Obama names Cook religious freedom ambassador
By William Wan and Michelle Boorstein
This post has been updated.
The White House just announced that they're filling the long awaited position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The appointee is Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, whose experience includes pastoring a New York City church and founding a group called Wisdom Worldwide Center. She has also been a chaplain for NYPD.
Official White House release after the jump:
President Obama also announced his intent to appoint Suzan Johnson Cook to serve as Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom at the Department of State, Felice D. Gaer to serve as Member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and William J. Shaw to serve as Member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Their bios are below.
President Obama said, "The American people will be well served by the expertise and commitment these individuals will bring to their important roles. I am grateful they have chosen to join my administration, and I look forward to working with them in the coming months and years."
Suzan Johnson Cook, Appointee for Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom, Department of State
Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook is the Founder and President of Wisdom Worldwide Center. She has also served as the Senior Pastor of Bronx Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in New York City since 1996 and the owner of Charisma Speakers since 2008. Prior to that she was co-Partner/Owner of Jonco Productions from 1994-2009. Dr. Johnson Cook has also held the position of Chaplain to the New York City Police Department since 1990. Dr. Johnson Cook is a Founder/Board Member of the Multi-Ethnic Center and has been the Executive Director since 1996. From 1983-1996, she served as Senior Pastor to the Mariners Temple Baptist Church. Prior to that she was a professor at the New York Theological Seminary from 1988-1996. Dr. Johnson Cook holds a B.S. from Emerson College, Master of Arts from Columbia University, Teachers College, Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, and Doctor of Ministry from United Theological Seminary.
UPDATE: Cook's name had been out there for months (as we reported in January), so there has been plenty of time for the self-described international religious freedom community to react. Reaction has been pretty uniform -- respect for Cook's work in building a New York City-based mega-ministry and in her interest in public service, but concern for the lack of any expertise in international religious freedom and human rights work, or foreign policy work in general.
And this at a time when President Obama has beefed up the staffing and role of religion in embassies worldwide.
International religious freedom advocates have also been upset that the position remained empty for so long and that Cook -- unlike other ambassadors-at-large within the State Department -- and her staff will have less access to the Secretary of State than they believe the law creating her position envisioned.
"There is very little grace allowed for OJT [on-the-job training] when it comes to international diplomacy," Robert Seiple, former World Vision president and the first person to serve as religious freedom ambassador, said of Cook's appointment. Seiple says he doesn't know Cook personally.
Thomas Farr, a former diplomat who from 1999 to 2003 directed the office Cook will hold and is a well-known religious freedom advocate, praised Cook's resume and called her an "outstanding pastor," but also lamented her lack of experience.
To this community, it's a sign of the administration's lack of interest and commitment to international religious freedom as this group defines it. International religious freedom advocates see it as, foremost, a basic human right the United States should be aggressively defending, and secondly something very much in our country's self-interest. The administration's new national security plan involves a lot of new outreach to religious communities abroad, particularly in the Muslim world, and yet, Farr notes, the plan never mentions "religious freedom." There has long been tension over how involved the United States should be in religious issues overseas and in what ways.
Farr notes that his field is "met abroad with almost universal skepticism" and is seen as a "front for Christian missionaries" - problematic perceptions that need to be dealt with by an influential, respected ambassador.
"If the Obama administration were taking this issue seriously, it would choose an expert in international religious freedom with experience in foreign affairs. It would choose a proven leader who can change things at the State Department and re-energize our flagging [international religious freedom] policy," Farr says. "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."
In a related development, the White House Tuesday also named two commissioners to the independent government commission charged with promoting international religious freedom. One, Gaer, is already on the commission. The other, Shaw, is new.
This same group of advocates has noted that most members of the U.S. International Religious Freedom Commission are serving beyond their expired terms and saw it as further evidence of the administration's lack of interest. There is a movement afoot in Congress to reform the entire commission, including addressing the issue of term limits for commissioners, most who have been serving for many years.
William Wan| June 15, 2010; 6:50 PM ET | Category: God in Government Save & Share:
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