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Religion | President Obama re-nominates Suzan Johnson Cook to be ambassador for religious freedom

WASHINGTON-Monday night President Obama re-nominated New York pastor Suzan Johnson Cook to fill the long-vacant post of ambassador for international religious freedom, after her nomination failed to make it out of a Senate committee last year.

When Cook's nomination expired, religious freedom groups like Open Doors USA urged the president to "reconsider" his nominee and find someone with experience in the field. Cook has served as a pastor in the Bronx, a chaplain to the New York Police Department, and an adviser in the Clinton White House. During her brief confirmation hearing in November, where only one senator asked a question, she described her international religious freedom experience as overseas travel and work with World Vision. (See "One and done," Nov. 17, 2010.)

Diplomatic experience is important for the post not only for building relationships abroad, but also for navigating the bureaucracy at the U.S. State Department. As the office is set up now, the ambassador doesn't have authority over the international religious freedom staff.

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"She has no idea what she's in for at Foggy Bottom," Tom Farr, the director of the international religious freedom office under President Bush, wrote in an email.

Still, Farr has pointed out that Cook's intelligence and friendship with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are important qualifications for the office. And others in the religious freedom community, like Open Doors USA, have vowed to do what they can to help her be an effective ambassador if she is confirmed.

John Hanford, President Bush's ambassador for religious freedom, told me the religious freedom community should back Cook: "Yes, she's an unknown commodity but I prefer to give her the benefit of the doubt."

Robert Seiple, President Clinton's religious freedom ambassador, told me that the president should have made a "wow hire" to make up for "two lost years." Upon learning of Cook's re-nomination, he wrote in an email, "Everyone deserves a second chance?"

President Obama nominated Cook in June 2010, and the Senate didn't hold her hearing until November. The White House, in a statement before Cook's re-nomination, said that the Senate had allowed a "well-qualified nominee" to languish.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has been the only member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will oversee her confirmation process, who showed any concerns about her "lack of international diplomacy qualifications." He put a one-day hold on Cook to put more questions to her on that issue, but Democrats, consumed with Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiations at the time, didn't bring her nomination to the floor for a vote before the end of the lame-duck session and her nomination expired.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD Magazine from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.


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