By Michelle Boorstein
Among the most passionate faith-oriented groups in Washington are advocates for international religious freedom. I don’t mean so much people who focus on domestic church-state law (though there is overlap among interested parties), but people who fight overseas against things like codified religious discrimination, limits on the construction of churches (and other houses of worship), etc.
People in this albeit small community have been buzzing in recent weeks with news that President Obama had finally picked someone to fill the job of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. This spot was created in 1998 and is tasked with promoting religious freedom as a core objective of U.S. foreign policy. The office is supposed to monitor religious persecution around the world, recommend and implement policies and advise the State Department and the president.
The only problem is, according to many international religious freedom advocates, this position doesn’t have enough power or access to people in power. Even the fact that the position hasn’t been filled for so long has been a point of contention, with a petition launched yesterday to press the White House to do so.
The fact that the ambassador isn’t directly under the secretary of state means they don’t get to go to the big kids’ meetings about foreign policy and, advocates worry, really influence the discussions or raise the religious aspects of policy debates.
“Senior officials know who each other are by dint of who is at these meetings. If you’re not, you’re not a senior player and the ambassador (at large for international religious freedom) has never been a senior player,” said one a religious freedom expert who used to have a top job in the ambassador’s office. “When the U.S. is making policy on Iraq or China – places where religious freedom might have a place, they’re not there.”
Meanwhile, no one is confirming the main name buzzing out there – Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, a very prominent New York City pastor with a powerful resume, including: being past president of the conference representing all historically black denominations, developing some faith-related policy for President Clinton, former chaplain of the New York City police department, faculty member at Harvard.
Missing, say religious freedom advocates, is any work related to religious freedom or foreign policy. Not to mention that Cook’s office denied she had been named to the job, but then hasn’t returned my calls or e-mails when I asked whether she had even been offered it.
Advocates worry that, after getting a lot of attention in the late 1990s, the entire subject has taken a serious recent backseat among policymakers to trade and terrorism, so they’ll be watching who gets the post and what – if anything – is done with it.