Buzz rising over international religious freedom ambassador spot

By Michelle Boorstein Among the most passionate faith-oriented groups in Washington are advocates for international religious freedom. I don’t mean … Continued

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.

  • wjmurray

    The worst offenders against religious freedom and human rights are Islamic nations. Saudi Arabian officials have zero respect for female diplomats and see women as property. When Saudi officials come to the Untied States the demand that only male air traffic controllers handle their aircraft. Obama is going to appoint a liberal woman who does not have the respect of conservative Christian leaders and who will be ignored by Islamic leaders … How exactly does this work?

Read More Articles

This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

Hey Bart Ehrman, I’m Obsessed with Jesus, Too — But You’ve Got Him All Wrong

Why the debate over Jesus’ divinity matters.

Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.

How Passover Makes the Impossible Possible

When we place ourselves within the story, we can imagine new realities.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

This Passover, We’re Standing at an Unparted Red Sea

We need to ask ourselves: What will be the future of the State of Israel — and what will it require of us?

Just As I Am

My childhood conversion to Christianity was only the first of many.

shutterstock_127731035 (1)
Are Single People the Lepers of Today’s Church?

In an age of rising singlehood, many churches are still focused on being family ministry centers.

Mysterious Tremors

People like me who have mystical experiences may be encountering some unknown Other. What can we learn about what that Other is?

Five Bible Verses You Need to Stop Misusing

That verse you keep quoting? It may not mean what you think it means.

What C.S. Lewis’ Marriage Can Tell Us About the Gay Marriage Controversy

Why “welcome and wanted” is a biblical response to gay and lesbian couples in evangelical churches.