WASHINGTON-President Barack Obama waited a year and a half to nominate his ambassador for international religious freedom. Now almost two years into his term, the Senate held the confirmation hearing for the nominee, Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, a New York pastor and inspirational author who has no experience in the field of international religious freedom beyond her church leadership. She also served as a domestic policy adviser in President Bill Clinton's administration.
Only one senator asked her a question. In fact, the chair of the committee overseeing her confirmation, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., wasn't present to ask her anything. The ranking Republican, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., attended the hearing, as did Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who stood in as chairman and asked the lone question (which concerned the protection of members of the Greek Orthodox Church abroad), but the seats in the committee room were otherwise empty.
"We've got votes coming up at 11," Menendez noted at about 10:50 a.m., urging Cook and the two other nominees alongside her to make their comments brief so they could conclude the hearing.
When I asked Cook afterward if she would have preferred being asked more than one question, she said, "I'm very happy with how the confirmation process is being handled." She declined to talk about her vision for the office. I tried to ask her to respond to criticisms of her lack of experience from religious freedom advocates, and she interrupted: "I've ended my comment. That's all I'm going to say."
In her brief opening remarks, Cook cited her experience: travel to five continents, leading interfaith delegations abroad, and working on poverty issues with World Vision. She also mentioned her time as a young woman doing a cross-cultural exchange in Ghana, which she called a "precursor to the Peace Corps."
"I've learned important lessons and wisdom from my experiences," Cook said. She has served as senior pastor at the Bronx Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in New York and built large ministries in the city. She also has been a chaplain to the New York City Police Department for the past 20 years. She concluded her remarks, "I'm Suzan Johnson Cook, and I approve this testimony."
Lugar did send Cook 37 written questions before the hearing, including one asking how she would ensure that religious freedom would be a prominent issue for the administration. She wrote, "An important priority will be to promote religious freedom by supporting interfaith engagement that builds religious tolerance, and to encourage the work of NGOs [non-governmental organizations] in these efforts."
Some religious freedom advocates have speculated that her past connection with the Clinton White House could allow her to raise the profile of the international religious freedom office, even if she lacks expertise on the issues. Cook's nomination will now go to the full Senate, where she is likely to be confirmed.
Also on Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented the State Department's annual religious freedom report, which details religious freedom abuses around the world. But the agency did not issue its new "countries of particular concern" designations, the list of the most egregious religious freedom violators that could face sanctions. The department plans to publish that list in coming months.
In releasing the report, Clinton obliquely addressed the concern of international religious freedom advocates who have fretted over the administration's use of the term "freedom of worship" instead of "freedom of religion," a broader term that encompasses freedoms of conscience beyond a church service.
"This report reflects a broad understanding of religious freedom," Clinton said, noting that freedom of religion includes freedoms like raising one's children in a certain religion or taking action in the public square based on religion. She reiterated the State Department's opposition to defamation of religions resolutions (essentially blasphemy laws) that come up annually in the UN, an opposition Cook echoed in her written responses to Lugar.