WASHINGTON-President Obama named his ambassador for international religious freedom Tuesday night, filling a longtime vacancy in the State Department. However, the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, whose nomination will need to be confirmed by the Senate, has no background in international religious freedom or foreign policy issues.
For months, Cook's name has been floated for the position, and religious freedom advocates have expressed dismay at the lack of expertise she bring to this oft-ignored office. Others have speculated that if Cook has personal connections to the White House or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, those relationships could raise the profile of the issue of religious freedom.
Cook's experience includes serving as senior pastor at the Bronx Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in New York and building large ministries in the city. She also has been a chaplain to the New York Police Department for the past 20 years.
Religious freedom advocates praise her legacy in ministry, but because of her nonexistent religious freedom background, they say her appointment sends the message to the State Department bureaucracy that religious freedom is an issue that "can safely be ignored," as Tom Farr, director of the International Religious Freedom office at the State Department under President Bush, put it.
"If the Obama administration were taking this issue seriously . . . it would choose a proven leader who can change things at the State Department and reenergize our flagging IRF [international religious freedom] policy," he wrote me in an email. "Perhaps Rev. Cook will surprise the skeptics and prove to be that leader. I hope so, and will certainly do everything I can to help her. But the cards are heavily stacked against her before she even steps into the job."
The ambassador for international religious freedom has never been included in the secretary of State's daily meetings, even though other similarly ranked ambassadors are included. The religious freedom ambassador under Bush, John Hanford, asked to be included in then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's meetings, but was refused.
Congress established the Office on International Religious Freedom in 1998 under President Clinton, but the issue has received little attention from any administration since. The Obama administration's newly published National Security Strategy has no mention of "religious freedom" in its 60-page document, not even under the section titled "Values." But the administration has made strides in certain areas, beefing up religious freedom training in embassies and fighting "defamation of religion" resolutions, which amount essentially to blasphemy laws, at the UN.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) criticized the Obama administration for neglecting to fill the post in its annual religious freedom report released in April. USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo said the administration had neglected the issue, adding, "The U.S. government must do more."
President Obama also appointed two members to the USCIRF. One, Felice Gaer, was already a member and was reappointed. The other, William Shaw, is new. He has served as president of the National Baptist Convention, an African-American denomination.