’s not as bipartisan. Our concern is, what is religious freedom, and how should it be protected? Certainly there can be lots of honest disagreement. Being able to do this thing with the commission while also a professor shows the synergy between academic work and political work.
“I’ve been lucky to find the connection between my different interests. It’s really a big honor and a privilege.”
Especially when it enables the kid from Englewood to hit the mark.
Contact: jmarks@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729

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